History is the account of vast social movements and cultural changes. To be sure, individuals play their part. But they are usually understood to be products of their times. The Reformation, though, whose five-hundredth anniversary we observe this year and whose impact on not only the church but the world has been monumental, was largely precipitated by one man: Martin Luther.
Yes, vast social movements and cultural changes were at work in sixteenth-century Europe. But Luther caused many of them, such as the educational explosion that would lead to universal literacy, the rise of the middle class, and eventually democratic self-government. All of these and more were direct consequences of Luther’s insistence that all Christians should be taught to read the Bible.
Rarely has a single individual had the historical impact that Luther did. But why Luther? What was it about this particular monk, university professor, and struggling Christian that made him such a spiritual and cultural catalyst?
The University of Wittenberg, where Luther taught, featured the new Renaissance curriculum alongside remnants of the old scholasticism. Its faculty boasted one of the greatest Renaissance scholars in Philip Melanchthon and a key figure in the history of science, Georg Joachim Rheticus, who popularized Copernicus’ theory that the earth is not the center of the universe. The Renaissance version of classical education emphasized the Greek language and returning to original sources. In theology, this meant returning to the Bible.
But the greatest Renaissance scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, who performed the crucial work of editing and publishing the Greek New Testament, remained in the Roman Catholic fold. And with his humanist insistence on the freedom of the will, he became the nemesis of Luther, who effectively took him on as a fellow classical scholar in The Bondage of the Will.
So, yes, the intellectual climate was changing. But that was not enough to start the Reformation. So, why Luther?
Yes, the political scene with the rise of the nation-state was ripe for the Reformation. Luther’s patron, Frederick the Wise, Duke of Saxony, was no provincial ruler. The highest position in the medieval governmental hierarchy was the Holy Roman emperor. This was an elected office, but only seven people could vote, one of whom was the Duke of Saxony. As Sam Wellman’s recent biography shows, Duke Frederick was a major player in European politics, notable as a good, effective, and just ruler. As an example of his integrity, the Duke had assembled one of the largest collections of indulgence-granting relics in the world, and yet he protected his subject Luther, even though his teachings were making his collection worthless.
But the monarch of England, King Henry VIII, was a much more forceful advocate of the nation-state, starting a reformation of his own by breaking away from the pope and establishing his own state church. But King Henry hated Luther, who wrote against his multiple marriages. The king banned his books on pain of death, conspired to get the Wittenberg-trained William Tyndale executed for translating the Bible into English, and burned the Lutheran Robert Barnes at the stake.
So, the European political landscape was a factor in the Reformation, but the independence-seeking princes did not particularly need Luther and his teachings. So, again, why Luther?
The new technology of the era, which created the first information media revolution with the printing press, played an important role in the Reformation. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were printed and reprinted, so that, within weeks, his critique of indulgences was being read throughout Europe. The printing press also mass-produced and disseminated Luther’s later theological writings and, most importantly, his translation of the Bible.
A generation earlier in nearby Mainz, Johannes Gutenberg’s first printing press published a Bible. But it also printed thousands of copies of indulgences to be sold by the church. The indulgence peddler Johann Tetzel also made use of the printing press, and Luther’s opponents used the press to answer his writings pamphlet by pamphlet. But there was something in Luther’s publications that resonated in a way that those written by the apologists of Rome did not.
Luther was not the first critic of indulgences and the moral and theological corruption of the medieval church. Jan Hus was burned as a heretic for teaching ideas that would later be staples of the Reformation, but John Wycliffe, who went so far as to translate the Bible into English, escaped martyrdom (though he was burned as a heretic posthumously). Neither had the effect Luther did.
Dante excoriated the evils of the church of Rome and consigned monks, bishops, and even popes to his Inferno not only for their moral faults but for attempting to sell the holy by charging money for church offices and spiritual benefits. Geoffrey Chaucer satirized corrupt clergy in his Canterbury Tales, most notably with the Pardoner, who, in addition to his trade in fake relics, sold indulgences.
Luther, too, was a great writer, which may account for at least part of his effectiveness. A superb stylist in both German and Latin, Luther wrote with wit, passion, and a personal voice. His writings are notable for their penetrating insights, their vivid explanations, and their honest portrayals of his experiences and struggles. And they can sometimes make a reader, even today, laugh out loud. To be sure, Luther’s writings are often tainted by his vulgar invectives, which were a staple of the discourse of his time, though still a fault. But Luther also wrote with a pastoral heart, offering struggling Christians the comfort of the gospel and giving his readers a sense of illumination through his perceptive readings of Scripture.
Luther’s efforts to reform the Christian spirituality of his day had such force in part because he had lived out that spirituality so thoroughly as to experience its contradictions.