When Luther Shook Up Christianity

He wanted reform but got the Reformation. Will Islam one day be similarly modernized?

acquiring national identities: Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and England. Because the church was the largest landowner in Europe, rulers could seldom avoid a papal dispute over revenue. Luther escaped the hangman’s noose in part because he won the backing of a German prince fed up with Rome. But most important, Luther succeeded because he tapped into the root of revolutionary change: the human desire to know God.


When an obscure German monk hammered his indictments to the door of All Saints’ Church at Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517, he did not intend to impugn the authority of the Catholic Church, or malign its leaders, or rupture the spiritual unity of medieval Europe. Martin Luther wanted reform, not a Reformation.

But that’s what he got. On Reformation Sunday, nearly 500 years after Luther published his 95 Theses, Protestants will celebrate his revolution to recapture the meaning of the gospel and the authority of the Bible against that of popes or princes. As Luther told his accusers at the 1521 council known as the Diet of Worms: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”

Luther is either credited or blamed for shattering Catholic hegemony and plunging Europe into religious wars. But the Reformation is more complex than that, and speaks to today’s religious violence and political instability.

Luther owed a debt, for example, to the humanism of the Renaissance. Desiderius Erasmus, a leading classical scholar, emphasized authentic faith over mechanical religion. He called for charity amid religious disagreements, aided by reason and persuasion. Even before Luther, he sought to make the Bible available to laymen. “I would that even the lowliest women read the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles,” he wrote.

In 1516—a year before Luther’s 95 Theses—Erasmus published his Greek translation of the New Testament, the first of its kind. His text, with commentary and annotations, became a landmark in Biblical scholarship—and, thanks to the printing press, a rival to the Latin translation guarded by the Catholic Church.

Luther also benefited from the era’s discontent: The entanglement of church and state had compromised the spiritual aims of the Catholic Church. Pope Leo X, a kingpin of the powerful Medici family—described by historian Roland Bainton as “elegant and indolent as a Persian cat”—embodied the problem. Luther attacked his policy of indulgences, cash payments in exchange for forgiveness for souls suffering in purgatory.

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