When an obscure German monk hammered his indictments to the door of All Saints’ Church at Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517, he did not intend to impugn the authority of the Catholic Church, or malign its leaders, or rupture the spiritual unity of medieval Europe. Martin Luther wanted reform, not a Reformation.
But that’s what he got. On Reformation Sunday, nearly 500 years after Luther published his 95 Theses, Protestants will celebrate his revolution to recapture the meaning of the gospel and the authority of the Bible against that of popes or princes. As Luther told his accusers at the 1521 council known as the Diet of Worms: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason””I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other””my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”
Luther is either credited or blamed for shattering Catholic hegemony and plunging Europe into religious wars. But the Reformation is more complex than that, and speaks to today’s religious violence and political instability.