The Reformation’s saving graces
Exactly five hundred years ago (Oct. 31, 1517), German Catholic priest Martin Luther nailed his historic ninety-five criticisms of Catholicism to a local church door. But success of the earth-shaking Reformation that his protest spawned was hardly foreordained.
Luther was simply railing about the scriptural errors and practical excesses of the Catholic Church in his day. Indeed, it was a criticism many others before him, including even St. Francis of Assisi, had long denounced within the enormously wealthy, perfumed, debauched ecclesiastic aristocracy.
But two things gave special impetus to the firebrand priest’s public protest: the then recent invention of the printing press, and a total lack of cars and smart phones (neither had yet been invented, of course). In that time, in fact, people mostly were unable to move faster than horse-drawn wagons or to quickly talk with anyone anywhere much less over vast distances.
So the first of the one-two punch of the Reformation was the printing press, which, for the first time in history, allowed a new idea to be disseminated throughout Europe with what at the time must have seemed breathtaking speed. Previously, copies of anything had to be hand-written, a tedious, time-consuming ordeal. The manual aspect naturally vastly limited how quickly and broadly any new idea—any idea, really—could be effectively spread over the landscape. The second punch of Luther’s historic combination was the fact that whereas printed copies of his pope-defying message were rapidly scattered far and wide, the Church’s old-school administrative and judicial system was perfectionist, laborious and, much to Luther’s benefit, agonizingly slow.
It took several years for the troublesome monk to finally be hauled before the Catholic Inquisition and roughly interrogated for his disloyalty and, the Church insisted, his mortal heresies. But by that time, Luther’s message of Christian purity and modesty had spread widely, and he meanwhile had acquired many, many converts and supporters, including German secular rulers. Since the pope needed funds and support from these leaders, he hesitated to alienate them by sending his papal attack dogs after Luther. Ultimately, Luther survived, as did his Reformation, and a schism in Christianity permanently cleaved the faith.
Unfortunately, this disruption did not dilute Christianity’s power and range, or effectively disprove its fundamental supernatural assumptions. Quite the contrary. It simply reaffirmed the essential faith, allowed new versions of Christianity to emerge and thrive, and greatly added to the already teeming throngs of faithful.
Today, billions of Catholic and Protestant Christians populate the planet. If the printing press had not been invented in Luther’s time, and transportation and communication more advanced, who knows what might have happened?