Repent and celebrate: The Reformation after 500 years

The prospect of one’s imminent death, Samuel Johnson famously said, “wonderfully concentrates the mind.” The same might be said of observing major commemorative dates.

The world rushes headlong toward one such date: October 31, 2017, the quincentenary of the Protestant Reformation, the anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. Numerous institutions worldwide have begun planning for the epochal moment.

But exactly how does one commemorate a historical juggernaut of such immense influence and contested interpretation? Protestantism, it should be remembered, has been credited (or blamed) for the rise of the modern nation state, liberalism, capitalism, religious wars, tolerance, democracy, individualism, subjectivism, pluralism, freedom of conscience, modern science, secularism, and so much else. Interpretations of “1517” make up a veritable palimpsest of modern Western history. Scholars and journalists will revisit many past interpretations as 2017 draws near and thereby add another layer to our collective memory of this historical watershed.