Martin Luther’s legacy includes an unintended consequence.
I’ve been highlighting biographies from Tom Holland’s brilliant book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. This week, Martin Luther. He’s the German monk who posted his ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517. Luther was at that time an obscure college professor who was initially bothered by the sale of indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church. He posted his ninety-five points to debate this and other doctrinal issues.
The local Archbishop forwarded the ninety-five theses to Rome, where the papacy considered them, eventually summoning Luther to Rome. This stoked the flames of fury in Wittenberg. Many of the Catholic Church’s practices had been corrupt for a long time, so folks in Wittenberg and other parts of Germany were fed up.
Cooler heads initially tried to prevail. A representative of the Pope decided it was wiser to persuade Luther to recant, inviting him to Augsburg to meet with a formal deliberative assembly. Luther accepted, but in the year since posting his theses, he had become more strident in his attacks. His ninety-five points no longer needed to be debated. The Catholic Church needed to be demolished, which is why, in Wittenberg, Luther staged a bonfire. Students burned Catholic books along with parodies of papal decrees.
Bonfire became wildfire. On his way to Augsburg, Luther was greeted with matching displays of fiery exuberance. Entering the town, thousands thronged the streets to catch a glimpse of him. Luther himself wrote, “It has pleased heaven that I should become the talk of the people.” The obscure professor had become wildly popular.
Perhaps too popular. Disappointed to learn he was being asked to recant, not argue his case, Luther’s followers urged him “to be brave, to act manfully.” Luther followed their advice, refusing to recant. He instead defended his ninety-five theses, declaring “it cannot be either safe or honest for a Christian to speak against his conscience.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church agrees: a man “must not be not be prevented from acting according to his conscience.” But the Catechism also recognizes we can have an erring conscience. A well-formed conscience aligns with scripture and the collective conscience of the Church over time (i.e. the magisterium). An individual’s conscience is not the final arbiter in interpreting scripture. But that’s what Luther essentially declared.
So it’s not surprising that on his return to Wittenberg, Luther was having second thoughts: what if others failed to see what he himself felt the Spirit had illuminated for him? Which is what unfolded. “The coming of the enlightenment,” Holland writes, “revealed different things to different people.” Luther didn’t intend it, but many followers, inspired by the premium that Luther had put on freedom, spun off individualized takes on what scripture says.
In the following years, Luther was shocked by much of what he saw. What followed were uprisings so brutal and bloody that Luther himself condemned the rebels in terms so hysterical that even his admirers were taken back. But what could he say? Luther had consigned volumes of canon law to his bonfire. The wildly different takes on church and scripture that resulted were an unintended consequence.
The shame is that, over the next 30 years, the Catholic Church accepted 70 of Luther’s 95 theses. The Church began reforms that Luther had called for. And to his credit, Luther recognized the unintended consequences and set about establishing a new magisterium. But it involved returning to the very canon law that he consigned to his bonfire years before.
Which raises the question: so what? Over the last 500 years, most American Christians—Protestant and Catholic—have operated as functional Lutherans. All I need is a Bible, a brain, and the Holy Spirit to interpret scripture. How has that worked out? Western missionaries, European and American, have exported a gospel around the world that has yielded more than 45,000 Christian denominations globally and more than 200 in the U.S., according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.
If you think this is a problem (I do), remember that we can’t solve a problem using the same mind that created it. I suggest returning to the early centuries of the Church, when a magisterium, an authority beyond individual interpretation, settled these sorts of disputes. You might not agree with this solution—and good folks can disagree—but my hunch is Martin Luther, given the unintended consequences of what he declared in Augsburg, might.
 Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, (Basic Books, 2019), 311.
 ‘The Account and Actions of Doctor Martin Luther the Augustinian at the Diet of Worms’ in Luther’s Works, 32, 108.