This October there’s more than Halloween and pumpkin spice season to celebrate. Protestants everywhere should take notice that this year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther legendarily nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Luther didn’t know at the time that his desire to see errors in the Catholic Church corrected would ignite social and religious changes around the world, but the Reformation changed life for everyone.
Luther’s story is well-known, with documentaries, books, and articles detailing every part of his life. Despite the time that’s passed, most of the facts of his life are well-documented. Luther was born to a German businessman who sent his son off to be well-educated. His father had dreams of a lawyer son, able to assist his business ventures and keep raising the family’s stature.
Yet parents then had the same problems parents do now, and Martin didn’t become a lawyer. Instead, he became a monk. The story of how young Martin decided to change vocations is a popular tale. Luther was trapped outside in a violent storm, and afraid. He promised God that if his life was spared he’d become a monk. He kept the promise shortly thereafter.
An Early Religious Life of Terror
Luther’s life in the monastery wasn’t one of peace and serenity, though. He was tormented by the fear of God’s wrath. Luther followed in the path of other historical theologians like Augustine and questioned the Catholic Church’s reliance on doctrines from the pope, not the Bible. Particularly difficult for Luther to reconcile with the Bible’s teaching were indulgences, and those who sold them. Indulgences, in Catholic doctrine, are actions one must perform to reduce one’s punishment for sins.
Near Luther resided a priest named Tetzel, who fervently sold indulgences to the poor with promises that their money spent to build a far-off cathedral would save the souls of their relatives from purgatory. Luther was incensed by what he viewed as predatory behavior, and decided such abuses in the church couldn’t continue.
It’s at this point Luther wrote out his famous 95 theses, or “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” and mailed them to his superiors. They were later posted throughout the country and world. All of the movies portray this as a dramatic and decisive moment, the birth of Lutheranism and the Protestant Reformation. The truth is likely a little more subdued. Nailing things to the church door was a common way to make sure that others could see it, and the theses, or problems Luther saw with the church then, weren’t in line with his later teachings.
Slowly Discovering How Christ Saves from Terror
Luther was just beginning to really read the Bible, and draw together his ideas about grace, faith, and the inerrancy of the Bible. The 95 theses weren’t a finished product, but the beginning of a conversation and process that would last for Luther’s whole life, and continue until the present day.
The denominational splits in the church weren’t the only changes that came from Luther and his theses, nor necessarily the largest. Luther was an extraordinarily prolific writer, and his writings came at the perfect time to be used with a new invention: the printing press. There’s good arguments to be made that the printing press was the social media of Luther’s day, and he used it in novel and culture-shaping ways. Luther wrote in the language of the people, and made his work widely accessible.
While this week is the anniversary of the first big publication associated with Luther, it wasn’t his most famous or world-changing work. That honor rests with the German Bible he translated while hiding from the Catholic Church, which decided to persecute Luther. This Bible was more than a spiritual masterpiece—it unified the varied dialects spoken by the German people and allowed them to come together as one.
Having the Bible available in language that could be understood and digested without a translator or advanced education brought God’s word to the everyday people in Germany. It removed the barrier of needing to know Latin to hear what God had to say about things, and let people discover the love and truth of Christianity directly.
Let the People Hear the Good News
Luther was also a proponent of education, and the importance of parents instructing their children. Some of his most widely used writing is a resource that Luther developed specifically for parents to use to teach their children, the Small Catechism. Luther’s clear and simple explanations of basic tenets of the faith are still useful for families today. Luther strongly believed education was beneficial for people and families. He taught at the university level during his life, and many of his lectures are available in books today.
Luther’s writings allowed common people to be less reliant on what they heard in church from clergy, and more able to study the Word of God themselves. Protestants, as well as Catholics, benefitted both then and now from this transparency and ability to refer back to what the Bible actually says to keep their ministers accountable to external, objective, revealed truth.
It’s indisputable that Luther’s life changed both Christianity and Germany. He took esoteric and inaccessible doctrines and made them clear and understandable for average people. He changed the way information spread, and made books and language something that every household could read and digest. Five hundred years ago, a monk set out to open a dialogue on errors in the church, and instead he changed the world.