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The Five Big Events of the Millennium

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The Human Events issue of 31 December 1999 published the opinion of ten leaders as to the five greatest events of the last millennium. The leaders were professors, authors, lawyers, politicians: Phyllis Schafly, William Rusher, Terry Jeffrey (editor of Human Events), M. Stanton Evans, Charles Rice (Notre Dame Law Professor), Edwin Feulner (Heritage Foundation), Tom Palmer (Cato Institute), Herbert London (president of the Hudson Institute), Allan Carlson (Howard Center), and Ann Coulter (lawyer).

I wish to offer a very brief commentary on what was selected by these leaders. I have two simple points to make. (1) As I look at the biggies that these ten leaders chose, I am especially intrigued by the values that these individuals have. If they consider personal and political freedoms as high on the list, their big five reflect this (e.g., Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, American Revolution). If they value technology and science, then Galileo, the transistor, and DNA get the nod. If intellectual pursuits and new horizons of exploration are important, then Columbus’ landing in America, Gutenberg’s printing press, Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, and several important books (e.g., Newton’s, Aquinas’, etc.) often get mentioned. If how one relates to God is important—especially how a community relates to God—then the Pope’s deeds and Aquinas are listed. What I found very curious, however, was what was missing from all of these lists. This leads me to my next point.

(2) Two items spoke volumes by their omission: The Turkish invasion of Byzantium in May of 1453 and Martin Luther’s nailing the 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg church. Ironically, far more people are aware of Luther’s act than that of the Turks, yet the invasion was real while Luther's deed was, as far as we know, a bit apocryphal. That is, apparently Luther never nailed those theses to the door (an act which is largely misunderstood anyway; it signified at that time a challenge to a public debate, not disrespect for the church). Yes, Luther wrote the theses, and yes, they were distributed throughout Europe within weeks (about 100,000 copies were made very soon thanks to Gutenberg’s press), signalling the start of the Reformation. But that Luther actually physically nailed the theses to the church door is, as I understand it, a myth. But his writing of and the distribution of the 95 theses must surely be one of the five most significant events of the millennium. Western Europe (and all the continents that were discovered by western Europeans) was forever changed because of this event. The authority structure of people’s lives changed from tradition to revelation and reason. As for the Turkish invasion of Byzantium: its importance is in the fact that when it took place the Greek scholars fled with their manuscripts into the rest of Europe. And soon afterward, Europe awakened to the treasures of the Greek world: the Renaissance was born in the south and the Reformation in the north as a result. That it happened one to three years before Gutenberg’s press (we’re not really sure of the exact year that he invented moveable type) was a great ‘coincidence.’

So what are the big five I would choose? In chronological order: (1) The Turkish invasion of Byzantium (1453), (2) Gutenberg’s printing press (c. 1454-56), (3) Columbus’ discovery of America (1492), (4) the publication of Luther’s 95 theses (1517), and (5) I can’t decide! But that these first four all took place within a period of 75 years—and not within the 20th century—ought to humble us about how great this past century has been. It truly has been a marvel on a technological level. But what about an ethical level? Have we made great strides in ethics, or more particularly, in the Christian faith? As Dr. John Hannah, historical theologian at Dallas Seminary, predicted nearly 25 years ago: “All generations of Christians are marked by one theological point or another. The present generation will undoubtedly be marked by hamartiology [the doctrine of sin].” He said this somewhat tongue-in-cheek: We are not marked by the doctrine of sin, but by its practice. That we have honed to an art form.

Related Topics: Cultural Issues

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