The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is commemorated today (31 October 2017). It is half a millennium since an obscure monk shook the foundations of the Holy Roman Empire when he nailed his ’95 Theses’ to the door of a German Church. After this day the world was never the same again. And this wasn’t just an episode of European history. Here are four things that the Protestant Reformation gave to the world:
- Justification by faith alone. Martin Luther was badly troubled by the sight of the corrupt medieval church selling salvation for pennies under the practice known as the selling of indulgences. He read the Bible and realised that salvation could not be earned, bought or worked for, it could only be received by God’s grace. This came to be known as Justification by faith and led to a split in the Church across Europe. It also inspired missionary activity which brought the gospel of justification by faith to all four corners of the planet. The Reformation led to the reform of the Roman Catholic Church itself, and now most Roman Catholics also recognize that it is not through their own merit that they are justified in the eyes of God but through faith in Jesus.
- The Bible in everyday language. The Bible in the Middle Ages was read aloud in churches only in Latin. It was the preserve of the educated. The so-called protestants inspired by Martin Luther believed that the Bible should be translated into the everyday language of the people. One of the great names of the reformation was William Tyndale, an English reformer who translated the New Testament from its original Greek language into English in 1525 creating the basis for what later became the King James Bible which standarised the English language. The effect of the translation of the Bible, aided by the invention of the printing press, was to bring about an educational revolution throughout Europe and eventually the world.
- Democracy. But the translation of the Bible for everyone to see did not just lead to universal education, it also brought about democracy itself. In part the reformation was a political movement which pitted princes against the Holy Roman Empire. This brought about the modern nation state. But it also brought about the notion of democracy. In the sixteenth century people studied the Bible to see what it said about ‘just government’ which directly led to the first attempts at democracy.If everyone could read the Bible, everyone could also have an opinion worth hearing and express a view in the public domain.
- An end to slavery. The reformation also highlighted the importance of equality. If individuals were justified by faith alone, then there could be no hierarchies in the eyes of God. Every man was equal. It was protestant-inspired nations which first abolished slavery and in the American Civil war, it was the Biblical argument against slavery which won the day. Slavery continued to persist until recent times in places where the protestant reformation had little or no influence. Slavery, in any form, is the greatest social evil of all and we should be proud of a Protestant heritage which mounted such a significant and lasting challenge.