Reimagining the Reformation

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I love the Reformation. Most people who know me are fed up hearing about it, but it really was a game changer and it continues to impact our lives everyday. My job wouldn’t exist - there would be no evangelicals and with only one church, no need for a unity movement!

At 34, a millennial of his day, Martin Luther publicly posted, in the equivalent to a blog post, ideas that would change the world. It was the ultimate TED talk. Many see MLK as much more revolutionary than the man he was named after, but the original Martin Luther was in a class of his own.

Luther did not set out to change the world, but to reform himself. He kept returning to the notion that “The just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17). He began to realise that righteousness was a gift of God to be received by those who believed that Jesus had died for them.

Having been personally reformed in heart and mind by a combination of God’s Word and the work of the Holy Spirit, Luther now set about reforming those around him.

Luther had a real passion for justice. He was deeply concerned that people were wasting the money they needed to feed their families on buying indulgences. The church had a catchy advertising slogan - “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Luther was doubly frustrated - those selling indulgences were basically glorified fund-raisers for a church building project but more importantly salvation had already been purchased by Christ on the cross.

Luther wrote his famous ninety-five theses or arguments to start a debate. However, a new invention, the printing press, the internet of the day, meant his ideas went viral. His challenge to the authority of the church did not go down well and he was ultimately branded a heretic.

Luther’s actions and the church’s response, or lack of it, is now seen as the defining moment of the Reformation. He translated the Bible into German to get it into the hands of the people. By giving people the Bible in their own language, the reformers released everyday people to become the priesthood of believers they were supposed to be.

The reformers launched education programmes to teach people to read the newly translated Bibles. Of course people then began to read all sorts of things produced on the new printing presses and ideas began to spread rapidly setting free all sorts of creative energies.

While the earlier Renaissance had opened people’s minds to art and literature, it was the Reformation that changed the lives of ordinary people. It paved the way for the education of ordinary people, for democracy and the later concept of human rights. A middle class bloomed and whole nations prospered rather than a few kings and nobles, as knowledge and wealth exploded.

The West moved from lagging behind many other cultures to racing ahead and the Reformation is key to understanding this.

John Calvin turned around the city of Geneva, at the time one of the most run down cities in Europe. It became a thriving centre of commerce and banking, international diplomacy and the home of many humanitarian organisations.

Political and economic freedom grew and early capitalism was cultivated in the soil of the Reformation. Luther and Calvin encouraged the idea of seeing all work as a calling from God, leading to hard work and the notion of the ‘Protestant work ethic’. A commitment to frugality, and saving over consuming, encouraged accumulation of capital for investment and business growth. Over time material prosperity was seen as good thing, a sign of divine reward for right living. No-one in our churches today is criticised for working a 50, 60 or 70 hour week, because ironically work is almost seen as salvific.

At the same time, authority shifted from the church to the individual and their own interpretation of the Bible, sowing the seeds of individualism. Over time, the liberal impulse to remove all external restraint on the freedom of the individual grew leading to a permissive society organised largely around the pleasures of consumption and sensuality. Today, we spend much of our time online looking for love, sex and stuff.

The Reformation changed everything. Some of the consequences were by design, others unintended and still others outright perversions of the what the reformers sought. But work, the church, the modern state, democracy, free speech, capitalism, individualism, liberalism, the Enlightenment and many other areas of life have been revolutionised by the Reformation.

Every aspect of our daily lives looks different because of a young revolutionary from Saxony. Over the next few weeks we have invited a series of guests to help us look at that impact form various angles. We hope you enjoy the journey.