Author: Reformation continues to shape world

| Dennis Sadowski | November 8, 2017 | 0 Comments

Reformation

Modern society — largely defined by capitalism and consumerism, burgeoning technology, religious-like allegiance to nation and the rise in secularism — has its roots in the Protestant Reformation, says historian Brad S. Gregory. And both are intertwined much more than a lot of people think, he said.

The Reformation can be traced to Oct. 31, 1517, when, the story goes, Augustinian friar Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. That seminal event opened the way for communities across Europe to experience new understandings of the Bible, spawning political and religious conflicts and a cultural revolution that continues to shape the world, Gregory said.

“If you can’t understand the Reformation and what followed in its wake, you can’t understand the world that we’re living in today and why it is the way it is,” Gregory said.

Gregory, a professor of early modern European history at the University of Notre Dame, examines the impact of Luther’s seemingly noble act in “Rebel in the Ranks” (HarperOne), published this fall as a nonacademic work for readers interested in history, the Reformation and understanding the world as it exists today.

“The thrust of the book is that the ironic overriding outcome of the Reformation, which sought to make society more Christian, and the Reformationists thought it was, ended up unintentionally in the long run secularizing society,” Gregory said.

The book places Luther’s action within the context of the religious and political realities of early 16th-century Europe. He explores the allegiances between Church leaders, including the pope in Rome, civic leaders and ruling families and how they shaped the Catholic Church as the Middle Ages were ending.

Gregory’s work explains that Luther was tormented by his desire to live according to established religious rules and thought others should too. Luther wrestled with what he saw were his failures to obey God; the more he struggled, the harder his struggles became. Gregory describes Luther as being in a “spiritual quicksand.”

A rather anonymous friar until writing his theses, Luther hardly saw himself as starting a revolution or undermining Church authority, Gregory wrote. Even after Pope Leo X excommunicated him in January 1521, Luther continued to wear his Augustinian robes and lived in the friary in Wittenberg.

Following his theses, Luther developed a series of theological reflections on the nature of faith. His writings reinforced a central theme: “No one can be justified except by faith.” Gregory’s book explains that Luther held firm to the belief that nothing any single person does can make up for their sins in the sacrament of penance to receive Communion, and that only trust in God’s promise of forgiveness can atone for sin.

That reasoning inspired millions across Europe. Despite his popularity and kick-starting the Reformation, Gregory maintains that Luther never had control of the movement. As a result, it diverged into various Protestant denominations, leading to religious conflict, intermittent ethnic violence and wars across much of the European continent for decades.

The Thirty Years’ War, primarily fought in central Europe from 1618 to 1648, was fought over religion and resulted in 8 million deaths, including a third of all Germans. From such violence, allegiance to country became a substitute for allegiance to religion by the 19th century, Gregory explained. Such loyalty to country has become an ever more deeply held value today.

The Reformation set in motion a world that Luther would likely reject today and seek to reform as he did the Church in the 16th century,
Gregory said.

“Christianity is not supposed to be separate from how power is to be exercised,” he said. “It is supposed to be part of life. [It’s supposed] to shape politics and how political leaders exercise power. So, too, with the family and institutions. The Christian message is supposed to be carried out. It’s supposed to limit appetite for stuff and profit.”

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Category: Faith and Culture