2017: The Quincentenary of the Reformation as the Inauguration of the Reconciliation

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

This year, 2017, marks the quincentenary of the Protestant Reformation, which triggered profound changes and transformations in the character of Western civilization—and of the modern world we have inherited. According to popular history books that explain history in terms of heroic actions taken by heroic individuals, the Reformation started when Martin Luther (1483-1546) posted a copy of his 95 Theses, or Arguments against the Power of Indulgences, on the door of the church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. What prompted Luther to take this heroic action was what he regarded as the corruption of the Church of Rome as represented by the idea of Papal infallibility and its shady financial practices as an international banking house. What upset Luther most was, however, the selling of indulgences by the Church for salvation of Christians.

Excommunicated by Pope Leo X in 1521, Luther decided to pursue the path of a reformer. With a series of pamphlets, such as The Babylonish Captivity of the Church and To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther attacked the Pope and called on the German princes to reform the Church. As a matter of fact, the term “Protestants” came from the document of protest some of these German states published at the meeting of states held at Speyer in 1529. As an Augustinian, Luther held that individual Christians have no way of knowing, or influencing, the will of God regarding their salvation. Salvation for Christians, Luther argued, did not come through buying indulgences but through faith and faith alone.

Another important figure in the Reformation was Jean Calvin (1509-1564). Although raised in a devout Catholic family, Calvin was exposed to Protestant ideas while he was studying law at the University of Paris and became a Protestant in 1533. As the leader of a Protestant congregation in Geneva, Calvin exercised his administrative skills in enforcing a strict set of ethical rules that included the enforcement of sexual morality, the regulation of taverns, and the prohibition of dancing and gambling. Despite such strict rules, Geneva under Calvin’s leadership became a magnet of Protestant refugees from France, England, Scotland, and even from Eastern Europe.

Calvin is best known today for his idea of “predestination.” Initially, it was a belief in divine providence that grants salvation for a faithful Christian. Later on, during the period of Counter-Reformation, it was converted into a more radical doctrine that God’s decree determined in advance an individual’s salvation or damnation. Predestination was made the central doctrine of Calvinism at the Synod of Dort held by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1619. It is this radical form of Calvinism that was transmitted to later generations of Protestants, which was characterized by Max Weber as the spirit of capitalism in his influential work on the rise of capitalism in the West.1

There is no question that these two individuals—Martin Luther and Jean Calvin—did play crucial roles in reforming the religious institutions in the Christian world and reviving the devotion of individual Christians. However, if we are to understand the profound changes and transformations in the character of Western civilization the Reformation unleashed, we need also to look into other changes taking place in Europe around this period. As a matter of fact, the period from the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries was the period of dramatic changes taking place in all areas of people’s lives, as Roger Osborne points out in his book on the history of the Western world: “A growing sense of national identity and power; an incipient tendency towards personal devotion; the development of secular learning and classically inspired humanism; the introduction of printing; the growth of an urban commercial culture, together with an embryonic distrust of the institutions of the Church at both civic and universal papal levels, provide some of the backgrounds to the cataclysmic events of the first decades of the sixteenth century.”2

Luther was helped by a growing sense of national identity and power in the political arena, for it was Frederick of Saxony, one of the German states calling for reforming Christian council, who provided protection for him when he was condemned for heresy by Emperor Maximilian of the Holy Roman Empire. The invention of movable type by Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1398-1468) was a technological factor behind the quick spread of Luther’s message across Germany and beyond, as evidenced by the printing and distribution to the public of Luther’s 95 Theses in the following month of his posting. In the economic arena, Protestantism, especially Calvinism, appealed to the rising bourgeoisie and middle classes of European cities, for Calvinism did not condemn them for making money but extolled it as performing Christian duty. And the fact that the 95 Theses and other pamphlets Luther produced quickly spread among the public attests to not just the development of secular learning and classically inspired humanism as represented by such figures as Erasmus (1466-1536) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626) but also the increasing number of literate citizens in Germany and other nations in Europe.

The political philosophy of sovereign nation-states, the economic doctrine of capitalist development through individual entrepreneurship, and the cultural diversity among different ethnic and national groups can be regarded as the major legacies we have inherited from the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent changes and transformations in the character of Western civilization. The important question for us today is whether or not we should embrace these legacies as positive factors that contribute to the welfare of the people in the globalized world of the twenty-first century.

While the freedom from oppression by religious and secular authorities and the freedom of choosing one’s calling and pursuing one’s passion that we have come to enjoy ought to be embraced, the inequality of income and wealth among individuals and nations as evidenced, for example, by the OXFAM report that in 2016 eight top individuals held about the same amount of wealth of the bottom half of the world population must be addressed and dealt with by policymakers around the world as a serious threat to the dignity of human lives, as Pope Francis points out: “The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies.”3 In fact, though he is addressing himself to Christians, the following words of Pope Francis need to be embraced as a valuable advice for all of us who are living in the divided and fractured world of the twenty-first century: “Small yet strong in the love of God, like Saint Francis of Assisi, all of us, as Christians, are called to watch over and protect the fragile world in which we live, and all its peoples.”4 Indeed, with the embracement of the communal spirit like this, 2017 will hopefully go down in history as the year the Reconciliation started—not just between Protestants and Catholics but also among peoples of all faiths and devotions.

  1. Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Allen and Unwin, 1930.
  2. Osborne, Roger, Civilization: A New History of the Western World, New York: Pegasus Books, 2006, p. 223.
  3. Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, Frederick: The Word Among Us Press, 2013, p. 148.
  4. ibid., p. 155.