This Halloween is the 500th birthday of the modern world. On October 31, 1517, a scholarly monk named Martin Luther posted 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, a town in modern-day Germany. He hoped that the large theological community in the city would be interested in debating the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences, which were then advertised by the Church as a way the faithful could literally buy their way into Heaven. But Luther’s modest invitation for discussion quickly got out of his control.
The recent invention of Guttenberg’s printing press made it possible for the first time to widely distribute the written word. While Luther only intended to influence a small priestly class with his Cathedral-door posting, several German printers thought his theses were good copy and started printing Luther’s words without his permission—not only in the original Latin but also in German, so they could be understood by ordinary people.
The anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses has inspired a PBS television biopic, dozens of Luther-themed events, and a wonderful new biography of Luther by Eric Metaxas. In Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, Metaxas illustrates Luther’s deepest desire, which was not to lure the people away from the Catholic Church but rather to draw the Catholic Church closer to God. As the Church demanded that Luther recant doctrines he drew directly from the Bible, however, Luther expanded his attacks to other Catholic doctrines. Eventually, Luther was excommunicated by the Pope and lived under constant threat of execution by the Holy Roman Emperor.
Luther had respect for authority, even if the authorities did not always return the favor. He did not want to be a revolutionary. But once his ideas were unleashed on the world, he could not stop other men from misusing them. Metaxas describes how, during Luther’s lifetime, Luther watched one follower start a proto-communist peasant revolt and another create a weird cult centered around visions of an archangel. Luther encouraged the authorities to violently squelch the revolt, and he condemned the cult leader in the harshest terms. But still, this was the world Luther had created.
During a talk Metaxas gave recently in Frisco, TX, I asked him whether Martin Luther believed in liberty of conscience—that is, the right for a person to believe what he wants and to act on those beliefs. He replied that Luther did not believe people should be compelled to accept false teaching, but that he would not have understood liberty of conscience as the right to believe whatever you want. That idea was fully developed much later.
Metaxas’ answer suggests to me that Martin Luther did not exactly create the modern world that we all live in today. Rather, he destroyed his own world and gave ours a chance to thrive. Other people—kings and lords and citizens of young republics across the Atlantic—would have to figure out how people could live together after the monolith of Catholic Europe had crumbled. With time, Christianity splintered into thousands of denominations and independent churches. It took hundreds of years of religious wars and family strife before the western world settled on its current rules of respect for religious pluralism and individual liberty. This liberty led inevitably to the decline of Christian faith in the west. So, ironically, Martin Luther may be partly responsible for the secularization of our world.
Half a millennium later, the western world is still dividing. Religious consensus is long gone of course, but basic agreement about what constitutes moral behavior is also on the decline. Because of social media we can now seek out more and more specific niches of virtual friends who validate our peculiar ideas about religion, politics, and parenting. This, in turn, creates more divisions among people who ought to be natural allies: family members, old friends, neighbors.
The good news is these problems are not entirely new. For help in solving them, we can look back over the last 500 years to discover what great men did to cope with a shattered common culture. We may learn more from their failures than their successes.
As you hand out candy this Halloween, remember to say a little prayer of thanks for the free, modern world that Martin Luther made possible—God bless him (and forgive him)!
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