This is the 500 year anniversary of the year 1517, traditionally seen as the onset of the Reformation in Europe. 1517 is chosen because it was the year of Martin Luther’s famous challenge embodied in his Ninety-Five Theses. With this public challenge Luther gave stark, concrete form to a hitherto inchoate but rising mass of ideas and feelings of discontent and the hope for a great change, and galvanized these into into a protest and movement of revolution and renewal.
Luther was motivated by the extreme contrast between his personal spiritual crisis and the universal epiphany it led him to, and the entrenched practice of the Latin church. Luther’s attack on the longstanding church practice of selling indulgences for remission of sins and the shortening of sentences in Purgatory wasn’t primarily on account of the tawdriness and corruption of what the institution had lately become. For Luther this was a relatively minor objection.
Luther’s main motivation was the fact that, corrupt or not, the institution of indulgence directly contradicted Luther’s great redeeming idea and faith, the justification of humanity before God by faith only, never by works. Luther had been tormented by the belief that he and all people are so irredeemably sinful that no amount of good works could ever justify any of us before God. For Luther personally, and he believed for all of humanity, the faith that God can only impute righteousness to us and redeem our sin as a free gift of grace, and that all we can do is have faith in this grace, was of such overwhelming importance that he could view the church’s entrenched system of salvation through works only as the most extreme and satanic heresy. This drove him to such a relentless, passionate indictment that he captured the imagination of great numbers of people who were feeling similar crises and discontent, and galvanized the many trends of ferment and dissent into a mass movement which transformed the spirit of the age and overthrew the power of the church over part of Europe.
The idea of justification by faith alone was not new. On the contrary Luther received it across the span of more than a thousand years, from Augustine who in turn received it from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul in turn quoting from the even earlier Hebrew prophet Habbakuk. For Luther, and subsequently for the millions who followed his lead, to return to the stark teaching of Augustine from the laborious apparatus of church works not only made things seem much easier, relieving a great burden (and expense). It could be a great spiritual liberation for those who, for all their church-prescribed works, were having increasing trouble sustaining faith in this system, and as a result despaired for their souls. All at once they could embrace the clear, stark, simple faith of the indelible sinner who can do nothing but throw himself on God’s mercy. This is why the idea was so potent for so many.
Justification by faith was familiar to anyone who could read the Bible and Augustine, though perhaps less so to those who had to rely on their priests to mediate scripture for them. But even for the educated class who had read of this idea, for centuries it had had little purchase on hearts and minds. The church systematically, if implicitly, denigrated the theology of Paul and Augustine. In place of this the church elaborated its vastly ramified theology and organizational infrastructure of justification through works of ritual, penance, and monetary payments. Thus literate people knew the idea of justification by faith, paid lip service to it, but implicitly regarded it as irrelevant.
We can compare it to, for example, the words of America’s Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Every American knows these words and this idea by heart. (We adjust “men” to “all people” which much better captures the meaning.) Yet almost no one believes in it or regards it as relevant to modern life. On the contrary, almost everyone agrees that money transforms natural equality into natural inequality, and that this is right and just. Almost everyone tolerates or actively supports the existence of corporate persons who automatically are considered superior to human persons. These are the tenets of a religion called Mammon, which has supplanted the Declaration’s equality proclamation and so much else of what makes us human.
But what would happen if there was a groundswell of the spiritual, moral, psychological need to reject Mammon, passionately to embrace a new idea of equality and justice and freedom which revolves back to the original founding idea, a new beginning which revolves back to the original beginning, in the course of which we overthrow the whole unbearable burden of corruption and decadence and anxiety and unfulfillment, breaking out of all the bottlenecks which generate our ever more intense claustrophobia and desperation?
Could 2017 see the beginning of a new 1517, a revolution back to the great reformation, this time ramified throughout our vastly greater intellectual, political, cultural, and spiritual vistas? The reason I ask, is because it’s happened before.