The Spark of the Reformation
By Matt McKeown
Few have wielded a more universal influence upon world history than Martin Luther.
Luther is one of the more polarizing figures on our author bank: most Protestants view him as a flawed hero, while most Catholics consider him a villain who had a point. The religious fracture he provoked between the Catholic Church and the various branches of Protestant Christianity continues to this day and, since the advent of colonialism, has become not only a European but a global phenomenon.
The issue it started from was comparatively simple. In an effort to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a German friar began to sell indulgences; Luther, a priest and scholar at Wittenberg in eastern Germany, raised several theological objections to the practice, which he compiled in a 1517 document that later came to be known as the Ninety-Five Theses. The story of him nailing the Theses to the church door at Wittenberg is probably a romantic imagination rather than a fact, but they were translated by friends of Luther’s from Latin into German and rapidly distributed throughout the country. Over the next few years, the dispute mounted and became more complicated, and more heated. From indulgences the debate moved to the operations of grace in general, and thence to the authority of the Church to define those operations. By 1520, Luther had gone from being a devout Catholic loyal to the papacy, to a firebrand and excommunicate who disowned any authority but the Bible itself.
Luther’s reinterpretation of Christianity was sweeping: even the number and nature of the sacraments, which in Catholic doctrine more or less comprise the whole spiritual life, were changed. But the two doctrines that he principally insisted on, and which governed all the other changes, were sola fide (“faith alone”) and sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”). The latter asserted that only the Bible and not the Church was an infallible authority, and emphasized the importance of all Christians being familiar with the Bible. This led to a large number of new vernacular translations of the Bible, both Protestant and Catholic. Luther himself translated the Bible into German, and within a century the King James Bible and Douai-Rheims had appeared in English.
The former, sola fide, was a doctrine about justification. In Catholic theology, justification means the process by which the Christian soul is made more and more like Christ, beginning with baptism and continuing throughout life, principally through prayer, the sacraments, and good works. Luther, however, based on certain passages in St. Paul, defined justification as something more like acquittal before the Divine court—an instantaneous change of status, as opposed to a process of maturation. In his view, this made good works, especially ritual acts of piety, void; or rather, their only significance was as evidence that a person had been justified, not as a way to grow in justification (a phrase his doctrine rendered meaningless). Indulgences, pilgrimages, monasticism, and countless other mainstays of Catholic practice evaporated under the heat of his rhetoric.
Luther’s influence on subsequent history is incalculable. While the Anglican, Calvinist, and Anabaptist traditions of Protestantism were of course not directly founded by Luther, the fact that they arose in the space of only a few decades after Lutheranism put the whole continent into foment. Religious loyalties blended with political, national, and social causes; wars between Catholic and Protestant became confused with wars between the different European powers. By 1648, most of western Christendom (with a few exceptions) had settled into the religious shape it would have for the next century and a half, determined on the principle of cujus regio, ejus religio or “whose realm, his religion,” making the local head of state the determiner of which church to align society with. This divide extended to colonies as well—the mainly Protestant history of the US comes from England’s embrace of Protestantism and the large number of Dutch, German, and Scandinavian immigrants, while the Catholicism of Latin America is traceable to Spanish and Portuguese colonization; similar contrasts can be found in the former colonial territories of Africa. Luther and his thought are a case study in the fact that ideas, as well as actions, have consequences.
If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other pieces here at the Journal, like this profile of Flannery O’Connor, this reflection on poetry as an element in education, or this student essay on mutuality in civic discourse. And be sure to check out our podcast, Anchored, where our founder Jeremy Tate interviews leading intellectuals on questions of policy, education, and culture.