Wednesday November 29, 2017

How Martin Luther invented the modern world

Martin Luther, a German icon? 2:51

Listen to Full Episode 54:00

It has been 500 years since Martin Luther supposedly nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. There's no proof he ever did that — and it may not matter. We're still living in the aftershocks of the religious, political and social revolution that he began. This program looks at Martin Luther's legacy, and why he still evokes impassioned debate today.


Martin Luther book: Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World

Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World by Alec Ryrie, published by Viking, 2017.

When Martin Luther first published his 95 theses on October 31, 1517, he was an unknown monk and scholar. He was raising ethical and theological objections to the Church's sale of indulgences — essentially spiritual credits to be redeemed in the afterlife. Luther, however, meant to start an academic debate within the church — not a revolution that would permanently fracture it. But when the church tried to silence Luther, he pushed back. During three years of continuing confrontations with ecclesiastical authorities, he developed a new theology of personal spirituality that emphasized a direct and unmediated relationship with the divine. This new theology became the foundation of Protestantism — a revolutionary new movement that cut priests, bishops, and the entire hierarchy of the church's spiritual authority out of the loop. 

In challenging the church in this way, Luther was risking everything. But he had powerful political supporters, and his voice was amplified by the power of his pen and the printing press. He was a master of printed polemic, and his new doctrine spread in fertile ground throughout northern Europe. Luther became one of the most famous and popular figures of his era — and a publishing phenomenon. Just three years after the 95 theses were published, the Protestant Reformation was in full bloom, and Europe entered into three centuries of religious and political strife which would cost millions of lives.

The religious wars ended not with victory for one view of religion over another, but with exhaustion. Religious tolerance evolved from the aftermath of conflict, not as a positive virtue associated with Protestantism, but as an uncomfortable and necessary compromise to end the bloodshed, one that would allow people and governments to get on with the business of everyday life. Ironically, the result of gaining freedom of religion was an increasing secularization of Western societies that continues to this day — in other words, freedom from religion.

Martin Luther book: Rebel in the Ranks by Brad S. Gregory

"Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World" by Brad S. Gregory, published by HarperOne, 2017.

While there's no doubt that the Reformation transformed Europe, it also transformed Western culture, for better or worse, in ways that still reverberate powerfully today.

For Alec Ryrie, the gifts of Protestantism are to be celebrated. Ryrie is a professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University in the UK, an Anglican lay minister, and author of Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World (Viking, 2017). He celebrates the spirit of individual freedom of conscience and free inquiry that influenced modern philosophy, literature, art, architecture and science, and liberal democracy.  He also points to the continuing influence of Protestantism as it grows in Africa, South America and Asia, even as Christianity declines in much of the Western world.

On the other side of the debate over Luther's legacy is Brad Gregory, a professor of European history at Notre Dame University, who points to the way in which the central problem raised by Luther's Protestantism lie at the roots of many of our current political and social disputes. He explores this idea in his new book Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World (HarperOne, 2017).  Luther's insistence on the primacy of the individual's conscience in understanding Scripture was the catalyst that broke up the Western church in the 16th century. It echoes today, thinks Gregory, in our continuing conflicts over moral authority, and the way that religion has lost its influence over questions of politics and public life more generally.

Further reading: 

  • Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World by Alec Ryrie, Viking, 2017
  • Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World by Brad Gregory, HarperOne, 2017.
  • Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper, Penguin, 2016

Music featured in the program:

  • Ein feste Burg a 4: Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel by Himlische Cantorey from Music Of The Reformation: 5 Chorales as Arranged by Luther, Othemayr and Walter on Bayern Classic.
  • Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott (Chorus) by Bach-Ensemble, Helmuth Rilling, conductor. From Johann Sebastian Bach Cantatas, Praise and Thanks, Death and Eternity on Hanssler Classic
  • Nu freud euch liebe Christen gmein by NDR BigBand. From The Martin Luther Suite (A Jazz Reformation) on CMO Jazz.
  • De profundis – Aus tiefer Not by Staats – und Domchor Berlin, Lautten Compagney Berlin, Kai-Uwe Jirka. From Johannes Eccard, Frohlich will ich Singen, Sacred and Secular Songs on Deutschlanradio Kultur, Carus.
  • List of Hymns by Martin Luther

**This episode was produced by Jim Lebans.