What Can We Learn From Martin Luther?
Why are we celebrating the 500-year “anniversary” of the Protestant Reformation in October? It was on October 31, 1517, that Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, unwittingly sparking the fire that was to blaze into what we now know as the Protestant Reformation.
Did Luther intend for these 95 theses to be a rebellious act against the Roman Church? No, not at all. He simply hoped that they would spark interest amongst his university colleagues that would lead to a discussion. The church door served as an academic bulletin board for announcements and other academic issues. Today we would probably call it a blog, where one can share ideas with like-minded people.
What was the condition of the times in which Martin Luther lived? The common mode of transportation was walking; if you were wealthy you traveled on horseback or by wagon. Most people were farmers in a feudal system where they turned over some of their harvest to a landlord who promised protection in return. People lived in simple mud or stone houses, whereas the landlords and knights lived in castles.
Fear and suspicion infiltrated most of daily living. Belief in demons, witchcraft, haunted buildings, spells, and curses were common. Most people in medieval society were illiterate. Their belief system was formed by oral delivery – in church, by a dramatic play, or in the market place.
Belief was dominated by the medieval church of the time, the Roman Catholic Church, with its hierarchical structure and control centered in the Vatican in Rome, Italy. Belief was dictated and enforced by the Church, and dissenters were disciplined by the State. Salvation was closely linked to attendance and participation in the sacraments of the Church. Moral conduct and behavior was the main gateway to salvation. The church controlled people’s behavior through fear of punishment (purgatory and hell fire).
What did the Protestant Reformation in general, and Martin Luther in particular, bring about that radically changed medieval society?
1. It gave people access to the Bible in the common language.
2. It focused their minds on Christ as the only Source of their salvation.
What did this do? It allowed people to discover Who God truly is. His character had been distorted by the Church of the time through its practice of forgiving sin via indulgences and confessing to a priest. The truth of the Bible blazed open the imprisonment of their darkened minds, and gave them the freedom to believe, and to be saved through grace without the works of penance or payment of indulgences (Ephesians 2:8-9). Personal peace and assurance replaced fear and anxiety of the judgment (Romans 5:1). Being a believer in God meant you could be somber and joyful at the same time. Salvation was something to be joyful about (Habakkuk 3:18). Hence Luther’s emphasis on music in religious activities.
Luther’s influence also brought in a new emphasis on relationships. God loves relationships. He created marriage and loves the family. As a monk who had devoted himself to celibacy, it was a huge step for him to marry Catherine von Bora, and to experience playing with and enjoying his children as a father. By his example, he showed that spirituality was not an isolated commodity that belonged to the celibate clergy alone, but was for everyone.
In brief, the Reformation brought spiritual and temporal hope and relief to a depressed medieval society, dominated and controlled by a corrupt hierarchical system. It also introduced a spiritual and Biblical balance to the Renaissance, which was like a humanistic “reformation” or refocusing on the Greek and Roman classics.
What can you learn from Luther and the Reformation with regards to our own Church and spirituality today? I will let you answer that question.