500th Anniversary of the Reformation

Martin Luther (1483-1546), portrait by Lucas Cranach, 1529

Commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation has involved gatherings of Christians in many places around the world, but especially in Wittenberg, Germany. It was there in 1517 that Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, submitted a list of 95 theses protesting certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church that he viewed as corrupt and unbiblical. Legend has it that he nailed the theses (positions to be advanced by argument) to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. The impact of Luther’s action was profound. Because Pope Leo X rejected Luther’s protests, and because Luther famously would not recant them, a division resulted in the western Christian church.

The effects of this split reverberate still, half a millennium later. The Christian church had already suffered divisions long before 1517, notably between Jewish and Gentile believers in the 300s and between East and West in the 1000s. And other breaks would follow, such as the persecution of Anabaptists by both Protestants and Catholics. However, it is significant that the 500th anniversary was marked more by efforts at reconciliation and unity than by a celebration of protest and difference. A joint statement by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation reads: “We begged forgiveness for our failures and for the ways in which Christians have wounded the Body of the Lord and offended each other during the 500 years since the beginning of the Reformation until today.”

Martin Luther certainly accomplished much. His translation of the Christian Bible into the German language basically created a unified tongue for the German people and spurred literacy. His many books and sermons taught principles of Christian living to generations. But Luther often gets credit for more than he actually achieved; for example, others’ efforts at reforming the church predated his, by as much as a century. And the rise of modern nation-states, the development of capitalism, the formation of the individual religious conscience, the advancement of the scientific revolution—all of which have been attributed to Luther’s legacy—each had complex historical roots. But this larger-than-life figure deservedly ranks among the most important in world history.

Image credit: © Everett Historical/Shutterstock

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