On this date 500 years ago, the regrettable, not inevitable, Protestant Reformation began. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk in the backwater German town of Wittenberg, nailed to the cathedral door there 95 issues he thought should be debated in the Catholic Church.
I call the Reformation regrettable, not inevitable. Those two descriptions are tied together. It was regrettable because the Catholic Church should have recognized its internal problems at the time and made its own reforms. It wasn't inevitable because had the church made those reforms, Martin Luther and other reformers at the time would have been defanged.
Once Rome decided that Luther not only didn't have a point but was a heretic, the Reformation blasted across Germany and quickly into Switzerland and elsewhere as word spread that the church not only could be challenged but was being challenged successfully.
I've been writing off and on about this 500th anniversary for quite some time, and I don't want to spend time rehashing all that or giving you a lengthy history of the way the Reformation sprang from Europe. You can Google all that or you can simply read this pretty good summary from a German publication. The summary is even better now than when I first read it a few days ago. I noticed it said then that Luther died in 1946. I suggested to editors they might want to rethink that one. It's now correct at 1546.
If you Google what I've written about the Reformation in various venues in recent years, you'll find this.
But what I want to say about the Reformation today is that not only is it continuing but that it must. In the Reformed Tradition of Protestantism (think Presbyterians), our motto says the church is reformed but always reforming. If it gets stuck in one place without an ability to adapt, it dies. That's part of the reason Mainline Protestant churches have experienced such decline in the last 50 years. They've too often been focused internally and have ignored the needs of the people outside their walls -- and those needs are a large reason the church exists at all.
Catholic-Protestant relations today are much better than they were at the break 500 years ago and even better than they were 50 or 60 years ago when, for instance, the Presbyterian pastor of the church in which I grew up felt free to say from the pulpit that if Americans elected John F. Kennedy president, the pope would rule our nation. It was Catholic bigotry of a terrible kind, and it hasn't completely died today, though in many places it's on life support.
What Luther loosed upon the world was the idea that each of us could read and understand the Bible on our own, without help from an authoritative church. What that meant, in the end, is that in some ways each of us has become our own denomination. In politics that's called damn-near-anarchy. We haven't quite degenerated into that in Protestantism, but the seeds are there.
Luther gave the world many gifts. He also burdened the world with some terrible thinking, especially his profound and influential anti-Judaism, which the Nazis used to help justify their deadly version of modern antisemitism.
So although in many ways the Christian world today is a reflection of Luther, it still needs a spirit of reformation combined with a spirit of cooperation and humility.
Ask me if and how that worked out. In another 500 years.
(For an illustration today, I've used the cover of Time from 1967 and the photo of Luther that a Time photographer convinced him to sit for. Or however Time got the picture. I did a little campus correspondence for Time that year, so I can testify that if the photo was shot on the University of Missouri campus, I wasn't informed about it.)
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THE REFORMATION'S AFRICAN ROOTS
It turns out that Ethiopian Christianity probably was formative in shaping Martin Luther's theological thinking that resulted in the Protestant Reformation, this RNS article reports. So much for the idea that the Reformation was simply a product of Western Europe.