Should the World's Christians Celebrate the Reformation? Martin Luther Laid Down a Huge Challenge to the Catholic Church 500 Years Ago Today with His 95 Theses. We Ask Two Leading Historians Whether the Modern World Has Benefited from the Seismic Changes He Brought About

The Evening Standard (London, England), October 31, 2017 | Go to article overview

Should the World's Christians Celebrate the Reformation? Martin Luther Laid Down a Huge Challenge to the Catholic Church 500 Years Ago Today with His 95 Theses. We Ask Two Leading Historians Whether the Modern World Has Benefited from the Seismic Changes He Brought About


Byline: Diarmaid MacCulloch YES Eamon Duffy NO

THE 16th-century Reformation was needed to puncture an illusion of the Church in medieval Europe: that this was the only authentic form of Christianity, possessing unique truth and authority. This illusion led Western Christianity to hijack an ancient description of all Christianity for itself, so it called itself "the Catholic Church" (and it still does), though it was just a part of a wider Christian family. There were many other Christianities besides, in Asia, Africa and eastern Europe -- this was really only the Western Latin Church, though you might then, and now, call it the Roman Catholic Church. The Western illusion grew from the fifth and sixth centuries and lasted in Europe for a thousand years, increasingly dominated by a single Bishop of Rome.

A millennium makes it seem almost like a norm in our history but it's important to see that it was a freak in the history of the human race, and there has never been anything like it, anywhere else. This medieval Western Church produced beautiful art, architecture and music, and often expressed its faith in profound and moving ways, but its monopoly was bound to end; the Reformation was a reality check. It was easy for the Western Church to make its mistake because it was in a corner of the Christian world, and it eliminated all local Christian competitors, dismissively defining them as Arian or heretical in some other way. Everyone had to be "Catholics", with the grudging exception of Jews, who found life alongside tidy-minded Western Christians increasingly difficult.

Cut off from the Greek language in which the New Testament was written, the Church's beliefs fatally diverged from foundation teachings in its writings about the most important subject: what happens to us when we die.

The big message in Paul's letters in the Bible is that we can do nothing by ourselves to be saved; it's all God's merciful gift. The Western Church encouraged people to believe that they could influence God's decision about their afterlives by doing things: praying their way out of a place called "Purgatory", which simply does not appear in the Bible. Martin Luther, reading Paul, thought this teaching was a cheat, eventually con-vincing millions of other Europeans. When the Church told him to stop his questions, he was furious. The violence of the Reformation came from anger at feeling cheated.

Add another big reality check: this Western Church had forced all its clergy to be celibate, denying them marriage. No other Church has done this, and we're only now beginning to appreciate, after the build-up of sexual scandal over centuries, what a bad idea universal clerical celibacy is.

Luther restored clerical marriage -- and so much else: worship and music in a language understood by all (those glorious Lutheran hymns, Calvinist psalms, Anglican evensong). Protestantism led to all Christian people having a voice in making decisions about the future of their faith, thinking new thoughts without any inquisitions stepping in. Rome is only just catching up.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is professor of the history of the Church at the University of Oxford.

THE Reformation gave the world glorious gifts -- noble translations of the Bible into the language of everyday life, the music of Johan Sebastian Bach, a new appreciation of the worth of family life and sexual love. …

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