Yesterday was Reformation Day, but I can understand if you didn’t celebrate. Most people have no idea what I’m talking about when I mention it, though they should. On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk approached the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints Church and nailed his 95 Theses to it. He wasn’t the first person to nail something to church doors–the practice was fairly common at the time. But this monk’s tract stood out and with remarkable speed, was printed all across western Europe. Yes, Martin Luther’s first blog post went viral.
Luther’s ideas weren’t entirely new, but his act was indispensable to the Reformation that followed. One of my friends posted on their Facebook wall yesterday, “If you can read the Bible in your own language” then you should be celebrating Reformation Day. Others living at the time had tried to promote the idea of translating the Bible into the language of the people–and were often killed for it–but Luther did it. Without the killing, of course. Others had wanted reformation, but Luther was the spark that ignited Europe and made Reformation (with a capital ‘R’) a reality.
The debate over having the Bible in a language that common people could read was more complex than we give it credit for. Some Catholic priests were genuinely concerned about the possibility of heresy. “If anyone can read the Bible, then think of all the horrible things they can use it for, or all the wrong ways they can interpret it!” That was the argument, and they weren’t wrong. The Bible is used all the time by people who seem to have never actually read it. Yes, it would be much safer if only priests could read the Bible. What was ironic about their argument was that many of the Catholic clergy couldn’t read Latin either. They knew enough to get through a Mass, but that was pretty much it. That wasn’t true for all of them, but enough to have made it more than a little ridiculous. Talk about the blind leading the blind.
We don’t really appreciate the role the Reformation plays in our lives, but since this is the eve of Election 2o10, let me put it like this: the Reformation made America possible. No, really. See, the Reformation, among other things, emphasized the importance of the individual and his ability to interpret Scripture and communicate with God. The natural resistance to an entrenched and oppressive authority (Rome in their case) is still a dominant feature of America’s culture. And the emphasis on the freedom of religion has roots in the Reformation, which traveled to England. There, through the questionable influence of Henry VIII, the Reformation assumed an English nature, which would have massive consequences for colonists in the New World. In his extensive and extraordinary A Religious History of the American People, Sydney Ahlstrom actually begins his book with an extensive study of the Reformation. American religious life is impossible to understand without the Reformation.
So if your Bible is in English, if you are free to interpret it by relying solely on the guidance of God, and if you live in a country founded on principles of liberty, personal integrity, and devotion to God, perhaps October 31 should take on a new meaning for you.