The Preacher Who Changed Europe: Reformation at 500 Years

By Carty, Jarrett; Professor, Associate et al. | The Canadian Press, October 31, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Preacher Who Changed Europe: Reformation at 500 Years


Carty, Jarrett, Professor, Associate, College, Liberal Arts, University, Concordia, The Canadian Press


The preacher who changed Europe: Reformation at 500 years

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Jarrett Carty, Associate Professor, Liberal Arts College, Concordia University

Five hundred years ago, on the eve of All Saints Day, 1517, an obscure professor and cleric at an upstart university in Electoral Saxony published a lengthy list of scholarly debating points over the theology of indulgences.

The "Ninety-Five Theses," as they came to be called, catapulted Martin Luther into the centre of a controversy that would soon affect all of Europe in staggeringly diverse ways -- from great wars and religious persecution to massive educational renewal and marriage reforms.

Luther did not treat the "Ninety-Five Theses" with anything remotely resembling the importance that we attach to them today. Neither he nor his contemporaries looked to them as "the beginning" of the Reformation.

But that doesn't mean that we can't use this anniversary to re-examine Luther, theology or ideas about God. We can recall how from the "Ninety-Five Theses" onward, these ideas affected modern European civilization and beyond.

This anniversary could serve to remind us about the importance of theological ideas. Christian disputes over divine justification 500 years ago affected many fundamental aspects of modern civilization and culture that today seem far from their theological origins.

Historical scholarship doesn't always keep Reformation ideas about God in focus. Secular histories tend to downplay or ignore the theology of the Reformation in favour of culture, identity or the economic modes of production.

Meanwhile, religious scholars -- confessional historians (from within various church denominations) -- tend to skew Reformation history in favour of their own denomination, thereby making the very consideration of theology seem suspicious.

The histories that purposely skew or ignore debates about the nature of God end up giving us an odd picture of the 16th century. Under these accounts, Luther became known in the 20th century as a proto-fascist or nascent classical liberal, a radical rebel or archconservative.

These accounts made him hardly recognizable as a pastor and preacher of the word of God. But his theology changed Europe.

Education for all believers

Luther's ideas directly impacted the overhaul of 16th-century education. His theological insistence of the "priesthood of all believers" was the idea that, under the saving power of God's grace, there was no distinction in the righteousness of the peasant or priest, beggar or bishop.

For Luther, the monasticism of the time directly opposed the "priesthood of all believers," in at least implying, if not explicitly claiming, that monastics led holier, more righteous lives than everyone else.

Luther thereby called for the complete dissolution of monasteries. With this enormously disruptive policy, a disastrous effect on education soon arose. Monasteries were the primary centres of education in the early 16th century and most children were taught in a monastery or cathedral, a tradition going back 700 years to the Carolingian Renaissance.

Luther and the evangelical reformers were forced to rebuild the entire educational system -- and they did it at a time when expanding trade and commerce, encouraged by imperial expansion and growing monarchies, made education seem useless for most ordinary people.

Over his career as a reformer, Luther consistently put forth one basic theological reason why education so greatly mattered: An ignorant people were susceptible to spiritual darkness. All people -- boys and girls, men and women -- needed God's grace and all needed to be educated to understand the scriptures. All preachers needed to be educated to expound them. …

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