500th Anniversary of the Reformation: Who is remembering? and why?

StephenBrowncropped-300x300The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s promulgation of his 95 Theses. Commemorated worldwide as the beginning of the Reformation, this event was both the result of, and a catalyst for wider-ranging social, political, and religious developments. The waves from Wittenberg reached far beyond the borders of Germany, marking not only what became the Lutheran tradition but also the wider Christian community, including the Roman Catholic Church, whose identity was forged in this 16th-century confrontation.

“What does it mean to look at the events century from the perspective of women as active participants? Were Luther’s anti-Jewish writings…aberrations of his later years, or…a central element of his theological thought?”

Meanwhile, the Reformation was an event embedded in global history, coinciding with changes in trading patterns and economic activity, the confrontation between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, the beginnings of the colonization of the Americas, Africa and Asia, and the “Christianization” of Europe, reflected in the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.  Anniversaries such as that of the Reformation prompt the question “What is being remembered?” What does it mean to look at the events century from the perspective of women as active participants? Were Luther’s anti-Jewish writings, which exercised such a nefarious role, especially in his German homeland in the 20th century, aberrations of his later years, or, as some researchers now suggest, a central element of his theological thought?  Commemorations also prompt us to ask, “Who is remembering?” and why. Only in 1617 did the publication of Luther’s 95 Theses a century earlier begin to be celebrated as the foundational event of the Lutheran Reformation, amid a looming conflict with the Catholic powers that would erupt the following year in the Thirty Years’ War. Since then, Reformation anniversaries have often been moulded by contemporary interests and concerns, prompting the reflection: how will future historians look back on the 2017 commemoration?

* Dr Stephen G. Brown is editor of The Ecumenical Review published by Wiley on behalf of the World Council of Churches (www.oikoumene.org).

 

Read the issue on the Reformation from The Ecumenical Review