Long Live the Reformation

I am what you might call a Tudor Geek. It all started fifteen years ago when I first read about and subsequently began to admire Elizabeth I. That naturally led to an interest in all things Tudor-related during her reign and the reign of her notorious father, Henry VIII. Around the same time The Tudors was running on Showtime, I was reading everything I could get my hands on about Henry’s early wives — particularly Anne Boleyn and Katharine of Aragon. This naturally led to reading more about the other interesting figures at court, such as Sir Thomas More. And, of course, that led me to Martin Luther, one of his infrequent correspondents with whom he argued theology — as a result, I know an immense amount about the impact of the Reformation on the English court, and a fair amount about Luther, More, and their contemporaries, as well as what was at stake for both Catholics and Protestants during that period. I know what motivated Queen Mary, and what prompted Elizabeth to adopt a more mainstream approach. I have chuckled over the flurry of insult-laden letters shared between “the heretical little monk” and the most notorious monarch in history (Martin concluded to the effect that Henry had no business discussing theology, and behaved like a “strumpet in a tantrum” when he penned a thesis of his own — many of whom believed was co-written or at least heavily influenced by Sir Thomas More — defending the Church against Martin’s allegations).

No matter what ills transpired as a result of the Reformation (much to Martin’s despair), one cannot argue that it changed the world as we know it. And while it took many different steps to get Martin Luther to the church that day and nail up his thesis, it still transpired on October 31st, 1517. Interesting, that the Church would forever be altered on a day that many in modern times associate with goblins and ghouls, candy and that ever-familiar cry of “trick or treat!” Wherever we stand today, theologically, it is owing a great deal to Martin Luther, who did not mean to “tear the world apart,” but did so regardless — because in his own journey through respect to fear to hatred and back to acceptance again, he believed that he should not be silent when it came to the teachings of the Church in contrast with scripture.

Maybe it is my study of these figures that allows me to respect each of them as individuals, but people are often surprised to learn that I respect and even like Sir Thomas More as much as I like and respect Martin Luther. Both men had much in common in the sense that they were practical and passionate, well-learned and dedicated to their belief system. Each was willing to die for his cause — and Thomas More did. Had not they been on opposite sides of this particular issue, I think they might have even agreed on many things. Many find it difficult to comprehend the motivations behind the actions of such people as Thomas More, Queen Mary, and others. To put it simply, over time Catholicism had displaced Christ through propagating the belief that it was not through Christ that salvation was obtained, but through Mass. If you had not taken part in communion or gone to mass and you died, your salvation was in peril. This is why Mary was in such distress when she was forbidden from having mass — in the concern that she might die and go to hell, because she had not partaken of the Sacremants. It is also what prompted such violent opposition to Martin’s teachings, because those who were dedicated Catholics (such as Thomas More, or Katharine of Aragon) believed that he was condemning people to hell for encouraging them to dismiss the Church and in doing so, abandon the Sacremants. (This explains, though it does not justify, the later religious persecution in England — burn the body to save the soul.) During this period, no one outside the internal hierarchy of the Catholic Church had access to scripture for themselves, so the common man took as gospel whatever their priests told them, which was dependent on their superiors, and so forth. Had Thomas More ever gotten his hands on a Bible, it is doubtful to know what might have happened — but I suspect that he would have argued as he had been taught, that it was beyond the common man to understand, and only for infallible translators to interpret (such as the Pope).

Reading through the history of these people, discerning their hardships and struggles, my heart aches for them — because it is thanks to Martin Luther’s Reformation that I even know what was missing from their individual lives: understanding in the hope that comes from a familiarity with salvation, being not based on our good works or the intervention of a fallible Church, but in the Son of God. One could quibble at length about the true salvation of each of these individuals (were they or weren’t they saved?), but I believe many of them were saved, and more were martyrs in more ways than one. Katharine of Aragon is one of the few historical figures I spiritually admire, because even with her limited understanding, her devotion and godliness was profound. I am continually humbled by it, and in comparison her faith makes mine seem superficial and weak. She used what Truth was given to her and it transformed her life, influencing every decision — even those that would have meant death had she been anyone else. I wish she could have known the assurances I have taken comfort in, the joy of reading scripture for myself… but she feared Martin’s heresy would bring God’s condemnation upon them all.  Katharine expressed concern on her deathbed that she would be condemned for the role she played in unintionally bringing the Reformation to England — that, tragically, was her last greatest fear. She was as much a martyr as Thomas More, except that it was not a public execution so much as a forced exile that led to despair and death — exiled because she refused to accept her divorce and profess that her philandering husband was the moral authority in England, in place of the Pope.

Unfortunately, where Katharine has been largely forgotten or pushed aside in general favor of her replacement, Anne Boleyn, her friend Sir Thomas More has been vilified by modern historians, transformed into a hate-mongering madman who burned Protestants at the stake without concern for their eternal souls. Much of what has been said, implied, and depicted of him is in fact unproven and in some cases a blatant lie — Thomas More agreed with burnings on principle, but never actively participated in them. Outside that, he was a man of immense faith and devotion, and also ahead of his time in the sense that he believed women were just as valuable as scholars as men. Unlike most girls of the era, Thomas More saw to it that all his daughters were well-educated. He was a highly moral man, a theologian, and engaged in correspondence with some of the greatest minds of the day. Henry VIII admired him so much that his death was inevitable — he could not condone what Henry had done, either in displacing his first wife or naming himself the highest moral authority in the land, in defiance of the Pope, and because of this, Henry had to order his death — he could not have his best friend and closest adviser disapprove! More did not go out of his way to become involved, he did not choose controversy, but inevitably it fell on him and he went to his death in a cheerful frame of mind, content in his assurance that he had chosen God over Henry.

Martin Luther is an equally engaging figure, a man once in bondage to fear and then set free when he discovered the Truth of God and Salvation. He was a stubborn, defiant, brutally honest man who would not recant anything he had written, because it was theologically sound and derived from scripture rather than opinion. Compared to many of us now, who shy away from speaking the Truth for fear of being controversial or disliked, Martin was bold in his new-found faith, unshakable in his determination, and God used him — a paranoid, excitable man with a colorful tongue who truly believed what he believed. In Focus on the Family’s phenomenal study The Truth Project, participants are challenged to ask themselves if they really believe what they believe is real? In many ways, I think a lot of us don’t — because our lives would be different if we did. If we really believed God was omnipresent, would we ever do things we would be ashamed for other people to know about in secret? If we really thought people would be burning in hell for all eternity, would we be a little less concerned with how we might sound when sharing our faith with them, or would we be on our knees begging them to repent? If we really believed God was all-powerful, would we stop being afraid in general?

To put it bluntly and brutally, most of us don’t really believe what we profess to believe, because we haven’t chosen to act on those beliefs, but fortunately for us, Martin Luther did really believe what he believed. And he changed the world because of it.

5 thoughts on “Long Live the Reformation

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  1. I saw the movie about Luther a couple of years ago and thought it was quite interesting if not completely accurate. Hollywood always “has” to embellish things, so I am guessing their version of events is a tad bit… exaggerated. I do seem to remember Henry’s tantrums regarding Luther, but I cannot seem to recall if it was in the show or another movie that chronicled Henry’s reign. “The Tudors” may be on the extreme side of exaggeration, but the entire series sure was entertaining. =)

    Interesting post, Charity.

    1. Actually, other than a few historical flubs (listed here), the movie is spot on — they left out one important theological detail, and that is that Martin’s view of God (his hatred of God transforming into love) went through a change when he was teaching — he had to go from the Psalms to Romans, in which Paul addressed all of his concerns. Other than that, though, the movie is far more accurate than most, in part because the Lutheran Church had a hand in making it. 😉

      The Tudors briefly addressed Henry’s thesis and correspondence with Luther, but failed to mention the fact that after the rebuff from Luther, Henry turned the situation over to Thomas More and told him to deal with it, as he had no passion to continue arguing with Luther. It continued briefly and then, affronted by the “foul language” Luther used to insult him, Thomas More ceased the correspondence. And yes, I do find that funny.

      Merci for reading!

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