Martin Luther (1483-1546)
The husband and wife team of Will and Ariel Durant made it their life’s work to write the history of the whole world, from life in the caves to life in skyscrapers, from crude markings on the sides of cliffs to the age of the computer. The result of that effort, which the Durants worked on for over fifty years, was eleven huge volumes, each containing 800 to 1,000 pages. They both died in 1981, their work unfinished, having gotten only as far as the early 1800’s. The title of this monumental work is The Story of Civilization, and each volume tells the story of an important era in human history. There is a volume on the Greek civilization and one on the Oriental cultures and one on the Roman empire and the beginnings of the early Christian Church, and so on. Volume Six of that set is entitled The Reformation, indicating the Durants’ view that the Reformation of the church was one of the eleven most significant and influential time periods in all of human history.
On October 31, 1517, 503 years ago today, this world changing Reformation began with a single bold act by a chubby little monk in the small, remote city of Wittenberg, Germany.
When Martin Luther nailed the 95 thesis to the church door in Wittenberg, he had no idea that the results of that act would reach around the world, and in four centuries, merit an entire volume in The Story of Civilization. He was simply doing what scholars in that university town often did, posting their opinions in that very public place to invite discussion and debate. The closest thing to this practice today would be the writing of letters to the editor of the local newspaper to inform, and to invite the opinions of others.
Luther certainly received the discussion and debate that he was after. The challenges he made were theological and scholarly, but they went to the heart of much of what the medieval church had come to stand for. And since church and state were so interwoven in those days, anything that threatened the way the church did business, also threatened the way the state did business. And the kinds of things Luther was talking about changing, could, and would, lead to the unraveling of the whole business, the whole medieval way of life. Many people in the church and in politics were more than ready for just such an unraveling. Luther provided the spark that ignited a cultural revolution that changed everything: from dividing the one catholic church into dozens of denominations, to separating church and state, to redefining the sources of authority in society, to leading (eventually) to the establishment of individual rights, to providing the Bible in the language of the common person. Many things that we take for granted in our church, and in our whole society, were unheard of before the Reformation, but were well on their way to becoming a part of life by the time of Luther’s death 28 years later.
I did an internet search of the most influential people of the last thousand years. I found four lists. Martin Luther was in third place on all four lists. This is not just religious leaders. This is out of everyone, in every area, in the whole world, for a thousand years. Only two people were considered to be more influential than Martin Luther.
Luther was by far the most influential reformer, but only the first of many. Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Philip Melanchthon, and many more were to follow; and so were their writings. The Reformation brought forth a flood of books and sermons and other writings, as all of theology was rethought and presented in new and more Gospel-centered ways. “The truth shall set you free,” said Jesus in John 8:32, and it was that freedom of the Gospel that Luther rediscovered and the Reformers never tired of proclaiming. The whole church, indeed, the whole world and all of life would be seen from a new perspective. Page after page poured forth– 120 volumes by Luther alone.
Much of that tremendous output is as not nearly as important now as it was when it was first written. Every age has its own unique challenges, and important writings in one age will not necessarily be important or even meaningful in another time and place. Luther himself had hoped that none of his writings would be saved. It was, he believed, the work of every new generation to proclaim the Gospel in their own way in their own time. Luther’s writings have been preserved, though half of it has not been translated into English; and most of the 54 volumes that have been translated into English are read only by scholars, some by pastors, and a few have a bit wider audience. (continued…)