Martin Luther, the Reformation and its contribution to modern Europe

written on 28/10/2020
by Carsten Gerdes

…and all on two Din-A4 pages written by a pastor who has studied neither history nor politics and for readers he does not know (and vice versa). Therefore, this article is bound to contain gross abbreviations, simplifications and one-sidedness. 

Nevertheless, I would like to try my hand at it because it would be a pity to ignore what Martin Luther and the Reformation initiated for the development in Germany and Europe.

It was, in many respects, pioneering – considering what for example B.Brecht suggests with his poem: “Questions of a reading workman”: Not on his own. There were other pioneering thinkers and developments that paved the way, allies who fought at his side, and successors and movements, some of which headed in a direction Luther would not necessarily have wanted.

Let’s start with a fact: the Reformation began with the publication of the Ninety-five Theses in 1517, the day before All Saint’s Day (today better known as Halloween. That’s why the 31.10 is the Reformation Memorial Day in Germany and many other countries).

The original intention of the young Professor Luther was to have a theological discussion amongst colleagues. However, what he set in motion was a surge of scriptures, essays and speeches in the following years which were printed and widely disseminated.

These inspired many others to think further, develop ideas and opinions – all of which led to the changes that were formalised (but not without armed conflict first) in 1555 in the treaty “Peace of Augsburg”, ending the unity of Western Christianity.

Instead of the aspired (by Luther) evangelical renewal of the whole of Christianity in a common church, a large number of Lutheran and Reformed Churches emerged in various (free) cities and countries.

It was soon clear that they stood in opposition to the existing Catholic regions and principalities. After a short while, all of Europe suffered due to various wars –  sometimes started for religious reasons, sometimes merely for political power.

An end was found in 1648 with the “Peace of Westphalia” which established for Europe what we still apply today: the separation of church and state (in different forms).

Western Christianity was divided into different denominations (Catholic, Protestant, Reformed, Anglican, free churches and various others), and allowed the individual to choose their own membership.

So if the reform of Christianity as a unit was not successful, there were other areas in which the reformation did demonstrate progress and successes which continue to the present day and have decisively shaped the past 500 years.

The reformatory principle “sola scriptura” led Martin Luther to the conclusion that every Christian should be able to read the bible by himself so that he is able to decide for faith and to orientate his life to the will of God.

This motivated him to translate the bible from foreign languages – that only a few were proficient to read and understand – into a German spoken by the general population.

As a consequence, the reformers’ took care of the expansion and improvement of a general education system. Generations learned to read the Bible in every-day language. Other school subjects appeared.

The aim was the responsible Christian able to have a say in the local church and choose the pastor. The parish received the right to manage their own finances. Care of the poor, the sick, widows and orphans was assigned to the local parish - which created the necessary regulations, boards and entities.

Viewed from today, we can see Luther and the other reformers as founders of the modern welfare state.

The individual Evangelical Christian was taught that he has certain responsibilities and co-determination rights with respect to his environment, and that he can and should help to shape it.

This concept of co-involvement which proved itself within the Protestant communities later expanded across confessional borders.

On the one hand, because the Catholic church reacted to it with similar movements, and on the other hand because the concept found its way into all areas of human life: the individual may and shall have a say in everything that concerns him or her.

The outcome of Luther’s attempt to bring the people of his time closer to the biblical words and to faith, as well as to enable them to read and judge independently, was a revolutionary change – not intended by him nor by his contemporaries.

A process of differentiation began in all areas of life (religious, political, cultural) in Europe. The previously dominating universalism was replaced more and more.

No longer did the Imperator or the Pope (and not even the Reformers) point the way, but the personal views and attitudes of the individual.

Initiated by that, attitudes developed over the course of history that we know today: freedom of conscience, pluralism and (alas) even secularism.

The last two developments – pluralism and secularism – do not correspond to Luther’s aim at all, but are possible consequences of his thinking and acting.

Of course it took centuries and many more thinkers and philosophers for these concepts to become what  we know, value and use today. But its beginning can already be seen in the age of the Reformation.

Although Luther only lay down the first few tracks for this evolution, one can undoubtedly highlight what dominated his personal life: faith for the individual and religion for a society are a substantive power and, based on this, the individual as well as the community life can be shaped.

The many researchers, artists, politicians, explorers, musician’s etc. give testimony to that by confessing or showing that their thinking and their inventiveness emanates from a settled Christian faith. 

Before the reformation, this kind of inventiveness was limited to monasteries and churches. With the reformation, a new channel was open.

From then on, Christians could stand the test in everyday life and outside the institutional limits of religious boundaries, motivated from within. Many of them have done this, thus paving the way into modern times as we are living today.

Martin Luther found – after his radical search – a personal relationship with God without traditional church practice, without a mediator. By his example, God became a reality in the life of many people.

Moreover, this is probably his greatest merit for anybody who wants to tread this path themselves.

Carsten Gerdes is Pastor at the Evangelical Ecumenical Church of Caldana (Va), Italy