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Reformation, Luther’s legacy of freedom

By Bayo Ogunmupe
31 August 2016   |   3:59 am
The Reformation, Luther’s legacy, 500 years on, is the most far- reaching event in Western civilisation. Its impact will be the subject of discussion during the Reformation’s 500th anniversary in 2017.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Reformation, Luther’s legacy, 500 years on, is the most far- reaching event in Western civilisation. Its impact will be the subject of discussion during the Reformation’s 500th anniversary in 2017. Five hundred years ago in Europe, there were changes which had profound influence on world history. The divide came about within Christianity between the Protestants and the Catholic Church. Individual freedom, freedom of conscience, the German language and the present day understanding of work ethics developed.

What happened at that time is now known as Reformation. It began as a theological dispute initiated by a young monk Martin Luther (1483-1546) who taught at the University of Wittenberg, Germany that had only recently been founded. On October 31, 1517 he sent out 95 Theses on theological questions that he wanted debated in public as was usual at that time. Later, Luther also nailed the Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg.

However, his ideas provoked a dispute that led to the division of the Church, which after Luther’s death led to the European Wars of Religion between Protestant and Catholic princes as well as the redrawing of the map of Europe.

Luther developed his own theology, later called Protestantism, which turned against the Papacy, shifting the focus of attention onto individual faith. Thereafter, Luther left the Order of Saint Augustine, married, translated the Bible into German, wrote many books which the people devoured avidly – as a result he founded the Protestant churches. Today roughly 37 per cent of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians belong to Protestant denominations. In Germany, 29 per cent of the people are Protestants, 30 per cent Catholics while 34 per cent do not belong to any religious community.

The 95 Theses of Luther written in Latin became etched into our cultural memory as an affirmation of the right to freedom of religion. In 2017, 500 years after that event, the anniversary of the Reformation is being celebrated worldwide including Nigeria. In Germany, there will be church and government organised events, exhibitions and conferences. The October 31 , 2017 will be a nationwide holiday, consequently the Reformation anniversary will be the largest jubilee ever.

Thus, the Federal Government and several states established a Luther 2017 Project Office. Government is focusing on the achievements of Reformation in fields of art, culture, human rights, politics and to inform people on the legacy of Reformation. Undoubtedly, the Reformation is one of the most far-reaching events in German, European and world history. It has profoundly influenced the history, politics and self image of Europe and Western civilisation. It had impact on education, created the foundation for social and political participation and citizenship.

Without Reformation, the world would be different in many ways. Thies Gundlach, Vice President of the Church Office at the Evangelical Church of Germany and the person responsible for the Reformation celebrations believes that today we are again living in ‘’in our own form of pre-reformation era’’, when fundamental principles are being questioned. He considers Luther’s path from Augustinian monk to the discoverer of the freedom of religion without recourse to institutional requirements, to be an existential archetype of all liberation paths.

Yet, historians and theologians agree that neither the Reformation nor Luther’s theology was merely a story of liberation. Thus, it is better not to invite historians to the jubilee, because they can be depended upon to focus on the points in history that are hard to celebrate – from Luther’s anti-Semitic writings to the European Wars of Religion. Naturally, these subjects will be discussed during the anniversary – incidentally on the initiative of the Church itself. In the history of ideas, Luther had many harbingers who anticipated this thought. However, he was able to assert himself by applying courage and skill, by attracting attention throughout Europe which he received thanks to the media revolution of printing and by seizing the political moment.

Then, Luther’s ideas of the right to freedom of speech and religion, freedom to hold opinion and impart ideas without interference, spread swiftly. Nevertheless, the history of the Reformation was intrinsically contradictory. And like all historical processes open: The Reformation did not end the Middle Ages, it emerged out of them. The Middle Ages were not dark, many of the ideas we consider modern today had already been formulated then. To that extent, the Reformation represents the culmination of medieval ideas, not their overthrow. It is also not a history of Luther; though Luther is its central figure, he is not the only influential figure in the early days of the Reformation.

Nevertheless, Luther had and still has a strong historical influence. This is especially demonstrated by his understanding of freedom. In his treatise “On the Freedom of a Christian”, which was published in 1520, he establishes the idea that a Christian is, on the one hand, a free lord over all things and subject to no one, and, on the other, a ministering servant to all things and subject to everyone. That looks like an echoing of Muhammadu Buhari’s “ I belong to everybody but I belong to no one”. In any case, by that thesis, Luther made the distinction between the inner and the buter human being. This forms the basis for the Protestant theology that shifts faith into the centre of what it means to be a Christian.

Neither works nor laws, nor even the Church, in other words no buter factors are crucial for inner salvation; only faith and God’s mercy can decide.

Luther’s concept of freedom is above all a theological imperative. But he was never only understood that way. Thus, varying opinions emerged during the German Peasants’ War(1523-1526) that the understanding  of freedom should be applied politically. Though Luther opposed this, but the idea of freedom as a rejection of servitude had a great impact on German politics and society of his time. Therefore, Luther’s 95 theses were claimed by different sides and also misused as justification for national, social and political freedom.

Luther did not discover modern freedom, his ideas preceded it. Luther only strengthened a dialectic that reveals liberty to be an ambivalent process.

There are many good reasons to remember the Reformation on the 500th anniversary of the hailing of the Theses. This also represents an important cultural and intellectual transformation. The most important point is that Reformation has not yet come to an end. We should attach importance to the renewed Church that embraces everyone, across the divides of the religions, ethnicity, continents and self interest. This post-colonial interpretation of the Church aims to respond to the here and now. That definitely comes close to Luther’s theological conception of Christianity. To Luther, Christianity meant above all one thing- lived faith. It is this life-long awareness created by Luther which engendered the uproar that greeted the killing of Evangelist Eunice Elisha in Kubwa, Abuja last July by religious extremists.