How Martin Luther Helped Invent Individual Freedom

Source: Time

This post is in partnership with History Today. The article below was originally published at History Today.

It is unlikely that Martin Luther set out to shatter authority. Yet the Reformation, which started with the publication of his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, set in motion a chain of events that fundamentally undermined the idea of authority itself. Luther demanded that the papacy respond to his criticisms of the Church’s moral failings. His actions did not simply call into question the moral authority of the Church. His defiant stand gave voice to a sentiment that would eventually provide legitimation for disobeying all forms of authority.

Luther’s challenge to the papacy’s moral status converged with the ascendancy of secular political forces that challenged its power. This intermeshing of religious and political conflict, which eventually led to the disintegration of a united Christendom, also provoked an irresolvable debate about the locus of religious authority. Luther’s claim that Christians could have direct access to God without the need for an intermediary threatened the role of the clergy and the Church hierarchy. His theology of reform also opened up a wider debate on obedience and resistance to political rule. The very idea of authority — religious and political — became, for the first time, a focus for philosophical debate. Until this point, authority was rarely questioned explicitly: the authority of individual rulers or the legitimacy of a particular claim to authority was challenged, but not authority itself.

Did Luther really hurl the legendary words — “Here I stand, so help me God, I can do no other” — at his accusers? In a sense it does not matter. Luther did not merely assert the authority of individual conscience to justify his own actions; he advanced a compelling case for the value of people being able to act in accordance with the dictates of their conscience. In so doing, his argument implicitly called into question the right of external authority to exercise power over the inner life of people.

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