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Martin Luther sparked Reformation 500 years ago

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Richard and Sandra Cobb stand outside the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther sparked the reformation of the Church.

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By RICHARD COBB
Special to the Telegram

Friday, November 10, 2017

Five hundred years ago, on Oct. 31, 1517, an obscure German monk named Martin Luther set forces in motion that continue to shape our lives — regardless of creed — to this day, perhaps nowhere more so than in America.

Civilization turns and advances on strong people and their ideas, plus the heirs who advance the original theme or its offshoots. Such is the case here.

When Luther nailed his “95 Theses” on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany , he was still committed to the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church but wanted debate with officials over the selling of indulgences. Simply stated, for cash, one could have their sins or a loved one’s forgiven; the money to fund the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The upshot of this theological issue embroiled all of Christendom and soon turned political, social and cultural with ramifications that charted Western Civilization in new directions.

Luther was incensed at the counterfeit idea that redemption could be purchased by money when, in fact, there was nothing humans could affect to earn salvation. In the vernacular of today, going to heaven is not like getting into Harvard. No resume building, intellect, status, good works or money matters. “Scripture alone,” “faith alone” and God’s “grace” are the true way, he asserted.

The “alone” is a major shift in thinking here. Luther viewed the church hierarchy of Pope, Holy Roman Emperor, bishops, clerics, etc., their elitism and power, as clutter between God and the people. Church structure and service in Latin that few understood further fleeced laypeople of participation and made the hierarchy a self-serving intermediary to God. He preached instead the “priesthood of all believers.” All Christians are individually priests, and the distinction between popes and laity is meaningless as all souls are equal before God. Luther argued, “Unless I am convinced by scripture or reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils — my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”

This thinking was entirely new in the early 1500s, revolutionary in fact. Historically it was the norm to be ruled top-down by kings and princes, feudal lords and a religious bureaucracy. People were subjects without a voice, but now Luther’s new egalitarian theology and principled defiance against authority were game changers.

From here it’s just a short trip down the road to recognize that his spiritual bill of rights could apply within the political and social spheres. If “all man is equal before God,” what happens to boundaries between government, wealth, class and race? His principles soon took on new ways and interpretations that he never envisioned. From Luther to Locke to Jefferson and Madison, an undertow of thought is built upon as evidenced in our nation’s founding documents: separation of powers (Two Kingdoms), religious freedom and speech, inalienable rights, duty and right to petition. They were recognized as such by our Founding Fathers.

A scriptural street fighter with a pugnacious wit, Luther used the new technology of Gutenberg’s printing press to become one of history’s first media stars. Publishing in the vernacular he could place his ideas in the minds of the masses. As Luther said, “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” He saturated the market with sermons, satire, editorial art and cartoons, commanding 20 percent of all publishing in Germany and leading one churchman to say, “Every day it rains Luther books, nothing else sells.”

Maybe Luther’s most subversive act was to translate the Bible from Latin to the common language of the people. He said, “We must speak to the mother in the home, the children in the street and the common man in the marketplace.”

Five hundred years ago, a man who never rose higher than a simple monk and theology professor showed that faith, ideas and truth coupled with courage can change the world. Little did he envision that his protest would lead to the Protestant Church or his reform ideas the Reformation. No, he didn’t provide us with a finished product nor can he take credit for all we are today, but he was clearly the firestarter/catalyst who has led us to the modern age.

Richard Cobb is a lifelong member of Trinity Lutheran Church.

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