What do you think about when you consider the Protestant Reformation (which started 500 years ago this year)?
Most of us tend to picture Martin Luther nailing his famous “95 theses” to the wall of a Wittenberg church—an act of defiance that led to the Reformation and changed the religious landscape of Europe. In many churches and schools, Luther’s Reformation is taught and understood as a theological movement: a period of important change within the church, but of little concern outside it.
It’s certainly true that the Reformation was a theological movement, but it was also a political and cultural movement—and the changes wrought by the Reformation were not limited to within the Christian church. In his new book Rebel in the Ranks, Brad S. Gregory takes a close look at the actions and intentions of Martin Luther as he raised the standard of reform. Gregory sees Luther not just as the author of a theological movement, but as a man whose acts of defiance unleashed a cascade of political and social changes that quickly evolved beyond his control. And those changes define your world today, whether you’re Protestant, Catholic, non-Christian, or even an atheist.
Today, we take the concepts of religious freedom and diversity for granted. But for European Christians breaking away from the authority of the Catholic Church during the Reformation, these ideas were new and untested—and even frightening! Christians found that their theological views affected much more than just the choice of which church to attend. As Gregory notes,
The early evangelical movement was a dynamic, diverse, and creative outpouring of Christian commitment in the cities and villages of central Europe. It turned out that the Word of God, liberated from the prescriptions of the Catholic Church, could be understood in many different ways. Different assertions and priorities followed—about the Church, political authorities, worship, the sacraments, and more—depending on how you understood scripture and the Spirit or whose interpretation of them you decided to follow. […] Inspired by God’s Word and the power of the Holy Spirit, these different Protestant groups formed communities based on their competing interpretations of Scripture….
If religion had been just religion, these fissures might not have mattered too much. But in the sixteenth century religion was never just religion, so the ruptures and rifts made worlds of difference. Religion wasn’t separate from the exercise of power or one’s duties to others or the buying and selling of goods; it wasn’t separate from education or morality. It touched everything, which meant disagreements about it threatened to disrupt everything.
With the relative religious freedom sparked by the Reformation came political unrest that sometimes manifested in violence and war, as Europe’s Christian communities struggled to come to grips with the lack of a single unifying spiritual authority. And in a development that Luther would never have approved, the (often bloody) clashes between different Christian groups actually encouraged people to reduce the role of religion in civic life over time:
Because religion as more-than-religion proved to be so problematic in the Reformation era, religion therafter will begint o be circumscribed and restricted. It will begin to be separated fromt he many domains of human life it had previously informed, demoted to being just another part of life. Besides being redefined and narrowed in scope, religion will be refashioned as a matter of individual choice—another major modern innovation. The freedom of a Christian will come to include the freedom not to be a Christian—or a Jew or Muslim or member of any other religious tradition. Freedom of religion wil imply the potential for freedom from religion.
That the Reformation ultimately led to the decline of religious influence on civic life would have seemed a bitter irony to Luther and his peers. But whether you’re a Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, or Jew—or even if you’re not religious at all—we all owe our freedom to worship without coercion by a religious state to Martin Luther’s act of theological defiance 500 years ago.
This fall, as we reflect on the contributions of the Protestant Reformers and the movements they created, it’s worth looking for their influence not just within the walls of the church, but in the “secular” cultures and societies where we live and worship freely. It’s an imperfect world, to be sure; and today we continue to discuss and debate the appropriate place of religion in public life. But that we can have these debates at all is partly because of the long-term changes the Reformation inspired.
If this take on Luther and his revolution sounds interesting to you, you can read much more in Brad S. Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks. If you’ve always looked at Luther as a figure of merely theological importance, this book will challenge you to expand your appreciation for both Luther and movement he ignited.