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Reform and Revolution: 1517 and 1917

Lars Kjaer | October 31, 2017

The autumn of 2017 sees the anniversaries, 500th and `100th, of two of the greatest and most important events in human history: the Protestant Reformation launched by Martin Luther in 1517 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Both witnessed intellectual protest, in the forms of reform and revolution, against the faults of an existing system ignite widespread social indignation. Both saw gruesome violence alongside, and often conducted in the name of, awe-inspiring attempts to create a better, more just society.

But despite the undeniable beauty and greatness of these events, they also leave us with a problematic legacy of division: Bolshevik against Menshevik (and Trotskyist, Maoist etc. etc.); Lutheran against Catholic (and Calvinist and Baptist etc. etc.).

This had never been Luther’s idea. His protests against abuses of church doctrine were, however, nothing new. Luther was merely the latest in a chain of reformers and critics that stretched back to the earliest years of the Church, indeed, it stretched beyond it back to the prophets of Israel. Luther was the heir of one of these protest movements in the most direct sense. He was a mendicant friar of the Order of Hermits of St Augustine. The mendicant orders had themselves originated in the thirteenth century in a previous period of tumultuous reform. Throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries groups of lay men and women had been challenging the church hierarchy searching for ways to live a life of Christian perfection alongside the hierarchy of the clergy and established monastic orders. The church hierarchy reacted with suspicion and, increasingly, with gruesome persecution. Eventually, however, the new movements found a place within the church, in the form of orders like the Hermits of St Augustine founded in 1256. The great difference between the reformations of the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries were, however, that in the thirteenth the church had remained united.

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Baggy, querulous, inconsistent and violent, the medieval Church was a large tent. Here sceptical university professors, visionary nuns, powerful queens and ascetic friars could remain united in a single body despite constant mutual scepticism and criticism. The Church was, on occasion, riven by accusations of heresy, but, for all that, most of its members remained committed to an ideal of unity. Luther, himself, did not set out with an ambition to split the Church but to reform it. That the reformation nevertheless resulted in the breaking apart of the Church is one of the most tragic legacies of 1517.

It is a tragedy not just for Christians, but for all of us who live in societies shaped by Christian values and worldview. The split between Protestants and Catholics repeated itself endlessly as reformers split into ever smaller religious communities, divided by equally endless lists of theological disagreements. The so-called “protestant disease”: the belief that one can only form a community with those with whom one agrees fully was carried over by Protestantism’s spiritual heirs, the social parties of the nineteenth and twentieth century, resulting in the mess of microscopic parties that form the international left today. It is seen in the endless search for ideological and moral purity that threatens the Labour party and keeps progressives at each other’s throats. The tragic splits of 1917 echoed habits of thought instigated by the reformation of 1517. In an era where virtue and identity is increasingly connected to the idea of splitting apart from others, we would do well to learn the lessons of the medieval Church: diversity and unity need not be incompatible.

Lars Kjaer

Head of Faculty & Senior Lecturer in Medieval History