Nearly everyone knows the basics of the Reformation, the first being that 500 years ago, it began with Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg castle door on October 31, 1517—except that scholars now think that what probably happened was that Luther mailed them, not nailed them, to his archbishop, Albrecht of Brandenburg. A much less dramatic beginning, perhaps.
But this is a rather trivial historical point. There are much larger and more important things that regularly get overlooked in basic histories of the Reformation, things all Christians need to know.
The first is that, after 500 years, the Reformation is coming to an end. Christians both Protestant and Catholic are finding out, more and more, that what they have in common is more important than what divides them. The impetus for focusing on what is common arises largely from a rather unpleasant set of sources: the persecution of all Christians by radical secularism and by radical Islam.
Catholics and Protestants have been the object of persecution by radical secularist political regimes for the last hundred years, beginning with the rise of the atheistic communism with the Russian Revolution of 1917. More Christians were martyred in the twentieth century, than all other centuries combined. The turn into the twenty-first century has brought a new wave a persecution, with 100,000 Christians martyred every year, largely at the hands of radical Islam, and an ever more aggressive secular attack on Christian morality and faith. The good that God is bringing out of this evil is that Christians are uniting against these common enemies, and thereby bringing, slowly but surely, the Reformation to an end.
But something else you may not realize about the Reformation is that radical atheistic secularism and radical Islam were there 500 years ago at the time of Martin Luther, and were aiming back then at the extermination of Christianity.
We think that radical atheism is our problem, something that Christians didn’t have to contend with way back then in the “age of faith.” Not true, as it turns out. Modern atheism arose in the 1300s and 1400s with the Renaissance rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman pagan atheists such as Epicurus, Lucretius, and Lucian. Reading these pagans produced what may rightly be called neo-pagans, the first modern atheists, a large number of whom were Italian, such as Marsilius of Padua (1275–1342), Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459), Lorenzo Valla (1407–1457), Pietro Pomponazzi (1462–1525), Pietro Aretino (1492–1556), Cesare Cremonini (1550–1631), Lucilio Vanini (1585–1619), and of course, Italy’s most famous atheist, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), who believed that all religions were bunk, but should be used by clever unbelieving rulers to better control the credulous masses. The next generations of atheists counseled a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy against Christianity, taking advantage of the Protestant-Catholic divisions to weaken the cultural hold of faith.
You can see the problem this spate of Italian atheists would cause from the vantage point of the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther: Italy looked like a seedbed of atheism, and the luxurious and very worldly papacy was in Rome. Had the seat of St. Peter been taken over by a secret atheist? Many Reformers had their suspicions.
And what of radical Islam? Islam had been conquering Christians since the latter 600s. At the time of the Reformation, it looked as if triumphant Islamic armies were going to overrun Europe. The Holy Roman Emperor, Catholic Charles V, was unable to deal with Luther in Germany because he was largely absorbed in fighting back the Muslim advance. On his part, Luther proclaimed that the looming victory of Islam over Christendom was a divine punishment for the sins of the papacy, and that this impending grand battle was a sign that the prophecies of the book of Revelation were coming true (with the pope, of course, playing the part of the Anti-Christ).
Speaking of Islam, while you probably know that Luther published his own German translation of the New Testament, you aren’t aware that he ensured that a translation of the Koran was done (1543), and he provided the preface for it. The reason? He believed knowledge of Islam would undermine the papacy, showing how similar a religious aberration it was to Roman Catholicism. More accurately, he considered Islam to be superior, even though it was erroneous.
Ironically, Luther’s (muted) trumpeting of the virtues of Islam and his translation of the Koran contributed to the cause of radical secularism. While atheists in the century following Luther believed that all religions were bunk, they also asserted that Islam was superior—to all Christianity, not just Catholicism. This was the historical origin of the secular Left’s notion, today, that Christianity is an evil to be removed, and Islam a beneficent religion to be welcomed.
These are just a few of the things you need to know about the Reformation 500 years later.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail of the Machiavelli statue in the Uffizi colonnade in Florence, Italy.