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.
A tyrannical and apostate church had flourished because of ignorance. Therefore, Luther and evangelical reform, on the basis of theological commitment, pursued universal education, which included literacy and basic catechesis, wherever their reforms went.
Reconciling government and gospel
Consider also Luther’s political and social thought. Luther argued that God had ordained “two kingdoms,” one spiritual (inner) kingdom, and one temporal (outer) one. For Luther, there was never any true conflict between the two kingdoms — between the demands of government and the freedom of the gospel. Instead, the apparent conflict was due to the limits of human understanding and to the sinful abuse of them.
His two kingdoms idea helped Christians discern their duties to God and to their neighbours in the often confusing and clashing claims that authorities demanded of them.
For the peasant, Luther’s two kingdoms offered comfort in the harsh demands of worldly duties. For the magistrates, Luther settled consciences over the need to enforce and coerce, which appeared to conflict with the command to love one’s neighbour.
To the peasants (for example, during the rebels in 1525), Luther warned against violent revolt; to the princes, he warned against abuse of power. Each station had its purpose in the temporal kingdom. Each person was called to the gospel.
In one fell swoop, Luther’s theology affirmed the spiritual equality of bakers and bishops, princes and priests, all the while defending each or their ranks as a divine service to their neighbours.
In Luther’s view, the “two kingdoms” were derived from biblical truths that, in his view, could not be explained other than as binding truths for all Christians. Government was instituted by God and thus must be generally honoured and obeyed, as the apostles Peter and Paul had taught about the Roman emperors.
Christians must also heed the pivotal teachings of Jesus to turn the other cheek, love one’s enemies, give over one’s cloak and give no resistance to an evildoer. Neither the injunctions of the apostles nor the teachings of Jesus could be ignored or rejected. So Christians, Luther thought, had to figure out how to do both.
The depth of Biblical study
In our age and context, when the role of the Bible as a general cultural, spiritual and civilizational focus has been removed, the power of Luther’s theology to teach human beings how to live with seemingly clashing biblical imperatives is easily overlooked.
Luther insisted that the Bible provided its own interpretation, and that most people could begin to understand it. Though he also warned how unruly theological ideas could be.
Many past histories of the Reformation, particularly Catholic and secular ones (though for opposite reasons: the first to vilify, the second to praise) pointed to Luther as a progenitor of individualistic or personal interpretation of the Bible. This seems very far from the truth about Luther’s theology, beginning with its first public appearance in the “Ninety-Five Theses.” It helped open the door to the depth of biblical study, not its abandonment.
To be sure, in the 19th century, in the wake of “higher criticism” and others, it may have appeared then to some Christians as though the Reformation’s effects upon biblical studies were ultimately destructive.
But consider Luther’s own view: He held that the Bible was so profound that a sufficient understanding of scripture required much more than one lifetime, and that theology founded upon it would be deeply unsettling for everyday lives.
This was certainly true for the effects of his theology upon the world in the aftermath of the publication of the “Ninety-Five Theses:” 500 years ago, European society was unsettled and transformed by the ideas of a monk/professor turned reformer. The effects live on to this day.