Western nations are now suffering from greater instability than they have experienced for many years. Failing economies, roaring inflation, debilitated institutions, shaky political alignments, and talk about world depression have created vast, gnawing uncertainties for ordinary people. The “good old days” now seem better than ever. They did in the early sixteenth century, too. Europe was then in the throes of a profound social upheaval that in the end was to be yoked, perhaps surprisingly, to the cause of the Protestant Reformation. The plowing of the old ways did not lead to disaster, as it might have done, but to a renewal of Christian and national life, the effects of which have endured to this day. The celebration of these events on Reformation Sunday this year should be a reminder to us that our present turmoil, far from driving out biblical faith, may provide just the right soil for it.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century Europe was seething with discontent; it was ripe for revolution on religious, economic, and social grounds. The saying often quoted by Catholics at this time was entirely wrong:
Had Luther never penned a book
Germany’d have remained a peaceful nook.
On the contrary, society in most of its aspects was at the point of disintegration. Massive changes would have taken place had Luther never been born, but the changes would have produced a secular revolution; with Luther they produced a religious reformation. In the course of fifty years, from 1520 to 1570, what had been built up over a thousand years was completely reshaped and revitalized along Christian lines. James I. Packer stated the matter well when he wrote:
Without Luther, nationalistic revolts against the Papacy and Empire would still have ...1