What does the Reformation mean today?

By Ralf Peter Reimann on May 13, 2017

Monument of Martin Luther on the Town Square of Eisleben, Germany, the town of his birth and death Monument created 1883
Photo by Rudolf Siemering (1835 - 1905)

The 400th anniversary of the Reformation 100 years ago coincided with World War I when German troops wore belt buckles with the inscription “God with us” and fought against other nations who considered themselves Christians too. The celebrations had a belligerent and nationalistic undertone. What is the focus of this year’s 500th anniversary? A Reformation Jubilee or a Commemoration of the Reformation? A heroic event of faith and the rise of Protestantism or the decline of Catholicism and the beginning of a visible division of Western Christianity?

The Reformation is a turning point in European history but it is also a global event. Of course, there were predecessors to Martin Luther, and his ideas were taken up by various movements and opposed by others in the course of history. The Reformation and Counter Reformation proved that society and states were no longer homogeneous, even if the principle of cuius regio eius religio (meaning that the religion of the ruler dictated the religion of those ruled) tried maintain a religiously homogeneous state.

The Reformation as a movement was made possible by a media revolution, the invention of the printing press. Luther’s ideas spread throughout Europe as pamphlets. Latin, being the lingua franca among the educated elites, allowed the exchange of ideas regardless of the existing national languages. Provincial Wittenberg became an international communication hub: students attending Wittenberg University from various nations brought the ideas of the Reformation back to their home countries. The printing press helped to circulate the ideas originating from Wittenberg to the rest of Europe.

The Reformation also polarized and divided society: the unity of societies in Western Europe was shaken. Politics and alliances were now determined by two factions within the Holy Roman Empire in opposition to each other, the Protestants and the Catholics. There is no longer a universal truth but the individual’s conscience proclaiming what he (500 years ago we cannot use the pronoun she) believes to be true, or as Luther confessed at the Diet of Worms, “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”

Ultimately, in the course of events now described as Reformation, the church hierarchy was abolished in the protestant territories, and the priesthood of all believers established, at least theologically.

500th anniversary of the Reformation

Half a millennium later, we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. What does the Reformation mean today? What bearing does the Reformation have on democracy and society, on media ethics and technology, on globalization and development?

Today, we live in an interconnected and interdependent globalized world, a result of a process which started five centuries ago when America was discovered and Spanish and Portuguese ships circumnavigated the world. Again, we are in the middle of a media revolution; it is no longer the printing press but high speed Internet which disseminates information worldwide in a fraction of a second. Decades ago, in the era of mass media, television, radio, and newspapers served as a filter of information and as a multiplier. Today an individual can be a producer and a consumer of information: the so-called prosumer is the symbol of a non-hierarchical discourse.

The concept of the priesthood of all believers democratized the church; social media and the prosumer have the power to democratize the information society – unless new intermediaries restrict free access to information. If we interpret the Reformation as the struggle of the individual opposing an all-powerful institution, – the monk against the papal church – then the individual’s access to information and his and her right and ability to spread information freely must be strengthened against all-powerful Internet companies – Google, Facebook and others – which act as intermediaries, controlling the flow of information by secret algorithms.

An ex-monk in a small provincial town became a world-renown figure through printed pamphlets. Today revolutions can be started through individual social media reporting, and teenagers can become world-famous YouTube stars. The Internet multiplies the possibilities of the printing press, no place connected to the Internet is too remote not to have a worldwide effect. The Internet is a medium to change society. Whether politics or entertainment, unhindered Internet access is a prerequisite for freedom within a digital society. Net neutrality preserves this freedom as it guarantees to everybody the same treatment in transporting data. 

Individual freedom is also challenged by big data. Digitalization of modern life produces data in an up to now unknown quantity. If such data are stored and analysed, human behaviour in general becomes predictable and pressure is placed on people to conform to the patterns deduced from big data analysis and freedom for non-conforming individual decisions is reduced. The Reformation is a reminder of how important individual freedom is and that action is required if freedom becomes restricted.

500 years after the Reformation, churches still have their hierarchies, their synods, and their church orders. However, social media usage is increasingly changing the church from within. Bishops interact with regular churchgoers on social media; people are by-passing church structures and ask or complain directly if they need information or want to address a problem. Hyperlinks have subverted hierarchies, even within the church. The emergent Protestant church aligned itself with the temporal rulers of the various Protestant territories in the 16th century. This institutional dependence on the state has proven less and less adequate for the third millennium, and non-hierarchical communication through social media and the Internet might help the church regain its original network structure.

Reason becomes outdated

The Imperial Diet of Augsburg recognized the Protestant Estates in 1530 in a pragmatic admission that there was no longer one universally accepted religious (Christian) truth. Individual conscience was placed above the magisterium, in Luther’s words: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves).” Scripture has ceased to be an authority in a secular and multi-cultural society, but is seems that appealing to reason has recently become out-dated as well. Assessing facts and applying reason is no longer common ground for public discourse.

If facts have become an impediment to advancing one’s own agenda in a polarized and divided society, then politics has moved to become “post-factual”. “Alternative facts” have become a method to explain away facts which contradict one’s political view. It is indicative of this development on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean that “post-truth” was named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries in 2016. “Post-factual” was named word of the year by the German language society, also in connection with a rise of right-wing populism which relies on rumour and conspiracy theories.

The Reformers and their opponents disagreed in their interpretation of scripture, they based their arguments on different presuppositions but they followed the same rules of discourse. Following the Humanist approach ad fontes (return to the sources), the Reformation emphasized the importance of reading Scripture in the original languages because the reformers did not want to rely on inaccurate translations. The idea of getting to the roots and getting the facts right is inherent in the Reformation. If right wing populism twists the facts, following the notion that “the end justifies the means”, then Christians and citizens who hold the approach of the Reformation in high esteem have to oppose those tactics and support journalism which uncovers the truth.

The Humanist approach of reading and studying Scriptures in the original languages corresponds with the Reformers’ efforts to make Scripture available in the vernacular. Everybody should be able to read the word of God for themselves, education for ordinary people was stressed in Protestant territories, and school systems were established. This focus on general education is still important 500 years later.

The Reformation can be seen in the context of a media revolution, it can be viewed in the framework of globalization, it can be described as a movement which enhanced participation and education. The Reformation is also a focal point in European history: the individual defeats the authority of the institution. It is the beginning of the separation of state and church.

Writing from a Protestant perspective, these achievements of the Reformation are emphasized and celebrated as a success story. But for Catholics, the 500th anniversary is not a Reformation Jubilee but a Commemoration, as the Reformation undoubtedly also brought disunity to the church and split Europe and Western Christianity. In preceding centuries, the Reformation anniversary was seen as a continuation of the confessional struggles or from a nationalistic perspective, the German monk fighting for freedom from Roman papism. Maybe this is the first time that we shall have a fuller and more ecumenical understanding of the Reformation and also be able to address points of injustice and failure.

Unfortunately, the Reformation also gave rise to a new form of Christian Anti-Judaism. In his late writings, Luther espoused a hostility towards Jews which tarnishes the Reformation. During the peasant revolts, Luther sided with the feudal lords when the peasant movement grew too radical in his eyes, and he called on the state authorities to suppress the peasants with violence. In the Anabaptist controversy Luther also favoured the authorities to restore order and safety with force. Luther condemned Jews, peasants, Anabaptists and asked and encouraged authorities to kill them. Any celebration of the Reformation without addressing these downfalls would lack credibility.

A commemoration that acknowledges both success and failures

In Germany, the heartland of the Reformation, Reformation Day 2017 is a national holiday. Today, about a third of the population is Protestant, a third Catholic and a third with no official religious affiliation. A public celebration of the 500 years of Reformation cannot be partisan but must include the perspectives of other faith groups and the religiously unaffiliated as well.

Applying the ideas of the Reformation to media ethics, to digitalization, to education and to participation may give fruitful impulses to the modern discourse. On the other hand, any commemoration has to acknowledge the failure and guilt towards Jews, Anabaptists and peasants. Other issues important for Protestant identity today are not reflected in the Reformation. Fortunately, the Protestant Church in Germany is not hiding those dark aspects of the Reformation but is actively addressing them.

First there was hesitation within the Catholic Church in Germany to become involved in celebrating the Reformation anniversary, but dialogue on various levels brought the two main churches of Germany together, an ecumenical healing of memories attended by the federal chancellor and the federal president is one important event in this year’s cycle of Reformation festivities.

Paul advises the Thessalonians in his first epistle, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” Luther rediscovered Pauline theology, and Paul’s advice to hold fast to what is good may be applied when the ideas of the Reformation are adapted to our modern society. 

Ralf Peter Reimann studied computer science and Protestant theology. He works as web team leader of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland. He was president of the European Christian Internet Conference and he is secretary of the Word Association of Christian Communication Europe Region and blogs at theonet.de.


May 13, 2017
Categories:  Media Development

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