The Reformation @ 500 An Overview of the Religious, Political, Social and Cultural Impact

Dec 21st, 2017 | Category: Lutheran Education Commentary
By Jeffrey Leininger

This paper was delivered at Concordia University Chicago’s Reformation 500 Symposium, March 20, 2017. Portions of it were previously aired in an video interview:

In this essay we will explore not just history or theology, but culture and politics as well. This will give us a view of the Reformation at “40,000 feet,” so to speak. The overlapping spheres of Reformation-impact presented will be 1) religion; 2) politics; 3) social change; and 4) cultural change.

Religious Change

People often think about the three “solas” of the Reformation as a helpful summary of the momentous religious change unleashed by the events of 1517: Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone. More than mere slogans, they remain a helpful entry-point into what was at stake in the Reformation controversies. However, I’d like to take us to the heart of the matter in a different way, via a simple question: “where can I find a gracious God?” To me, this summarizes Luther’s struggles, Luther’s quest, and ultimately, what was at stake in the doctrinal disputes. For Luther, the answer was powerfully but simply revealed in “crib and cross,” to paraphrase Dr. Robert Kolb, professor emeritus at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. There, in the manger you have God accessible “for you:” the baby Jesus that you can hold in your arms. How much closer to God can you get? And there on the cross: the wounded God, the suffering God, bleeding for you. For Luther, the grace and love of God was revealed in crib and cross, and that would become the touch-stone of his theology.

For Luther—his wrestling with God, with himself, with the scriptures, and with the ecclesiastical authorities—came down to the discovery of the revealed-God in crib and cross. Wrestling with God resonates with many people today—which makes Luther’s insights so timeless. I can say that, as Concordia’s university pastor, not a day goes by when someone doesn’t come to me asking this basic, and most important of all questions. Further, I would maintain that there is not a Christian in this readership—even those who are not from the Lutheran tradition—who can completely understand their faith without reference to this one big question, which Luther raised, and answered anew for the Church. Luther’s contribution in the area of religion, then, is to ask that great question, and, in a sense, force every Christian to wrestle with it themselves. The truth of this question still resonates with each of us 500 years later because it gets to the heart of what it means to be human and what it means to believe in a loving God.


The recovery of these truths certainly did have some radical effects. This leads us to the second sphere about the political effects of the Reformation. You can’t overstate the momentous changes which were unleashed as a result of 1517. The geo-political map of Europe was eventually redrawn as nation-states are labeled as either “Protestant” or “Catholic.” These religious classifications become their most important identifying characteristic for centuries.

England is a good example. Luther’s insights creep into the Britain through Cambridge evangelicals: people like William Tyndale, Robert Barns, and John Frith. But it wasn’t until evangelical ideas were wedded to the Royal Supremacy of the English Church with Henry VIII that things really got moving (A quick summary of Henry’s six wives: divorced-beheaded-died; divorced-beheaded survived). Evangelicals around the throne attached reformation-themed policies to Henry’s obsession with divorcing Catherine of Aragon. His need to be the Supreme Head of the Church—quite a radical notion in the 1530s—found support in ideas like the insistence on vernacular scriptures, the expulsion of papal authority, the confiscation of monastic institutions, and the purging of “false idols” in the land. In this way, the evangelical agenda was driven forward at an alarming and arguably artificial rate.

A lot happened in the half-century which followed, but it is helpful to reflect-forward to the establishment of Elizabethan Protestantism. It is hard to imagine a British Empire without the Reformation. It would be incautious historically to say that the Empire would not have developed, but it would certainly have looked considerably different had there been no Reformation. At the height of that Empire, as it spread across the globe, you have Anglican Christians in countries we’ve never even heard of, singing translations of Luther’s hymns and a version of Luther’s German Mass through Thomas Cranmer’s Prayer Book. Even the articulation of Justification in the Elizabethan Articles of Religion was based upon Philip Melanchthon’s own wording. And these words then were confessed in places literally all over the world: from the Falkland Islands, to Newfoundland; from British Honduras to South Africa to Fiji. Over 400 million people over millions and millions of miles were singing Luther’s hymns and confessing Justification by Faith.

For example, in every traditional Anglican funeral you hear the phrase, “In the midst of life we are in death.” That ancient prayer made its way from Martin Luther into Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, and then was prayed at every Anglian funeral throughout the British Empire for centuries. This is illustrative of how difficult it is for us to fully understand the far-reaching impact the Reformation had on religious and political institutions.

Let’s come back to North America, and consider the origins of this country. If there were no Martin Luther, there would be no John Calvin; no John Calvin, no English Puritans; no English Puritans, then no pilgrim separatists on the Mayflower signing the famous “Mayflower Compact” on their voyage to the new world. Then, we would be talking about a whole different formation of the United States. It would be hard to imagine democracy developing the way it did in this country apart from the Reformation’s impact.

Thus, we have a great question for ongoing debate: if an Augustinian Monk hadn’t nailed 95 statements to the Wittenberg church-door in 1517, would we ever get to American democracy as we know it today?

Social Change

One area of the Reformation legacy often overlooked is that of social change. Aspects of our every-day lives have been tremendously impacted in ways we might not expect. One brief example will have to suffice: most people don’t realize that the idea of public education—learning which was required, standardized, funded by government, and made available to all including rich and poor, boys and girls alike—was a concept that had a significant, energizing source in Protestant Germany. Schooling became compulsory in Magdeburg, in 1524; in Eisleben, in 1525; and in Saxony, in 1528. The Landgrave Phillipp of Hesse in 1526 called for not only a university at Marburg, but also for schools to be established in every city and village. Girls were to be educated, as well as the poor. He promoted the standardization of curriculum and the paying of superintendents. Public education, of course, has positively impacted millions of people, and the concept was given birth because of the Reformation—truly a monumental social change often overlooked.

Cultural Change

Briefly, let’s turn our discussion to the immense cultural change happening in the 16th century. The development of language and literacy is arguably the greatest cultural development of the Reformation. The best example would be Luther’s translation, printing and dissemination of the German Bible. There is some scholarly debate concerning the correlation between the advent of the Reformation and the rise in literacy rates: how much was literacy already increasing and thus helping give rise to the Reformation movement; or, how much did lay literacy increase as a result of the Reformation.

But we know for certain that the urgency for religious printing in the vernacular helped bring about the standardization of language. Luther’s German Bible (1534), for example, became essentially a reading text-book, with syntax, spelling and vocabulary becoming more consistent in the German-speaking world because of its wide-spread use.

This was true in other countries as well, and arguably even more impactful. The Finnish language was first written down in order to produce Lutheran material of the Reformation (the Catechism and then the Bible). The first books ever printed in both Lithuanian and Estonian were catechisms. The “Martin Luther of Spain,” Casiodoro de Reina, translated and published the first complete Spanish Bible drawn from the original languages (1569). His work became the beloved Reina-Valera Bible (1601). Every Protestant Spanish Bible is based upon this translation (it has a status rather like our King James Bible in English). And every Spanish translation, Catholic or Protestant, owes a significant debt to Reina’s work. There are about one million Spanish-speaking Protestants in Los Angeles alone; there are hundreds of thousands in Chicago. There are up to 10 million Spanish-speaking Protestants in the United States, and every one of them that reads the scriptures in Spanish is indebted to this Spanish Lutheran of the 16th century, Casiodoro de Reina.

In the English-speaking world, one might mention the remarkably popular Geneva Bible (1560). Produced by English Protestants in exile in Geneva, this widespread edition made its way into the thoughts and language of William Shakespeare, and was the first English Bible read in the new world. Thus, when we consider cultural impact, it is not an exaggeration to say that the way we read, write, and speak is indebted to our Reformation heritage. It sounds like an overstatement, but it is absolutely true.

A final example of the Reformation’s immense cultural impact is in the field of the fine arts. One could easily speak extensively about music (the impact of congregational singing); or of the visual arts. However, another important cultural impact was that of Reformation drama in England.

Most people do not realize that the early puritans printed plays; that there are hundreds of titles of Reformation plays which survive throughout Europe; and fully twenty five complete texts have come down to us just from England. Dozens and dozens of theatre companies travelled and performed across Europe, supported and sponsored by the Protestant nobility. What’s important for our purposes is that, like in the media of music and the visual arts, the artistic forms themselves were transformed. In the field of drama, the interlude became one of the major vehicles of Protestant reform. Thus, the reformers were inventing new ways, new media for the message to be propagated, resulting in tremendous cultural change in the fine arts themselves.


We have traced the Reformation’s tremendous impact through the overlapping fields of religious, political, social, and cultural change. We have seen at both the micro and the macro level how difficult it is to fully untangle the ongoing effects on our modern world which were begun in 1517. Nearly every aspect of our modern, western world was affected. Thus, the Reformation remains one of the most important lenses through which we can interpret our past, present and future.

Author Information

Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Leininger has served as Concordia University Chicago’s University Pastor since 2002. He also directs the university’s pre-seminary program; supervises all the spiritual life activities; and supports Concordia’s church relations office. Pastor Leininger has an M.Phil. and Ph.D. in Church History from Cambridge University.