Martin Luther and the advent of the self

The anniversary observed by many Protestants as Reformation Day (October 31st) has a special significance this year, since it will be 500 years since Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation in Germany by sending his famous 95 theses to the Archbishop of Mainz.

Luther may also have posted his manifesto, following academic tradition, on the door of All Saints Church near the University of Wittenberg where he taught (that he “nailed” it seems to be a myth), but in any case he did publish his ideas on the subject of indulgences in a stand against Catholic teaching on salvation, and started the second great schism in Christendom.

Five centuries later, what is the legacy of Martin Luther – to Christianity? To the world?

Luther opened up the Bible to the ordinary Christian, reminded them of the gratuitous, forgiving love of God and championed the individual conscience.

These developments would have happened anyway, and are affirmed in a general way by all denominations, but differences over the details are so critical that churches continue to divide and multiply, giving a negative witness to the Gospel in which Christ prays that “they all might be one”.

The rapprochement of the last half century leaves seemingly unbridgeable gaps between Protestantism and Catholicism.

As for society in general – Western society anyway – it is marked by trends that would surely shock Luther himself. Certainly he was very sex positive, but what would he think of no-fault divorce, cohabitation and pre-marital sex, contraception, abortion, euthanasia, the normalisation of homosexuality, same-sex marriage and transgenderism? And of churches which accept all or most of these things?

Would Luther recognise his doctrine of the individual conscience in a contemporary individualism (acting collectively where necessary) that constantly claims new rights on the basis of “what I feel is right for me” – and wants to force other consciences to affirm its claims, no matter how irrational?

Well, perhaps he would, or should.

Nearly a century ago the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain identified Luther as the man who “discovered the self”, thus preparing the way for modern individualism and the trends it has spawned. Continue reading


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