This is something I wrote for my Western Civilization class that I’m currently taking from Tohono O’odham Community College.
I am responding to the question: What was the Protestant Reformation? Who was Martin Luther?
The Protestant Reformation was a religious movement that began in Europe. It has its intellectual roots in the Renaissance Humanists (particularly Erasmus with his creation of a newly edited Greek New Testament) but also was field by a mix of other factors including:
- Social change in Europe – rising population, inflation, and issues of national identity
- The printing press – which led to greater access to written texts, both ancient and modern.
- Political tensions, particularly including the ways that the Papacy functioned politically.
Martin Luther is seen as the founder of the movement, mostly because he was successful in taking the religious questions being asked by intellectuals and bringing them into the broader world, but also because he was successful in taking advantage of controversial practices (such as the selling of indulgences) and using these controversies to open other questions.
Luther’s primary argument centers on three “Protestant Principles”:
1. Sola Fides – Faith alone is necessary for salvation
2. Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone is the primary authority for Christian living
3. Christ alone – There is no need for an intermediary between God and humankind, except for Jesus Christ.
These principles would inspire others to take his ideas in more radical directions, something that Luther was often uncomfortable with, leading him later in life to devote much of his energy to launching written attacks against other Reformers, as well as other religious dissenters, most notably the tiny dispersed Jewish community of Europe, which he attacked through his book The Jews and their Lies.
Besides Luther, many other Reformation leaders are worthy of attention, including Zwingli (famous for his iconoclastic approach to church furnishings, rejection of musical instruments in worship, and his views on the symbolic nature of the eucharist), and John Calvin (who emphasized the idea of predestination and the binding nature of divine law), but I personally find the early Anabaptists to be especially of interest.
The early Anabaptist movement was a radical reformation movement that sought to apply the values of the protestant reformation in deeper ways, most notably as it relates to their views on baptism, state power, coercion, and violence.
The early Anabaptists rejected the then-normative Christian practice of infant baptism (because they saw baptism in the Bible as being only done for those who willingly chose it as adults), instead insisting that their followers should be baptized as adults. This decision immediately led to confrontations with state power because baptism was seen as not only a religious rite of initiation but also one of initiation into citizenship (in many parts of Europe, those who had received Christian baptism, including Jews, were not treated as citizens), which meant that these “rebaptizers” (the term Anabaptist means rebaptizers) were negating their citizenship as well as violating the rules of the state church.
The question of the morality of violence arose early for the Anabaptists. Some of the movement read the apocalyptic texts of scripture literally (leading to the tragic Munster rebellion), but others focused their attention on Jesus’ teachings of nonviolence (most notably the “Sermon on the Mount,” which later be treated as “the canon within the canon” by Anabaptists), which in time led the movement to evolve into the parent tradition of several historic peace churches, including today’s Mennonites, Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and related denominations. While the Anabaptist denominations today have a broad range of practices and beliefs, many still hold true to their emphasis on adult baptism (and non-coercion), nonviolence, and opposition to nationalism and patriotism (which for many includes their not saying the pledge of allegiance)
The Anabaptist’s radical approach remained a tiny minority tradition in Europe (and later other parts of the world), but elements of their teachings have become part of the culture of our broader society, mostly notably the separation of church and state. Most histories fail to acknowledge this influence, but arguably the Anabaptists predated John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers’ ideas on this subject.
- The West: A Narrative History, chapter 13
- The Protestant Reformation: Crash Course European History #6 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0eO0pPrGi6o&t=95s
- Acocella, Joan “How Martin Luther Changed the world” The New Yorker (Oct. 23, 2017) https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/30/how-martin-luther-changed-the-world#:~:text=And%20out%20of%20them%20came,was%20not%20a%20new%20idea.
- “The Radical Reformation” Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radical_Reformation
- Marans, Noam E. “On Luther and his lies: As the Reformation’s 500th anniversary nears, Christians are contending with Luther’s virulently anti-Jewish writings” The Christian Century (Oct. 25, 2017) https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/on-luther-and-lies
- “The Munster rebellion” Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%BCnster_rebellion