Individuals share perspectives on the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century
“I think that we would not live in a democracy if not for the Protestant Reformation.”
History teacher Nathan Johnson reflected on the things that would be different without the revolution that occurred 500 years ago.
“We would not have the individual freedoms that we do if not for the Protestant Reformation,” he said, sharing his viewpoint as a Lutheran. “I do not think we would value diversity in the same way, value tolerance in the same way. I do not think we would have the same attitudes about women. On almost every single social issue in our culture, I think it would not look the same if not for the Protestant Reformation.”
2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of this reformation, a revolution that deeply impacted Europe and the world. In 1517, Martin Luther, a monk, saw corruption within the Catholic church and in response nailed his “95 Theses” on a church door in Wittenburg, Germany. These statements criticized the church for many things, including the selling of indulgences, which essentially allowed individuals to pay to get into heaven.
Though there were others who had previously worked to reform the Catholic church and had seen the corruption, Luther was able to spread his writings through the invention of the printing press, leading to a revolution that dramatically changed Christianity. This reformation led to a split and the development of the Protestants and thousands of other Christian denominations.
Today, individuals have many views about the Reformation, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art is marking the 500th anniversary with an exhibit of the art and literature of Luther’s time and how it played a role in the Reformation.
Johnson summarized the Reformation in a simple statement.
“It’s a movement that put the interpretation of the Christian scriptures into the hands of everyone,” he said.
While the printing press played a significant part in this cultural revolution, as Luther translated the Bible into German for the upper middle class to read, art also fueled a spread of ideas.
“A lot of people couldn’t read, right?” said Johnson. “[Luther] wanted to get scriptures into the hands of average people, but average people couldn’t read. Art had a huge effect. Stained glass windows in medieval cathedrals, that’s how people learned faith, especially in a Latin speaking church, which the Catholic church had been, where people didn’t understand what was happening. A lot of what they learned was through the images.”
The exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) runs from October 15-January 17, and features many German translations of the Bible and pamphlets printed at the time. As the printing press had a dramatic impact during this time period, books play a large role in the exhibit. However, the MIA also highlights many works of art by artists such as Lucas Cranach the Elder and Hans Brosamer. These paintings depict holy relics, pilgrimages and other Christian concepts that were emphasized at the time, which were often used to explain what it meant to be part of the Catholic church.
As a Catholic, science teacher Carmella Whaley shared her input on the role art played at the time.
“Pictures told stories and statues told stories of things that happened in the Bible and also of the lives of holy people within the church,” said Whaley. “[Some art] was part of the Counter Reformation in order to help people understand the Catholic faith and not be dissuaded from strengthening that.”
As the Reformation was something that dramatically transformed Christianity, many individuals have both positive and negative views of its consequences. Due to the nature of the split in the church, often Catholics will see this historical event through a different lense than Protestants.
Whaley believes that the positive outcomes of the reformation are seen in the way it led to growth and improvement of the Catholic church.
“It was really the impetus for the Counter Reformation, and in some circles it’s called the Catholic Reformation, or reforming the church from within the church,” she said. “I think the positive impacts were improvements in the practices and church teachings, in communicating that to the people and in better relationship with priests.”
As a Lutheran, Johnson sees the positive impacts of the Reformation a little differently.
“The idea of the Protestant Reformation is ‘read for yourself,’” he said. “It’s personal faith, not the faith of the community, and it’s your personal reading of the scripture…I’m glad that I can read the scripture for myself and express my faith in my own way and have a personal relationship with God.”
Whaley also commented on the negative aspects of the Reformation.
“A negative [impact] would be the splintering of Christianity into all the different denominations,” she said.
While Whaley sees the splintering within Christianity as an overall bad thing, Johnson sees it as a positive in some ways.
“Splintering is a bad thing; we don’t have a unified voice anymore,” he said. “But it also has allowed for people who are very different, who have different attitudes and perspectives to express those in different ways.”
From whichever point of view, this historical revolution deeply changed Catholicism and led to the start of Protestantism. Today, thousands of denominations have branched off of the formation of the Protestants, all with unique traditions and practices. But the main thing that led to the start of the Protestant church was one of Luther’s beliefs.
“[Luther] presented the idea that repenting and turning to God is not just a thing that you do in the confessional booth or through specific rituals of penance that you have to do,” commented Johnson, “but it’s a whole life attitude of faith which was a really new concept.”
Having impacted culture, religion, politics and art, the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s has led to many developments in today’s world. However, individuals must decide for themselves how to remember and view this revolution and the changes it made in society for better or for worse.
“Something like this had a ton of good effects,” said Johnson, “and it has a legacy that is kind of troubling at the same time.”