Opinion

The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: When Faith Was Privatized

Luther brought about not only the privatization of religious belief, but also the privatization of economic activity. Today we call it capitalism

A painting of Martin Luther posting his Ninety-five Theses against the Catholic Church on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany
A painting by Ferdinand Pauwels of Martin Luther posting his Ninety-five Theses against the Catholic Church on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany Ferdinand Pauwels via Wikimedia

Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther posted his protest manifesto against the Catholic Church on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and ushered in the modern era.

October 31, 1517, was the day on which Luther publicly came out against the scandalous Catholic view on indulgences, which allowed the faithful to use money to purchase forgiveness for their sins.

Luther determined that the faithful didn’t need the Catholic religious establishment to stand before God at all; that it would be enough for an individual to read through the Scriptures to develop a personal conscience and values.

To enable the faithful to know the Lord without the intervention of the establishment, Luther translated the Bible into the German vernacular, and the printing press, which Johannes Gutenberg had invented 50 years earlier, helped him distribute it to the masses who joined the Protestant revolt against the Church.

Luther’s battle against the indulgences is steeped in historical irony: The money the faithful paid in return for forgiveness of their sins was allocated by the pope in Rome to pay the salaries of Michelangelo Buonarroti and his team of engineers so they could finish their work on St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

It’s clear that Luther wasn’t aware of this (in any case, it wouldn’t have changed his position), but without these funds raised by the Church, it’s doubtful that Michelangelo could have taken the time he required to complete his renowned frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Thus, the modern era, centered on the individual, his rights and the meaning of his existence, was launched on both sides of the clash. On one side was the Lutheran protest, which embarked on a struggle for human dignity and the meaning of faith, and on the other, the works of art that symbolized freedom and the human spirit.

The shocks Martin Luther delivered to the structures of social control in his time were apparently the greatest in the history of Western culture, even greater than the founding and dissemination of Christianity. Luther, like many others, was afraid to apply his religious principles to the political world; when the German peasants rebelled against their baron masters, he insisted the rebels submit to their oppressors.

Nevertheless, he was the man who, together with Michelangelo, gave new meaning to the concept of the free individual, effectively setting the course for the development of Western culture for at least the next 500 years.

His actions challenge us to this day, because Luther brought about not only the privatization of religious belief, but also the privatization of economic activity. Today they call it capitalism. As sociologist Max Weber noted in his revolutionary work, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Luther’s assertion that the individual, his faith and personal decisions are at the center of social reality led millions of followers to the realization that they must also take their economic fate into their own hands. Apart from obeying the law and one’s personal conscience, there is no place for intermediary institutions to tell people what is good for them and how they should behave.

This radical position, which shaped the modern theory of personal rights, today poses a philosophical and historic challenge to the currents that champion the common good as the most important social principle. In the ongoing dispute between these two opposing viewpoints, it’s important to remember that both of them derive from the struggle for freedom and the human spirit.