Martin Luther

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What is Martin Luther's impact today?

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Martin Luther effected a seismic changed in western history when he successfully broke Western Christendom into two parts: Roman Catholic and Protestant.

One effect of this was to put more power in the hands of monarchs, who no longer needed papal approval to legitimize their reigns. This led sometimes to the abuse of power, as, for instance, when the Stuart kings in Great Britain interpreted their "divine rights" very aggressively to make power grabs that led to the English Civil War. This effects us today because as a result of the political crisis in Britain, philosophers such as John Locke developed theories of Natural Law that asserted that monarchs ruled by the consent of the governed, who had a right to rise up against tyranny. This gave the American colonists grounds to stand on when, in 1776, they rebelled against British rule. We can say that because of Martin Luther's revolutionary theology, the west eventually developed a theory of human rights that facilitated a rise in democracies such as the United States.

Second, Luther's intense emphasis on "sola scripture," or the Bible as sole authority in theological debate, led to a need to translate the Bible from Latin into vernaculars and a consequent emphasis on literacy so that people could read the Bible and interpret it for themselves. Literacy gains in the west, which continue to benefit us to this day, can arguably be traced back to Luther's reformation.

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Martin Luther was a hugely influential figure in history; indeed, one of the most influential figures of all time. One of his most significant contributions was the idea, which he claimed to find in St. Paul, that an individual Christian believer could only be made right with God—or justified, as he called it—through faith, and not through works.

The late medieval Church, against which Luther so vigorously struggled, believed that men and women could contribute to their own justification through carrying out good works or acts of penance. Luther strongly challenged this notion, claiming that there was no warrant for it anywhere in Scripture. He argued that only God could restore the believer's right relationship to himself, and this was solely by divine grace through the channel of faith.

In advancing the doctrine of justification by faith alone, Luther fundamentally changed how people saw their relationship to God, inducing a greater sense of humility and trust in the face of divine power.

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There are several ways in which Martin Luther affected religion and culture. Perhaps the most important is that Luther started the Protestant Reformation, a movement that ended the monolithic power of the Roman Catholic Church in the Latin West. All Protestant churches across the world owe a tremendous debt to Luther for their very existence.

There are some key theological points emphasized by Luther that have had significant cultural impact. The first is what is known as the "sola scriptura" doctrine, that Scripture alone is necessary for salvation. What this leads to is a reduction in power of the clergy. Although the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist remain important for Protestants, salvation in Luther's formula is through faith and by grace. Under this, the clergy become ministers, helping their flocks, rather than intermediaries between God and man. This reduces the power of the Church as an institution. Luther also rejected the notion of the Papacy as having unique authority throughout Christendom. 

The importance of Scripture for Luther meant making the Bible available to the laity in the vernacular. This was one significant factor in the rise of literacy rates in Protestant countries.

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