500 Years Later
Celebrating the Reformation
By Paul Robinson
October 31, 2017, marks 500 years since Martin Luther wrote his famous 95 Theses, 95 points proposed for a debate about the church practice of selling indulgences. Luther’s opponents called him a heretic for this activity and eventually convinced the pope to excommunicate him. Along the way, he inspired movements throughout Europe that caused enormous changes in church and society. Whatever we might think about Martin Luther, there is no denying that we live with the impact of that moment in history 500 years ago.
“Scripture alone” served as one of the watchwords of the Reformation movements. The Protestant reformers were convinced that all Christians should live according to the message of Scripture and, as a result, should be engaged directly by God’s Word. Bible translations came out of this conviction. Although some translations had been made prior to the 16th century, the demand for them was not great, since the church of that time did not encourage the common people to hear the Bible read directly to them in their own language.
When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he was making the theological point that this is the book that teaches people what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Christ, the Savior. He believed that all people should hear this book read in church and in their homes and, if they were able, read it for themselves. Translations of the Bible into all the languages of Europe followed. William Tyndale, for example, was directly inspired by Luther’s German New Testament to translate the Bible into English. His version predates the King James Bible and was the first English translation to be based on the original languages of Scripture - Hebrew and Greek. This availability of the Bible in every language for use in study and devotion has profoundly shaped not only Protestantism but the entire western Christian tradition.
Translating the Bible affected not only the church but society as a whole. It was one thing to translate the Bible into the spoken languages of Europe, but quite another thing for people to be able to read it. Very few people could read at the beginning of the 16th century, but Luther and other reformers set out to change that, primarily so that people could read the Bible.
Bibles and other books became more widely available than they had ever been, thanks to the invention of the printing press. In order to take advantage of this sort of mass communication, schools were established to teach even the common people how to read the language they spoke (previously, medieval schools had been teaching in Latin, which was, and would continue to be for some time, the language of higher education). Luther encouraged the towns and cities to establish public schools so that boys and girls (teaching girls was a radical idea at the time) could be taught to read. This big and very influential idea of universal literacy and access to education has its roots in the Reformation.
Think about this: When is the last time you read a Bible? When did you first read the Bible? How many Bibles do you own? The answers we give to those questions are a direct result of what happened during the Reformation. Happy 500th anniversary!
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