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Luther changed everything

HISTORY - The Enlightenment could not have happened, had it not been for Martin Luther, says professor of Theology Anna Vind. Nor could The University of Copenhagen in its present form. 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Luther's Reformation.

Probably no-one in Denmark has to be reminded who Martin Luther was. Yet, it often remains unclear what the Reformation was really about. The forthcoming 500th anniversary became a good incentive to get to know more about it.

Half a millennium. It sounds monumental and indeed is. On the 31st of October 1517 Martin Luther, a monk and professor of theology, portrayed by some as a humble man searching for the truth, by some as a charlatan with a devil at his side, changed the whole direction of European history. And both Denmark and the University of Copenhagen were greatly affected by what he did.

Four hundred and ninety-nine years later Pope comes to Lund to commemorate this event, and everyone considers it a watershed moment. And it is just the beginning, as for 2017 there is much more planned. How to make sense of it all? The University Post talked with Anna Vind, an internationally recognised Professor of Church History at the Faculty of Theology with expertise in Luther’s thought and its reception in Denmark, a person responsible for the Faculty of Theology’s response to the anniversary.

In popular culture we have this movie-like scene of Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, which together with his quote »Hier stehe Ich, Ich kann nicht anders« builds a powerful image. But in reality it was different, wasn’t it?

»What we know, is that on the 31st of October Luther sent the 95 theses to the Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg Albrecht of Brandenburg, and to the local bishop in Wittenberg, Hieronymus Schultz, to point their attention to what he thought was the misuse of indulgences.

»The question of the nailing to the door remains controversial, as we do not really know what happened. Some people assume that maybe Luther, or maybe someone else, put the copy of the theses on the All Saints Church’s door, or maybe on an announcement board. So some kind of nailing could have happened, as it was not uncommon to nail important information on the Church-door, but we are not sure about it. Nonetheless, as soon as his theses were written, they were quickly published and spread throughout the intellectual elite.«

But why is this event celebrated as the anniversary of Reformation? Luther remained in the Catholic Church for the next few years.

»It was then that the papal organisation became aware that he was dangerous. His criticism was formulated years before, in auditoria and letters, mostly to the students and colleagues and not in clerical contexts. The theses were the starting point of the more formal opposition against Luther, with a formal process initiated against him in Rome in the spring of 1518 running up to 1521, when he was excommunicated by the emperor. Luther was, first and foremost, economically dangerous when he started criticizing indulgences. Indulgences constituted a major economical income for the Roman Church, since e.g. the St. Peter’s Church in Rome was funded hereby.«

Luther’s critique became a major event that changed a lot in what formed ‘the Occident’. What was its influence for Denmark in particular?

»The Danish Reformation has a rather arbitrary date too, 1536, when the king Christian III officially reformed the country: He fired the Catholic bishops and hired Lutheran superintendents, reformed the church and the University and put most of the clerical possessions under the crown. But reform movements had been sprouting in Denmark long before that.

»What happened on a larger scale in 1536 happened already 10 years earlier in a ‘mini-version’ in Haderslev and Tørning Len in Southern Jutland. And reformatory preachers and adherents also spread in many Danish cities like Viborg, Malmö and Copenhagen.

»Christian III’s reorganisation of the country in 1536 was nevertheless very powerful as it replaced or rather remodelled the relation between the church and the state. It took many years – well, centuries – after 1536 to put things in their proper order.

»Many things, not the least in the juridical field, had to be reconsidered when the old clerical models were cast away. For example, the poor-relief, which was previously taken care of by the Church and the monasteries, now had to primarily be assumed by the King. But the Danish kings, both Christian III and Frederik II, were quite solid and kept the country in line with what was laid down in Kirkeordinansen from 1537/1539.

»This differentiates the Danish reformation from, for example, the Swedish. Sweden rolled forth and back between Catholicism and the Reformation for approximately 80 years before it finally became Lutheran in the beginning of the 17th century. The Danish kings tried from the beginning to prevent such turmoil and unrest. Confessional diversities were put aside and kept out of Denmark. Consequently, a text like the Formula of Concord, which sought to deal with, and settle, the inner confessional quarrels in Germany, is not a part of the Danish state of confession.

»You were asking for the importance of the Reformation. I would say that what we have today is a modern version of what was introduced in the 1530’s. We have a separation between the church and state emphasizing that they are intimately connected, yet separate and not to be blended. People are also often talking about the Welfare State as something Lutheran. And to a certain extent we can say that the first seeds for such a system were sown in the sixteenth century, when some of the formal clerical social duties were put under the crown. But at the same time one has to acknowledge both the influence of later, quite anti-clerically oriented enlightenment thoughts and 18th century socialist movements, both Christian and non-Christian, upon the welfare ideas, wherefore it would not be correct to call it first and foremost a Lutheran invention.«

The question of the roots of the modern Danish state is very interesting. How does one reconcile Luther’s thinking in matters of gender roles or family models with the values prized by the modern Danish society, such as gender equality?

»Luther thinks that every human being is equal. He highly valued both men and women, and thus women received a hitherto unknown status, since he undermined all hierarchical thinking in relation to God. The notion of equality, unrelated to human sex, was at the core of his understanding of human nature. Talking about specific daily duties in life, he at the same time had a quite conservative view of male and female tasks, and here he reproduced what was common in his time in the sense of a male patriarchal hierarchical system both mirrored in the relation between prince and his people, and between the housefather and his family.

»The man was responsible for taking care of the order of the reign/the family and the money. But female work with the children and the internal family structures was also highly valued by Luther. It was impossible for him as for everyone else in the sixteenth century to think about gender equality in the modern sense, it simply did not exist. Nonetheless, the idea which would later lead to a more equal view of men and women can be said to be implicitly present within Luther’s anthropology.«

What about the influence of the Reformation on the University of Copenhagen?

»The University of Copenhagen was reformed in 1537. The basic grounds for the studies were renewed. The linguistic teaching in and use of Latin and Greek was strengthened, the University received substantial support from the king and several new professorships were erected. The role of this new institution was from now on to educate state officials in theology, law or medicine to serve the administration of the King.«

What does the 500th anniversary of the Reformation bring today? What is the contemporary resonance of it?

»Many things can be answered to that, but as far as I can see the overall important issue within the Reformation was, that Luther succeeded in formulating and carrying through a quite fundamental critique of misuse of power. And this critique led to a different kind of thinking about the singular human being, the role of the individual in society, the relations between the church and state etc. This critique had partly occurred before, but was formulated with unique sharpness by Luther with major impact in the following centuries.

»A lot of people often state that Enlightenment created the modern world. But the Enlightenment would not have become what it was if it had not been for the Reformation. The fact that Luther formulated his critique of power successfully, made an indelible impression and slowly occasioned a spread of his courageous critical attitude into the rest of Europe.«

You are responsible for Faculty of Theology’s part in the Anniversary. What does the Faculty plan for it?

»The major event not only for the Faculty of Theology, but for KU as a whole, celebrating the reformation of the University, will take place on the 5th of October 2017. To this we have invited an international university historian, and furthermore four KU researchers with different scholarly backgrounds within law, natural science, history and theology will lecture on the importance of our history. Besides that, a number of events will take place both within KU and also on a more national level: publications, teaching, conferences. Much of what is planned can be seen at or at«