We think of Halloween as jack-o-lanterns and children going door-to-door shouting “Trick or Treat!” And, of course, it is. But Oct. 31 was also the day 496 years ago when Martin Luther started the modern Western world.
It was on this day in 1517 that the young priest in Wittenberg, Germany, “protested” one of the practices of the Catholic Church: Indulgences. He nailed to the door of the local cathedral “Ninety-Five Theses,” which laid out the reasons for his protest.
That act sparked a series of “reforms” that revolutionized not only religion in today’s world, but many other institutions of the age. That protest and those reforms we know today as the Protestant Reformation.
The year 1517 was smack in the middle of the “High Renaissance.” It was in 1504 that Michelangelo finished “David,” arguably the most famous statue in the history of the world. In 1505, Leonardo da Vinci painted “Mona Lisa,” the painting equivalent of “David.” Machiavelli wrote “The Prince” in 1515, perhaps the most famous political tract ever written. In 1516, Thomas More published “Utopia.”
In other words, it was a period of prodigious, once-in-the-history-of-the-world creativity. But that very creativity, Luther argued, had infected the Church’s teachings, tainting them with the secular and pagan influences of ancient Greece and Rome. It was Greece and Rome that were being “rebirthed” in the Renaissance, but they predated Christianity by almost 500 years.
The dilemma for the church was that it could ignore the rediscovered roots of Europe’s past, but that would mean being left behind in the greatest cultural revolution of the last thousand years. Or, it could embrace that “rebirth,” but at the cost of its own doctrinal purity, for Greece was the working definition of paganism and any embrace of it debauched the true faith.
The church embraced the Renaissance, which is where Luther came in. Pope Leo X was selling “indulgences” in Germany to help pay for the reconstruction of St. Peter’s in Rome. The deal was that a person could buy an indulgence and be pardoned of his sins at Judgment Day. It was a fantastic, cost-free money making operation for the church, but to Luther it was the most outrageous of frauds.
In Luther’s mind, indulgences created precisely the wrong attitude among sinners. Instead of repentance for one’s sins, they prompted negotiation. Rather than the contrition that might lead to a change of ways, indulgences fostered bargaining — how big of a sin could be remitted, and for how much? In Thesis 66, Luther mocked indulgences as “the nets with which the Church fishes for the riches of men.” The issue exploded.
The pope demanded Luther recant his protest but Luther refused. Instead, he escalated. He called the pope the Anti-Christ and claimed that five of the seven sacred sacraments were “magic,” an inflammatory reference to medieval paganism. Luther was excommunicated. But his protest took root and spread quickly throughout northern Europe.
Luther claimed it was only one’s faith that mattered in salvation. God was not seduced by baubles. There was nothing to be gained by giving money to the church. So people got to keep their own money, a powerful allure in any age. They reinvested that money into their businesses. It became the “capital” that formed the lubrication of an entirely new economic order, the one that overturned feudalism.
Luther’s other contributions to the modern world were equally profound. By emphasizing a person’s faith as the central factor in salvation he elevated individualism as a social ideal. In nailing his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the church he exemplified freedom of speech. When he published the Bible in German he signified freedom of the press.
He inveighed against church hierarchy, advocating instead a “priesthood of all believers.” In doing so, he democratized the central cultural practice of his time — an essential precursor to the reinvention of democracy in political affairs. And he stood as the iconic example of someone who challenged established authority, an example that would be taken up by the Protestant colonists in the New World who would rebel against their ruler in 1776.
Luther was a purist, a reactionary looking backward for a simpler world. His protest shattered the religious unity that had held Europe together as a single cultural entity for a thousand years. It would take three more centuries to come to full fruition, but out of that protest and the culture that fell in its wake, the modern world was born. Happy Halloween!