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Quincentennial of the Reformation

The modernization of Christianity

München, 06/16/2017

The Reformation that began 500 years ago initiated a momentous transformation in the history of Christianity, whose effects can still be felt. Here, LMU historian Professor Harry Oelke discusses the developments that it set in train.

Foto: nmann77 /

Thomas Mann regarded Luther as one of the most important figures in the whole of German history. Hans Maier asserted that he had led Christianity into the modern world. For other commentators he was nothing more than ‘a German ruffian’. Who was Luther and what did he achieve?
Harry Oelke: Luther indeed possessed a talent for polemics and a finely tuned ear for the speech of the common man. On the other hand, he clearly straddles the threshold to early modernity, because he made such an enormous contribution to the development of individualism, both in Europe and subsequently on a global scale. His emphasis on personal responsibility to God remains his greatest historical achievement, because it essentially dissociates the relationship from the bonds of its previous ecclesiastical and institutional context. Luther’s watchword was sola scriptura: The strength of the individual’s faith in, and commitment to God rests solely on Holy Scripture. That was a novel idea, and it constitutes one of the most crucial distinctions between Protestant communities and the Catholic Church.

The second distinction between the Christian faiths lies in the idea of universal priesthood promulgated by Luther. This notion enhances the status of the laity by assigning to its members the same spiritual rank as their designated pastors. In spiritual – though not in secular – terms, he abolishes the gulf between priests and laity. Seen in the light of the preceding medieval view, this was a revolutionary step.

How would you define the significance of Luther and his legacy for our own time?
The influence of Luther’s emphasis on the freedom and responsibility of the individual, and that of his concept of universal priesthood, can be traced all the way to the present. The latter, in particular, led to the establishment within the Protestant Churches of what I would refer to – with all due caution – as ‘proto-democratic’ structures. For the notion of universal priesthood implies that the Bible provides the authoritative basis for social interactions within a community of equals. And the Scriptures were now available in German translation, so that the laity could read them.

The third element of Luther’s contemporary relevance relates to his utilization of media, which he exploited to a previously unknown extent. Luther was astonishingly open-minded in this respect, and had no hesitation in making use of the media available in his day to spread the word of God. Luther‘s major theological insight led him to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The greatest challenge facing the Reformed Churches on the occasion of the 5th centenary of the Reformation is to translate this insight into the contemporary world.

The conference you have organized to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on June 23rd focuses on the central role played in the process by the printed book. How important was this factor for Luther’s success?
The invention and growth of printing made it possible to publicize the reformers’ views in large numbers of copies. This in turn meant that the issues could be made known and discussed over a wide area at practically the same time. This too was a new development. Prior to that, the market for information had been highly fragmented. Peasants spoke to one another on market-days, while humanists at the universities and members of the nobility at court each had their own separate channels of communication and intercourse.

But printing now enabled information on topics of public interest to be consumed and debated collectively, read aloud, passed from hand to hand until the pages were in tatters: We know a little about broadsheets of which no copies have survived because they had so many readers that they finally disintegrated.

So printing was the vehicle for the widespread and large-scale dissemination of the writings of the Protestant reformers. Conversely, the Reformation itself led to a huge expansion of printing and publication. After all, in 1517, the art of printing with movable type had already been in existence for over 50 years. Of course, broadsheets and books had been printed and circulated in small quantities prior to that time. But beginning in 1518/19, there was an exponential increase in the production of printed publications. Researchers have tended to overlook the fact that the Reformation stimulated the formation of a new category of professional craftsmen. But media are dependent on content. And without Luther’s theological innovations, the new media would not have taken off in the early 16th century.

The advent of digital communication also opens up new opportunities for the dissemination of religions. What effect is this likely to have on the propagation of religious creeds and practices?
The Reformation created a new sphere of public discourse within the Holy Roman Empire, albeit one that was largely confined to its German-speaking parts. Globalization has enormously expanded the potential range of communication, raising it to a qualitatively new level. Thanks to the new media, and the status of English as their lingua franca, the opportunities for the exchange of information have correspondingly multiplied. Structurally, however, the situation is quite comparable to that in the heyday of the Reformation, apart from the wholesale abolition of boundaries – which extends the possibilities available for communication and interaction by orders of magnitude. However, whether or not this potential will actually be exploited to the full is quite a different question. For within these networks, there are subspaces in which specific communities interact. And such interactions essentially mimic traditional forms of communication.