Why Does the Reformation Matter?

It’s been 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door. (Or did he?) Two scholars of religion offer a few answers.

As legend has it, on All Hallows Eve, 1517, a 33-year-old Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther posted his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenburg. Luther’s list set in motion changes that transformed the place of religion in society not just in Europe, but in many places across the globe.

We sat down with two scholars of religion at Santa Clara University to ask them questions about why, half a millennium later, the Reformation matters. Plus, we serve up the story of Santa Clara University’s own 95 Theses moment in 1967.

James Bennett is a scholar of American religious history, an associate professor of religious studies, and the associate provost for undergraduate studies at SCU. He is the author of Religion and the Rise of Jim Crow in New Orleans (Princeton University Press).

Frederick J. Parrella is a professor of religious studies with an interest in the connection between Catholic theology and the philosophical theology of Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich. He teaches a perennially popular course in the theology of marriage, and he is co-editor of the volume From Trent to Vatican II: Historical and Theological Investigations (Oxford University Press).


Santa Clara Magazine: October 31, 1517, as the story goes, this monk in Wittenburg in what’s now Germany posts 95 theses on the church door.

James Bennett: Of course the story of Martin Luther nailing them to the door is more myth than fact. He at least mailed them to the archbishop to express his concerns about what was going on. It was really an invitation to debate: Here are some things to have some conversations about. He was worried about the quality of preaching in the Church and its impact, but most famously, and what I think really caused the real dilemma, was the indulgences—the idea that you could reduce your time in purgatory through these purchases, essentially, that benefited the Church.

Santa Clara University President PATRICK A . DONOHOE, S.J., nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Mission Church in autumn 1967. But why? READ MORE

That was the immediate issue that particularly troubled Luther. Luther thought that the archbishop and the church hierarchy didn’t really realize what was going on. But of course they were deeply embedded in that process, and hence the provocation from Luther was particularly problematic for them.

SCM: So in some ways, it both became both an invitation to debate about theological issues—but also it addressed power and the corrupting influence of money. To mark the occasion, there are not grand celebrations of this date in this country. Why should it matter to us?

Frederick J. Parrella: It is one of the very important dates in the history of Western civilization and Western culture. And it is important not just for Lutherans, Calvinists, and other Protestants, but for Roman Catholics, Eastern Catholics, certainly the Orthodox. It affects every Christian church, because what Luther did was an act of great courage. And beyond that, it ended definitively, once and for all, the medieval era.

The Church in the 11th, 12th, 13th centuries was flourishing. And in many ways, it was doing what it should have been doing. But in the 14th and 15th century, things declined rapidly.

Luther was born in 1483. The church—the catholic tradition, catholic meaning universal—had really become a temporal fiefdom run by cardinals and princes, and often they were the same. And in 1492, just a few days before Columbus left for America, Alexander VI was elected pope, the most notorious of all of the corrupt popes. No one could beat Alexander, who had already had numerous marriages, many illegitimate children. It was a simple problem to make five of them cardinals.

As for the Reformation: If Luther hadn’t done it and Calvin hadn’t done it, someone else would have done it—and it might have been much worse or much bloodier. I think the tragedy of the Reformation was it never remained homogeneous. It fragmented into all sorts of different groups.

In many ways, theologically today, Catholics—including the Orthodox and including Eastern Catholics—are closer to Luther theologically than Luther is to Calvin. The reason is very simple. It evolved around a basic theological, philosophical question: Finitum capax infiniti. Is the finite capable of the infinite? Can I see the infinite in and through the finite? Luther said, Of course it is. Calvin said, No, it’s not. The finite order is totally corrupt. And then God became this other reality where you don’t find God in the midst of daily life.


SCM: So what was it that gave Luther’s invitation to debate such legs?

Bennett: Well, this is the question. I think it’s also important to point out that Luther was not the first one to push the Church to reform. This had been going on for several centuries.

From what I’ve read, he had the right temperament to pull this off—both in terms of his intellect and his ability to provoke, and ultimately to win people over to his position by persuasion in writing. He also benefits from the local prince who is sympathetic to Luther’s concerns—an early protector; that was important. He also had the advantage of the recently invented printing press. And a church that was in many ways more visibly corrupt. Lots of these pieces came together at the right place and the right time to give Luther’s effort a momentum that hadn’t been achieved before then.

Luther was a deeply thoughtful theologian. He was an academic, maybe in modern parlance he was a bit of a geek. He was wanting to fix the church, not leave from it, and he thought that these would be conversation starters.

But for Luther, because he was so studious and theological, one of the things that really plagued him was: How am I saved? In crass terms, What’s going to happen to me after I die? This was really at the deeply personal root of Luther’s effort to reform the Church. He did this in-depth study of scripture, particularly the Book of Romans in the New Testament, and the conclusion that he came to is: The only way I’m saved is by grace, through faith.

What that meant, to tie it back to the indulgences question, is that there’s nothing that I can do to save myself. I rely fully on the grace of God made possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. And to suggest that anything else will somehow save me or that I can do anything to save me is false doctrine. That’s the problem with indulgences.

The phrase sola scriptura—Scripture alone—was one of Luther’s rallying cries in his articulation of his position. How must I be saved? By grace alone. How do I know that? Sola scriptura. I know that because scripture says so.

Luther’s call really is: “Go back, read the Bible, see for yourself what it says.” Luther is convinced that when everybody does that, they will come to the same conclusion he does. He facilitates that by translating the Bible from Latin into German. Along with this come rising literacy rates, people learning to read by reading the Bible in German, or as the Reformation spreads, in the local language.

The other important piece now is that you start to get a disconnect between the state and the church. Now, in the early Reformation, the reformed churches still tended to be politically defined. The prince, the king, the ruler, would choose whether we’re Lutheran or Reformed or Catholic. But the ball has started rolling toward voluntary religion, or choice.

By the time we get to the United States, we see the unintended consequences of Luther’s sola scriptura. Everybody can go to the Bible and read it for herself. But it turns out, everybody has a different interpretation of what that says. By the time you get to the United States and the first amendment and freedom of religion, and there is no official state church, you have a context where you can have a proliferation of religious diversity.


Parrella: One of the things the Reformation did: It opened up the secular imagination so that you could look at the world, no longer in sacramental or religious terms, but see it as secular. Luther did that and Calvin especially did it, by reducing the number of sacraments from seven to two. Dying was no longer a sacramental ritual, you just did it. If you committed sin, you better apologize, but you no longer had to go to a sacrament.

So the world became secular. Maybe the biggest impact was on marriage, because it’s no longer a ritual in the church. The minister can marry you, but so can just about anybody else.

SCM: When I was in the Netherlands and Denmark in the spring, recognizing this anniversary was a big deal, including exhibits of contemporary artists responding to the Reformation and its legacy. Here, not so much.

Bennett: That’s fascinating, isn’t it? Because those are much more secularized areas than the United States. But they also lived through the Reformation. We’re a post-Reformation country. We’ve never had a state church. Our religious identity here in the United States has never been determined by the state—except that it’s not. Whereas all of those European countries have had state churches, and as that spilled out from the Reformation and countries were deciding, Do we go with the Reformation or do we stay Catholic?—this was a big issue. These were tearing up political as well as religious alliances.

It’s especially poignant in Lutheran countries—upper Scandinavia, where the Pope went to celebrate the beginning of the Reformation year earlier this year, acknowledging that theological rift over whether one is saved by grace has been healed. Pope Francis went to Sweden and hosted a joint service there with the head of the World Lutheran Federation.


SCM: When we’re thinking about the legacy of the Reformation and what this means for us here and now, Jim, can you also talk about what it means for you personally and in your role as a teacher and scholar.

Bennett: I’m an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, a Protestant denomination that certainly traces its roots to the Reformation, particularly John Calvin. My own vocation goes directly back to that Reformed tradition.

Thinking about American religion more broadly and what I teach: In some ways, we may not have the United States without the Reformation. And certainly the religious landscape of the United States would look very different, which is perhaps to state the obvious.

Columbus comes in 1492, and colonization starts. Luther writes his theses in 1517. Colonization continues throughout the 16th and into the 17th century. These are not unrelated events. One of the consequences is, now you don’t have a unified church deeply connected with what is, at least theoretically, a unified state in Europe. This starts to reinforce differences in Europe—political, national, and religious.

At the same time you have the church splitting in Europe, you have competing nations coming to what will become the United States, staking out claims not only for England or Spain or Portugal or France, but also for Catholicism and Protestantism. We could debate how central religious concerns really were to the early colonists. But they are absolutely central to the rhetoric that colonists and nations used.

The English colonies are almost exclusively Protestant. Maryland starts as a Catholic colony, but other than that, they are Protestant—some Anglican, what we now know as Episcopalian. Others Puritans, Calvinists, this is sort of the Reformed Presbyterian congregational groups that come, and by that point, particularly for those Puritans, religious concerns, the failures of England to reform enough, in fact, are their impetus for colonizing now, about a century after the Reformation starts.


SCM: Here we are, at a Jesuit, Catholic university in California. How would you say this matters to us—and how has it shaped how we think about, talk about, and live religion here?

Bennett: As religiously diverse as we are in the United States—and while there are more Protestants than Catholics, there are more Catholics than any members of any one Protestant denomination—all of those numbers are shrinking now. Even as the number of unaffiliated people continues to rise and church participation declines, we are a nation very much shaped by a Protestant ethos that is very much rooted in individual rights and individual interpretation that Luther set in motion.

Another piece of the American colonization, out of that Reformed impetus, particularly but not exclusively in that Puritan thrust to New England, is this notion of being a chosen nation. “Okay, God is calling us to this place and God is going to favor us because we’re doing this on the model of Israel, because we’re doing God’s work. And if we succeed, we’ll be blessed. And if we don’t, we’ll be cursed.”

Now, we forget the “if we don’t, we’ll be cursed” part: that if we’re going to be a city on a hill shining light for the rest of the world, there are supposed to be risks that come with that. Still, that City on a Hill rhetoric persists—not primarily in religious terms right now, but that gets conflated with democratic ideals and freedom, and freedom of religion also becomes a principle of that.

Along with that is a real emphasis on education. One of hte things that Luther’s emphasis on sola scriptura and the preists of all believers sets in motion is an increased emphasis on education. That is interesting to think about sitting on a Jesuit campus here, where a lot of the ideals ar so compatible with Jesuit understandings of being in the world. It’s not a coincidence that Jesuits are emerging about the same time as all this is going on. And both of them are very committed to education, notions of vocation, calling.

There was a recent Pew study that looked at how Americans see the difference between Protestant and Catholics now. Not very much. There is not the animosity here in the United States, with the exception of some fringe pockets. But in the fundamental questions of the Reformation, the two traditions have come together.

The Catholic church has said, Yes, we’re saved by faith. You ask people on the street, Protestants will say that doing good works is important alongside faith and grace towards salvation. So I think another place that we find ourselves is people saying, the differences that split these churches don’t split us now, and that we actually find ourselves much closer. A Catholic service looks different than a Baptist service, but these life or death issues in 1517 don’t feel that way to most Americans now.

From the Reformation era through the 19th century in the United States, on the Protestant side, denominational identity mattered—whether you were Lutheran or Presbyterian or Baptist or whatever. There was a lot at stake, and it was a major crisis if your child married someone across one of those lines.

Then it was, Well, as long as my child marries another Protestant, that’s okay. And now those lines are crossing Protestant and Catholic. Now, in marriage, none of those lines matter as much as political difference. People say, I’d rather have my child marry someone of a different religion than of a different political ideology.

Parrella: The very fact that so many of our students are completely unchurched is also a direct product of the Reformation. That’s neither bad nor good, they’re just secular. I give you a perfect example. I had a woman last year, a very Irish name—call her O’Shaughnessey. You just didn’t get more Irish. I asked my students their religious tradition, where they came from—not what they believe, that’s their business. And I said, “Well, obviously, you are Catholic.” She said, “Oh, God, no. I’m a none. N-O-N-E.” She said, “My grandparents were Irish Catholics. My parents gave it all up. I got no education whatsoever. I’m a none.”

That’s the product, in some ways, of the forces that Luther unleashed in those 95 theses. We can speak up against this gigantic, cosmic reality called church. We can create our own churches. And Luther certainly believed in the sacramental, he just secularized five of the seven sacraments. Why? Because they couldn’t be found in scripture.

How does it affect us here on the campus? It changes all of our lives in ways so close to us, it’s hard to imagine. It has set into motion forces that we couldn’t possibly understand—including all the nones that are on campus, whether they’re raised in a Catholic background or not.

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