THOUGH IT HAD A LONG FOREGROUND, what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation began officially on 31 October 1517 (or possibly the morning of November 1, All Saints, or All Hallows Day, Hallowmas), when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther merely sought debate on what he considered abuses by the Roman church. He had seen enough, felt rage and grief enough, and fed enough from his forerunners Jan Hus, John Wycliffe, and even Girolamo Savonarola, that he could no longer remain silent, which, if you understand Luther, is a very difficult thing to ask.
Historically, it started with his disgust of the church's abuse of indulgences. Simplified, an indulgence is a grant by the pope, a remission of time/punishment in purgatory still due, a granting of time-off for those consigned to purgatory, which in Luther's time could be purchased for the right amount of coin. Luther thought the practice a shameful ransom.
Whether or not Luther intended to start a reformation, the indulgence was among the sparks that set it off, flushing long standing complaint to the surface.
Once he posted his 95 Theses, it wasn't long until some enterprising souls, with the use of the printing press, the Twitter of its day, widely dispersed copies of the document, making Luther famous, or infamous depending on which side of the argument you were on. Again, whether he intended a reformation or not is almost immaterial. It was ON. Reform needed a Luther. It needed a bullhorn, a Big Bang. The complaint was already centuries ripe. The top of Pandora's jar was loose. It just needed the right hand to pry it off. Choose which metaphor you will, Luther's volume, added to his academic pedigree, gave validation and ascendance to the complaint. From all compass points the restraints came off, and swiftly too. What had been an aggravated hush suddenly became a loud cry. The rage that simmered just below the surface of western culture concerning the tyrannies of the Roman church became a conflagration, at first wild, reckless, and in need of a captain. That was Luther.
For the rest of us, so many centuries upstream, the question remains—where is relevance? How can the Protestant Reformation possibly have anything to do with me? How does (present tense) it affect me, if, indeed, it possibly can? This is a great question. Without relevance, without some harmonic sympathy between one age to the next, history becomes little more than entertainment, a benign curiosity. But the Reformation comes with much more than a learn-by-our-mistakes kind of revelation. It represents the cultural evolutionary procession in the memory of man. In that sense, the Reformation holds up a mirror, allowing us to see the good and the not-so-good in us, those need-for-improvement elements.
We are now celebrating its 500th year, and it is right that we do. But reform never ages. It is still at work, still a viable force for change. It is a part of who we are and determines and shapes what we are becoming. It is man still reaching forward, man freeing himself of the tyrannies that stalk him, that threaten government over him, man discovering and rediscovering the best that is in him.
With any new "movement" some are tempted to test the extremes, unsure as they are what to do with this liberty. Many felt the disillusionment that comes when realizing they had put their hopes in an empty promise. Many felt anger. Or disenchantment. Freedom can be terrifying. That is why the words of the reformers are important to us today. They lived and survived and flourished in the bustle and fury of reform and the undoing of the old world. When Luther says, "the world is like a drunken peasant," he is not being clever, but precise. He has a clear grasp of western culture. It was, indeed, for many reasons, drunk culture. The Church, the monarchies, commoner and nobility alike, all drunk on the pretensions of the age. We can only hint at its resemblance to our own culture, particularly in America, but if you look closely the sight can be unsettling. We are an intoxicated culture—celebrity, fashion, drunk on rage, on our own entitlements, on a bloated self image. Enough. It seems history still has something to teach.
That is why we listen to the reformers—who name it, address it, and speak to it on our behalf.
The truth is, we are not so different than they were. We seek and crave clarity they sought and craved, that many achieved, most often at a cost, giving a voice to that clarity on our behalf. I, for one, am grateful. This treatment of the Protestant Reformation is, at best, cursory, barely skimming the surface. GODSPEED: VOICES OF THE REFORMATION can offer a very readable, accessible overview of the age, and not just from the many historical bytes, but as you may detect in the words of the reformers themselves.
I bid you clarity, sobriety, and godspeed.