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Commemorating the Reformation in “Post-Christian” Europe?

Why and how to commemorate the Reformation.

The debate over the meaning of Reformation jubilees or commemorations is an old one. Such celebrations can be put to different uses and interpreted in a range of ways. For example, at an early marking of the occasion in 1617, Friedrich V (1596–1632), elector of the Palatinate and an enterprising Calvinist, was perhaps the first to propose the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Reformation. He wanted to observe it as a single, common celebration for Lutherans and Calvinists. But his plan was criticized by Lutheran statesmen and theologians, who accused him of making this proposal for improper reasons.[1]

Some suspected that his motive was political—namely, to show that the Reformed or Calvinist Christians in the Palatinate did belong to Luther and his tradition, and that therefore they were entitled to full legal recognition in the Holy Roman Empire under the umbrella of the Peace of Augsburg (1555). In his defense, Friedrich claimed that he was proposing the commemoration, first and foremost, simply to thank God for what he had accomplished through Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel. The subordinate political reason was tied to the theological one, demonstrating to the Church of Rome and the Catholic emperor that Protestants possessed, despite their internal disputes, a firm unity. As things turned out, Friedrich was not able to convince his fellow Protestants, and so in 1617 Calvinists and Lutherans held commemoration events apart from one another.

As this episode illustrates, questions about why, how, and with whom to commemorate the Reformation have been around for a long time. For different reasons they remain highly relevant, even more so since conditions in Europe and the world have changed massively since Friedrich V’s first proposal. Indeed, in the last fifty years, the position of Christianity in Europe has changed more dramatically than in the almost 450 years between 1517 and the middle decades of the twentieth century. In spite of these changes many people, especially among Protestants, take as self-evident that the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses will be celebrated, some way, somehow. Events have long been in the works for this purpose across Europe.[2]

But fundamental questions about to how to do this, and even more why to do so, are seldom posed, let alone answered adequately. In this essay, I attempt to pose these questions and sketch some tentative answers.

Why Commemorate the Reformation?

Before the question of how to commemorate the Reformation in Europe comes the question of why the 500th anniversary of the Reformation should be commemorated at all. Amid the flurry of activities connected to this jubilee, that fundamental question deserves priority. Of course, if you are a German, you might want to recognize a national figure who helped shape your language and was deeply influential in your country’s history. But what does such a Reformation jubilee mean for someone living in Madrid or Palermo—much less Istanbul or Moscow, and perhaps even much less in Beijing or Kampala?

We also must pause to reflect on the choice of words: commemoration must be explained. The word celebration is too positive to be helpful in settings that strive to be neutral, to remain above religious or other forms of partisanship. Yet commemoration can indicate, misleadingly, that we are dealing with something purely historical, a relic that is no longer relevant. Still, commemoration is preferable since the term carries less of an ideological connotation, even if we insist that we are not dealing with a dead past.

Since question of “why commemorate?” deserves an elaborate philosophical analysis that is certainly beyond the scope of this essay, the following might be considered thumbnail sketches of motives for commemorations in general, and for the specific commemoration of the Reformation in 2017.

a. Historical motivation: Historical interest in who did what, why, and where can be a motive. This motive can engage scholars and others interested in history, as it did for the heightened focus in Luther research on the 400th anniversary of his birth in 1883 and for John Calvin’s comparable birthday anniversary in 1909. The present-day identity of Europe has been shaped fundamentally by the religious developments set in motion by Martin Luther, so the search for the causes, origins, and consequences of this movement deserve validation.

b. Theological motivation: Under the “theological” can be included a variety of motives. These might be ecumenical in the sense that remembering 1517 in 2017 can help restore the unity of the Western church that was over the causa Lutheri. This opportunity seems especially pertinent after the ecumenical breakthroughs in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, which recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. The theological motive can, however, also be the opposite. The Reformation jubilee might be seen as an occasion to show how wrong the Reformers were and how lamentable their long-term influence has been. Or, in a different judgment, it might be used to justify Luther’s actions, to revitalize the polemical features of his theology, to demonstrate the rightness of certain Protestant confessional positions, and replay traditional Protestant habits by pointing out the deficiencies and falsehoods of Roman Catholicism.

c. Economic motivation: Commemorations quite often have an economic dimension, as was the case in the former East Germany for several earlier commemorations of Luther’s life. In other words, jubilees can be big business for publishers, travel agents, cities, and museums that see a chance to boost the number of visitors and customers. And let us not forget the university administrators who send their professors as writers and presenters to gather grant funding and to put their institutions in the spotlight, garnering attention and perhaps increased enrollment.

d. Political motivation: Today there might be political reasons for marking the Reformation, just as much as in the sixteenth century. Fortunately, we are decades away from the situation in which the Luther jubilee in 1983 (the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth) was used by the German Democratic Republic to promote socialism—even as this instrumentalizing of the occasion had many critics in the church. But the jubilee in 2017 is not without its own political aspects. It allows historically Protestant countries to promote their national inheritance. It promises to allow Protestant minorities in other countries to call attention to their identities. In Germany, at a regional level, it allows the federal states to showcase their particular histories and cultures. At the same time, many want to focus on the Reformation as a pan-European, liberating event that, properly commemorated, can help strengthen the idea of a unified Europe. Still others want to blame Luther for introducing so much divisiveness and conflict into Europe’s past.

None of these motives is completely new. They have all appeared in some form or another ever since special—or, should we maybe say holy?—places, persons, and dates have been commemorated. Although motivations may vary, one answer to the question of why commemorate the Reformation seems quite clear. The Reformation was one of the most influential events in the history of the world generally and of the Christian church in particular. Without it, the present global society would look completely different. If we want to understand the world and the church today, and if we want to behave responsibly toward the world and the church, we need to know about the Reformation, its broader context, its actors, its message, and the reactions to it. A commemoration judiciously planned and executed can stimulate and improve such an understanding. In order to reach this understanding, all of the motives mentioned possess a claim to legitimacy. But a commemoration will be fruitful only if the higher-minded motives are combined in productive ways and without being dominated by narrowly partisan or pecuniary agendas.

How to Commemorate

A number of options present themselves in response to the question of how to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. These options are related to the various motivations and each presents complications. The historical option, for example, can approach the Reformation with an unbalanced focus on the person Martin Luther, but that approach leaves him as a figure from the distant past with little or no connection to the present.[3] Luther in this account might then show up as the monk who rocked the church, irritated pope and emperor, got married, drank beer, preached, gained too much weight, and died. This Luther might be interesting, even entertaining, but as only a curiosity from yesterday, with no relevance for today or tomorrow.

In the theological approach, Luther might be instrumentalized as an apostle of freedom, a rebel against Rome, the father of modern tolerance, the inventor of grace, or other such idealizing titles. Yet all such images, if accepted uncritically and without greater nuance, create more problems than they resolve.

In the economic option, where Luther and the Reformation are “sold,” cities and regions expect millions of visitors to open their wallets. Tourists will come to the places where Luther lived—where he stayed for at least one night, or the places he had presumably intended to visit—what some have called “almost Luther” cities. The irony here is that publishers, brewers, and producers of “Refo relics” hope to reap in 2017 the same sort of profits as Albrecht von Mainz expected went he started Johannes Tetzel on an indulgences tour in 1517!

Since such marketing ventures are already well under way, sober-minded scholars should not have the illusion that they can do much about it. But they can provide alternatives, even capitalizing on the more questionable approaches to strengthen the more responsible commemorations. Still, everyone—academics, commemorators, and celebrators alike—needs awareness that the complications of the Reformation should not be ignored but dealt with openly. To begin with the most obvious: Martin Luther is both a fascinating personality and a problematic one. Those who take 2017 more as a moment of celebration than commemoration should be cognizant of the excruciatingly harsh attacks that Luther leveled at Jews, Catholics, Anabaptists, Muslims, and at anyone else with whom he disagreed—and there were many! Of course, this was true not only of Luther.

But Luther is purported to be the (re)discoverer of the gospel, of the authority of the Word, and of the power of grace. How, then, can he have said so many offensive, indeed, abusive things? Many Protestants wish the ugly side of Luther would simply vanish from history. But it will not. The problem, of course, goes well beyond Luther. Luther and the Reformation as a whole have many regrettable aspects. Whether the topic is Luther and the Jews, Calvin and Servetus, or cuius regio, eius religio, evidence does not support the notion that the “Era of the Reformation” led to the “Age of Toleration.” Any attempt to present the Reformation as the initiator of tolerance and equal rights in order to claim its importance and current relevance is doomed to fail. The facts require much greater nuance.

Furthermore, a focus on Luther as an evangelist of freedom must make clear that his great concern remained freedom from sin and guilt, not freedom in a political sense as we would understand this today. That view of Luther is really a child of modernity, not of the sixteenth century. If it were up to Luther, for example, the Netherlands would still be occupied by Spain, and Dutch Protestantism most likely would have been eradicated by the Inquisition long ago. Luther opposed any resistance to political authorities. Luckily for the Dutch, their prince, William of Orange, though raised as a Lutheran, turned Catholic and then went back to Protestantism and did not strictly keep to the “obedience to authority” (Obrigkeitsgehorsamkeit) that Luther defended. It is a common historical judgment that elsewhere in Europe this posture led to unintended yet disastrous consequences, as later times revealed. Instead, William chose Calvinism with its “right to revolt,” a theory in nuce developed by John Calvin.[4]

Problems created by Luther also beset the realm of theology. To mention just one well-known example: his attitude in the debate about the Lord´s Supper in Marburg in 1529, when he not only held off any attempt to find peace with Zwingli and other Swiss reformers, but also was ready to accept, as a logical consequence of his position, conclusions on the person of Christ that many of his fellow reformers regarded as irrational. Many other examples of his intransigence could be adduced. In short, Luther presents too much controversy and belligerence to qualify him for placement on a pedestal in 2017 as hero or saint.[5]

Looking at the larger picture, it is imperative to remember the obvious fact that the Reformation entailed a split in the church. It contributed to religious wars that brought personal tragedy into the lives men and women in the sixteenth century and afterwards. A convinced Protestant today might still be able to declare with approval: “Where would we be without the Reformation?” Yet for others, that question might prompt a very different answer. Some might even say that the world would have been much better off without the Reformation. Even Protestants who affirm the value of the Reformation should take full account of those dissenting from doing so in 2017.

Myopia is an additional complication. Luther started the whole thing, or as Calvin put it: “The Gospel started in Wittenberg.”[6] Yet the focus of 2017, again, should not be just on one man but also on those who supported and opposed him, on the Reformation as a whole in all its vexing complexity. Excessive focus on Luther could seriously undermine commemorative events; just a few quotations from Luther on Jews, women, and Turks could tag him as an intolerant fundamentalist with no message for the present. Even more, it is a mistake to look at the Reformation from a generically Protestant perspective. A better path to more a satisfying commemoration can be opened by speaking of the plural “Reformations,” as has become custom in Reformation research today.[7]

For commemorations in 2017 to avoid such problems, it must be constantly kept in mind that Luther worked in a world where much was changing. For example, it is clear that his actions stimulated other varieties of reform, such as the Catholic reformation—what used to be called the “Counter Reformation”—and the Anabaptist movement, or the “Radical Reformation.” What is more, the notion of “sixteenth-century reformations” can also be applied to other area of human endeavor. As demonstrated by other chapters in this book, the sixteenth century witnessed not only major shifts in church, theology, and spirituality, but also in science, culture, law, politics, cartography, medicine, and more.  The great variety of related national and regional developments must also be considered when commemorating the Reformation in “Post-Christian Europe.” If such complexities are kept in mind, much can be learned in 2017.

Post-Christian Europe: Facts and Concepts

Perhaps an even bigger challenge than the problematic aspects of Luther’s career or general developments in the sixteenth century is the question of how to commemorate the Reformation in a post-Christian Europe.[8] Much literature has been published lately trying to define what “post-Christian” means, even whether or not it is the best term to characterize the situation in Europe today.[9] This is not the place to analyze the overall role of faith in Western Europe, although many indisputable facts do indicate that Europe is a substantially secularized continent, especially when compared to other parts of the globe. Churchgoing, church membership, and numbers of those who profess belief in a personal God are all declining. This reality, too, deserves full consideration when approaching the commemorations of 2017.

Still, it is possible to wonder if “post-Christian” is an entirely accurate way of characterizing contemporary Europe. Some research suggests that Europe is not as secularized or post-Christian as it might seem. For example, about half of all Europeans tell survey researchers that they pray or meditate at least once a week. Three out of four Europeans say they are “religious persons.” The number of outright atheists is relatively low. In countries like Italy and Greece, the Christian faith is alive and visible every day of the week.

In Eastern Europe, churches are being built, people in some areas are returning to church, a growing number of children and adults come to be baptized—and these developments are taking place in the wake of fundamental political changes in these countries, maybe even as a result of these changes. The fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) as a symbolic end of the artificial divide between “East” and “West” Europe demonstrated the power of the church and its believers. As has been widely documented, the Monday evening church prayer meetings that began in Leipzig in September 1987 sparked a chain of events that eventually brought down the wall—and that, in a socialist country where the influence of the church had been massively degraded. It is also noteworthy, although Luther might not have been too happy about such a development, that Pope Francis today enjoys great popularity and regular, positive notice in European newspapers, magazines, and online. In sum, it might be premature to speak of a “post-Christian era” in Europe today.[10]

Yet one cannot deny that the religious situation in Europe now is fundamentally different from that of the sixteenth century, even from fifty years ago. Public life is certainly less visibly shaped by the Christian tradition—a fact best illustrated by empty pews on Sunday, by the growth in the number of mosques in recent years, and by the ongoing conversion of church buildings into bookstores, apartments, and for other nonreligious purposes. As Europe has moved from a post-Westphalian, multi-confessional society to a multi-religious/secular one, it has witnessed a parallel transition from a public to a private form of Christianity. What is more, Christian profession has mostly become a local, voluntary, “optional” designation of one’s identity. It is less often the case that individuals are simply born and baptized into a particular confession (Lutheran, Anglican, Calvinist, etc.), but instead living as “a Christian” results from a conscious choice. The fading of church membership as simply a traditional inheritance entails a different awareness of what it means to be a Christian. Those who identify as believers often have a keener sense that “I am a believer at the workplace” or “I am a Christian in my town,” as opposed to, say, “I am a member of the Church of England.” The notion of “believing without belonging”—to use the phrase of the sociologist Grace Davie—speaks to a situation where ecclesiastical mobility prevails in parallel with the way people switch jobs or move houses.[11] This way of thinking about religious identity in terms of flexible relations rather than in defined obligations marks a major change from the age of Luther, and for what prevailed during many centuries after his passing.

In large parts of Europe, those who do believe often express ambiguity about church structures and hierarchies, especially in cases where flagrant abuses of office have occurred. The positive image of Pope Francis cannot obscure the incredible damage the priest sexual scandal has done to the Roman Catholic Church. For many of the Protestant churches, a similar image problem attends their interminable bickering over positions on marriage and sexuality. Those churches also suffer from outsider ridicule, marking the widespread tolerance of theologians who deny essential doctrines of the Christian faith. Both church members and nonmembers are regularly troubled by a sense that Europe’s historical religious institutions have drifted from their primary responsibilities and have entangled themselves excessively in “worldly” affairs. But perhaps precisely at this point the contemporary situation resembles that of the sixteenth century. Luther was moved to protest by what he saw as a theology and a church adrift from its foundation and primary message. As in contemporary Europe, during the Reformation the laity often experienced the church as a distant, bureaucratic entity obsessed with power and money, its clergy disconnected and ethically lax. Parallels on this score between the early sixteenth century and the early twenty-first deserve attention in 2017 and beyond.

There are still other features of European life today that suggest similarities with the sixteenth century. Economic instability, a distrust of politics and politicians, the disorientation of many young people, and a host of marital and family issues are just a few of the items that beg comparison. In addition, at the same time that much of Europe seems to be moving in a post-Christian direction, a growing interest in religion and “spirituality” can also be seen.[12] In light of the fact that the visibility of institutional Christianity in Europe has declined, even as many consider themselves believing Christians or religious at least in some sense, perhaps the term “secularized” may be more fitting than “post-Christian.”[13]  

But a secularized Europe, again, is strangely also a religious Europe, with the emphasis on “religious,” not “Christian.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have offered an especially prescient forecast when he predicted that Christianity would decline and religion would return.[14]

It has done so, if in fact religion, understood in its most general sense, ever departed in the first place. Religion, particularly as concerns the growing Muslim presence in Europe, plays a larger role in politics and society than it has formerly. Thus, it is now most intriguing, and maybe even imperative, to be thinking about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation at a time when faculties of theology at state universities are relabeled as departments of religious studies and when Western Europe’s traditional two confessions (Catholic and Protestant) have become a new situation with two religions (Christianity and Islam). Commemorating five hundred years of the Reformation in a so-called post-Christian Europe, at once secularized and religious, residually Christian and newly Islamic, does make sense. But it does so only if we honestly seek to understand what the Reformation, at its core, was really about.

What Was The Reformation About?

In 2011, great expectations accompanied the former Pope Benedict XVI when he visited his homeland, Germany. Perhaps with an eye on the near approach of 2017, he carefully avoided Wittenberg and the Wartburg, sites forever associated with the dawn of Protestantism, but chose instead to visit Erfurt, where Luther lived while he was still a Catholic monk and a city that has a history of ecumenical engagement. Many anticipated that the pope would say kind words about Luther and then make some kind of conciliatory overture. But this did not happen, and they found themselves afterwards in confusion and disappointment, since the pope instead spoke, not about the church divisions that Luther’s life had sparked, but about the gospel message that Luther had tried so hard to proclaim.[15] That message, according to the pope, was the central theological question about the relation between the righteous God and sinful humanity. In Benedict’s speech he urged that this question should be taken up again today. Instead of lifting the ban on Luther or making an ecumenical gesture, the pope had the chutzpah to remind German Protestants about the gospel that Luther proclaimed.

But, really, do Protestants need the pope to tell them what the Reformation was all about? Perhaps, since most Protestants no longer view the pope as the Antichrist, this idea that once would have seemed impossible may actually be true. In fact, not a few Protestants today perceive the recent popes as the last redoubt of genuine Christian witness; for them, as hard as it would have been for Luther to imagine, Rome has become the last bastion of a visible and assertive Christianity. Historians and historical theologians might have a clear idea of Luther’s central message, but for the wider Protestant—or vestigially Protestant—world, he has been too often reduced to a comic figure, a beer-drinking monk with a simplistic message: “Be merry and get married, for free grace will let you.” The commemorations of 2017, therefore, provide the opportunity to ask what would happen if Protestants, not to speak of Europeans in general, would turn to what Luther actually desired and preached, and for which he lived and died. That prospect essentially, was what Pope Benedict offered to Protestants at Erfurt in 2011.

In recent decades, Reformation research has profited immensely from the influx of social historians into the field. For a very long time, Reformation research was dominated by church historians, who focused more on ecclesiastical matters and theology than on historical contexts. Because of that concentration, these scholars often did not pay sufficient to connections between religious matters and the broader worlds of politics, society, and culture. Social historians taught such narrowly focused scholars that historical contexts were in fact very important, and that a description of institutions could not be complete without a description of the people and social forces afoot within these institutions. It was at first difficult for church historians to accept this message, but eventually they did, and this has brought about a needed correction of emphasis.

Yet one problematic result of this healthy correction was that the theological center in the Reformation often gets lost from view. Scholars with great skills in history, demographics, ethnography, and class and gender analysis have transformed our academic understanding of the sixteenth century, but often they show little interest in questions of biblical interpretation and theology that both reformers and their critics treated as primary. In excellent efforts to contextualize the theology of the sixteenth century, sometimes theology gets eclipsed.

Therefore, we should remind ourselves in 2017 that Luther´s primary goal was not a reformation of society, nor a revolution in natural sciences, nor a restructuring of political and social life in Europe, nor a re-evaluation of marriage, family, and education. As much as it is legitimate to study these changes, sober scholarship knows that these were not Luther’s main concerns. His goal was not even in the first instance a reformation of the church. Certainly, he was concerned about the state of the clergy and the abuse of power in the church. But his main concern, and for him a profoundly existential concern, was the relation between God and human beings—more specifically, the relation between God in his holiness and human beings in their sinfulness, or what theologians call the doctrine of justification. When in 1545 Luther penned a foreword to the first edition of his collected works, he wrote that it was as if the gate of paradise was opened to him when he discovered what justification by faith really meant. That insight was the essential ingredient of the Reformation.[16]

It is noteworthy that this observation came in the next to last year of his life (he died in 1546), after he had witnessed many positive and many negative results from the Reformation movements that he had sparked. By recalling that it was as if the gate of heaven opened to him, he did not mean that all of a sudden he saw that Europe needed a new political system, or that monks and nuns should get married, or that human beings needed freedom for self-development. Instead, he was claiming to understand a central theme of the Bible in a new light, which was that men and women could be saved from God’s judgment and eternal death by the free and unmerited grace of God in Jesus Christ. Although this teaching implicates matters of great depth and breadth, Luther’s understanding of Reformation was as simple as that. This was the new insight that he enthusiastically wanted to circulate.

The momentous debate that Luther carried on with Erasmus in 1525 underscores that the question of justification by faith was for Luther the fundamental issue; on this point Erasmus had attacked him. On the last page of his long reply to Erasmus’s book on free will, Luther made his central concern glaringly clear:

Therefore then I give you great praise and proclaim it that among all you are really the only one who got into what in fact is the true issue at stake here, which is, the heart of the matter and that you have not wearied me with those irrelevant issues about popery, purgatory, indulgences, and other trifles—for that´s what they are more than real issues—with which so far nearly all have troubled me and in vain I must say. It’s you, and only you who has seen what was the point on which everything turns, and so you attacked the main issue; and I want to thank you heartily for that.[17]

The “point on which everything turns,” as Luther called it, was the theme of his discussion with Erasmus. That, then again, concentrated on how sinful humans can come to terms with a righteous and holy God. In turn, that message was tied to questions of personal and institutional guilt, public justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, and righteousness—and more.

These issues remain relevant today. In fact, it is remarkable how many current novels, plays, and movies are obsessed with the notion of “guilt”—even as “guilt” has receded as a central theme in sermons, catechesis, and in Christian education. In Luther´s Reformation, confronting guilt was essential. It would, therefore, be entirely fitting if commemoration in 2017 focused on questions of guilt and sinfulness again. Such commemoration would reflect not only the basic Christian message but also one of the most basic concerns of a secularized society. One sees this clear in our ecological crisis, which Pope Francis addressed in his 2015 encyclical Laudate si. Our earth might well be ceasing to hold up under the sins of an avaricious society of consumers and waste producers. Theological resources from the Reformation, and from Luther in particular, might well offer us means to deliberate wisely about this issue.

But once we view Luther’s theology as the central factor in the Reformation, we must return to the question of how to commemorate the 500th anniversary.

Of first importance is to recover Luther the preacher, the pastor, the professor, and the believer. Political, social, and cultural movements related to the Reformation, again, remain important, but these movements ought to be considered in relation to his theology. The 500th year since the Reformation is not marked five centuries after 1529, when at the Diet of Speyer statesmen first coined the term “Protestant,” nor does it mark 1525, when Luther, the former monk, married a former nun, Katharina von Bora. In 2017, we are commemorating five hundred years since 1517, when a professor at new university (Wittenberg was only founded in 1502) on a town on the outskirts of European civilization published a number of theological theses that dealt with the relation between a righteous God and sinful humanity.

But, of course, if we only focus only on this event and focus solely on Luther, we miss the breadth and international character of Protestantism, and thereby underestimate the impact of Luther’s theological rediscovery. The message of justification by faith alone soon enlisted influential figures such as Philip Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, and John Calvin, who worked out concepts of personal holiness and church reform from the basis of justification by faith. That message also helped these theologians and others fashion a Christian worldview on education, politics, social life and culture. These things, too, are relevant in a commemoration of the Reformation in 2017.

Luther’s central theological concern also relates directly to the many upheavals of sixteenth-century Europe—to a plurality “reformations.” Protestant Reformers, Anabaptists, and reform-minded Catholics alike agreed in their conviction that Europe, because it was not sufficiently Christian, required a deeper, truer Christianization. Naturally they varied in their conceptions of how to realize this goal, but they agreed that reform was necessary. Furthermore, they were agreed that such reform began with theology. Whether Europe today is Christian, post-Christian, pre-Christian, or something else, commemoration of 2017 can only be fruitful if European churches unite, not in vague paeans to unity, but in a spirit that desires to understand correctly the theological emphases of the sixteenth century and their present-day implications.

Then and Now: A Complicated Relevance

Permit me to conclude on a note of “prophecy”: in the coming decades, religious and theological issues will become more pronounced and important. Given this possibility, it is fitting to observe some parallels between Europe in the early sixteenth century and Europe in the early twenty-first century. The first similarity might be characterized by the German word Orientierungslosigkeit, which we might render in English as “the loss or absence of orientation.” In this condition, basic certainties are either lost or questioned and many, mainly young people, are adrift from normative points of reference—what we call “values” today and which were called “virtues” in the past.

Second, religious tolerance concerns us now, as it did in the sixteenth century. Although at that time it was tolerance between Catholics and Protestants (or among Protestants) that was most needed, now it is tolerance as a basic framework for pluralistic, multi-religious societies; such tolerance is vital for society and politics to function.

Third, a media revolution took place in both eras, with its possibilities, challenges, and dangers. The spread of the printing press, combined with the increased abilities of people to buy and read books, was quite similar to recent developments in digital data and social media. Both revolutions should make us think about the responsible use of the media that we possess.

Fourth, in economic terms, we face a range of issues from corruption and greed at the top of organizations to a growth of debts and poverty. Just think of the situation in Greece today or of Europe’s immigration crisis. Then and now, society was constructed so that many could strive but only a few succeed. (A relevant difference between then and now is that once where saints were celebrated for the merit that they had gained to enter heaven, we now regard as blessed the soccer players, movie stars, and CEOs who earn enough to live in heaven on earth!).

Fifth, church-state relations are becoming increasingly fraught in Europe. The issue is related to changes in society and in the decline of churches’ institutional power. Yet questions about the state’s responsibilities for the church, the independence of the church, and the church’s opinions about politics and law grew in importance because of the Reformation. Thinking about the long arc of church-state relations since the sixteenth century might help us better understand these relations today.

Sixth, while we recognize that people in the sixteenth century were preoccupied with sin and salvation, it is true that people are also concerned about these today, but in a different sense and setting. Although “sin” is no longer connected to death, let alone eternal death, sin and guilt are the major problems for which people seek help from psychiatrists and therapists. Related is the quest for spirituality and spiritual stability. In recent decades, tour operators and former monasteries have discovered “spiritual tourism,” a market niche addressing their visitors’ needs to escape workplace stress or psychological turmoil. Now as then, the church in its preaching does not seem to meet people with the answers they seek, but many still look to the church as a way of finding space to seek inner stability. Sometimes, though, it seems as if the physical space of the church, more than its message, is what touches people.

Neither Luther, Calvin, nor any other reformer viewed Europe as a vibrantly Christian place. They did recognize that Europeans were almost all baptized, but also concluded that only a small minority of them actually lived up to their baptism. They complained about Europeans as not being Christian in any genuine sense. Calvin spoke of “Europa afflicta”[18] and in his lifetime came to the conclusion that Christianity worldwide—not just in Europe—was on the brink of collapse.[19]

He might conclude the same today. But it merits asking if Europe’s church is as post-Christian as Europe’s society. In the centuries since the Enlightenment and its aftermath, fundamental changes have come about in the way that the major Protestant churches view the Bible and the gospel. Have these changes been so fundamental that the gap between the Protestant churches today and the theology of the sixteenth century is unbridgeable? The answer might be mixed. To mention only Luther, his vision of the church continues to sound a clarion call: “Churches are there for no other function than that the Lord Jesus speaks to us through his Holy Word and that we in turn speak to Him through prayer and hymns.”[20] In a formal sense, this function persists. But one might be forgiven for asking if the substance of what takes place in present-day Protestant church buildings is close enough for Luther to understand.

When the last bus has departed Wittenberg on the day after October 31, 2017, what will have entered the hearts and minds of those who in 2017 have visited the sites, purchased the memorabilia, read the books, joined the tours, or otherwise paused in some sense to observe the 500th anniversary of the Reformation? The answer certainly depends on the motivation. If we stay close to Luther’s chief concern, the answer will be clear. A proper commemoration requires reflection on the meaning of justification by faith. If Europe is post-Christian already, or if it is about to become post-Christian, then the commemoration of the Reformation at five hundred years may be quite salutary for Europe. For this observance may show Europe aspects of where it came from—and where it might want to go. And this is a task for historical scholarship to show. But beyond the history of the Reformation and its influence, what of its theological, existential core—human beings’ proper relation to God? This question, too, begs to be loudly asked and discussed in 2017.

Reprinted from Protestantism After 500 Years, edited by Thomas Howard with permission from Oxford University Press. © Oxford University Press 2016

Herman Selderhuis is Professor of Church History at the Theological University Apeldorn (The Netherlands) and Director of Refo500.

[1] Herman Selderhuis, “Wem gehört die Reformation? Das Reformationsjubiläum 1617 im Streit zwischen Lutheranern und Reformierten,” in Calvinismus in den Auseinandersetzungen des frühen konfessionellen Zeitalters, ed. Herman J. Selderhuis, Martin Leiner, and Volker Leppin (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2013), 66–78.

[2] For an overview of projects in process for the commemo-ration, see: and

[3] For an overview of the way Luther has so far been presented in commemorations of the Reformation, see the collection of articles by Hartmut Lehmann, Luthergedächtnis 1817 bis 2017 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012).

[4] See John Witte Jr., The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[5] For such presentations, see Robert Kolb, Martin Luther as Prophet, Teacher and Hero. Images of the Reformer, 1520-1620 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999).

[6] A.-L. Herminjard, Correspondance des Réformateurs dans les pays de langue française (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1896), ix, 223.

[7] Thomas A. Brady, German Histories in the Age of the Reformations, 1400-1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, 2nd ed. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010); Scott H. Hendrix, Recultivating the Vineyard. The Reformation Agendas of Christianization (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004).

[8] I will not take up the question of whether the Reformation was a prime cause of the movements that led to a post-Christian Europe. As indicated by Brad Gregory’s contribution to this book, opinions and arguments on this question are many, multifaceted, and often mutually exclusive.

[9] See, inter alia, Hartmut Lehmann, Das Christentum im 20. Jahrhundert: Fragen, Probleme, Perspektiven. Kirchengeschichte in Einzeldarstellungen IV/9 (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2012); Hugh McLeod and Werner Ustorf, eds., The Decline of Christendom in Western Europe 1750-2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); and Hugh Mcleod, The Religious Crisis of the 1960s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), and the literature mentioned therein.

[10] Hugh McLeod, “The Crisis of Christianity in the West: Entering a Post-Christian Era?” in The Cambridge History of Christianity, vol. 9: World Christianities c.1914-c.2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006), 347.

[11] See Grace Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

[12] Friedrich Wilhelm Graf, Die Wiederkehr der Götter. Religion in der modernen Kultur (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2004); and Martin Riesebrocht, Die Rückkehr der Religionen (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2000)

[13]For the discussion on secularization and de Christianization, see Matthias Pohlig et al., eds., Säkularisierungen in der Frühen Neuzeit. Methodische Probleme und empirische Fallstudien. Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung: Beiheft 41 (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2008), 9–109. 

[14] See Jeffrey Pugh, Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times (London: T & T Clark, 2008).

[15] The headline of the prominent Süddeutsche Zeitung the day after (September 24, 2011) was: “Benedikt XIV macht Hoffnungen der Protestanten zunichte” [Benedict XIV disappoints the hopes of Protestants].

[16] “Hic me prorsus renatum esse sensi, et apertis portis in ipsam Paradisum intrasse.” Martin Luther, Luther’s Werke. Kritische Ausgabe (Weimar: H. Böhlau1883-) [hereafter WA], 54, 186.

[17] WA 18, 786.

[18] afflicta est Europa,” Ioannis Calvini Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia, Ediderunt Guilielmus. Baum, Eduardus Cunitz, Eduardus Reuss. Vol. 1–59 Brunsvigae, Berolinae 1863-1900 [hereafter, CO], 36, 202.   

[19] videmus statum religionis in toto orbe christiano fere collapsum,” CO, 36, 178.

[20] Torgau, Oktober 1544, WA, 51:333.

Herman Selderhuis
Herman Selderhuis
Herman Selderhuis is Professor of Church History at the Theological University Apeldorn (The Netherlands) and Director of Refo500.


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