The Reformation’s Larger Historical Impact

Dec 21st, 2017 | Category: Faith/Learning, Lutheran Education Commentary
By Mary Jane Haemig

I speak from my own perspective as a seminary professor, one engaged in educating pastors and future leaders of the church. So my focus will be on the message of Luther and his followers and its continuing impact today. That message continues to give hope, consolation, and freedom today to millions of people. It has shaped a church (yes, it is one church despite its organizational divisions) identifying itself as Lutheran and seeing Luther as in some sense its chief theologian, spiritual father, tone-setter, and example.

The Lutheran reformation has a living presence today in the ministry of churches identifying themselves as Lutheran around the world. Those churches have a distinctive way of understanding God’s work in the world as twofold, in law and promise. They understand that God’s work is sometimes hidden under the appearance of opposites. They know that God’s work is embodied in the finite, specifically in the person of Jesus Christ. And they are suspicious of theologies of glory and success.

Those churches express law and promise in their preaching, teaching, and administration of sacraments. This message of hope and consolation and freedom continues to affect people today. A few words about each of these:


Yes, this means freedom from having to do good works to earn God’s favor. This freedom has very concrete consequences in the American context. It means freedom from the perfectionism that dominates much of American life, freedom from the fear of double predestination, freedom from being burdened with a decision for Christ, and freedom from the notion that our free will must choose God. But, of course, Luther did not talk only about freedom from, he talked about freedom for. For Luther and Lutherans, freedom is not for one’s self but rather for service to the neighbor. Freedom is freedom for vocation, for finding those places and those roles to which God has called us and freely serving our neighbors within those places and roles. This also means freedom for engaging in those activities that aid the vocations of others, like education.


Our pasts cannot oppress us because we know that God has forgiven us and God is constantly at work to reconcile us to him. Our losses and our suffering now cannot cause despair because we know the bigger picture that even in loss and suffering we belong to the merciful God who will not let go of us. What we see, the activity of evil in our lives, cannot plunge us into hopelessness because through the cross of Christ we see it all differently. While many versions of Christianity say that we cannot see everything, it is the Lutheran “take” on Christianity that acknowledges most explicitly that God is active under the form of opposites, and God is active for good in this. That is, even when we clearly see bad things happen, we are consoled with the knowledge that God is still active for good. Our consolation is not in God’s glory but in the faith that God continues to be at work in suffering and the cross.


This is not a naïve hope for human betterment or an imperialistic hope for a God who will zap our enemies. Rather this is a hope that knows that God holds all of human life and that this God is both a discerning God and a merciful God. We have hope because we know this God raises the dead both in this life and in the next. We hope because we know that suffering and death are not the end of the story.

The message of the Wittenberg reformation—this message of hope, consolation, and freedom—has been conveyed in ways that also have had significant consequences. One could focus on preaching or on hymnody. I will focus on the Lutheran emphasis on catechesis. Lutherans have believed that educating laity (not just young people but all laity) in the faith is important.

Though Luther and his followers did not invent catechesis or catechisms, they gave them an importance which had both ecclesial and societal consequences.1 Let’s look briefly at the reasons Luther and his followers gave for learning the catechism2 and also briefly consider the ecclesial and social consequences of these reasons.

The Lutheran reformers considered the catechism a summary of scripture or introduction to scripture. In Luther’s first series of catechetical sermons (1528) he said that in the first three parts of catechism all scripture is contained.3 Everything in the Bible is not there but these three parts convey the central salvific message of the Bible. By focusing on the central message, the catechism gives listeners an introduction and guide to reading scripture. It is a useful summary of biblical message. Luther also emphasized that after people have learned the catechism they should be led further into scripture.4 So learning the catechism was never an end in itself, either an end to learning or a goal for itself. The Lutheran reformers made clear that engagement with and understanding of scripture was a task for laypeople, not just for experts and ecclesial authorities. They gave laypeople tools to aid them in this task.

The Lutheran reformers saw the catechism as the identifying mark of Christian. Luther thought that those who do not know it should not be counted among Christians. This is about identity but a deeper sense of identity than one that merely involved intellectual knowledge. Luther compared the Christian who does not know his catechism to the artisan who does not know his craft.5 Just as a craftsman’s knowledge defines his very existence, so too knowledge of the catechism defines the life of the Christian. Luther wanted Christians who knew what their hope and consolation was, who knew where their freedom came from and what it was for. This was empowering.

Luther and his fellow reformers had a strong and realistic sense of the power of evil. They wanted lay people to know their catechism because they saw such knowledge as a weapon in ongoing fight against sin, the devil, and heretics. When preaching on the third commandment in 1528 Luther commented: “Since therefore the devil is always soliciting us, it is necessary that we hold the symbol [the Apostles’ Creed] and the Lord’s prayer in our hearts and mouths.”6 Luther’s 1531 preface to Large Catechism says that we should use God’s Word to “rout the devil and evil thoughts.”7 For Luther, the opponents were both cosmic—sin, death, devil—and temporal.

The Lutheran reformers saw the catechism as a measure for judging other teaching. Knowing the catechism empowers the laity to distinguish between true and false teaching, to judge what is being preached and taught to them. No longer was this function assigned only to ecclesiastical superiors. Catechesis was supposed to provide the laity with an important ecclesial oversight function.8

Catechesis is profoundly anti-hierarchical. It emphasizes lay knowledge and understanding of the faith, indeed lay exploration of the faith. (Questions are encouraged.) It aimed to produce strong, thoughtful, confident lay people who knew and could articulate their faith and could hold their leaders accountable. These characteristics can extend into other realms.

What were the societal consequences of these catechetical emphases?  Some think that these Lutheran emphases were one of the factors that led to development of democracy, another movement that believed ordinary people could think and consider important matters and hold leaders accountable. The emphasis on lay knowledge and the accountability of leaders was also a factor which has fueled movements for justice. It is perhaps not an accident that those Midwestern states most influenced by progressivism in the 19th & 20th centuries (a major movement for social justice) also had significant influence from Lutherans and other groups affected by the continental protestant reformation.

Luther’s religious ideas had consequences for society and culture in his time and down to our time. A very brief look at three areas is helpful in understanding this:

The importance of earthly pursuits. Prior to Luther, only clerics (priests, monks, etc.) were seen as having “callings” (vocations) from God. They were viewed as better in God’s eyes and their work as more pleasing to God than ordinary work. Luther emphasized that all people had callings from God and fulfilled them in various ways—parent, teacher, farmer, baker, shoemaker, attorney, soldier, city councilman, etc. According to Luther, no vocation was better in God’s eyes than another. Luther believed that a vocation was a place God gave you to serve your neighbor. So, for example, a shoemaker did God-pleasing work if he made good shoes. A baker pleased God when he baked good nourishing bread and sold it at a reasonable price. This elevation of ordinary life had a tremendous impact in the societies affected by the Protestant reformation.

Social Welfare

Medieval theology thought that giving alms (money) to beggars was a good work. In the medieval way of thinking, such good works contributed to the giver gaining salvation. So society and the church had no incentive to lessen the number of people begging. After all, they provided opportunity for the rest to earn salvation. When Luther’s reformation preached that no good works could earn God’s salvation, this incentive for giving to beggars was destroyed. Instead, Luther taught that because God has already done everything for our salvation, we have every reason to go out and take care of our neighbor. So cities established community chests and began regular systems of support for the poor.9 (They also banned begging as a public nuisance.) The efforts of that time grew into many of the social welfare systems that we know today.


Luther and his followers advocated for education for everyone. Specifically, this meant primary education for boys and girls and vocational or university education for boys. Luther’s emphasis on educating girls was revolutionary in his time. His emphasis that all children should be educated so that they could serve their neighbors and build up the common good had a lasting affect. Education came to be seen as a public good rather than a private benefit. Education was linked to vocation: in order to fulfill a calling and serve others, a young person needed to be appropriately educated.

The Lutheran church still struggles with the heritage of Luther and with its theology. In the American context, the Lutheran church has struggled with being a minority in a nation dominated by Christians that are either Calvinist or Perfectionist. We could be better at articulating and spreading our gifts. Some Lutheran insights have been underused in the American context. To name a few:  God’s two ways of governing, the doctrine of vocation (and education for vocation), the lack of emphasis on the manner of church organization, God as active under the appearance of opposites, Freedom as freedom for service, not freedom from one’s neighbor, and hope that is not hope for human perfection. Yes, we should talk more about these Lutheran emphases and their consequences both for individual and communal life. We should also recognize that in some places they have already had public consequences. Midwestern states (in particular) influenced by Lutheran perspectives manifest that. In some significant respects their cultures reflect the devotion to education and social welfare that was characteristic of the Lutheran reformation.

One final note: The Lutheran church today is a church with a broad international reach. The fastest growing Lutheran churches are now in Africa.


Haemig, M. J. (2017). Recovery not Rejection: Luther’s Appropriation of the Catechism, Concordia Journal 43/1&2, 43–58.

Martin Luther, Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar: H. Böhlau, 1883-1993) (Hereafter WA) WA 30/1, 2.

Kolb, R., Wengert, T. J. eds., (2000). Shorter introduction to Large Catechism in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress.

Haemig, M. J. (2006) “Laypeople as Overseers of the faith: A reformation proposal.” Trinity Seminary Review 27, 21-27.


1. Haemig, M. J. (2017). Recovery not Rejection: Luther’s Appropriation of the Catechism, Concordia Journal 43/1&2, 43–58.

2. In that time, the word “catechism” simply meant the text of the Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, and Lord’s Prayer. Only later did it come to mean Luther’s Small Catechism.

3. Martin Luther, Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar: H. Böhlau, 1883-1993) (Hereafter WA) WA 30/1, 2.

4. WA 30/1, 27.

5. Kolb, R., Wengert, T. J. eds., (2000). Shorter introduction to Large Catechism in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress.

6. WA 30/1, 5.

7. BC 381.

8. Haemig, M. J. (2006) “Laypeople as Overseers of the faith: A reformation proposal.” Trinity Seminary Review 27, 21-27.

9. See, for example, Carter Lindberg, (1993). Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor. Minneapolis. MN: Augsburg Fortress.

Author Information

Mary Jane Haemig has taught Luther and Reformation studies at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, where she is a professor of church history, since 1999. Prior to that she taught for five years at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, WA. She received her doctorate in the History of Christianity from Harvard Divinity School in 1996. She is associate editor and book review editor of Lutheran Quarterly, associate editor of the Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions, and a member of the continuation committee for the International Luther Research Congress.