Sunday, 8 October 2017

Why Should Humanists Care About The Reformation

16th August: Derek McComiskey asked "Why Should Humanists Care About The Reformation?"  It is 500 years since one of the pivotal events of the Protestant Reformation - when Martin Luther produced his "95 Theses" in 1517. 

Firstly - the Catholic Church had held sway over the rulers and people of Europe for over a thousand year providing a single orthodoxy, a way of answering all the substantial questions that people might ask.  Once Protestantism was established it soon multiplied into many variants.  This plurality of thought immediately promotes sceptical questioning - surely they can't all be right?  Maybe one is right and all the others wrong, or maybe they are all a bit right and a bit wrong?  Perhaps ... none of them are right?!

Secondly - it is just interesting.  It resulted in a shift in thinking as profound as the Renaissance or the Enlightenment but was a much more well-defined event occurring in a far more limited time.  Luther stood up to the two most powerful institutions in Europe (Catholic Church and Holy Roman Empire) in jeopardy of his life and survived.  His is a very exciting story.

Thirdly - it was a profoundly anti-corruption movement.  Through much of the previous millennium the Catholic Church had been more or less corrupt.  It had been more concerned with empire building and suppressing dissent than the care of the people it supposedly served.  There was warmongering, factionalism and sexual hypocrisy at the highest level.  There had been many would-be reformers who ended up in flames or whose followers were terribly persecuted - Arnold of Brescia, Peter Waldo and Jan Hus amongst others.  The spark that really kindled Luther's anger was the sale of "indulgences" in his local area.  His parishioners were persuaded to part with their money to buy remission from sins for themselves or their relatives in purgatory.  Half the money was going to pay for the rebuilding (in grand Renaissance style) of St Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Fourth - the theological message of the reformers was more individual and democratic than the Catholic alternative.  In Catholicism priests are special and can really effect change in a person's "state of grace" by performing the rites correctly.  Luther argued strongly that this was wrong.  There was a "priesthood of all believers" - we each stand before God and are saved "by faith alone"; ordained priests are no different to anyone else.

Fifth - The reformer's Bibles in the vernacular languages, along with mass printing, was a real spur to literacy.  Catholic teaching was that only the Pope could interpret the Bible correctly so ordinary people were not encouraged to read it lest they develop wrong ideas.  Luther (and later Calvin) wanted everyone to read for themselves. However, he wasn't very happy when they came up with different ideas to him!  The newly invented printing press was invaluable to the reformation.

During the Q&A we touched on The Protestant Work Ethic, the possibility of an Islamic Reformation, what is the difference between Church of England and Anglican, why the Church of Scotland isn't Anglican and Luther's response to the Farmer's Revolt amongst other things.

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