Martin Luther’s Unintended Reformation Today

Scholar Brad Gregory Addresses the 500-Year Split

(photo: Pixabay)

Brad S. Gregory is the Dorothy G. Griffin Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame. He is author of The Unintended Reformation and, most recently, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World (HarperCollins, 2017). Gregory has also presented a series on the Reformation era for The Great Courses Co. 

Register correspondent Stephanie A. Mann interviewed Gregory in the midst of a busy month of conferences and presentations commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, asking him, via email, about the themes of his Reformation scholarship.


What are we really celebrating or commemorating this year? The beginning of the Protestant Reformation or Martin Luther’s posting of the “95 Theses”?

By convention — and not without reason — Luther’s “95 Theses” are also considered the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. They initiated an unexpected series of events that led to Luther’s defiance of and condemnation by Pope Leo X in early 1521.

The really important “posting” of the “95 Theses,” incidentally, wasn’t Luther’s affixing them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, an event not mentioned until decades later, and that didn’t attain iconic-moment status until the 19th century, and which might not even have happened. The important posting was that, after writing his theses, Luther sent them to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, the most powerful Churchman in Germany, who sent them on, in turn, to Rome. That started things in motion at the highest levels of the Church, and the multiple printings of the “95 Theses” by the end of 1517 were the beginning of Luther’s emergence as a public figure.


Why did the Protestant Reformation lead to secularization?

There is no simple, short answer to this question, which is why I’ve written two books about it! It’s the story of a complicated, long-term, unintended process that is still underway.

Put in its briefest terms, the Reformation inadvertently made Christianity itself — what Christian teaching is, what God wills, what Scripture says, what Christians should believe and how they should live — into an enduring problem throughout Europe in the 16th century, one involved in on-and-off violent conflicts through the first half of the 17th century, the so-called “wars of religion.”

In my book Rebel in the Ranks, I refer to them as “the wars of more-than-religion,” because Christianity was embedded in and intended to influence every major area of human life, a fact that marks a continuation from the Middle Ages into the Reformation era.

Secularization, as I analyze the process, involves the various ways that Christianity was disembedded from these areas of life — through the institutional separation of church and state, the secularization of knowledge, the restriction of religion to individually chosen interior beliefs and preferred practices of worship, and so forth. Those processes started in the 17th century among the Dutch, above all, and have been ongoing, in different countries, at different times and at varying paces, ever since, with periods of particular acceleration in the 19th century and in our own time since the 1960s.

Church and state conflicts — between popes and kings — were ongoing issues during the Middle Ages: How did, or did not, church/state relationships change during the Reformation?

This, too, is a big question, one I tackle especially in Chapter 3 of The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. In brief, the Reformation accelerated a process of increasing control over the Church by political authorities that was already evident in the 14th and 15th centuries, because the only forms of Protestantism that survived, thrived and were therefore able to have a major impact on large numbers of ordinary men and women, shaping shared religious identities, were those that received sustained support from political authorities: Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism.

Similarly, the Catholic Church became just as dependent on political authorities for its survival and the success of its catechizing and missionary efforts before and after the Council of Trent. If a ruler chose against Roman Catholicism, Catholics who kept their faith became a persecuted minority — think of Henry VIII or Elizabeth I in England. So in the centuries-long tug-of-war between church and state, the usually monarchical early modern states of Europe emerged as the big winners, a process that the religious crisis of the Reformation intensified and accelerated. This was a crucial part of long-term processes of secularization: Rulers, not church leaders, whether Catholic or Protestant, were calling the shots pertaining to religion already by the late 16th century. 


Did the hierarchy of the Catholic Church respond quickly and effectively to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation?

Not at all, but then again, it would have been unrealistic to expect that they might have, for several reasons. Hindsight is 20/20.

First, through a variety of media — word-of-mouth, songs, woodcut images and especially printed pamphlets — the Reformation spread extremely quickly and unexpectedly in the towns of Germany and Switzerland in the early 1520s, growing into a mass movement by 1525. This wasn’t a world of rapid communication, swift travel or modern, efficient bureaucracies — there was no way Church authorities in Rome or even in Germany could have responded quickly to contain or halt this unforeseen development. Second, they didn’t really want to respond in kind, defending the Church and its teachings and practices in print, lest they give the impression that Christian doctrine was somehow in doubt or there was actually something questionable to debate. As a result, many fewer Catholic than Protestant pamphlets were published in the early years of the German Reformation.

And finally, there was no reason for Catholic Church authorities to think, in the 1520s, that the Protestant Reformation would be any different from medieval heretical movements that had arisen in preceding centuries and been suppressed, or at least contained and controlled: Albigensians in southern France, Waldensians in the Alps, Lollards in England, and Hussites in Bohemia. As it turned out, Catholic authorities in the 16th century were wrong; so, too, were Protestant reformers who saw the Reformation as the last gasp of the papal Antichrist that augured the end of Romish tyranny.

One way to think of the Protestant Reformation is as the last and by far the most influential in a series of medieval religious movements that were condemned as heretical by the Catholic Church — but which, unlike the other movements before it, was not contained and, as a result of which, ended up in conflict with Catholicism in the period, transforming the world.


The teaching of philosophy and theology in the universities was changed by the Reformation, as you noted in The Unintended Reformation. As Blessed John Henry Newman would note in the 19th century, once theology lost its place in the university curriculum, its place was taken by either science or literature. Do you see another unintended consequence of the Reformation in today’s university unrest about free speech — especially when the speaker offends some group in the audience?

In certain respects, yes, but only in very indirect ways. What I think we see in these angry confrontations is pressure being put on liberalism in our society, the cohesion and stability of which in the broader culture has relied for most of the history of the U.S. on a (mostly English-background) Protestant core of beliefs and values, onto which was grafted, with some success, Catholic and Jewish additions beginning in large-scale ways in the mid-19th century. Enough was shared in common, despite the differences among these traditions to constitute a substantive public moral and political framework. That has now largely been lost; what has taken its place is an increasingly strident, self-assertive individualism unmoored from religion or any substantive secular moral philosophy that could function in analogous ways to the religiously inflected culture that has diminished.

As a result, what we’ve seen in recent decades, it seems to me — and in especially dramatic and even shocking ways since the election of 2016 — is the emergence of increasing disagreement, polarization and mutual contempt on a wide variety of contentious issues, expressed with insistent anger and incivility in a society that no longer has a shared set of norms and values sufficient to enable civil discourse, reasoned debate and the resolution of disputes through cooperation and compromise. Advanced secularization, itself the long-term, unintended outcome of the Reformation era, is what has made this possible. When Christians or other religious persons act in the public sphere, they do so in ways that mirror the deep, now-brutal divisions already evident in the wider society.


I think it’s hard even for many Catholics — especially in the U.S. — to imagine or even desire a world unified around religious and moral certainty. We are used to diversity and tolerance. Are we too enamored with freedom of choice today in religious issues? Can Catholics live as Christians did before the Reformation with “Religion as More-Than-Religion”?

I don’t think Catholics in a society such as the U.S., which is indeed so ideologically pluralistic and yet so deeply conformist in its insatiable consumerism, could live as pre-Reformation Christians even if they wanted to. The corrosive effects on religion as a shared way of life can be blunted to some extent by purposive, intentional living in neighborhoods and communities informed by its values, but one can’t step outside the dominant permissiveness of the wider society.

There’s no “turning back the clock” — but nor do I think Catholics or anyone else who might be tempted by rosily romantic ideas about what life was like c. 1500 would actually prefer to live then, if they could time travel, experience it, and choose whether to live then or now. That said, a literally limitless individualism of ever-increasing choices facilitated by money and technology doesn’t seem to me a viable long-term basis for anything recognizable as “shared human life.” No one in their right mind thinks absolutely everything should be tolerated — genocide, slavery, murder and torture are condemned for good reason.

But what should be tolerated and why is a question about which there is now no agreement at all in American society, nor do there seem realistic short- or medium-term prospects for something resembling [any] resolution to come about. 


Almost immediately, Martin Luther saw that there was division among Protestant/evangelical reformers based on different interpretations of the Holy Bible. Did he ever recognize what his rejection of Church authority and tradition in interpreting the Bible meant for Christians?

Luther was well aware that there were others who rejected the Catholic Church’s authority and the authority of the papacy, as he did, but who disagreed with him about the interpretation of Scripture, right from the very beginning of the Protestant Reformation. His way of dealing with the problem was to attempt to persuade them they were mistaken, and when that didn’t work — as in many instances, it didn’t — to denounce them as blinded by the devil. Conversely, other early evangelicals adopted Luther’s principle about Scripture, but disputed his understanding of it, and so sought — unsuccessfully — to convince him that he was wrong. The result was internal disagreement, which was expressed socially in different churches and antagonistic groups of Christians within the Protestant Reformation, right from the start.  

Luther himself was strongly apocalyptic — saw the Reformation and Satan’s resistance to it from the “papal Antichrist” as well as from evangelicals who disagreed with him as a divine harbinger of the End, and expected the apocalypse at any time. He was baffled that it hadn’t when he died in 1546. So he wasn’t thinking about what the long-term effects of his emphasis on Scripture might be. He certainly never would have envisioned something like the deeply secularized societies of Europe and North America as the eventual outcome of his insistence on the foundational importance of God’s word in Scripture. 


As you note in Rebel in the Ranks, many before Luther had called for reform and better fulfillment of the Gospel in the Church. Why did Luther base his response to these challenges so much on his own experience? Why did he turn inwards so much that he blamed the Church — her teaching, her sacraments and her devotional practices — for his own feeling that he was never really forgiven of his sins? Wasn’t this almost as radical a reaction as his presentation of a new theology of salvation and Christian life?

This is a great question, one I have wondered about many times. The Christian culture in which Luther grew up and lived for more than 10 years in vowed Augustinian life was filled not only with awareness of divine judgment, but also with an insistence on divine mercy. Luther saw and felt only the former. Plenty of other devout men and women in the Middle Ages had struggled with a sense of their sinful unworthiness before the demanding majesty of God, but they didn’t take it in the direction Luther did.

My own suspicion is that Luther’s experience of God’s grace, as it emerged as a process between 1512 or so and sometime in 1518, was so powerful, and so allayed his anxiety and fearfulness about his salvation, that it was something he couldn’t deny. He second-guessed himself, as he tells us, but never enough to doubt that God really had done for and to him what he had experienced and which had given him the tranquility he had sought for years in religious life but not found, the consolation of the gracious, merciful God.

It’s tragic, really. But I think he literally felt what he said when he stood before Emperor Charles V in April 1521 at the Diet of Worms and confessed that he could not do otherwise.


Stephanie A. Mann writes

 from Wichita, Kansas.