What the Reformers Thought They Were Doing: To Understand the Protestant Reformation, Forget the Myths and Look to the Motifs

By George, Timothy | Modern Age, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

What the Reformers Thought They Were Doing: To Understand the Protestant Reformation, Forget the Myths and Look to the Motifs


George, Timothy, Modern Age


Five hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, a thirty-three-year-old German professor named Martin Luther called for a public discussion of the sale of indulgences, and all hell broke loose. The tumult that ignited the Protestant Reformation began in a backwater university town of some two thousand inhabitants: "Little Wittenberg," Luther called it. Wittenberg may have seemed an outpost at "the edge of civilization," but it did boast a university, one founded in 1502 by princely and imperial rather than papal authority. That one of its professors would call for academic debate on the commercial trade in papal indulgences, long recognized by reform-minded critics as a major abuse in the church, was not surprising and may even have been predictable. After all, as early as the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), traffic in "indiscriminate and excessive indulgences"--the kind Luther's parishioners were running to buy--had been condemned by the church. The Reformation was born in a crisis of pastoral care. But Luther's act was a spark that ignited a conflagration. One confrontation led to another, and soon Europe was ablaze with edicts, bans, bulls, anathemas, and condemnations. The Ninety-Five Theses were translated, published, and soon were circulating from the Atlantic to the Baltic, from Lisbon to Lithuania.

In this anniversary year, the Reformation is once again being remembered, renounced, regretted, celebrated, commemorated, and analyzed from many perspectives. A new emphasis on "reforming from below" aims to give voice to groups that have been marginalized in much of Reformation historiography until now--women, peasants, dissenters, Jews, and others. There is much to learn from political, social, economic, intellectual, and cultural tellings of the Reformation story. In pursuing such lines of inquiry, however, it is possible to lose sight of what the Reformers themselves actually thought they were about. What made them tick? How did they understand the movement of which they were a part? The time is long past when one could speak confidently of presenting any slice of the past--much less such a controverted epoch as the Reformation--"just as it really happened" (wie es eigentlich gewesen), to cite Leopold von Ranke's summary of the historian's craft.

In recent years, it has become fashionable for historians of the Reformation to use the word in the plural, Reformations. The point is clear: there were many diverse streams of renewal and spiritual innovation in the sixteenth century, and these resulted in various and competing patterns of reformation, including Lutheran, Zwinglian, Calvinist, Anglican, Radical, and, not least, Catholic. There was also the reformation of "the common man" (Thomas Muntzer and the revolt of the peasants), the reformation of the princes (religious change led by territorial rulers), the reformation of the cities (reform as part of communal urban advance), the reformation of the refugees (asylum seekers as agents of religious change), and so on. Paul S. Peterson, author of Reformation in the Western World, has written of "the short Reformation," a series of events that took place over the course of some fifteen years around the Indulgence Controversy, in contrast to "the long Reformation," a period stretching back into the later Middle Ages and forward into the age of confessionalization and beyond. Euan Cameron, however, author of The European Reformation, gives a good reason for continuing to speak of the Reformation: "The Reformation, the movement that divided European Christianity into Catholic and Protestant traditions, is unique. No other movement of religious protest or reform since antiquity has been so widespread or lasting in its effects, so deep and searching in its criticism of received wisdom, so destructive in what it abolished, or so fertile in what it created." In his book The Reformation: A History, Patrick Collinson gives another reason for retaining the singular use of Reformation: without the Reformation, discourse about other putative reformations would make no sense. …

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