In the annals of world history, and more specifically in the annals of Western history, there are few days more significant than October 31; and not because it’s Halloween, either.
Until I read Timothy George’s article “Reformation Day” (at First Things), I had not realized (or remembered) that it was on October 31 (in 1517) that Martin Luther either did or did not nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. That was 497 years ago, and the reverberations from Luther’s hammering, literal and figurative, continue to this day.
Mr. George’s article1 is brief and certainly worth reading, but its main effect (on me, at least) is to spur a reader to seek a substantive biography of Martin Luther as well as a history of the Reformation. Interested readers have many selections from which to choose, but you can’t go wrong with Roland Bainton’s 1950 classic HERE I STAND: A Life of Martin Luther. For a recent book on the Reformation, I suggest either Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2004 THE REFORMATION: A History;or, if you’re looking for something more polemical, either Brad Gregory’s THE UNINTENDED REFORMATION or Alister McGrath’s CHRISTIANITY’S DANGEROUS IDEA, two books which see the Reformation’s consequences in very different lights.2
To return to Timothy George’s “Reformation Day,” George concludes his article with this:
Several years ago I was asked to endorse a book by my friend Mark Noll called Is the Reformation Over? I responded by saying that the Reformation is over only to the extent that it succeeded. In fact, in some measure, the Reformation has succeeded, and more within the Catholic Church than in certain sectors of the Protestant world. The triumph of grace in the theology of Luther was, and still is, in the service of the whole Body of Christ. Luther was certainly not without his warts, and we do no justice either to history or to his legacy by glossing over his faults and failures. (Remember: simul iustus et peccator!) But the question Karl Barth asked about him in 1933 is still worth pondering this Reformation Day: “What else was Luther than a teacher of the Christian church whom one can hardly celebrate in any other way but to listen to him?”
Take some time out from Halloween and the Day of the Dead this weekend and give some thought to the amazing transformation of the world over the past 500 years, a transformation made possible in part by Martin Luther.
2 Brad Gregory is a Roman Catholic and Alister McGrath is an Anglican, which may explain, at least in part, their different takes on the Reformation.