By Heather Green
This month we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. When Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, he did not intend to start a new church nor did he imagine his actions would begin a cultural revolution.
As Lutherans we know that Luther sought to reform the existing Catholic Church, especially concerning the selling of indulgences. Some of his other issues with the Catholic Church included that lay people should be able to read the Bible for themselves, and that everyone was entitled to an education, including women.
Luther was the first who translated the Bible into German, the language of the common person. His translated Bible became a must have item for every middle class home. Interestingly, the printing of the German Bible had a profound impact on the German language. At the time Luther’s Bible was published, Germany was divided by several regional dialects of the German language. The publication of the German Bible was the leading factor of the unification of the German language into one common dialect because Luther’s Bible influenced the reading and speaking patterns of the German Middle Class.
Johann Cochlaeus, a contemporary and biographer of Luther, wrote, “Luther’s New Testament was so much multiplied and spread by printers that even tailors and shoemakers, yea, even women and ignorant persons who had accepted this new Lutheran gospel, and could read a little German, studied it with the greatest avidity as the fountain of all truth…In a few months such people deemed themselves so learned that they were not ashamed to dispute about faith and the gospel not only with Catholic laymen, but even with priests and monks and doctors of divinity.” Although not exactly a compliment, Cochlaeus’s quote demonstrates that not only were individuals reading the Bible, but they were beginning to think for themselves.
This trend of “independent-thinking” led to a reinvention of the school system in Germany. Prior to the Reformation, almost all schools were run by the church, and only the wealthy or those who would later become priests or nuns were educated. Luther himself believed that every person, including women, had the right to an education. He wrote, “As for me, if God chose to keep me away from pastoral functions, there is no other occupation I would more gladly take up than schoolmaster, for next to the pastor’s work, no other is more beautiful or significant than his.” Luther, and his contemporary, Philip Melanchton began to reform the school system by transferring the responsibility of education to the government (princes and magistrates) instead of the church. In 1530 a school for girls was established in Wittenberg.
Luther’s intended Reformation of the Catholic Church became a cultural movement that changed Germany forever. If you think of the theses as kindling, then Luther’s German translation of the Bible was the fuel that spread this movement throughout Europe. Luther wanted everyone to be able to read the Bible, yet how many of us have read it ourselves? This month as we remember the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I challenge you to begin reading the Bible again. Martin Luther worked to make it possible for us; let’s not let his call for Reformation go unanswered.