Martin Luther shattered Christendom and transformed the West, making the modern world possible and inevitable. This is the consensus among historians, whether they see this sixteenth-century monk as an epochal hero, bringer of enlightenment and tolerance, or as the pre-eminent agent of our spiritual and cultural ruin. In other words, Luther is at the center of a long and contentious dispute about the origins and nature of the modern world.

Granting Luther’s courage and his gifts, which were great enough to make his legend almost plausible, almost able to stand up to informed and critical appraisal, I will propose that, to put the matter plainly, this is not the way history works. The opposing sides in the debate about Luther are both deeply invested in his legend, which has given it seemingly unquestioned authority. This matters because what might be called the legitimacy of the modern era, which emerged in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, is a question that often takes as its point of departure that gaunt monk nailing his theses to a church door. It is strange to speak of the “legitimacy” of an era. But it is appropriate in this case because many writers have for a long time believed that the modern ought not to have happened, that the world before Luther was a worthy human habitation, and that after him it was a desolate place, oppressive to the human spirit despite its material brilliance and success. They interpret the transformation of the European world as the fall of an ancient religious order and, depending who tells the tale, as the rise of a soulless individualist materialism, or something of the kind. A recent book announces that Luther “rediscovered God,” clearly an overstatement. More typically the modernity he is supposed to have initiated is treated as essentially secular. This is also an overstatement.

There were people of very great consequence active in Luther’s world—the Grand Turk, Charles V of Spain, Francis I of France, Michelangelo. Among Luther’s other important contemporaries, Copernicus surely deserves a mention, and Magellan and Columbus. And there was the Henrician Brexit, the withdrawal of England from papal and Roman authority by Henry VIII that would make Britain, for the purposes of European power alignments, Protestant, a matter of great historical consequence. Henry VIII did not owe any debt to Luther or reform his church along Lutheran lines. There had been near-breaches between Rome and various English kings over the centuries, preparing this final one. Yet great political alliances, and new conceptions of the earth and the heavens, are not assumed to have a part in the emergence of the modern whenever Luther is put at the center of the frame.

In historical terms, Luther is singular in the fact that his place is secure, even despite the whole power and weight of papal opprobrium, of outlawry and condemnation for heresy, that were brought down upon him. He had important precursors whom he names, who have effectively disappeared from history under this same weight, notable among them the fourteenth-century theologians John Wycliffe and Jan Hus. For generations the followers of these precursors were suppressed, they and also their books publicly burned. Though the influence of their movements persisted for centuries, and though they may indeed share with Luther some credit or blame for the making of the modern world, they have slipped into obscurity. It seems that the word “heresy” impresses historians deeply, that it carries the suggestion of an irrational, possibly sinister zeal, marginalizing all those who are stigmatized by it. Luther’s giantism is in part an effect of an isolation from his context that is deeply misleading, however well it serves hagiographers and demonizers.

Luther was a brave and brilliant man, but he was not the innovator he is made out to be by those who venerate him, those who detest him, or those who simply carry on in milder form with the assumptions about him that were established in the old days of raging religious polemic. One scholar finds that “in the late Middle Ages there were basically two options with regard to salvation; the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham.” This statement is typical in assuming that all thinking on this great subject was confined to the upper reaches of Latinate intellectualism. Luther’s actions and his doctrines need to be looked at in light of the fact that there was an emerging vernacular intellectualism associated with the strong and persisting movements of religious dissent to be found throughout Europe from at least the twelfth century forward.

Many of these dissenting groups shared central tenets among themselves and with Luther as well. In fact their beliefs were consistent enough with one another and over time to constitute an alternative religious tradition, occluded but never extirpated by the dominant church. Such movements are often and dismissively called populist, though their doctrines are as moving and refined as any Europe produced. It is characteristic of these movements that their leaders are highly educated: Professor Wycliffe, Professor Hus, Professor Luther. Their books were destroyed as often as they were found, and yet they had a potent literature.

Luther read the letters of Jan Hus from a century earlier. He had Hus’s letters published in Wittenberg, provided a preface, and wrote admiring comments in his copy. Thomas Cranmer owned a copy, as well. Luther says of the anonymous Theologia Germanica, written around 1350, that it taught him more about the nature of God than anything other than the Bible and St. Augustine. The Theologia, dating from the time when Wycliffe was active, is an early example of a German-language metaphysics written to be accessible to those who were not educated to read Latin, the language of the church and the universities. Meister Eckhart, perhaps the first writer of theology in German, lived until 1328. Johannes Tauler, his younger contemporary, whom Luther is known to have read, preached and wrote in German, and is considered an early master of the language. Like Eckhart he was a Dominican, a leader in a largely lay movement called the Friends of God. Its adherents were men and women from all ranks of society. It emerged in and spread through Bavaria, Switzerland, the Rhineland, and the Low Countries. Tauler’s surviving sermons are exquisitely gentle. The Theologia envisions a reconciliation of Jesus with Judas. It is a lovely thing, not mysticism so much as an exploration of religious consciousness within the terms of Christianity. Though its German is said to be unpolished, its thinking is certainly not. It would seem that Luther’s thought should be considered in light of acknowledged influences, and that these books would be of particular interest because they had, tellingly, an underground life. They are seldom mentioned.

The theologian John Wycliffe, who died in 1384, was later declared a heretic.Bob Thomas/Popperfoto/Getty

In nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door, Luther perhaps intended no more than to provoke an academic debate. Church doors were regularly used then to announce public events. The theses’ explosive reception could well mean that the questions the professor had posed for debate were live issues far beyond the university. The printing press, developed in the 1440s, was a factor, of course, in spreading these debates among a wider range of people. The Protestant Reformation could hardly have happened without it. And Luther was important in establishing print culture, since his books and pamphlets would be in high demand all over Europe for decades. Luther wrote in German or translated his Latin writing into German. That population so seldom noticed by historians, the literate who did not read Latin but were eager for access to theology, scripture, and history, and current affairs as well, were highly receptive to what he wrote.

The emergence of this public, a middle class of sorts able to buy books, is demonstrated in the surge in publishing that characterized the Reformation period. Letters of Obscure Men, a book associated with Ulrich von Hutten, which predated Luther’s Theses by two years, is a satire on the church and the universities, intended as a defense of the humanist and Hebraist Johannes Reuchlin. It was banned on publication and was nevertheless read all over Europe. The survival and distribution of forbidden books in premodern Europe and even the numbers in which they were burned would say at least as much about the intellectual culture of the time as any university curriculum. Early presses could be dismantled and moved piecemeal, a fact that was still important at the time of the American Revolution. This made the banning of printed books much less effective than one might suppose. Before the press, we must assume organized and continuous copying of manuscripts.

Another factor very seldom mentioned in accounts of Luther’s world is the flourishing of a dissenter nation bordering Germany and deeply entangled with it. Bohemia had been Hussite for a generation when Luther was born and it remained Hussite for a generation after his death. In 1412, Jan Hus, a priest and professor at the University of Prague, took offense at the sale of indulgences there and preached against them. As was often the case, the indulgences were offered by the pope to raise money for a crusade, this one against the king of Naples. Hus’s preaching led in due course to papal bulls being sent to Prague excommunicating him. Students burned the bulls. Hus was forbidden to preach, so he left Prague and traveled around the countryside, preaching in Czech. He was summoned to the Council of Constance to defend himself against the charge of heresy. He told his judges there that he could not recant any teaching of his that could not be proved wrong on the basis of Scripture. Though he had come to the council on a safe conduct, he was imprisoned, then burned, together with his books, in 1415.

Though Hus had died a century before Luther posted his theses, his fate was still well known. Executions of the kind were meant to be cautionary. Hus’s death was made especially memorable by the fact that it caused outrage in Bohemia that spurred a revolt and changed the character of religious culture in the very center of Europe. Hussite Bohemia split with Rome so radically that it became the object of five papal crusades, all of which it repelled. These are not events that could have passed unremarked in Europe at large. Crusader armies were made up of soldiers from many countries, who can hardly have failed to bring back news from Bohemia. One of these armies included a thousand English archers, most of whom no doubt returned home, since the crusader army disbanded before battle was engaged.

Perhaps Shakespeare, who, like Luther, did not live to see the end of Hussite Bohemia, gave the landlocked country a coast because it was singular, elsewhere and otherwise, like Prospero’s island. The Hussites were largely peasants, supported by like-minded nobles. Shakespeare’s scenes set in Bohemia use peasant characters for comic effect. But the words Perdita speaks, defending the aesthetics of the natural over the artificial and refined, could be applied as well to the ambitious use of demotic language, a practice that, at the time Shakespeare wrote, was still new. Hus’s followers had made a translation of the Bible that was as important to their language as Luther’s would be to German. And a literature grew up around it, said to be very fine, though it was lost in the extirpation of Bohemian-language culture that followed their final defeat by Rome in 1620. When Shakespeare wrote, however, this fragile, rather democratic experiment was still being made.

When Luther read Hus’s letters he said, famously, “We are all Hussites.” Behind Hus was John Wycliffe, the distinguished Oxford philosopher and theologian also denounced as a heretic in 1415 along with Hus, though he had died in 1384. With others, he made the first complete translation of the Bible into English. He was associated with the poets Geoffrey Chaucer, John Lydgate, and John Gower as well as William Langland, the itinerant cleric who wrote Piers Plowman. Wycliffe wrote and preached in English as well as Latin, so his influence was intense at home and significant in Europe. Though he wrote before the printing press, copies of his books were numerous enough to make good bonfires. Hundreds of them were burned in Prague during Rome’s early attempts to stem his influence there. Hundreds more were burned in Rome and, of course, in England. Before his death, while he is sharing out among his friends things he has left in Prague, Hus tells one of them he can have any of Wycliffe’s books he might want. Lollards, Wycliffe’s followers in England, were students and lay preachers who surreptitiously, by dark of night, brought Scripture in English to the poor.

In this they were like the Waldensians, also known as the Poor Men of Lyon, whose origins can be traced to 1170. They too used vernacular Bibles and produced a literature, of which a few long poems survive. Like the Lollards, they withstood suppression and persecution until they were finally absorbed by the Reformation. Waldensians brought the belief in Communion in two kinds to Bohemia, where it became central to Hussite identity. Hus corresponded with Sir John Oldcastle, the Lollard knight who led a revolt against Henry V. Jean Calvin’s cousin, Pierre Robert, called Olivetan, made a new translation of the Bible from the original languages for the French Waldensians. The young Calvin seems to have written the introduction. Connections like these arise at random as one reads in the period, which suggests that there are many more to be found. Luther asks, “How many Saints must you imagine those of the inquisition have, for some ages, burnt and killed, as Jan Hus and others, in whose time, no doubt, there lived many holy men of the same spirit!” This was in response to Erasmus’s argument that the fathers and saints of the church should be accepted as authoritative interpreters of Scripture. The reformers also had fathers and saints.

These are important instances of the fact that Europe before Luther was by no means a religious monolith. There were ideas abroad more radical than his. Indeed, these dissident movements had already challenged the papacy and the priesthood, transubstantiation, indulgences, relics, icons, and clerical celibacy. Twelve “Lollard Conclusions” had been nailed to a door at Westminster in 1395 and were subsequently read in an elaborated form in Parliament. They say, for example, that “any man or woman in the law of God can consecrate [the bread and wine of Communion] without the supposed miracle,” and “manslaughter (either by war or any pretended law of justice, for any temporal cause, or spiritual revelation) is expressly contrary to the New Testament, which is the law of Grace, full of mercy.”

Distinctive thought was too deeply entrenched in dissident cultures to be open to negotiation in coming years, when divisions within the Reformation became important. The dependence of all these suppressed communities on the text of Scripture was a thing they had in common with Luther. But their existence outside the highly structured world of institutional Catholicism was very remote from Luther’s long immersion in monastic life, which by all accounts he embraced with exceptional zeal. Communities in hiding would necessarily forgo images and sanctuaries. They would not only cease to think of these things as a part of religious experience but, as communities, would identify with secular simplicity as a setting for true worship. And they would leave very little physical evidence of their presence, except in their books.

This is perhaps the origin of the Protestant schism. Luther was intractable in his position concerning the sacrament of Communion, but this would not have been so important if the other side had not been equally intractable. Luther’s great departure from what would become majority Protestant practice and belief was his doctrine of consubstantiation, which retained for most purposes the Catholic understanding of the consecration of the elements of the Eucharist. This may sound merely technical to people unfamiliar with the terms of theological controversy, but in these terms it has been a matter of profound consequence. As a priest Luther was deeply moved, even terrified, at performing the consecration of the host, the climax of the Mass, when bread and wine were believed by him to become the actual body and blood of Christ. As a reformer he retained a version of the Mass and insisted on a “real presence” of Christ in the consecrated elements. Sacramentarians, as he called those who took exception, felt that this doctrine preserved an unacceptable difference of status between priests and laypeople, a degree of dependence on one side and authority on the other that the Reform should reduce or eliminate.

Many modern readers, at the conscious level, at least, are not accustomed to the idea that the form of worship asserts a view of cosmic reality. In Catholicism, the priest is thought of as a mediator through the sacraments between God and his people. In Protestantism, no human mediation is called for because the relationship between God and the individual is thought of as direct. Of course the saints in Catholic tradition experience a direct relationship with God, and the Protestant traditions, in most instances, greatly value their two sacraments and their clergy. But the tendency in the first is to assume a cosmic hierarchy, and in the second to assert a fundamental equality of Christians before God. The distinction made here is far too simple, but it is justified historically by the importance in Protestantism and its precursors of lay preachers, sometimes including women, and of teaching and preaching in the vernacular. Their clergy were set apart from their adherents by preparation, five years of training in the case of the Waldensians, who memorized the gospels of Matthew and John as well as sections of the writings of Paul. This movement was distinguished by its radical poverty, voluntary at first, then, as it was persecuted and dispersed, as a fact of life. So the pastor and believer had poverty in common.

A critical-minded sacramentarian might wonder what anything other than a “real presence” might be. Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name there am I also.” Certainly this would describe any communion service. Flannery O’Connor spoke with some contempt of the idea that the Eucharist is merely symbolic. But when the whole of its meaning is considered, it can never be “merely” anything. Whether it enacts the sacrifice of Christ or simply commemorates the transformation of cosmic reality through the proximate human presence of God in the world, it would seem to be too replete with meaning for any of its forms to be deficient. Still, this was a breaking point, regrettable if the triumph of the Reformation was the thing to be desired.

Luther’s commitment to this outcome, the success of the Reformation movement, compounded as the movement was of groups whose theologies did not precisely align with his and were farther than his from Catholicism, seems to have flagged over time. It clearly was not unmixed to begin with. This suggestion is not consistent with the view of him as saint or as demon, but it should not be dismissed on the grounds of its unfamiliarity—quite the opposite, given the myths that have always surrounded him, the interpretation of his life that gives its impact the fundamental simplicity of an ax blow.

My model of the emergence of the modern world centers on the rising importance of literacy in the vernacular, much accelerated by the greater availability of books of every kind and their declining cost—this, of course, combined with an awareness of the ambient world, which was neither calm nor stable. The Turks were an imminent threat to Vienna, and rivalry between the kings of France and Spain was distracting the leaders of Europe from dealing with the problem. In 1527 the armies of Charles V, the elected Holy Roman Emperor, sacked Rome and made a prisoner of the pope. Abuses of sculptures and paintings, apparently committed by soldiers from Germany, aren’t surprising, since anticlericalism and German hostility to Rome had a very long history before the Reformation. Charles’s motives, which amounted to a desire to consolidate power, are somehow never quite impugned, though he certainly would have known how invasion affects a city. In this case, his armies, then plague, reduced the population by four-fifths.

Turbulence seems to have been unexceptional. Two centuries earlier, when Wycliffe and Hus were active, there were two and then three popes at the same time. One of them, a John XXIII who has lost his place in the sequence of popes, attended the Council of Constance where Hus was condemned, but fled the city alone by night disguised as a poor man to escape the demand of another Holy Roman Emperor that he resign the papacy. The council subsequently denounced John for every wickedness imaginable, including heresy. The serene order called Christendom was clearly an ideal rather than an achieved state of things, though of course ideals can have great power. In any case, the emergence of the modern world seems to have been largely an upsurge of ideas and information and oppressed dissent, new wine in old skins. It threatened and transformed power structures that had been in part shored up by the dominance of Latin, not only in religion but also in learning and law.

Luther’s Theses, written in Latin but translated and published in German, not by him, are titled “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” Indulgences, as they were understood and practiced at the time, were an intrinsic part of a model of reality that saw the passage of all but the most perfect souls from death through a condition, visualized as a region, called purgatory. There they suffered for sins not absolved in life through the ministrations of the church. These sins were considered debts to God that must be satisfied by suffering. Their pain was extreme and indeterminate, the end of time being its outer limit. Dante’s Purgatorio is a regime of condign punishment, where behaviors contrary to their faults are imposed on the sufferers and embraced by them, since they are the redeemed and will ultimately enjoy heaven. Other writers immerse them in flames. In any case, the church was believed to have what is called a treasury of merits. Holy people, saints and martyrs, and Mary and Jesus above all, were believed to have merits far in excess of those necessary to salvation. These supererogatory merits were at the disposal of the pope, who could, in effect, offer them for sale. The proceeds were to be used by the church, whether to fund a crusade or, in this case, new buildings. When Luther wrote his Theses, money from indulgences was being used to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The indulgences could shorten the time of suffering of a friend or family member, though by no specified amount. It is touching and excruciating to think how effectively these campaigns raised money. The poor were asked to choose between their living families and, say, a parent who had passed through a hard life and a hard death into a state of prolonged extreme suffering.

Writers on the subject tend to say this suffering is mitigated by the vindication of God’s justice and the ultimate prospect of heaven. A contemporary of Luther’s who became St. Catherine of Genoa wrote a treatise on purgatory. In it she says that souls in purgatory feel an always increasing joy at the knowledge of God’s justice and grace. She speaks of the fires that torment them as interior, and as the flames of divine love. “Yet their joy in God does by no means abate their pain.” The selling of indulgences suggests that purgatory was not a state in which compassion would allow anyone to remain if it were possible to shorten the experience for her.

Luther proposed that “Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God”; and “if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep”; and “Why does the pope not empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there?” and more to the same effect. He says, “To repress these arguments and scruples of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the Church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies, and to make Christians unhappy.” Since printed copies of the Theses spread like wildfire through Germany and beyond, it should probably be assumed that they did raise issues that were of great moment to “the laity.”

Born over a century before Luther, Jan Hus preached against indulgences.Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty

This cosmic model of hell, purgatory, and heaven, merits and indulgences, with all they assume about the nature of sin, merit, and grace, about the nature of God and the soul, and of suffering, and about the church and the papacy as well, were exclusive to the Catholic Church. The texts produced by other traditions, whether it was the German-literate population who read them or Luther himself, would offer another coherent cosmology according to which the grace of God is sufficient to erase all memory of fault or sin among his redeemed. The anonymous writer of the Theologia Germanica says, making the extremest case, “If the devil would come to true obedience he would turn into an angel and all his sin and wickedness would be amended and atoned and all at once forgotten.” Sola gratia, salvation by grace alone, must be understood against the background of a doctrine of God as requiring that, before salvation can be fully realized, sin must be repaid by suffering, a conception of God as in some degree satisfied by merits earned by others and applied to those fortunate mortals who left wealth or a devoted family when they died.

Purgatory and indulgences did not remain central for Luther in these terms. But the issues they raised for him persisted implicitly. For example, his detractors ascribe to him a gloomy anthropology, in response to his teaching that every human act is tainted with sin. This idea arises quite naturally from his earlier belief in the doctrine of purgatory, which is a response to virtually universal, and inadvertent, sinfulness. Cardinal Cajetan, by whom Luther was interrogated, wrote, “All possible evil is truly predicated of us and of our works in so far as they are ours. But on the other hand infinite good is truly found in the same works as products of divine grace.” St. Catherine says, “That which man judges to be perfect, in the sight of God is defect. For all the works of man, which appear faultless when he considers them, feels, remembers, wills and understands them, are, if he does not refer them to God, corrupt and sinful.” Then she says, “For, to the perfection of our works it is necessary that they be wrought in us but not of us. In the works of God it is he that is the prime mover, and not man.” Whether Luther was aware of her or she of him, St. Catherine was his contemporary, and her thinking about human sinfulness and what he would call the “bondage of the will” is not dissimilar to his. One is in bondage either to one’s own will, which inevitably vitiates one’s actions, or to the divine will, which makes them truly good. The humanist Erasmus, in his Discourse on Free Will, intended as a rebuttal of Luther, asserts that “mankind is lazy, indolent, malicious, and incorrigibly prone to impious outrage,” and “people are universally ignorant and carnal-minded. They tend toward unbelief, wickedness, and blasphemy.”

The influence of thought outside Catholicism should not at all preclude attention to powerful influences within it. And comparisons among those who share a period and culture are always useful. Luther by himself might seem gloomy and misanthropic, but he is not at all exceptional by the standards of his time. Luther differs from orthodox writers in taking “works” to be corrupted in being self-interested, that is, in being undertaken to help secure one’s own salvation. There is an ambiguity around the word “works” that Luther himself does not explicitly clarify. In ordinary use it can mean fasts, prayers, pilgrimages, and the buying of indulgences, as well as giving alms to the poor. By his lights gestures and ceremonies can have value in disciplining oneself, but charity toward one’s neighbor, of which giving of alms is only one expression, is free and Christian when it is done without thought for one’s own benefit. Relying entirely on God’s grace in the matter of one’s salvation means abandoning all thought of merit, all spiritual self-interest.

The question at the center of the controversy surrounding Luther concerned the very nature of the church. Western Christendom seemed little inclined to acknowledge the fact that there was an Eastern Christendom, the great ancient tradition centered in Constantinople, that never accepted the papacy, the predominant authority of the bishop of Rome. For us “church” is associated with institutions—buildings and bureaucracies as well as creeds and customs and public observances. But unnumbered “house churches” have existed in every setting where Christianity or sects within it are under threat, in fourteenth-century England, in modern China, and in the communities to whom Paul sent his letters. The best we can do is to grant the word the broad meaning and the wide variety of interpretations it has acquired in the course of its history. These were fully present in the religious culture of the Middle Ages.

Luther conceived of a church in some ways very close to Catholicism. For example, the Augsburg Confession, intended to find a principled truce with Rome, retains a Latin Mass. It had been usual for generations for writers to criticize the Catholic Church for how it got money and how its money was spent, for slothful, ignorant, or immoral priests and so on. Boccaccio’s Decameron offers an example of satire on the subject, as does Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Luther’s criticism was more fundamental, not concerned with abuses that arose from time to time and could be addressed by institutional reforms.

In reply to Erasmus’s rebuttal of his criticisms, Luther thanks the renowned scholar for seeing and addressing what is most central to his argument, that is, his rejection of freedom of the will. In principle, theological questions always have implications much broader than the terms of debate seem to imply. As a philosophical question, free will and its antithesis, determinism, enlist psychology, biology, environment, and ethics. As a theological question, it has to do with the relationship of God to humankind as individuals, particularly in the matter of their salvation. The role of the church above all is to make salvation meaningful as a word and attainable as an object, as it has done historically through teaching and example and through its sacraments. The great teacher and exemplar is Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth was an incarnation of God, whose death was a sacrifice made to put humankind at peace with God, and whose life enacted the love and truth that would conform our lives to the nature and the will of God.

“From faith there flows a love and joy in the Lord. From love there proceeds a joyful, willing, and free mind that serves the neighbor and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, praise or blame, gain or loss,” and “Our trust in him means that we are Christs to one another and act toward our neighbors as Christ has acted toward us.” This is from a tract titled “The Freedom of a Christian,” sent by Luther to Pope Leo X in 1520 to clarify his position on freedom and what he called “bondage.” He received no response. Luther describes a relationship to God and neighbor most Christians would recognize at least as an ideal. But by divorcing merit from “works,” a word which here means serving one’s neighbor, and by resolving them into joy and love, he places the soul outside important structures of the church that were offered as the means of salvation. So, conciliatory as his words may sound, they actually restate his case. The pope no doubt noticed this. The following year, Luther was excommunicated.

However, the most radical challenge to the church was the doctrine of predestination put forward by Wycliffe, by Hus, and then by Luther. In support they could cite the formidable St. Augustine. But the authority and the traditions of the church were overwhelmingly against them. The issue was whether one was free to achieve personal salvation by meritorious acts or renunciations or through the good offices of the church. Predestination precluded this.

Scripture is not clear on the question of free will or determinism, or it is not interested in the distinction. Erasmus, in his response to Luther, advises a middle course between these opposites, having made a case for free will on the basis of Scripture, which he does not finally consider determinate. However, he objects strongly to Luther’s having raised the question. He says, “Some things can be noxious because, like wine for the feverish, they are not fitting. Hence such matters might be treated in discourses among the educated or also in theological schools, although it is not expedient even there I think unless done with caution. Definitely, it seems to me, it is not only unsuitable but truly pernicious to carry on such disputations when everybody can listen.” Wicked men might become worse if they were aware of these arguments. Luther, perhaps more aware of the accessibility of the thoughts and writings of Wycliffe and Hus, or of the growing pressures of print and vernacular literacy, dismisses the idea that the laity were to be excluded from these disputes. Ultimately the writings of Erasmus as well as Luther were condemned by the church.

The questions raised by the doctrine of predestination are real and profound. When Hus, then Luther, said he could not recant, did he feel as if he were acting freely or as he was destined to act? Both at once, no doubt. In any case, the mere word “predestination” tends to distract critics from the fact that Wycliffe, Hus, and Luther were indeed major reformers, men who called on others to examine their beliefs and their lives, and to adhere with a new zeal to the laws of Moses and the teachings of Christ. They were not in any sense passive, as belief in predestination supposedly implies they should be. Their immediate impact is clear. Peasant revolts arose in the time of each of them, directed not at the Reformers, as recent interpretations of popular sympathies might lead one to suppose, but against the traditional religious and political order, which would have appeared to them to be weakened. Of the three, one rebellion, in Bohemia, succeeded. Two, in England and Germany, failed. The shameless brutality with which they were crushed in both cases may be taken as a measure of the inhumanity against which they rose up.

Two terrible scandals mar Luther’s life. One was his response to the Peasants’ War, in which he urged extreme violence against the rebels. The other was his writing against the Jews, whom he assailed in very similar, very violent terms. There is no excuse to be made for this, but a reason for it might have been that the existence of communities considered heretical was tenuous. Whole villages of Waldensians had been slaughtered. Wittenberg, where Luther lived most of his life, was protected by important German princes, but to tip it in the slightest degree toward association with any disfavored population would be to put it at risk.

Wittenberg did fall, to that same Charles V who had depopulated Rome. Luther was dead by then. His wife died from injuries she suffered fleeing the city. Luther acted irrationally and discreditably toward peasants and Jews, a fact probably related to his having lived for years under a death sentence. Heresy was considered so highly communicable then that his friends, children, colleagues, and students were all imperiled together with him. He was far from the first in his culture and times to attack the Jews or despise the poor. These things contrast very jarringly with the most Christian of his insights, as they contrast jarringly with the self-perceptions of Christendom.

The Peace of Augsburg, signed in 1555, which for a while established a truce between Catholics and Lutherans within the Holy Roman Empire, did not acknowledge other Protestant groups, who had little or nothing in the way of princely protection and who remained liable to prosecution as heretics by both Catholics and Lutherans. Luther was no longer alive, but his readiness to dissociate himself from vulnerable groups seems to have survived him.

Fierce old history bedeviled Europe after Luther as it had before him. Wars there found religious pretexts or were responses to papal crusades, which, as modern historians tend to forget, were carried out within Europe itself, for example the thirteenth-century Albigensian Crusades, which exterminated an entrenched “heresy” and also greatly enlarged the kingdom of France. More than one reason can always be found for any war. It is interpretation that assigns priority to one or another. The Luther legend, the idea that one man and one set of events shattered a great order and brought down chaos, minimizes a terrible continuity in the affairs of the continent before and after the Reformation. Power was shifting as the resources and competences that come with literacy spread through the population. By what means and how extensively it spread no one can know. Depending on circumstances, it could be incriminating and was concealed. We do know that for centuries ragged cloaks hid worn Gospels and that furtive worshippers gathered at night to hear them read. We know forbidden books were cherished at great risk. And we have some of those books, which spoke to the unlearned in their own languages, and were as fluent in high thought and visionary gentleness as anything ever written by a Christian hand.

© 2017 Marilynne Robinson