Video: Celebrating the Legacy of Martin Luther

Dr. Christine Helmer is a Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University and the current holder of the Arthur E. Andersen Teaching and Research Professorship. Professor Helmer’s area of research and teaching specialization is Christian theology from historical, systematic, and constructive perspectives. Her work is focused on German intellectual history with primary interest in the theology of Martin Luther. This past fall, Dr. Helmer launched a massive open online course, or MOOC, titled Luther and the West to celebrate his lasting influence.


The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther―an Augustinian friar, ordained Catholic priest, and professor of theology―nailed Ninety-Five Theses (or propositions) to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church.

Luther and the West

In ninety-five short, to-the-point criticisms, Luther addressed the issue of indulgences, granted by the pope in Rome, that guaranteed sinners time off from purgatory in return for supporting the church’s projects. Luther believed that an indulgence is to the true feeling of being saved by God as a picture of food is to genuine nourishment. His criticism of the church caught fire. Luther called for a new understanding of Christ’s work that would free the individual from the crushing burden of church laws. He demanded reform of priestly behavior and defended marriage and sexuality as God’s desire for humans to be companions to each other. He also introduced changes to the way Christians worship.

The Protestant reformation, as the movement Luther initiated came to be called, spread beyond religious concerns. Musicians created sounds to accompany new theological ideas expressed in verse form, and artists represented Reformation ideas in paintings. As the Bible became part of every Protestant household’s book collection, its study required education in classical languages, interpretation of texts, and philosophical argumentation. Luther promoted education for both boys and girls. Reformation ideas continued to take hold in politics and economics. The early decades of the sixteenth century saw the rise of national political interests over the consolidated power of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope in Rome. Guilds of local artisans, craftsfolk and business were created and the new global trade routes reconfigured economic exchange, posing unprecedented challenges to Christian economic morality. The Protestant reformation would become intertwined with the many cultural and historical developments taking place in the sixteenth century, a time known today as early modernity.

The massive open online course (MOOC) on Luther and the West is about Luther’s reforms and the impact of these reforms in the different areas of the reformation’s expansion.

The focus in the first part of the course is the Bible and the impact of Luther’s translation of this sacred text from its original languages of Hebrew and Greek into German. Luther’s efforts inspired the study of the Bible’s literal sense, which means the meaning of its words. Linguistic tools, like dictionaries, were produced to aid in understanding and historical resources helped in the interpretation of what words meant in ancient times and places. Biblical study thus paved the way for modern methods of interpreting texts generally, from political documents to novels, plays, and poems. Yet Luther’s attention to the Bible as source for religious truth also included a horrible conviction central to Christianity’s legacy in the west, namely the idea that Christianity superseded Judaism. Anti-Judaism has been part of the Christian worldview from the middles ages through the Nazi period and it was given new force by Luther. The course addresses Luther’s anti-Judaism and the impact of Christian anti-Judaism in modern antisemitism, focusing on particular Lutheran theologians in the Nazi period who took up Luther’s ideas to promote violence against Jews, up to and including the Shoah.

A clear-eyed look at Luther’s anti-Judaism opens the way for a discerning look at the dark undersides of many of modernity’s most powerful intellectual innovations. The idea of freedom that characterizes what is meant by “modernity” has an abusive dimension, for example. Luther’s treatise, from 1520, The Freedom of the Christian, became emblematic for the modern understanding of an individual’s freedom to think and act. Yet while freedom was being explained by philosophers in the comfort of their European studies, slaves were taken by force from their homes in Africa and brought to England and America. Freedom in the west is accompanied by the horrific history of the enslavement of Africans and other peoples of color. Slavery’s legacy was protested by an African-American theologian and Baptist preacher bearing the name of Martin Luther. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated a new understanding of political and economic freedom for those who had been left out of the west’s story of freedom.

The course’s third section addresses the ways that Luther’s church reforms expanded into the politics and economics of modern history, from the rise of capitalism and industrialization to contemporary globalization with its inequities of wealth and privilege. In these ways, by looking at the ambiguous legacy of Luther, the course invites students to develop a discerning view of modernity that is capable both of acknowledging what was innovative and beneficial in this era but also its evils and its costs.

The Protestant reformation started out as Luther’s criticism of the Catholic teaching, and ended up shaping everything about modern existence.

Interested? Enroll in Luther and the West on Coursera. If you are a Northwestern student, instructor, or staff member, you can take the course and earn the paid certificate at no cost. For details and instructions to validate this special offer, visit our page on the Office of the Provost’s website.