Reviews > Culture

Millennium on our mind

Culture | Life 's list inadvertently showed the Reformation way of changing the culture

Issue: "Is there no tomorrow?," Aug. 7, 1999

WORLD's July 31 millennium issue is now history, but we're not quite done discussing Life magazine's list of the top 100 events of the millennium. As WORLD editor Marvin Olasky has pointed out (see WORLD, July 24 and 31), Life's list is mainly a chronicle of human progress, construed in mostly technological terms-but publication of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455 did take first place, and Martin Luther's starting of the Reformation in 1517 did come in third. Admittedly, Life's editors were most excited about the technological achievement of Gutenberg's printing press, which launched the information revolution continued even now with the Internet. Nevertheless, even Life had to recognize that what Gutenberg printed was the Bible, and that Luther encouraged people to read it. It's that culture-changing aspect of the Reformation that I want to emphasize. Luther was not out to change the culture. He was simply a theologian who came to grasp the enormity of human sin and the even greater power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But for all of his single-minded devotion to the good news of salvation, he did, in fact, change the culture, in part by starting an ambitious educational program so that everyone-including peasants and little girls-could learn how to read. Luther's colleague Melanchthon opened what was, in effect, a whole network of classical Christian schools, constituting the first scheme for universal education since the days of the Greeks and Romans. And once someone learned how to read the Bible, he could read anything. By 1500, some half million titles had come off the printing presses. Learning in every field exploded exponentially. The old social hierarchies began to be obsolete. A peasant who could read could gain access to skills, information, and knowledge that could make him rich. Economic opportunity blossomed. The old political aristocracies also were becoming irrelevant, as ordinary people claimed competence to rule themselves. They also had access to an authority above that of human princes. Not only did education have its effect, but the worldview formed by the Bible shaped institutions from the family to the state, from businesses to the new science. Luther himself downplayed his role in the Reformation. All I did, he would say, was put the Word out. It was God, working by means of His Word, who did it all. Luther emphasized that, but it's unlikely that the editors of Life really grasped the value of Luther's insight that salvation is by grace alone through faith in the completed work of Christ. Here's the crux: Secular scholars have long recognized the importance of the Reformation, but thoroughly missed its main point. Some see Luther's protest against indulgences as the end of the Middle Ages, breaking the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church over Western culture and ushering in modernity (as if Luther were not the most implacable foe of every kind of humanism and autonomous rationalism). Many see in the Reformation the advent of radical individualism, in which a person's private conscience, subjective experiences, and unconstrained liberty took priority over every kind of objective authority (as if Luther were not the severest critic of such subjectivism). Significantly, in his book Humanism: The Wreck of Western Culture (1993), British scholar John Carroll argues that Renaissance humanism failed, whereas Luther's Reformation succeeded. He contrasts Luther to the great Greek physicist and engineer Archimedes, who, among other things, developed the theory of the lever. With the right lever and the right fulcrum, said Archimedes, "I could move the world. If," he significantly added, "I had a place to stand." Archimedes could not move the world because he could not remove himself from the world. Humanists could not change humanity, because they had no place to stand apart from their own human nature. Society, culture, political institutions cannot be changed as long as those who attempt to do so are ensnared in politics, culture, and the social scene. This is also why we cannot change ourselves. We cannot step outside of the self in order to change it. We have no place to stand. Luther, on the other hand, according to Mr. Carroll, did have a place to stand. When he was called to defend his rejection of indulgences before the church and before the emperor, Luther, alone and in peril of his life, appealed to the authority of the Word of God. "Here I stand," he said; "I can do no other." Luther had a place to stand-outside of himself, outside of his culture, outside of the world-namely, the Word of God. Unlike Archimedes, Luther had a place for his fulcrum, and he indeed moved the world. If our culture today is to be changed, we also need to rely on our access to a higher authority than human princes.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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