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Module Forum: Germany in the Age of the Reformation (HI242)

Module Forum: Germany in the Age of the Reformation (HI242) Should Luther be seen as a 'great man'?

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  1. If we were to assess Luther based on the "Great Man Theory" by Carlyle, then Luther does indeed fit the definition of a character who had shaped history given his arrogance and persistance against the Orthodox Church. His posting of the 95 Theses in 1517 demonstrated his determination and desire to reform the Church in which spread across Europe into a new form of Christianity. His personality and drive is what pushed the reformation. However, as historians, we must keep in mind that Luther alone could not have done this. Indeed, he was a "Great man" but it required the conditions that existed prior to Luther in place that allowed for the reformation to take place such as the discontent through the popular uprisings and foundations laid out by Hus and Wycliffe. Regardless, without Luther, the reformation would not have happened as rapidly as it did.

  2. The case that Martin Luther was reliant upon the support and past works of others is one often stated in rejection of the view that he was a great man. While it is the case that Luther’s own works built heavily upon the groundwork of Erasmus and the humanist movement at large, it yet remains the case that it was Luther’s own successful articulation of grievances and personal character which were so essential in effecting significant change during the Reformation. All great men in history rely upon the work of predecessors, and the fact that Luther was no different should not act as a barrier to the recognition of his rightful place as a great man.

  3. It must be conceded that Luther cannot be divorced from his contemporary context. The seeming novelty of his works are relativized when we consider their similarities with the works of the Humanists. There were also other forces at work in the sixteenth century which inflated Luther’s work with significance far beyond his intentions. For example, the papal courts forced Luther to draw out the more radical implications of his breakthrough and turned him into the symbol of rebellion against the Catholic tradition. Nonetheless, no ‘great man’ acts independent of his circumstances, and Luther is no exception. Luther, although graced by his context, had certain qualities such as his masterful use of language and print, which enabled him to launch a hitherto unprecedented attack on the Catholic Church. Although the groundwork had been laid, it was Luther who was able to intensify debate surrounding these calls for reform to such an extent, that led to a fundamental rethinking of church theology and organization.

  4. The depth of Luther’s greatness is situated in the idea that Luther’s changes in the Church were that of design or one of coincidence. I believe that Ulinka Rublack’s assessment of Luther’s role is overstated, Was Luther a significant character in the reformation? Of course but the idea that the disassociation of his idea’s to a greater Germany outside of Wittenberg gives Luther too much credit. I would point out the strong significance of Bugenhagen and Zwingli in popularising ecclesiastical reform, in truth Luther is too stubborn and narrow minded to plan such a movement and his greatness is overstated.

  5. As with every assessment of ‘Great Men,’ the contemporary context and cultural climate must be considered in relation to the works of those who are seen to drive historical change. Luther in this sense, while his articulation of grievances and persona ought not be understated, was dependant on his time and the changing societal ideas which allowed for such a radical flight from religious orthodoxy. One must also question the inevitability of a religious reformation, and whether that would have occurred without Luther. Luther and his actions triggered the progressive change that had been long needed in German society, but this is not to say that his ideas or ability were particularly original or ‘great.’

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