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The Reformation at 500

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Two new books explore Martin Luther’s complex legacy.

Russell Moore

June 20, 2017

 

The Vatican is an imposing enough place to speak, especially for a Southern Baptist, so I guess I can plead that my mind was distracted with nervousness. I waited in line with several friends and colleagues of various communions and denominations to enter the center of the Church of Rome to attend a gathering, called by Pope Francis, of religious leaders from around the world to talk about marriage and family. Going through security, I fished in my coat pocket for my passport. The problem was that I had worn the same suit the week before, lecturing on the Protestant Reformation at an Evangelical seminary. Without thinking, I pulled out what I took to be my passport, only to find that I was handing the Swiss Guard a pocket-size copy of Martin Luther’s 95 theses.

As I made a fumbling attempt to put the little booklet away and find the right documentation, I wondered which of my grandparents would be more ashamed of me: my Roman Catholic grandmother, for my ushering the tumult of the 16th century right there to the pope’s door; my Baptist-preacher grandfather, for entering the Vatican at all; or all of my grandparents together — Evangelicals and Catholics alike — for my violation of southern manners. My awkwardness was all my own, though. The Swiss Guards didn’t recognize the 95 theses, and my American Catholic colleagues roared with laughter. At least I didn’t nail anything to a door.

My Vatican bumbling came to mind earlier this year as I reread Georges Bernanos’s classic novel The Diary of a Country Priest (1937). Recall the horror of the book’s Catholic protagonist as the guest scholar’s lecture on “the origins and causes of the Reformation” is greeted with yawns from his parishioners. The priest concludes that this lack of passion is, rather than proof of apathy, evidence of his congregation’s remarkable, and appalling, sense of security. “Not one of those men would ever suppose that the Church could be in danger, no matter for what reason,” the clergyman confides. Speaking of danger, the fact that a (very) Protestant Evangelical would be welcomed at the Vatican — rather than, say, assigned to an Inquisitor — is, I suppose, a small symptom of the Reformation’s success. But the fact that the company at Saint Peter’s can discuss with smiles the document that once tore Europe apart might just be a sign that the Reformation no longer poses the threat it did in Wittenberg.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, launched in 1517 by a larger, more intimidating copy of Luther’s theses of indictment of medieval Catholic structure and practice. To celebrate the occasion, groups of American Protestants are making — for lack of a more Protestant word — pilgrimages through Europe, from Wittenberg to Calvin’s Geneva to Cranmer’s London. As they do so, the rest of the population, Protestant and Catholic, religious and secularist, is finding a Gutenberg-level print explosion of books on the Reformation, Reformation figures, and the ongoing influence of the Reformation on everything from analytic philosophy to the Iowa caucuses.

 

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