HOW THE REFORMATION CHANGED THE WORLD
Reflections at the Beginning of the Reformation Year 2017
John A. Maxfield
Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Concordia University of Edmonton
Spring 2017

Google “Reformation 500” and links to multiple webpages appear, detailing local and global events focusing on the five hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. The Lutheran World Federation, an international ecumenical federation and communion of many (but not all) Lutheran church bodies, has been gearing up for this anniversary jubilee for the past ten years. Five hundred years is a long time by almost any measure. Civilization, scholars generally agree, began about five thousand years ago in Mesopotamia and along the Nile in Egypt, so the past five hundred years marks a tenth of the span of human civilization. Christianity, the world’s largest religion, has endured for just over two thousand years if one marks its beginning with the proclamation of the apostles that Jesus was crucified not just as a victim of Roman brutality but as a divinely given sacrifice for sinners, and that God raised Him from the dead to live and rule as Lord. So the Reformation marks the most recent quarter of the history of Christianity.

Today, and indeed for the past four hundred years, the beginning of the Protestant Reformation has been celebrated on the annual date of October 31st, the date (the eve of All Saints Day in the Church’s marking of time) Martin Luther is said to have nailed to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany the Ninety-Five Theses, more properly titled Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. Some skepticism has emerged in recent generations regarding the evidence for that event of nailing his theses to a church door, often portrayed (since nineteenth-century Romanticism) as the heroic if not rebellious action of a German monk, hammer in hand and with a crowd looking on with fascination. But there is no doubt that on October 31, 1517, Luther mailed (“posted” in a different sense) his disputation theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, that either that day or soon after Luther also sent his proposed debating points to his more immediate ecclesiastical supervisor, the bishop of Brandenburg, as well as to several friends and humanist scholars he thought might be willing to respond to the questions he was raising, by letter if not in an actual debate. There is also no doubt that the Archbishop, after finally receiving them in late November, sent Luther’s disputation theses to the papal curia in Rome suggesting that perhaps there should be an investigation; that Luther’s theses and the reactions to them soon created a curfuffle in the Church; and that within the next year formal heresy proceedings would be initiated against the Wittenberg friar and Doctor of Theology. Finally, it is a matter of fact that in the aftermath of this “Luther affair,” which formally ended (as far as the Church’s papal hierarchy was concerned) with his excommunication on January 3, 1521, Luther continued to be protected in his homeland while his ideas for the reform of Christianity slowly began to be implemented in many localities, first in German-speaking areas of Europe and then more broadly, all in the face of the Church’s condemnation. With his genius for communicating in the German language, making use of the technology of printing, Luther became the most popular author of the century and the spread of Reformation ideas became the first mass-media event. By the end of the 1520s the Reformation was taking root, and usually a local church jurisdiction would celebrate the event annually on the date the reform was formally introduced in a given region. Beginning in 1617, such annual were generally held on October 31st, thus acknowledging Luther’s raising questions about indulgences as the catalyst that began the Reformation.

But what of it? In a modern world that appears to continue on a path of secularization (at least in the West) that began with the French Revolution over two hundred years ago, what is the significance of the Reformation? Indeed, as historians seek to make sense of world history and engage in the abstraction of defining major movements and historical periods, the modern world with its values of freedom, equality, and tolerance is usually viewed as beginning with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and not the sixteenth-century Reformation. The period in West European history once celebrated as the Renaissance and Reformation now usually goes by the rather bland name “early modern.” Even if the era is recognized as a period of significant transition, among historians of European culture (wherein the Christian religion played such a significant role) the Reformation is often viewed not primarily as a time of progress and flourishing but as a time of tragic conflict and division. That hardly seems worthy of celebration, much less ten years and more of marking the occasion.

History, that is, the narrative (or narratives) of the past, is most often written more-or-less chronologically, with the passage of time marking various developments, usually analyzing relationships of cause and effect. But the questions posed by historians are generally posed from the opposite direction, looking backwards. Historians frequently are seeking to answer questions that betray their opinion of the present—roughly either “How did we get to this wonderful time in which we live?” or “How ever did we get into this mess?” While historians mostly scorn the “Whig interpretation” of history that once fashionably traced the (wonderful) development of the British system of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, historians of various ideological convictions still (one might say with increasing fervency) raise questions about the conditions that caused the rise of (intolerant) monarchical absolutism; or the liberation of modern, Western women from the shackles of patriarchy; or the emergence of tolerance from the bigotries of the past; or the rise of international terrorism inspired not just by political aspirations or oppression but by religious as well as political fanaticism. Views of the Reformation among historians today include viewing it as a cause (ironically via a religious revolution) of modern secularism, as a movement of rationalization or “disenchantment” of the world (though only partial—Protestants still believed in a God who intervened in human history but rejected the Roman Catholic traditions of the saints doing so), as the first major (failed) revolution of the Common Man against social hierarchy and economic injustice, as both the permanent division of the Western (Latin) Catholic Church and the long-awaited reform and further Christianization of that same Church.

If we view the Reformation along the lines of the goal of historical narrative according to one of its most outstanding practitioners from the past, Leopold von Ranke ((1795–1886), that is, not to judge its outcomes “for the instruction of future ages” but “merely to show how it essentially was,” we still can recognize in the sixteenth century an epoch of significant change, indeed one of the major transitions in the history of Western civilization and indeed the world. As his opponents pressed him in the aftermath of his theses on indulgences, Martin Luther eventually came to seek not just to reform the Church but to change Christianity. The Reformation did so, as large areas of European Christianity came to reject the papal governance that had ruled the Catholic Church for nearly a thousand years. That meant new structures of political authority and ecclesiastical authority, and for good or ill this meant changes in society and politics throughout Europe. And as European culture encountered the world in an age of discovery, it encountered that world in the form of a Catholicism invigorated in many ways by the challenges of its Reformation division, and in various forms of Protestantism, and all these manifestations of a changed European culture in turn shaped both the old world and the new.