This year marks the 500th anniversary of one of the most important and influential events in world history, the Protestant Reformation. Over the coming months, we plan to describe the origins, nature and impact of the events and personalities of the Reformation, culminating on Oct. 31, 2017, with a discussion of Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses on Indulgences,” which he nailed on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on that day five centuries ago. They’re still there, engraved in bronze on the new doors of the church.
To understand a subject as complex and influential as the Reformation, it’s useful to reflect briefly on the nature of change in the history of religions.
Religions, like all other human beliefs and activities, change through time. When faced with new religious, political, social or technological developments, religions are forced to adapt. They must respond to the new situations and questions raised by society. (Even refusing to respond is a response, of sorts).
As a simple example: When the Word of Wisdom of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was published in 1833, the main narcotic drug was opium-laudanum, which was used as a painkiller and wasn’t explicitly mentioned in the Word of Wisdom (see Doctrine and Covenants 89). Today there are dozens of harmful, illicit drugs in the world. So the question facing modern Latter-day Saints is: Are modern illicit drugs forbidden by the World of Wisdom? Explicitly, they aren’t, but they could be said to be forbidden by analogy. Tobacco is also forbidden; but what of new e-cigarettes?
In our modern age, we tend to view innovative change as the norm, and indeed, the ideal way to organize society. New technologies in computers or medicine, for example, can make our lives better, often substantially. But this view of change as beneficial wasn’t always held.
Nearly all premodern societies regarded their established religious order as the ideal, and it was incumbent upon society’s leaders to ensure that this order was upheld and transmitted intact to the next generation. Innovation was often viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility. (The word for heresy in Arabic, “bid’ah,” for example, literally means “innovation.”)
Of course, none of this means that premodern societies didn’t change. However, the rate of change in the social order, technology or religious ideas, was generally quite slow. A peasant or craftsman in 13th-century Germany would have lived his life and believed very much the same as his ancestors did generations earlier. He might have witnessed one or two technological or religious changes in his lifetime, but would have had years to adapt his lifestyle to their impact.
Compare this to one of our grandmothers, who lived much of her early life on a ranch in Wyoming without plumbing or electricity but lived to see humans landing on the moon before she passed away.
Nonetheless, all religions throughout the centuries have had to face new questions and problems. Quite frequently in premodern times, these new questions were of interest largely to religious specialists and elites — to priests, monks, rabbis and scholars. Common people would simply accept what their leaders told them. Paradoxically, when a new religious question was answered, it frequently created additional questions and, hence, a new cycle of interpretation and reinterpretation.
Early Christians, for example, believed the righteous went to heaven, and the wicked to hell. But, in the real world, there are few people who are completely righteous or entirely wicked. Most of us live lives of a complex balance of right and wrong.
So what happens to those who are partly righteous and partly wicked? Some Christians maintained that a just God would offer those souls a chance at postmortem penitence, providing a place (or perhaps state) of purgatory, where unrepented sins could be purged.
Prayers of the living can help the living; can they also help the dead? Can mortal prayers help those in a postmortal state of purgatory? If so, are many prayers more efficacious than a single prayer? If so, are the prayers of a righteous monk more efficacious than those of a sinner? Should I, a sinner, donate money to the upkeep of a monastery, in return for the monks praying for my soul, or the souls of my dead ancestors in purgatory?
Suddenly, we have a theoretical basis for indulgences — paying money to the church in return for forgiveness of the sins of the living or the dead.
And hence, Martin Luther’s objections, and the Reformation.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.