Luther’s 95 Theses, 500 Years Later: A Mixed Legacy

it would do well to learn from Luther’s inability to control the revolution he somewhat unwittingly inspired.

.. The Lutherist reformers spurred the bloody peasant revolts; Burkean liberals yielded to radical revolutionaries; Girondins yielded to the Jacobins until in turn the Jacobins ate their own; the Mensheviks yielded to Bolsheviks and catalyzed the deaths of nearly 100 million people. And here on the American right, the Bannonites see our current “establishment” and vow to “burn it down,” without having any real idea how or what to build on the embers.

.. Luther originally posted his theses while expecting his mission to be within a long and honorable tradition of reform within the existing (Catholic) church.

.. Before Luther died, the church’s own Council of Trent had begun its deliberations, which in effect led to acknowledgment that Luther had been right about the abuse of indulgences and other clerical corruptions.

And 500 years later, what became his signature theological doctrine, “justification by faith,” was largely (if with slightly different emphases) affirmed by the Catholic Church itself.

.. (Luther, for example, believed that while the Eucharistic bread and wine did not physically change into the body and blood of Christ, it still contained, spiritually and fully, Christ’s “real presence.” Karlstadt went farther, saying that the Eucharist was merely symbolic.)

.. When well over 100,000 peasants died in a fruitless quest for greater rights, Luther was aghast at what he had wrought (while strongly denying that he was the instigator).

.. For the last 30 years of his life, the disputatious Luther was in constant battles, largely unsuccessful, to control the forces both theological and cultural that he had unleashed. He argued not just against the pope’s hard-liners but against earnest reformers such as Erasmus who wanted to hold the church together; he argued on the other side against Protestant radicals such as (in addition to Karlstadt) Zwingli, Calvin, Muntzer, and the Anabaptists ..

.. He brought to the masses a belief that individuals of any class were commissioned to think about and understand the deepest questions for themselves, with the “freedom of a Christian” leading inevitably to a popular taste for, and later an insistence on, political freedom as well. (The political theories associated with the Enlightenment clearly owed much to seeds sown by Luther.)