Posted by: James Atticus Bowden | October 31, 2012

The Reformation book on Reformation Day 2012

Recently, I finished a 700 plus page history of The Reformation.  Great scholarship exposes the layers of complexity that weave through time to make the tapestry of any period.  The large picture hanging on the wall tells the big story.  The tapestry and its threads speak to us – for today and tomorrow.  Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation is quite a tapestry to admire this Reformation Day 2012.

Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door on October 31st 1517.  He challenged the monk Johann Tetzel’s fund-raising for the Pope – selling indulgences.  Supposedly dead Christians spent time in purgatory paying for sins until they were released to enter Heaven.  A person could pay money to shorten that time.  Tetzel taught, “As soon as the coin in the coffer ring, the soul from purgatory springs.”  From Luther’s act the long-brewing theological disputes were sparked into a conflagration of competing ideas.

MacCulloch notes, correctly, “Ideas matter profoundly.”  Ideas transform society with “an independent power of their own.” Almost 500 years later Luther’s ideas, and others – especially John Calvin, achieve much.  “A modern Anglican and even a modern Roman Catholic is likely to be more like a sixteenth-century Anabaptist in belief than he or she resembles a sixteenth-century member of the Church of England.”  Indeed.  A few years ago the Roman Catholic Church corrected their teaching to say there is no “Limbo.”

Martin Luther, like Paul and Augustine, had a sudden conversion event for his key ideas.  More broadly, the Reformation was a natural outgrowth of Scholasticism and the Renaissance which grew out of Humanism.  The intellectual drive to go original sources – ad fontes- led Luther to the Bible.  Paul’s chapter in the Holy Bible called ‘Romans’ gave Luther a new light to see God’s Grace.  From Luther’s points of discussion the ideas blossom like the lilies of the field across Europe.

Also, we see the many colored threads that show how ideas motivate humankind.  It’s fascinating.  It surprised me how many threads resembled the story of the conversion of the barbarians to Christianity – another large history I read early this year.

MacCulloch makes the distinctions by region through time – across Europe.  He shows how individual people matter.  It could be priest or professor, elite or peasant, military or martyr – where individuals make a difference in the day.

More generally, though, these themes played out.

  • Elites lead.  Transforming ideas need some of the elites to promote them.
  • Media matters.  The vast publishing of books and sermons – and owning the publishing press means to produce them.
  • Popular Culture.  Putting the Bible in song – the Psalters – and imbued with new meaning for peasants to sing.
  • Education.  Creating education excellence that elites of all persuasions want for their children.  Expanding education among the many – to elevate all people and empower them with persuasive arguments.
  • Women, Generations, Family and other politics.  The Reformation gained strength where it opened opportunities for women, spoke to differences in the generations of the time, reinforced the family relationships and addressed the politics of clergy, local and regional power, etc.
  • Power in politics.  When theology marks political allegiance and identity, and only person with the right markings get ahead, many people find their theology is remarkably flexible.
  • Power of the sword.  At its height almost half of formerly Roman Catholic Europe was Protestant.  By the end of the 30 Year’s War the Protestants controlled one-fifth of Europe.  Cultural cleansing can change theological allegiances.
  • Power of ideas.  Thousand year old institutions – like convents and monasteries – and the celebration of the Catholic Mass were swept away in weeks where the ideas resonated.  When the ideas come from the Word of God in the Bible, the power is awesome.  It took book burnings – burning Bibles – to push back the Reformation’s ideas in Italy.

The ideas motivate many people – powerfully – today.  MacCulloch says the ideas that Evangelicals promote around the world today are the concepts of the 17th Century Ulster Scots – the Scot-Irish.  They swept across the America, moving with the frontier, by the Ulster Scots – “a disciplined, self-reliant people, with powerful sense of elect status and ready to defend their right to make decisions for themselves.”  Amen.

Yet, on a sad note to me, the author, descended from a line of Episcopalian clergy, claims to no longer “personally subscribe to any form of religious dogma.”  Does dogma mean relationship and believe in Lord Jesus Christ to the learned professor?  I hope not.  Losing the right ideas about the Bible is awful.

The right ideas are worth living and dying.  So, it’s very interesting that Protestants were called Evangelicals before they were called Protestants.  People who call themselves Evangelicals today, distinguish themselves from the apostate Protestants who are sissy Christians.  The name ‘evangelicals’, instead of the former adversarial ‘protestant’, may make it more pleasant for Roman Catholics to find common cause for Christ and His Church in America.

Martin Luther said, “Here I stand.  I can do no other.”  Now is the time for American Christians – Evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox – and believing Jews to stand together.  In October, about 1,600 Evangelical ministers preached politics from the pulpit in defiance of the Federal Government.  They told the IRS they did it.  America will need this leadership in the future.

Here we stand for our God in America.

Here we stand for our God against Islam.

I believe we must stand together.  Soon.

Disputing Limbo meant death for Protestants. Now, Christians all agree Limbo doesn’t exist. Thank you, Martin, for the Reformation. Progress.



  1. Great post for Reformation Day. We always take time from the Halloween activities to watch the movie Luther and reflect on your last point. Here I stand. . .

  2. i think you mean to say the catholic church has eliminated the concept of “limbo” rather than purgatory

  3. Thanks, DV. CB, the internet says you are right. Limbo is out, Purgatory is still in. Thanks.

  4. If I may, limbo is still in as a theory. It never was a dogma.

    The biggest irony that I see in this post is that Luther didn’t object in principle to ANY of the things you object to–he objected because the papacy was too LENIENT!

    “The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those
    imposed by his own authority or that of the canons”

    The pope was trying to remit too much i.e. too much leniancy, that was beyond his power according to Luther.

    “The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it
    has been remitted by God; or, to be sure, by remitting guilt in cases
    reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in these cases were disregarded, the guilt would certainly remain unforgiven.”

    “The pope does very well when he grants remission to souls in purgatory,
    not by the power of the keys, which he does not have, but by way of
    intercession for them.”

    Come on…Protestants don’t believe that do they?

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