“This year, I am ready to declare the Reformation over. Lutherans and Roman Catholics have been in intensive dialogue for 50 years, reaching remarkable agreements on matters of faith and piety. We still disagree on many things, but we no longer consider each other enemies and believe we are on the way to further unity. Some of our agreements are on the very issues at the heart of Luther's dispute.”— Charles Austin, “The Protestant Reformation: It’s Over,” The Record (Bergen County, NJ), Oct. 22, 2016
Charles Austin, interim pastor at Church of the Savior-Lutheran, of Paramus, NJ, is also a former reporter for The Record and other news organizations. His two professions have offered him a front-row view of the rapprochement between Roman Catholics and Lutherans. The ecumenical movement that led to this growing harmony is all to the good, considering the bad blood that developed between the two religions after Martin Luther's momentous break with the Vatican.
Tomorrow starts a year of observances marking the 500th anniversary of that spiritual tragedy. Let’s hope that Austin is right that, after so much time, the chasm no longer looms so large.
When I was a schoolboy, I had my first inkling of the power of labels to form impressions. Our world history textbook, when it came time to discuss the conflict between Martin Luther and the papacy and the repercussions, announced that it would not use the name that historians to the period, “The Protestant Reformation,” because that would imply that the Roman Catholic Church needed reformation. Instead, it would talk about the “Protestant Revolt.”
In one sense, the writers of the textbook were correct: the most influential historians in the English-speaking world years ago were Protestant and etermined to justify their faith, if not in works then in words. On the other hand, real abuses in the Church (notably, the sale of indulgences) did need to be reformed.
All these years later, having come to understand the anguish caused by loss of faith and loss in lives that resulted from the clash between the Vatican and the rebellious German monk, I think a third term, also using an “R” word, would be more appropriate: the Protestant Rupture—a breach of what had been, by and large, a harmonious relationship, a sudden and complete burst. The religious fissure had repercussions in the political and cultural realms as well, consequences that became seemingly settled for so long that we in the Western world take them largely for granted now.
Austin’s article reinforces the impressions I gleaned on this subject from a current exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum, “Martin Luther: Words and Images.” The peerless New York cultural institution has supplemented its own collection of rare material from the 16th century with other artifacts on loan from several German museums that have never before been exhibited in the United States.
Austin’s article mentions that new printing presses were the “social media” of their time, and indeed the Morgan exhibit displays several artifacts of this new technology, most notably the document that started it all, Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses” denouncing the practice of indulgences (used at the time to raise funds for the Sistine Chapel), as well as “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church” and “On the Freedom of a Christian.”
Luther was a master polemicist, and his vigorously argued broadsides, along with his translation of the Bible into the vernacular, his hymnbooks (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” was his composition), and his catechisms did much to stimulate use of the German language.
But his cultural influence went beyond the merely literary. The pamphlet war between Luther and the Church often featured pungent caricatures on both sides, and the appearances of himself and other early Protestant theologians in paintings (such as the very well-known one accompanying this post, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Luther's friend and neighbor) opened an entirely new area of religious imagery beyond that of the saints.
The Vatican and Luther, believing everything rested on their struggle (including eternal life), hurled the worst kind of invective at each other. The bloodshed that followed the Vatican-Luther split would not abate until the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years War in 1748. By the end of that war, eight million people had lost their lives. One can only hope that in these times, people will come to respect each other's good faith, even if they might disagree about their beliefs.