Here’s an essay on the topic that you need to read as we stand once more on the cusp of Luther-Madness. It ends like this:
All this matters because the image of Luther at the door has so much shaped our view not only of when the Reformation started but of what the Reformation was. Of course, we need “events”, periods and concepts (including “the Reformation” itself) to organise our knowledge and understanding of the past. But all too easily they become timetabled stops along the fixed tramlines of historical development.
Luther in 1517 was no “Protestant”. He was a reformist Catholic friar. His theses on indulgences are in some ways surprisingly unradical, articulating the unease many thoughtful churchmen felt about the practice. Only later, through a combination of political circumstances and Luther’s own theological radicalisation, did a breach with Rome become irreparable. At no stage can it be considered “inevitable”.
Anniversaries are by definition commemorative and retrospective occasions. But we should use them to ask searching questions and interrogate old verities, not just to remind ourselves of what we think we already know.