As we mark the 500th anniversary of a German Monk nailing his theological thoughts on paper to a church door, it seems a proper time to reflect on the enormity of that simple act.
Martin Luther’s Disputation on the Power of Indulgences or better known as his Ninety-Five Theses was a profound act of courage that not only changed Europe but in large part was and is responsible for the political Uprising across the world we are seeing today. Indeed, many view the strains of Brexit and what is emerging as a European Spring as the seeds sown by Martin Luther in 1517.
Luther’s act was above all one of defiance. It stood in stark relief to the power of the Papacy over governments and the sovereignty of the church over the common man. Luther’s theses not only questioned the status quo but shook the very foundations of society and civilization. They wondered aloud how mankind lived, died and was ultimately justified. They condemned the immoral repugnance of a system that promoted power and money to purchase what could not then and cannot now, ever be bought.
A System of Empty Promises
Luther saw the system of indulgences that priests were selling as a horrific lie to the people that benefitted the coffers of Roman Catholic church but left men with nothing more than empty promises. Forgiveness of sins could not be paid for, averred Luther, and when the people heard the truth, as often happens, a revolt ensued.
England was at the forefront of grasping Luther’s ideas as Anglicanism freed the citizenry from the bonds of Rome and largely became culturally and politically the civil society we see today. This is despite the fact that Protestantism has mostly vanished on the British Isles. But the underpinnings of Luther’s reformation remain; personal freedom from an all-powerful and corrupt governing structure are the foundations of every revolution. Martin Kettle of The Guardian opines:
“But the deeper legacy of the English Reformation was the tradition of English exceptionalism, which dressed itself afresh in Britishness after the acts of union. In this tradition, England (or Britain) was different, separate, better, blessed and free from the rules that constrained others. It defined itself against Rome and ultramontane ideas of every kind. And that legacy has certainly not disappeared.”
Martin Luther considered his points of remonstrance aimed at the corrupt practices of the Roman Catholic church secondary to more significant theological matters such as the “bondage of the will” and “justification by faith.” He wrote extensively and powerfully on these subjects and dedicated his life to their propagation. And to the man or woman who reads of them, considers them and applies them, they are without a doubt revolutionary to the soul.
The Genie Unbottled
But for society writ large, Luther gave permission to millions of ordinary people to question, to separate, and to think for themselves. He had, in effect, let the genie out of the bottle. In many ways and forms – from the European Union to The Swamp in Washington, DC – we see those who desperately seek to bottle that genie again.
Liberty and freedom are to any who have ever even briefly picked up the good book the pillars on which the Christian faith stands. Martin Luther recognized this. Even those without a smidgeon of faith know that liberty and freedom are the deepest yearnings of the human soul. And while they can be subjugated for a time, they can never be relinquished from the heart of man. It is part and parcel of who we are and how we are designed. And those who try and crush it do so at their own peril.
So today, we salute Martin Luther for his bravery, for his ability to see the good and evil in the depths of man and bring it to the vanguard, and for showing both those with and without faith that what lies within is, indeed, more powerful than what lies without.
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