The act that has traditionally been regarded as marking the beginning of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago today may never have occurred.
The belief that a 33-year-old Augustinian priest and professor began his “protest” by nailing a list of 95 theses (a manifesto for reform) to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in Germany on October 31, 1517, is now deeply embedded in the story of Martin Luther (1483-1546). But did it happen?
Scholars are divided on this. Owen Chadwick of Cambridge University, in his book The Reformation, reminds us that Luther’s close friend and colleague in Wittenberg University, Philip Melanchthon, has provided evidence of the nailing.
But what is not disputed is that Luther’s action in issuing the theses provoked a sweeping revolution that divided Western Christendom and the division has proved permanent.
As one scholar has emphasised, the direct effect of the Reformation was to “increase the main fragments of Christ’s robe from two to three — Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant”.
Initially, Luther was calling for a scholarly debate after issuing a direct challenge to his own Catholic Church to reform itself from within.
On the day he is supposed to have nailed his theses to the church door, he sent a copy of them to his local bishop, and announced that he was prepared to defend them at a public disputation.
Luther had become disgusted at the scandalous traffic in indulgences, the sale of which had been authorised by Pope Leo X in order to raise funds to pay for the building of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Indulgences were being promoted in Germany as fast-track tickets to heaven, and the campaign was led by a crusading Dominican, Johann Tetzel.
The squalid implications of this system appalled Luther, and his 95 theses were a backlash against what he saw as corruption in high places.
“They preach human folly,” he wrote, “who pretend that, as soon as money in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.”
The theses, written in Latin, fundamentally challenged not just elitism within the Church but also papal authority.
The outraged Augustinian priest wanted, as one biographer, Peter Stanford, has written, in today’s terms to “drain the ‘Vatican swamp’ ”. Word soon reached Rome and the reaction was swift and harsh. Luther’s protest was dismissed and the Pope demanded submission.
Luther remained defiant and, in May 1520, Rome issued the papal bull Exsurge Domine, excommunicating him.
Luther was given 60 days to signal a change of heart. He responded by publicly burning the papal bull.
He was then summoned to recant his writings before the Diet, the regular imperial assembly convened by the young Emperor, Charles V, in the town of Worms.
His response was a speech that has come to be regarded as his finest hour. He repeated his denunciation of the papacy, and went on: “My conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God, and I am neither able nor willing to recant, since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience. Here I stand; I can do no other, so help me God.”
Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch of Oxford University, in his acclaimed book, A History of Christianity, says that by this stage, “Luther was beginning to see himself as chosen by God precisely for a heroic role to deliver the Church from a satanic error”.
He was, he believed, simply the instrument of God’s purpose.
The response has come to be seen as the first manifesto of religious freedom, but the emperor was less than impressed. Regarded as a heretic, Luther left Worms under imperial escort, having been promised safe passage.
His patrons took him to an isolated castle, the Wartburg, where he was to remain in seclusion for 10 months, but he put the time to good use, translating the New Testament into German.
Now that the last hope of reconciliation with Rome had been repudiated, Luther left the Wartburg for Wittenberg in March 1522.
“The age of protest was at an end,” wrote Andrew Pettegree, professor of modern history at the University of St Andrews, in Brand Luther.
“Now began the harder work of creating a new church... For Luther and his colleagues the freedom from papal tyranny was only a beginning.”
That church would be founded on the doctrine of justification by faith alone; you couldn’t earn salvation by good works or buy it through indulgences.
That was the crux of Luther’s theology. Each believer, as they awaited eternal judgment, had only the Bible and their faith to protect them. And in accessing the word of God they no longer had to rely on the word of priests, bishops, or even the Pope. The Bible was superior to all.
In undertaking this work of launching a counter-church, Luther was very fortunate in two important respects: He enjoyed the protection of a powerful prince, and the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the middle of the 15th century put a powerful instrument (the internet of his day) at his disposal.
He was quick to realise its potential for spreading his new anti-establishment gospel. Without his gifts as a writer — Prof Pettegree says Luther created “what was essentially a new form of theological writing: lucid, accessible, and above all short” — and without the printing press the Reformation would not have become one of the seminal events in Western civilisation.
In 1525, Luther scandalised his former Augustinian colleagues by marrying a former nun, Katharine von Bora.
In the new church he was fashioning, celibacy was no longer a requirement for priests. He had a positive view of sexuality and scant regard for the view that the celibate life was somehow superior.
The Peasants’ Revolt of 1525 — when the anger of the poor over their appalling conditions boiled over — compelled Luther to take sides. Although the revolt had been inspired in part by ideas he had put into circulation, he backed the powerful princes and assured them the Reformation posed no threat to the social order.
This had led Prof Pettegree to conclude this demonstrated that “the hope that Luther articulated was for salvation in the hereafter: The promise of a social gospel was for Luther an irrelevant and ultimately cruel delusion.”
There is no doubt Luther’s hammer blow on the door of the parish church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, heralded the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
By the time he died in 1546, at the age of 62, he had set in motion a doctrinal and liturgical revolution that would change Europe forever. Terrible wars of religion would follow, with appalling consequences, continuing in phases until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.
Luther cast a very long shadow. By proclaiming the primacy of conscience — even over popes and councils — he put us all in his debt. In one sense, we are all Luther’s children.
That’s one measure of the significance of the Reformation. Despite the Counter-Reformation — the centrepiece of which was the Council of Trent (1545-63) — the Catholic Church didn’t catch up in terms of giving due recognition to conscience until the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, issued in 1965.
Luther’s other great insight — the “priesthood of all believers” — also found an echo at that Council when its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (1964) promised that henceforth clergy and laity should be equal partners as “the people of God”.
In his book, The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas offered this summation of the Reformation: “It was first and foremost an assertion of the individual conscience against the established Church framework of belief, ritual, and organisational structure.
For the fundamental question of the Reformation concerned the locus of religious authority. In the Protestant vision, neither the Pope nor the Church Councils possessed the spiritual competence to define Christian belief.
Luther taught instead the ‘priesthood of all believers’ religious authority rested finally and solely in each individual Christian, reading and interpreting the Bible according to his own private conscience in the context of his personal relationship to God.”
Those who see Martin Luther as a champion of free thought and personal liberty conveniently forget that he substituted one version of Christianity for another and his unshakeable belief in a sovereign God who inspired an authoritative Bible.
Some of the claims made for Luther in relation to “free thought” best reserved for the intellectuals of the Enlightenment two centuries later.
The great reformer left a very dark legacy — his hatred of the Jews and the insistence in his political philosophy, as Neal Ascherson highlighted in a 1983 article in The Observer marking the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth, that “all State power — even a satanically evil government — is sent by God and must be obeyed” would have disastrous consequences.
This, said Ascherson, was “almost to annihilate the moral authority of German Lutherans where they bowed down to Hitler”.
Luther’s anti-semitism was shockingly expressed in a notorious pamphlet, On the Jews and Their Lies, in 1543. It said the Jewish presence in Germany was a plague and should be eradicated.
It recommended that synagogues should be destroyed and Jewish books confiscated. Of these baleful passages, his biographer Prof Pettegree has written: “Of all Luther’s writings none was more damaging to his later reputation, particularly in modern times, after these passages had been cited with such enthusiasm by the ideologues of national socialism”.