Martin Luther shot to fame five hundred years ago with his protest against indulgences in October 1517. At the core of his message was the straightforward idea that the answer to every religious question was to be found in the Bible, the Word of God, taken in its plain and simple sense.
As we now know, it didn’t quite work out. The Word of God just wasn’t as plain and simple as Luther thought. Rival prophets, from erudite theologians down to everyday cranks, read the same Word of God with different and sometimes swivelling eyes, and came to very different conclusions. Ulrich Zwingli, the godfather of the Reformation in Zurich, preached his distinctive brand of Christianity from the pulpit of the city’s Grössmunster church in the 1520s. Harry Daunce, a Whitechapel bricklayer, preached his from a tub in his garden, just outside Aldgate, in the summer of 1538. He was arrested, of course, and made his public apology towards Christmas – only one Harry was allowed to have his own religious opinions in England in the 1530s, and that was Henry VIII.
So does Luther matter today? In one sense, maybe not. Many of the churches inspired by Luther and his rivals have long since given up on ‘the Bible alone’. Luther could not stomach Purgatory because it had little if any scriptural foundation. Today’s Protestants are more likely to choke on Hell, which has plenty.
Yet Luther does still matter. No Luther, no Reformation. No Reformation, no modern individualism. If Protestantism or the modern secular world ‘did’ saints, we might call him the patron saint of ‘the individual’. For all his insistence on the Bible alone, he had the liveliest sense of his own starring role in the drama of his times. He knew that he was the one whom God had raised up for the task of rekindling his Word. His central doctrine, ‘justification by faith alone’, was meant to give each individual believer absolute certainty of enjoying the grace and favour of God. It gave Luther the courage to stand up for himself in the face of the Emperor Charles V at the ‘Diet of Worms’ (the Reichstag) in 1521, when for all he knew his dauntless stand would mean death at the stake. The underlying individualism of what would later be termed ‘the personal relationship with God’ passed into the DNA of liberal Protestantism and from there into most facets of Western culture.
That individualism proved more durable than the theological systems in which it took shape. The modern claim to ‘freedom of conscience’, detached from any external authority that might guide or regulate that occult organ, was encoded within Luther’s decisive move. But the Bible on which he took his stand proved to be a puppet judge that could ventriloquise the ideas or impulses of anyone with an iota of imagination. Individual autonomy was decently veiled as long as the sacred power of the Bible, or the profane power of the State, held sway over people’s minds and bodies. But when the little boats began to founder in the ebbing tide of faith, the isolated individual was left standing proud on Dover Beach. Luther’s ‘Here I stand’ had morphed into Sinatra’s ‘My Way’.
Richard Rex is the Professor of Reformation History at the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge. 'The Making of Martin Luther' is published by Princeton University Press.