On the 31st of October 1517, the greatest Trick or Treat in history occurred. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of Wittenberg’s Castle Church, triggering a Reformation which reshaped the map of Europe, creating categories of ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ that would dominate Irish history for centuries to come.
We might expect this anniversary to see Catholics decrying the Reformation as a Trick, and Protestants celebrating it as a Treat – but reactions have been much more nuanced. Pope Francis kicked off the year of commemoration at Lutheran services in Sweden, praising Luther as “a great reformer”. The Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, coordinating the Ecumenical Bible Week for 2017, chose to place a special emphasis on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation. Many Protestants and Evangelicals also see Luther’s role in history as being a bit of a mixed bag.
One problem is that the Reformation, in much of Europe, simply replaced Catholic Christendom with Protestant Christendom. It didn’t ask the hard questions of Christendom itself – whether the political alliance between Church and State really represented the New Testament Gospel of Christ.
Many Evangelicals see themselves as part of the Anabaptist tradition, where the Church should be a minority that speaks as society’s conscience from the margins, not occupying seats of wealth and power. Luther, of course, enthusiastically supported the persecution of Anabaptists in his day, suggesting that since they were so fond of baptism then they should all be drowned! A significant portion of Protestant Christians in Ireland today practise baptism for adults, not infants, and so would have been considered by Luther as similarly dangerous heretics who deserve to be suppressed.
Given the increasing incivility and name-calling of modern politics, all Christians should repudiate the invective and vitriol characteristic of Luther’s disputes with Catholicism. One of his hymns contained the line: “Lord, shield us with Thy Word, our Hope, And smite the Moslem and the Pope.”
Any consideration of Luther’s influence should also take into account his appalling antisemitism. His 65,000-word treatise ‘On the Jews and Their Lies’ was quoted extensively by the Nazis as moral justification for the Holocaust. It seems to me that an appropriate way for Evangelical Christians to mark Luther’s anniversary would be to repent for his antisemitism, and for those Christians who failed miserably to oppose Hitler and his policies. To be sure, there were notable exceptions such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller. Yet the majority of German Protestants and Catholics either supported Hitler or remained silent, and Luther’s contribution to this should not be excused or minimised.
So, given all these negatives, should we celebrate Luther’s anniversary at all? I would argue that we should, because he emphasised one important principle – that each person should have the freedom to interpret the Bible for themselves, rather than unthinkingly accepting the dogma of any religious institution. This provided the impetus for religiously motivated human rights reformers such as the anti-slavery abolitionists, those who fought poverty and people trafficking in Victorian London, and Martin Luther King’s campaign against racial segregation.
Indeed, even those who reject all forms of religion have good reason to celebrate Luther’s 500th anniversary. When Galileo wanted to share his scientific research, revolutionising how we all think of the universe around us, the Inquisition prohibited its publication. Galileo’s friends smuggled the manuscripts to Holland where, due to the Reformation’s greater tolerance for new ideas, they could be published freely.
My atheist friends might also reflect on theologian Alister McGrath’s claim that Luther was partly responsible for the development of modern atheism! Once you allow the freedom to interpret the Bible for oneself, you inevitably pave the way for an environment where others can ultimately choose to reject the Bible altogether without fear of persecution.
Here is a good reason why we can view the Reformation, with some qualifications, as a Treat rather than a Trick. Despite Luther’s own personal intolerance, the core principle of his Reformation has helped shape a more tolerant society where those of all faiths, and those of none, have freedom of belief. And that, for all of us, is surely something worth celebrating.
Nick Park is Executive Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland.