This article originally appeared in the July-August, 2008 issue of The Barnes Review
Martin Luther: A Lightning Bolt May Have Changed the World—or Not
By JOHN TIFFANY
THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION got rolling during the ﬁrst half of the 16th century when Martin Luther (1483-1546), a German Catholic priest, attempted to reform the Roman Church most notably by declaring that Christians should focus upon faith as a means to salvation. He feared that through selling “indulgences,” the church came perilously close to selling salvation to the rich. Luther believed that the ultimate power of decision as to who would be saved was vested in God, not the church....
The church responded by excommunicating Luther, which only caused him to start up a new church, the Lutheran denomination, and to translate the Bible into the common speech of the German people so they could read it directly. The success of the Lutheran revolution led the Roman church to launch its own “Counterreformation,” much to the relief of those who remained Catholic. With the Council of Trent, the church doctrine was modiﬁed and uniﬁed, many of the questionable practices of the church, such as the selling of indulgences, were abolished. The Council of Trent also demanded that all Bible texts be taken literally insofar as possible. The intention was to make things as clear as possible to Catholics at a time when the Protestants were already separating into different branches amid much confusion.
Without Luther the genius of Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Kant and Hegel could not have found expression. Without Luther’s spirit, there would have been no Bismarck, and the growth of science would have been stunted. Freedom of speech would be almost nonexistent. Thus Luther is a hero today to Protestants, Catholics and secularists alike.
And we owe it all, seemingly, to a lightning bolt. But how much of what we think we know about Luther is actually a myth?