Luther at 500

Among that select group of people we hold responsible for ushering in the modern era – Gutenberg, Copernicus, Da Gama, Columbus, Machiavelli – probably none retains the ability to inspire controversy so much as Martin Luther.

It was five hundred years ago today that Luther published his 95 theses, attacking the Catholic church for its sale of indulgences. According to tradition, he did so by nailing them to the church door in Wittenberg, although some spoilsport historians have cast doubt on that part of the story. But on any account it was a key event in the birth of Protestantism, the process that became known as the Reformation.

With the benefit of hindsight, the Reformation looks like the intellectual shift that started the displacement of religion from its previous elevated status and opened the way to the advance of secularism and the scientific worldview.

That was not Luther’s intention. And indeed in the short term his actions increased religious fundamentalism; the Catholic church, which had grown worldly and more tolerant, became a militant organisation that not only held the line against Protestantism but managed to regain some ground.

But revolutions have their own internal logic. By elevating the individual conscience over the authority of the pope and the bishops, Protestantism made intellectual dissent thinkable in ways it had not previously been. Without that change, it’s hard to see how the Enlightenment and the subsequent triumphs of a more liberal outlook would ever have been possible.

The Reformation imposed another line of division, still visible today in Europe, although to some extent it reflected differences that were already there. (The northern boundary of Catholicism in the west looks a lot like the northern frontier of the Roman empire.) Warfare across the line of control killed or displaced millions of people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Right through to the twentieth century, Protestantism was associated with superior economic development. The Protestant countries industrialised faster and enjoyed higher standards of living, and as Europe conquered most of the world the same pattern reproduced itself in the colonies. But as is so often the case, the relationship between cause and effect is murky.

The Reformation also gave England a new sort of separateness to mark it off from the continent: after a period of religious turmoil it emerged with a national church that was neither fully Catholic nor Protestant but somewhere in between.

Luther was not entirely an attractive figure; he was intelligent, courageous and eloquent, but he was also bigoted and authoritarian. If the secular age is in part his responsibility, so was the Holocaust.

By our standards, his religious views were almost unimaginably strange. Tourist guides at the Wartburg castle still point out the spot on the wall where he supposedly threw an ink pot at the devil.

Luther’s combative personality was probably essential to the success of the Reformation, but it also may have made it more divisive than was necessary. Many reformist Catholics who might have been expected to rally to Luther’s movement – such as Erasmus, the most famous humanist of his time – were repelled by what they saw as his boorishness and intolerance. Instead they ended up as reluctant servants of reaction.

As has been remarked many times, however, revolutions are not made by saints. The monolithic church of five hundred years ago might have liberalised or disintegrated on its own, but there’s no certainty of that.

It’s more reasonable to think that someone had to give it a push. Luther was the one who did, and its reverberations are still felt today.

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