Posted on October 23, 2017 by Tia Lalani

History professor Geoff Dipple on the forces behind the Reformation of the Protestant Church and it’s lasting effects, in time for the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

By Geoff Dipple

Martin Luther, who wrote the 95 theses to reform the church, whether or not he nailed them to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg.

For Canadian Protestants who like celebrations, 2017 has been a good year. Just as Canada 150 is winding down, we get to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. According to tradition, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg and with that act started the Reformation.

In many ways, the posting of the 95 theses seems an odd choice as an event to mark the beginning of the Reformation. To begin with, it may or may not have happened as many of us imagine it. There are no contemporary accounts of Luther posting his theses in this way, although we do know that he sent copies of them to his superiors in the church. Furthermore, Luther did not set out to start a new church but to reform the existing one. As the first step in that process, the theses were hardly revolutionary and do not contain many of the central teachings for which Luther later became famous. They were written in dense ecclesiastical Latin and are, to be completely frank, rather tedious—unless you get excited by the intricacies of late medieval scholastic theology.

Much more exciting are Luther’s famous writings from 1520, The Address to the Christian Nobility, On the Freedom of a Christian, and The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. In addition, while 1517 may be an important date for Lutherans, it is much less significant for other groups commonly identified as Protestant. For example, John Calvin, arguably as significant a figure in the history of Protestantism as Luther if not more so, was only eight years old when the theses were “posted.”

No matter when we celebrate it, by most accounts the Protestant Reformation remains a momentous event in Western, and even world, history. Here, too, perspective is everything. For some, the Reformation is connected to the recognition of the freedom of conscience, the rise of science, the birth of capitalism, and the beginnings of modern representative democracy. For others it is the beginning of excessive consumerism, with its needless squandering of the earth’s resources; secularism; rampant individualism; and moral subjectivism—all of which have stood in the way of true enjoyment of the perceived benefits of the Reformation.

After many years of studying, teaching, and writing about history, especially the history of the Protestant Reformation, I have become very suspicious of grand theories that trace most of subsequent history to a single event. So, while I think the Reformation was a very important historical event, I am unconvinced that it changed the world as profoundly as either its champions or its detractors claim.

But I still think there are things we can learn from this event. For example, the age that succeeds the Reformation is often referred to as the Age of Religious wars, when Europe tore itself apart in conflicts, largely along religious lines, that were as brutal as the Syrian civil war is today. Yet in the midst of that destruction, communities of different faiths found ways to live together and laid the groundwork for modern notions of religious toleration. In a world in which religious violence seems only to escalate, perhaps their experiences are still relevant.

Should you wish to learn more about this event, either to celebrate or lament it, the Chester Ronning Centre will host a screening of the movie Luther followed by a panel discussion in the Lougheed Performing Arts Centre at 6 PM on October 24. And on October 31 at noon, my colleague Brandon Alakas and I will lead a discussion of the Reformation and the tradition of reform in the church in the Roger Epp room on the Augustana Campus.


Geoffrey Dipple, History, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on October 17, 2017. 

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