This Halloween we celebrate the 500 year anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a church door and launching one of the most important events in Western history: the Reformation.
Though a professor of theology in Wittenberg, Luther’s theses were no profound treatise (go ahead and read it, you won’t be impressed); rather the German monk simply wanted to express his view that the church’s selling of indulgences was abusive and wrong.
But his pointed words came at the right time and in the right political climate to start a revolution. Other like-minded religious leaders as John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli echoed Luther and sought to reform the Catholic Church. Europe divided as huge numbers of Christians joined the Protestant movement. Hundreds upon hundreds of sects arose, creating a market of beliefs, and allowing—for the first time—Christians to critique each other and join or start a congregation that best suited their claims to truth.
From this side, the positive consequences of the Reformation are obvious. It challenged Papal authority, leading to the growth of nation-states with freedom of religion as well as a decline in the church’s abuse of power. Moreover, it allowed Christians to begin exploring new and old theology outside of the control of Rome. Most importantly, it restored the priesthood of all believers—challenging all Christians to be active in their faith.
However, the revolutionary work of Luther and Calvin was not without its faults.
Up until the 16th century, Christianity had enjoyed a fair level of cohesion. Though the Eastern churches had split from the West 500 years earlier, the two still displayed a great deal of similarity. Yet after the Protestant Reformation, Christianity splintered into uncountable types and perspectives. Christians became more divided, hostile to others beliefs, and a sense of orthodoxy began to fade among the emerging denominations. Tradition (with a capital“T”) slowly faded from the forefront of theology, and for many believers, over a thousand years of Christian thinking was lost.
For all the good that happened on October 31, 1517, there was much that was lost. Let us not look back on Christian history with blinders, but rather understand the trade-off that was made—an inheritance given for the freedom to explore.
Perhaps today we can have the best of both worlds, if we can just begin to reclaim what was lost.