Monument of the reformer Martin Luther in Erfurt, Germany. (Jonathan Schoeps/Shutterstock)

On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of All Saints Church. It was a rather ordinary act. He was a professor, a public intellectual. By posting his propositions, he was, in the customary way, calling for a debate.

It was not an act of vandalism. The church door served as a community bulletin board. Where else, in a world united by religion, could anyone be sure to communicate with an entire population? Mass media came down to the church’s door.

There was nothing unusual or dramatic about what Father Luther did that day. But it was enormously consequential. It ignited wars that lasted for more than a century. It redrew the map of Europe and changed longstanding alliances. And it led to the emergence of thousands of varieties of Christianity, where only one had been known before.

This month the world will mark the 500th anniversary of that event — a moment that historians are still struggling to understand.      

There is always an element of myth-making in the writing and teaching of history. Historians look at the abundance of past events and select a few they consider significant. They create “eras” by imposing start and finish dates. They impose a narrative — telling a story that runs from good times to bad times or bad times to good. Even the names given to eras are terms loaded with value judgments. Who would want to live in “Dark Ages”? Who wouldn’t want to live in a time of “Enlightenment”?

History is told by the victors; and, so, in the English-speaking world, the story of the 16th century has been taught as the “Reformation” — a time when religion was purified and democratized, a time when righteous men stood up to the corrupt and arrogant papacy.

As long as Protestant Christianity dominated the universities, the storyline was consistent. Late in the last century, however, the narrative began to shift, with the work of British historians J.J. Scarisbrick, Christopher Haigh and Eamon Duffy. Duffy was especially influential. His 1992 book “The Stripping of the Altars” inspired a generation of scholarship that challenged the established categories. Other titles — most of them by non-Catholics — overturned the received account of religious changes in the 16th century. Miri Rubin reexamined medieval Catholic Eucharistic devotion in her book “Corpus Christi.” Anne Winston-Allen recast the history of Marian piety in “Stories of the Rose.”

Now, as the world commemorates the 500th anniversary of the publication of Luther’s theses, the major presses are presenting reconsiderations of the Reformation. In 2016, Yale brought out Carlos Eire’s 900-page overview, “Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650.” Bloomsbury published Eamon Duffy’s new “Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England.”

In 2012, Harvard brought out Brad Gregory’s “The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.” And just last month, Harper released Gregory’s “Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World.” Gregory, a Protestant historian, focuses especially on the effects of Luther’s rebellion on the centuries that followed.

All these new titles are unflinching in their examination of the period — and the claims of both Catholics and all varieties of Protestants. Together, it’s fair to say, they serve to canonize a new reading of history, one much more sympathetic to Catholic claims and freshly critical of the formerly dominant Protestant accounts.      

Multiple reformations

From the title onward, Eire’s book “Reformations” is provocative. He speaks not merely of the Reformation, but of reformations, plural. His terminal dates, moreover, don’t match up with the old standards. He begins his account in 1450, 67 years before Luther’s theses, and he ends in 1650, much later than most previous accounts.

Eire asks, “Should so much change be ascribed to one person and one event?” The answer is: probably not. In Eire’s view, Luther “was as much a product of change as an agent of it.”

Luther’s challenge to the Church was part of a wider movement of reform, in Church and society, a movement that had begun before Luther’s birth. Such reform, moreover, followed in a tradition of renewal that reached back to the beginnings of Christianity. But previously, Eire points out, reform had meant one thing: “improving the Catholic Church while remaining faithful to it.”

Eire describes Catholicism as the “adhesive” in medieval European society. “From Portugal in the southwest to Lithuania in the northeast, and from Sicily in the far south to Scandinavia in the extreme north, a common set of myths, rituals, symbols and ethical norms linked all Westerners, and so did one ancient and complex institution that mediated this religion: the Catholic Church, led by the pope in Rome. To break with this Church was to turn it from an adhesive into an explosive, to change it into social dynamite.”

Religion unified peoples in Europe and made peace possible. Religion also provided a coherence to all aspects of medieval life. Eire observes: “Religion was so deeply intertwined with all social, political, economic and cultural structures as to be inseparable from nearly every aspect of daily life … to redefine religion was to redefine the world.”

Luther at first considered his theses to be a critique from within the Catholic Church. Never before, however, had a reform effort harnessed the power of mass media as Luther harnessed the newly invented printing press.

What began as an academic matter became, almost immediately, a raging dispute that threatened to dissolve society. Germany suffered the largest peasant uprising in its history. Princes, for political advantage, threw their military might behind one religious faction or another.

And the factions multiplied. Luther was soon joined by other reformers, all seeking quite different reformations: Calvin, Zwingli, Henry VIII and the Anabaptists. Protestants, says Eire, “were not always of one mind and actually created a number of distinct competing Reformations and churches, each of which claimed to be the genuine article.”

Division created more division, and all sides hardened in their positions against the others. Eire notes that “all changes in religion were shaped as much in reaction or opposition to the others as they were by any internal logic. Protestant self-definition relied on identifying what was wrong or false in Catholicism. And vice versa. Catholic self-definition strained to be the polar opposite of all things Protestant. Moreover, within Protestantism this same process played itself out in two directions, for it was just as important for each of the various Protestant churches to distinguish what was wrong or false within all the other opponents of the pope, as it was to prove that the Catholic Church was totally wrong.”

The adhesive had become an explosive, and society was smithereened apart. The only thing the reformers agreed upon was their rejection of Catholicism and the pope. Everything else was subject to dispute: the number and nature of the sacraments, the locus and extent of authority in the Church community, the function of the clergy and the relationship between religious and civil authority. Luther himself veered back and forth in his position on key questions. Future reformers would call into question even the divinity of Jesus and the dogma of the Trinity.

Eire chooses as his endpoint for the era of “Reformations” the conclusion of the Thirty Years’ War, which claimed the lives of 8 million people in Europe.

Secular state rises

How to maintain peace, then, in a society divided by multiple, contradictory truth claims?

The aftermath of the Reformation is the grave concern of Brad Gregory, in both his Luther biography and “The Unintended Reformation.” He demonstrates that the Reformation made possible the rise of the secular state and the silencing of Christianity’s moral authority to judge the government.

Luther envisioned a church whose members agreed on doctrines that were evident from “Scripture alone.” Such a moment never arrived. Instead, statesmen and philosophers sought ways to adjudicate differences based on reason alone — though reason would prove to be as elusive as certainty in religious doctrine and just as open to multiple interpretations.

The logic of the Reformation, Gregory shows, led inexorably to the Enlightenment and its antireligious ideologies — such as communism, fascism and the French Reign of Terror, all of which were prodigious in murdering Christians.

The global west, in the centuries since the Reformation, has become a patchwork of societies marked by certain tendencies, all of which Gregory traces back to the doctrines and actions of the Protestant reformers:

> Excluding God;

> Relativizing doctrines;

> Controlling the churches;

> Subjectivizing morality;

> Consumerism; and

> Secularizing knowledge.

The Reformation made these conditions possible. Yet all of them would have been repugnant to Luther, Calvin and Zwingli.

This year, at the 500th anniversary, we are witnessing a turning point in history — or at least in the writing of history. Duffy notes that the old accounts of the Reformation “commonly started with a brief résumé of the late medieval background, designed to demonstrate the dysfunctional character of late medieval Christianity, with the bulk of the narrative focused on the spread of Protestantism in the 50 years or so after 1517.” Now, such narratives are largely dismissed.

In the past, Duffy adds, it was easy for English-speaking historians to speak of a singular Reformation, “with its implication that a ‘good’ form of Christianity replaced a ‘bad’ one.” That’s much less likely to happen today.

The dividing of Christianity into denominations has been disastrous for Christians, and Christians in general seem to recognize this. Without a shared witness, believers today have relatively little influence in society and are increasingly marginalized. For a century, there has been — in the Catholic Church and in many Protestant denominations — a movement toward greater mutual understanding and common action. The ecumenical movement has done much to overcome rancor, which is a necessary precondition to the far more difficult work of reconciliation in doctrinal and sacramental matters.

Perhaps this year’s memorials will accelerate the process of healing, in light of the ever more evident truth of history.