500 Years Later, Martin Luther’s Legacy Lives On
On this day in 1517, a young Catholic monk rejected corruption and so changed the world.
Today marks the 500th anniversary of one of the most transformational and contentious days in all of Christendom. It’s the day that a lowly German monk, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church, challenging many of the teachings of the Catholic Church and creating a schism in the church that would launch the Protestant Reformation, reverberating throughout the centuries.
To Catholics, the teachings of Luther were and are a heresy that challenged the power of the universal church, sowing confusion and disunity, leaving factions where there was once a unified body of Christ. To Protestants, it was a needed challenge to a Catholic hierarchy that had grown decadent and abused its power, corrupting the pure doctrines of Christ as revealed through Holy Scripture, growing wealthy and powerful by making its priestly class the sole conduit through which the will of God was revealed to mankind.
Martin Luther was an unlikely candidate to be the catalyst for such a monumental change. Born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany, Luther was the son of a businessman who sent his son to law school so young Martin could return to assist in the family’s business endeavors. As the story goes, the boy Martin was one day trapped in a terrible storm and prayed that if God would spare him, he would dedicate his life to serving God by joining the priesthood. Martin kept his word and became a monk.
As Luther studied the Bible with deepening intensity, he struggled more and more to reconcile what he read there with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Especially egregious to him was the Catholic practice of issuing indulgences; essentially purchasing forgiveness for sins, whether one’s own or one’s already deceased relatives. It was the zealousness with which a local priest, Johann Tetzel, sold indulgences to the poor in exchange for promises of salvation of the souls of their families from purgatory that led Luther to write his 95 theses. He declared the supremacy of the Bible and expounded his views of salvation through grace alone.
The Protestant Reformation rejected many of the teachings of the Catholic Church, including the claim of the inerrancy of the papacy. To Catholics, this led to theological and moral chaos because the infallibility of papal proclamations was replaced with an individual search for truth through the study of the Bible and prayer.
Luther’s influence extended far beyond these 95 theses, however. While in hiding from Catholic authorities, he accomplished his greatest work — translating the Bible into German for the first time. In doing so, he unified the various German dialects into a common language, making the Word of God accessible for the first time to the common man, and in doing so stripping the Catholic priesthood of its aura of primacy and mystique as intermediaries with God. The invention of the printing press in 1453 helped Luther to spread his message throughout Germany, and eventually throughout Europe.
The Catholic Church, which dominated Europe in almost every way, did not take lightly Luther’s teachings, which undermined its authority and therefore its power. It persecuted Luther for the rest of his life, along with other reformers like William Tyndale, a British priest and scholar who translated the Bible into English after having been denied permission to do so by the Bishop of London (who claimed such translations were illegal). For this disobedience Tyndale would pay with his life, strangled and then burned at the stake in 1536, even in death praying for enlightenment for his executioner.
The schism between the Catholics and the Protestants would rend Europe with violence for centuries. In 2016, Pope Francis asked for forgiveness from Protestants and other Christian churches for the Catholic Church’s persecutions.
Ironically, in Western Europe, the home of the Protestant Reformation, today the schism between Protestant and Catholic has given way to apathy, or even antagonism, toward Christianity. While the majority of Europeans still identify as Christian, it’s only nominally so. Ever more they reject Christianity as the moral foundation of their society. Whereas faith was once the dominant force in German life, and European life more broadly, that has now been replaced with an almost totally secularist view. This trend is evident, for example, in the policies of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a self-professed Lutheran who allowed in roughly a million refugees from the Middle East on the basis of her Christian faith, who nevertheless tends toward secularism in policy matters.
Interestingly, it is immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East who are providing resurgence in the faith. In Amsterdam, for example, the majority of the 350 churches in the city are led by immigrants who, having fled persecution in their native lands, now embrace Protestant Christianity in their adopted homelands.
This illuminates an interesting parallel with the birth of Christianity itself. The gospel of Christ was first brought to the Jews, who rejected it and persecuted its followers, and was then taken to the Gentiles. Likewise, in our day, even as Europeans, heirs to the Protestant Reformation, have largely turned their backs on their inheritance, immigrants to their lands are adopting the Christian faith as their own, and in doing so, transforming one soul at a time.
The Bible oft reveals that the Lord works in mysterious ways. The history of the world was transformed by the teachings of a humble Nazarene carpenter’s son. Even for those who doubt the divinity of Christ, His impact on the world is beyond dispute.
Fifteen hundred years later, Martin Luther, a humble monk, sought to better understand the true nature of the teachings of Christ, rejecting what he saw as errors in Catholic teachings. In publishing his thoughts, he transformed the world yet again, even laying much of the intellectual foundation for the American embrace of individual liberty. Though many may dispute whether his legacy is one of good or ill, none can dispute that, like his Master, Jesus Christ, Martin Luther’s influence has been felt long after his death.
Start a conversation using these share links: