There are few historical events that can be described as turning points for Western Civilization. Next Tuesday will mark the 500th anniversary of one of those events. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed what would be called his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg.
A Turning Point
Luther’s Ninety-five Theses marked a turning point in Western Christendom. Luther argued that the Catholic Church had been corrupted, and was being untrue to scripture. Those arguments immediately created deep divisions in the Catholic Church, which resulted in many religiously-motivated European wars.
Luther railed against the selling of indulgences as the way to salvation. It is for his theological contributions that he mostly remembered, and for which Protestants are most grateful. The doctrine of justification by faith, rather than works, has been seen as a return to what Jesus preached. It is also considered by many to be a belief that sets the Christian faith apart from other religions.
The Reformation could also be seen as the starting point for the movement that allowed for the growth of freedom of speech and expression. By challenging Rome, Luther demonstrated that one did not have to simply accept what a higher authority might say.
Protestantism was firmly cemented in the field of Christian theology after the Treaty of Westphalia ended Thirty Years’ War in 1648. From there, the ability to challenge authority expanded. By 1689, the English Bill of Rights guaranteed freedom of speech in Parliament. By 1791, it was enshrined in our Constitution via the First Amendment.
It is for these two reasons that Christianity and Western Civilization changed forever. On the theological side of the question, no longer did Rome have the final say. One can now read the Scriptures in any language they want, and can interpret them for themselves.
Is the current Church perfect? No, of course not! Luther himself was a very flawed individual. But we can now look to Scripture as evidence of that imperfection. Before, Rome was always right, because Rome said they were always right, and the average church member didn’t dare question Rome.
The idea that people should be free to believe whatever the evidence leads them to see, without fear of earthly authorities, has become nearly universal throughout the Western World. Before, you did not question the divinely appointed king. Now, politicians are seen as regular people, as human as the guy who flips burgers at McDonald’s.
A set of beliefs that is resistant to scrutiny is not worth following because its adherents are scared of being wrong or losing power. From challenging Rome to challenging your elected officials, freedom of conscience and thought has come along way since 1517.