Unlike Martin Luther, Jesus was not a monk. Apparently He had no connection, unlike (possibly) his cousin John, with the monastic community of the Essenes in the desert. Nor was He a priest. In fact, like the Augustinian priest, He was a ferocious opponent of the clergy, money-grabbing hypocrites for whom He reserved His most severe ire. Like Luther, He was a theologian but (as I was for ten years in the States) a lay theologian, something of a whiz-kid in the discipline, in fact : at age twelve, he famously impressed the phylacteries off the teachers in the Temple.
The Founder of what we call Protestantism also had reason to protest, to criticisize and to condemn many of the beliefs and practices of the reigning religion, Catholicism. He was a devout Catholic who wanted the Church to reform itself, to reject the inventions, the accretions, the aberrations of its non-biblical traditions. But Luther claimed, beyond the Bible, no direct, divine, personal authorization for his Reform (which Catholics called his Revolt). Jesus, on the other hand, wanted not only to reform the religion that was His, but to get it to recognize that He was the Messiah it had prophesied and promised. He went so far as to claim that He, “the Son of Man”, was in fact the Son of God. Luther’s revolt spawned not only theological but political turmoil and wars of religion, replaced by the current more or less pacific co-existence of Catholicism and Protestantism. Jesus’ revolt resulted in His crucifixion and the persecution of His followers, before the conversion of the Emperor Constantine and the domination of Christianity over both paganism and Judaism. Luther succeeded in creating an alternate version of Christianity. Jesus succeeded in creating a religion radically different from Judaism.
Today Christianity, in both its Roman Catholic and Protestant forms, is facing new challenges. Judaism is not one of them. In spite of a long, scandalous history of ultimately genocidal anti-semitism, Christianity and its parent religion have officially declared a truce and practise what passes for ecumenism and mutual respect. Among the Christian Churches a similar tolerance is in vogue. But all of them face a double, serious threat. The more obvious one is the vitality and omnipresence of Islam, both “moderate” and “extremist”. There has been no massive, cross-religion exodus from the Church, although some Christians have morphed into disciples of the Prophet. But demographically Islam is expanding while in many countries Christianity is becoming increasingly irrelevant. This is in fact the second challenge facing the Church. Atheism is growing, but not spectacularly. The real threat is indifference to religion itself.
Will the future see the emergence of a new Protestant, a new Reformer, who will, as did Jesus and Luther, provoke a religious tsunami which will sweep away previous allegiances and create new and vibrant versions of faith ? Our track-record in credulity would support such a vision. But I believe that more and more people will simply refuse to bother with religion, which they will leave to the fanatics, as they get on with their lives without the blind faith, blind folly, against which I and many other will continue to protest, as did, in more nuanced fashion, a 16th century German priest and, two thousand years ago, a certain Jewish Rabbi. As Protestants, their shared mantra could have been “Reformanda Religio”. Mine will remain