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500th anniversary of the Reformation: 5 facts about Martin Luther

The Reformation did not only have religious consequences. It changed German society. What you should know about the Reformation and its impact.

Renewal of faith, emancipation of knowledge

The Latin word “reformatio” means to return something to its form, to restore while at the same time possibly renewing. Restoration of the origins and renewing the present is what theologian Martin Luther set out to achieve when, or so tradition has it, on 31 October 1517 he nailed a sheet of paper to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg in east Germany. On the paper he had penned 95 critical theses, attacking the practices of the Catholic Church allowing the faithful to pay of their sins by way of monetary contributions. Luther felt human liberation could not be that simple. With his criticism, Luther, who taught Bible interpretation at Wittenberg University, sought far more than just to end the “trade in absolution”. He founded that movement of religious renewal that in the 16th century spawned the foundation of various Christian creeds: “the” Reformation.

(c) Bettina Mittelstraß/Societäts-Medien, LETTER, issue 01/2017

Fact 1: How the Reformation advanced education.

Protestantism is a book religion. While Catholicism long continued to work through the senses – for example, the eyes – Luther’s theology centred on the word of God. The Bible, in his opinion, should be distributed among and read by the whole people. That is why Luther advocated literacy – for example, in his treatise “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools”. Luther also believed that girls should go to school. In fact, the cities and countries of the Holy Roman Empire that became Protestant pioneered educational reforms. For example, Philipp of Hesse, one of the first Protestant rulers, founded the University of Marburg and began establishing schools throughout his territory. The German Enlightenment of the 18th century was above all a movement of Protestants. Well into the 19th century, and partially even into the 20th century, the Protestant regions of Germany were ahead when it came to education.

Fact 2: How Luther changed the German language.

Luther is regarded as the creator of modern German. This idea is primarily based on his translation of the Bible, but he also wrote hundreds of other texts. Luther’s modernisation of the German language occurred on two levels. First, he created a common form of High German for what had previously been some 20 different German dialects with hardly any shared links. An important linguistic frontier divided Germany into two halves, Upper and Lower German. Luther combined elements of both vernaculars – he found this easy because he had grown up on this frontier. Second, he invented countless German words: Lückenbüßer (stopgap), Feuereifer (zeal), Lästermaul (scandalmonger), Sündenbock (scapegoat), Geizhals (skinflint), Trübsal (misery) and phrases like “Milch und Honig” (milk and honey) or “durch Mark und Bein” (to the core). Luther’s modernisation of the language was characterised by his common touch. He listened to how people spoke and liked to use simple language. For example, his translation of Mathew 12:34 (“Wes das Herz voll ist, des geht der Mund über”) is easier to understand than the version that appeared in an earlier Bible (“Aus dem Überfluss des Herzens reden”).

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Fact 3: How Luther influenced the concept of freedom.

For Luther, a Christian is a responsible human being who has emancipated himself from the authority of the Church. His moral conscience in dialogue with God forms the basis for his thoughts and actions. In his treatise “On the Freedom of a Christian”, Luther rejects the idea that human beings must gain the goodwill of a strict and punishing God through their deeds. Instead the grace of God shines down on human beings like a sun. Luther thus gave his contemporaries a double emancipation: from the church hierarchy and from an outmoded image of God. This emancipation is still very far removed from the present political freedom that we regard as the basis of democracy, especially as the freedom of the Christian remains ambiguous in Luther’s writings: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Nonetheless, it is possible to draw a line from Luther’s struggle against the authorities to modern freedom.

Fact 4: How the Reformation enriched the arts.

Compared to sensuous Catholicism, Protestantism seems sparse and frugal. With regard to the fine arts, however, Luther took an intermediary position: whereas Calvinists, as radical Protestants, rejected images and Catholics revered them as sacred, Luther appreciated images as works of art and defended them against the iconoclasts. Furthermore, he was a friend of both Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Younger, who lent the new faith visual strength (including 130 portraits of Luther alone). The Lutheran Church was ahead of Catholicism in one artistic domain: in music. In the Catholic Church, the congregation did not sing, but the monks’ choir – and they did so in Latin. Luther personally supported German-language hymns sung by everyone. He composed and wrote songs himself, the most famous of which is probably “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott). Later, too, Protestants created many well-known choral works, such as “Nun danket alle Gott”, “Lobe den Herren”.

Video: Luther – 500 years after the Reformation

Fact 5: Why we als o need a critical view of Luther.

Luther was not a saint; he had his dark sides. Like most of his contemporaries he believed in witches and thought that death was a just punishment for them. If children were born with a disability, Luther believed this was the work of the devil and accordingly such children did not have a soul. An especially nasty chapter is Luther’s fanatical anti-Semitism, which increased as he grew older. He called for the destruction of synagogues and the expulsion of Jews. His vitriolic attacks on rebellious peasants also reveal Luther’s cruel side. There has been a considerable debate on the indirect consequences of Luther’s teaching. Since the prince was simultaneously the supreme head of the Church in Lutheran territories, historians have proposed the thesis that this gave rise to a specifically German mentality of subservience. In the meantime, however, historians have stopped drawing a “German special path” from Luther to Frederick the Great and Bismarck to Hitler.

(c) Rolf Zerback/Societäts-Medien, LETTER, issue 01/2017

The DAAD alumni magazine LETTER tells interesting stories from science, culture, Germany and the DAAD alumni network.

May 2017

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