Christianity’s “dangerous idea”

Barney Zwartz on how Martin Luther made the world we live in.

When Martin Luther stepped up to the doors of Wittenberg Castle Church with hammer, nails and paper 500 years ago on Tuesday, he had no idea of the momentous events he was about to unleash: the Reformation, the birth of the Protestant churches, truly vicious European wars, the Enlightenment, even modern democracy.

From one simple idea – what historian Alister McGrath has called “Christianity’s dangerous idea” – flowed far-reaching changes that influence us today in education, communication, work, science, capitalism, democracy, philosophy and secularism.

That revolutionary idea was that the Bible can be understood by anyone, and therefore that Christians must be able to interpret it for themselves rather than just accept the teaching of the Church. It introduced the central idea of modern liberal democracies, the priority of the individual.

The movement it unleashed, Protestantism, has waxed and waned over the past five centuries in ways we can determine with hindsight but which, McGrath says, have always been impossible to predict. It was less like a seed, developing on orderly lines, and more like a virus, capable of rapid mutation and adaptation but beyond control.

It also helped reshape the Roman Catholic Church, through its reaction to the Reformation and later – particularly in the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s – aligning with some Reformation ideas.

Today, as mainstream churches decline in the West, a new and especially vibrant form of Protestantism is flourishing, especially among the marginalised of Asia, Africa and South America.

Many churches this year are remembering the Reformation but not celebrating it because they do not believe the division and disunity it brought merit rejoicing. I utterly disagree: the cost has been high, but the benefits far greater. Without the Reformation the world would be greatly diminished.

When Luther nailed his 95 Theses (or arguments) to the church doors, the pious German monk was using an accepted contemporary form of opening a debate. (Some scholars doubt the account, but we can’t check the church doors – they were burned by French troops in 1760.)

The theses spread rapidly across Europe: Luther was furious about the corrupt practice of selling indulgences, promissory notes reducing the time people spent in purgatory after they died, “purging” their sins in agony before entering heaven.

He argued that if the Pope had the power for people to bypass purgatory – which, incidentally, is not in the Bible but a later church innovation – he should bestow that freely on everyone, rather than using it to raise money to build St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

How did a minor argument about a sub-branch of theology by an obscure monk at an insignificant university end up in a conflagration that consumed much of Europe? According to historian Diarmaid MacCulloch​, Luther’s protest was quickly turned into rebellion because “powerful churchmen gave a heavy-handed response”. He wanted to highlight God’s grace; to his opponents it was an issue of authority – Luther must submit.

Invited to recant before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet (assembly) of Worms, Luther refused unless he could be persuaded from Scripture or plain reason. He uttered his most famous statement (though it was more likely a summary by his first biographer): “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Luther showed great courage in going to Worms, given the fate of Jan Hus of Bohemia a century earlier. Hus, an early reformer, went to Rome on a safe conduct, only to be burned at the stake on the grounds that “error has no rights”.

Even so, it was wise for Luther to disappear, which his ruler, Friedrich the Wise, arranged on the way home by abducting him and housing him in Wartburg Castle. Here, Luther translated the New Testament into German, in the process providing the first unified German language.

Of course, Luther was watering fertile soil. Catholic reform movements, deeply enmeshed in the pre-Reformation church, helped lay the ground. And distractions for the Pope and Emperor gave the movement time to develop. Charles V narrowly held off the Ottoman armies at the Siege of Vienna in 1529, two years after 20,000 of his troops had carried out a weeks-long sack of Rome. Luther observed: “Christ reigns in such a way that the Emperor who persecutes Luther for the Pope is forced to destroy the Pope for Luther.”

As Luther developed his theology, he expounded the “five solas” (Latin for “alone”): grace alone, the Scriptures alone, faith alone, Christ alone, and glory to God alone, recovering what Protestants saw as clear biblical teachings that had been encrusted over centuries by the institutional church.

Theologian Michael Jensen calls the Reformation the first Brexit.

The Reformation quickly fragmented – McGrath says it was “a movement of movements” that shared aspirations but disagreed on how they should be articulated, let alone obtained – though Protestants were gradually unified by Catholic persecution. Luther’s progress was reversed when farmers used his reasoning to seek reforms in the Peasants’ War of 1524, brutally repressed by German princes. Luther took fright, and started wooing princes and leaders for reform from the top.

In Switzerland, where the cantons were already republican, the process was more populist. In Geneva, John Calvin promoted a more democratic government, without bishops, which spilled into the political order – including checks and balances which helped inspire the separation of powers in the United States. In England, Henry VIII had marital and economic reasons for rejecting the Pope, while the Scottish Reformation was later but more thorough.

Everywhere, religious motivations were mixed with political, social and personal ambitions. Theologian Michael Jensen calls the Reformation the first Brexit, a move away from Spanish and Italian control of Europe.

All these appalling complexities were magnified in the 30 Years’ War, from 1618 to 1648, one of history’s deadliest and most destructive wars, gradually dragging in such powers as France and Sweden. Large mercenary armies swaggered through Germany perpetrating atrocities, and some 8 million people died. For example, the Protestant town of Magdeburg had 25,000 people in 1618. In 1635 only 400 homes were left standing, and by 1644 it was reduced to fewer than 2500 people.

One of the most important fruits of this time of terror was the 18th-century Age of Reason or Enlightenment. It began with the obvious recognition that all sides, exhausted, had to coexist, which required finding common ground. This could not be the contested claims of divine revelation or the church, so philosophy, reason and secular interests came to the fore.

God spoke to mankind through two books, the Bible and Nature, and the Reformation allowed investigation of both.

Interestingly, some of the great Reformed centres became Enlightenment centres, as the Geneva of Calvin and the Edinburgh of John Knox gave way to Rousseau and David Hume.

But the Enlightenment could not have happened without “Christianity’s dangerous idea”, its emphasis on the individual and its approach to reason. Where the Roman Catholic Church taught that salvation came through the Church and its sacraments, for the Reformers the individual could relate immediately with God through faith, unmediated by priests, and his or her own conscience was primary.

Luther’s translation of the Bible mirrored English translations by Wycliffe and Tyndale (the latter martyred for his pains), which had similarly seismic results. Autocratic rulers quickly realised a vernacular Bible was dynamite, Jensen says. The Geneva Bible, translated by English and Scottish exiles from Queen Mary’s persecution, became very popular in England. Translated by Calvinists, it had inflammatory anti-monarchical notes, while the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was also a great leveller.

Tyndale went on to write The Obedience of a Christian Man, setting out that obedience to God outranks duty to the king. The divine right of kings had long been a central issue, decisively if summarily resolved with the beheading of Charles I 120 years later.

Education was an obvious and immediate beneficiary of the Reformation. Vernacular Bibles created an imperative for Christians to read Scripture, but first most needed to learn to read. Literacy levels soared among ordinary people, especially women. The Reformers set up schools, including for girls, along with colleges, universities and seminaries. They wanted to avoid the ignorance of the English monk who, asked if he had read the New Testament, replied: “No, and nor will I read any other work by that damned heretic Luther.”

Where most people had never owned a book, now wills showed them bequeathing Geneva Bibles.

The Reformers also used music as a teaching tool. Previously confined to choirs, singing was taken up by congregations so successfully that the Catholic counter-Reformation Council of Trent followed Luther and Calvin in sponsoring a hymnbook.

Printing was another important servant of the Reformation, without which it could not have survived. Tracts and pamphlets were the 16th-century equivalent of blogs and Facebook, and they spread the message rapidly in a way that the authorities could not control. It took Catholic leaders a while to recognise how effective this relatively new technology was, but they then took advantage of its propaganda opportunities as well.

A momentous change in people’s self-understanding came with the rebuttal of the ancient idea that only monks or priests were holy. Recovering the biblical notion of the priesthood of all believers meant that all work was to the glory of God. Vocation was no longer about leaving the world to perform heroics of prayer in the monastery but serving God in the world – Luther speaks of changing nappies to the glory of God.

This new understanding, along with a decision to permit the long-banned practice of usury (lending money at interest), led to the development of capitalism and the rapid economic advance of Protestant centres.

McGrath gives the example of Flanders, torn apart in the 16th century by Protestant revolt and Catholic reconquest. “For the best part of 200 years thereafter, the Protestant zone was bustling and prosperous, and the Catholic area depressed and unproductive.” Even in robustly Catholic nations, the entrepreneurs were mostly Calvinists.

Science could advance because Protestants detached the divine from the natural order. God spoke to mankind through two books, the Bible and Nature, and the Reformation allowed investigation of both. Scientists could pursue their examinations of the natural world independently of theological concerns, encouraging the scientific method.

However, this loss of the sense of the sacred came at a cost, according to philosopher Charles Taylor: secularisation, in the sense of the elimination of God from the natural world.  American commentator Ed Simon says Luther’s insistence on the interior disposition of the individual soul and its unmediated relation to God inadvertently weakened the connection between meaning and the world. Quoting philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, Simon argues that this, in turn, “accidentally prepared the way for the active nihilism associated with the death of God”.

But a new form of Protestantism is flourishing, providing a strong response to the perceived aridity of some secularist attitudes and the decline of mainstream denominations – that of the Pentecostals or Charismatics, who now outnumber all other Protestants combined and are by far the largest non-Catholic group. They total some 500 million people, ahead of Orthodox Christians at up to 300 million.

Their history goes back only a century or so to a revival at Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906, but Pentecostalists’ emphasis on an immediate encounter with God through the Holy Spirit and on personal renewal – something that can be narrated and proclaimed rather than doctrines to be analysed – has been powerful. Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul has 700,000 members, while in Nigeria the Redeemed Christian Church of God has 4000 parishes.

In South America Pentecostal numbers are starting to challenge Catholicism. McGrath says Pentecostalism has seen off both Marxism and liberation theology by showing Christian faith is liberating and transforming: “How could God’s existence be doubted when God is such a powerful reality in people’s lives? And how could God’s relevance be doubted when God inspires people to care for the poor, heal the sick and work for the dispossessed? Pentecostalism is displacing Marxism as the solace and inspiration of the urban poor.”

Luther’s legacy is still unfolding. Ed Simon says he is “either to thank for liberal modernity or to blame for the doctrinaire, literalist form much of Christianity now takes”.

What can’t be denied is that he and his fellow-thinkers are still shaping the world.

Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity, and was religion editor of The Age from 2002 to 2013.

This article first appeared in The Age.