07 March 2008

Martin Luther no longer a heretic?

Could it be that Martin Luther will no longer be considered a heretic by the Roman Catholic Church? This London Times Online article suggests that just such a conclusion may come from Pope Benedict XVI later this year in September. As the article states: "...the Pope will argue that Luther, who was excommunicated and condemned for heresy, was not a heretic." The article also cites Cardinal Walter Kasper, the head of the pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity: "We have much to learn from Luther, beginning with the importance he attached to the word of God."

Hmm. Quite interesting! My curiosity will be piqued from now until September to see just what Pope Benedict will say. What I wonder now is this: How should Lutherans respond? Notice, I did not say, "How do/will Lutherans respond?" Rather, how *should* Lutherans respond?

Over the years, I've heard stalwart Lutheran pastors and theologians say that Rome would make their efforts at church unity seem more sincere by first removing the label of 'heretic' from Martin Luther. Could this be the gesture of good faith that some have been looking for? What are those voices prepared to say and do, should that olive branch, albeit small, be extended? Only time will tell, of course.

On the other hand, we can anticipate, and even already read, the suspicion from fellow Lutherans. Check out Rev. McCain's blog and some rather fiery comments by at least one reader. Rev. McCain rightly prays for the Church's unity - that's always good, right, and salutary - but the bit about Luther being reluctant to have the label "heretic" lifted? Well, I suppose your guess is as good as mine, or Rev. McCain's. It's always speculation, at best, to say what someone who has been buried for many centuries would say in our current ecclesial climate and circumstances. I'd like to think that Luther might have considered it, well, at least a bit of a good sign and a positive development that the pope just might want to lift that ignominious label.

As for Luther giving his list of "non-negotiables" in the Smalcald Articles, sure, he gave a list of doctrinal articles to which he said, "Nothing of this article can by yielded or surrendered" (SA II, I, 5), and so on. However, let's also consider the other side of this coin. Luther did draft this document for the purpose of "dialoging" (our modern term, to be sure) with the Roman party at a Christian council. He explains this in the opening paragraphs of his Preface. Luther even says, "I really would like to see a truly Christian council, so that many people and issues might be helped" (SA Preface, 10). To be sure, by the time Luther published these articles, the plans for a council and the hope of a congenial discussion had evaporated, but that does not negate Luther's good faith effort of outlining his position and being willing to discuss it with the papal party of his day. Luther even introduces Part III of the Smalcald Articles by saying, "We may be able to discuss the following articles with learned and reasonable people, or among ourselves." While Luther certainly had his doctrinal "non-negotiables," he was clearly not afraid to engage the "other party" in discussion for the good of Christendom.

So, how *should* Lutherans respond to Pope Benedict giving a message that Luther was not a heretic? I would think that we Lutherans should at least be interested to hear more. Perhaps we can say that it's at least a promising sign, a step, however incipient and minuscule it might be, in the right direction. Perhaps we can admit that a fractured Christendom is a pretty poor witness to the rest of the darkened, sin-sick world, which really needs the message of healing and light in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ - forgiveness that can actually be lived and practiced among Christian groups and denominations. Perhaps we can also come to the realization that the Roman Catholic Church of the 21st century is not the same one with which Martin Luther dealt, just as the Lutheran Church of our day is not the same as it was in the 16th century. How many of the issues and abuses that Luther faced still remain? To be sure, some do. But let's also honestly admit that others have been addressed by Rome itself through the past centuries and even decades.

Perhaps this pope's intention and willingness to say that Martin Luther was not, after all, a heretic will be an opportunity to engage in some fruitful discussion on precisely what still separates us as well as what we might be able to call common ground. Instead of kicking into "automatic suspicion" mode, we can take a cue from a former U.S. President who dealt with the truly evil empire of the Soviet Union and say, "Trust, but verify." Let's see what exactly Pope Benedict will say come September. Who knows? Just as God used Martin Luther as a staunch defender and restorer of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, He might just use us in our day as menders of the broken bridges within Christendom.

After all, even Luther himself could see what was "holy" in the Roman Church of his day, and in 1535, about the same time as the Smalcald Articles:
Although the city of Rome is worse than Sodom and Gomorrah, nevertheless there remain in it Baptism, the Sacrament, the voice and text of the Gospel, the Sacred Scriptures, the ministries, the name of Christ, and the name of God. Whoever has these, has them; whoever does not have them, has no excuse, for the treasure is still there. Therefore the Church of Rome is holy, because it has the holy name of God, the Gospel, Baptism, etc. If these are present among a people, that people is called holy. Thus this Wittenberg of ours is a holy village, and we are truly holy, because we have been baptized, communed, taught, and called by God; we have the works of God among us, that is, the Word and the sacraments, and these make us holy (Luther, M. 1999, c1963. Luther's works, vol. 26 : Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Vol. 26 (Ga 1:3). Concordia Publishing House: Saint Louis).


Fr. Timothy D. May, S.S.P. said...

It will be interesting to see if today we can appreciate a distinction between that which needs reforming and that which is truly Church. Luther's quote suggests that he saw it clearly in his day. Ironically, what he says here might not resonate as well in its hearing today among Lutherans as it was likely heard by those who surrounded Luther in 1535. I am neither a highly-learned scholar of Luther nor of the Reformation. However, as a Lutheran pastor, I do appreciate that discussions like this are continuing by those who shared (and share) much in spite of differences that have been exacerbated by the twists and turns of history. This well-chosen citation of Luther serves as a corrective, not so much for the Roman Church to which he addressed greatly elsewhere, but to us who can often forget the ongoing work of God through His Word and Sacraments in His Church at Rome or Wittenberg or ... in spite of our sin and many faults. I find the September findings promising for the simple reason that attention is even paid to an issue that has been a matter of great dispute. Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad with her.

Randy Asburry said...

Thanks for your comments, Tim. I do think that ecclesiology is indeed the big issue in our day. If certain abuses crept into the Church through the Middle Ages, particularly regarding the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I wonder what abuses have crept into the Church in the past few centuries. Do we need a "reformation" of our understanding of the Church? ;-)

Fr. Timothy D. May, S.S.P. said...

To catalog such abuses is a tall order and certainly verifiable in all places. Of course, we could go before the Medieval period and find problems there too.

What makes Luther's quote applicable today is that in spite of abuses God places His holy things (Luther: "treasure") in their midst. It is important that Luther sees this "treasure" in places that may have not received the same reformation. This is clearly a statement about ecclesiology.

The need for a reformation of understanding is always there but it is not clear anymore if there is always even an understanding or appreciation of the Church (both inside and outside the Church).
Nevertheless, the Creeds are foundational for any study that leads to a greater appreciation and understanding of the Church.

Randy Asburry said...

Amen! Well said, my friend!

Paul T. McCain said...

What is so painfully difficult for those of us who subscribe to the Book of Concord, unconditionally and without reservation, is that the Bishop of Rome and those who regard him as the Vicar of Christ on earth, are our separated brethren. As we Lutherans clearly and repeatedly confess, through even the darkest years of the Roman Church's history, the Gospel was still read, the Body and Blood of Christ was still received by communicants, and by God's providence, even in the midst of the darkness of Christ-obscuring error, the Gospel still shone forth, for the Word of the Lord endures forever. That is why it is all the more painful that the Church of Rome still continues to propagate such deeply anti-Gospel teachings.

To any extent that Martin Luther is regarded as less of a heretic by the Roman Catholic Church, we can be glad and rejoice, for to that degree then the writings of Luther will be read and studied and the Holy Spirit can, and will, work through the pure Gospel therein proclaimed to move hearts away from the errors of Rome and into the light of the truth of Christ. For this we can give thanks and rejoice and pray ever more fervently for the unity of the Church, a unity not consisting of compromise and faithless neglect of the truth, but a unity rooted, grounded and growing in the Truth of God's most Holy Word.

We can all rejoice in any progress away from the traditional errors that still are very much in place, but we dare not forget, neglect the fact that the Bishop of Rome, in his role as Cardinal Ratzinger, was very careful to make it clear that the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification did not, in any way, change, alter or set aside the historic condemnations of the Council of Trent over against the Lutheran doctrine of justification.

Let's be careful not to forget what Trent declared over against the Gospel:

CANON 9: "If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema."

CANON 12: "If any one shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ's sake, or that it is that confidence alone by which we are justified ... let him be accursed."

Canon 14: "If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because that he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema."

Canon 24: "If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema."

Canon 30: "If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema."

Canon 33: "If any one saith, that, by the Catholic doctrine touching Justification, by this holy Synod inset forth in this present decree, the glory of God, or the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ are in any way derogated from, and not rather that the truth of our faith, and the glory in fine of God and of Jesus Christ are rendered (more) illustrious; let him be anathema.

Here is an excellent Q/A on the issue of Rome, Lutheranism and Justification:

Q. I would like to understand the main problem your church body has with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (signed October 31 by representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church). Is it the fact that it implies that we are saved as a result of both faith and works?

A. Yes, you are on the right track here. The recently signed Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) does not signal a change in the Roman Catholic church, but rather, a willingness on the part of the Lutherans who signed it to allow Rome's doctrine of justification to stand as a valid interpretation of what the Bible teaches us about justification. This is something that the Lutheran church has never done before, and in fact, it is a great tragedy and a profoundly sad moment in the history of Lutheranism.

Rome historically has always taught that we are saved by grace, and grace alone. They emphasize that very strongly. The 16th century Council of Trent makes this point very clear. Thus, there is nothing new on this in the Declaration on this point, even though some Lutherans have made it sound as if Rome's words about grace signal some marvelous breakthrough.

What you probably have not heard is that the JDDJ very carefully avoid precise definitions of the words grace, faith, sin, etc. That is no accident. Careful definition of those terms would have shown how far apart our two churches actually are on the doctrine of justification.

The problem with Rome's view of justification is that they view it as a process, whereby we cooperate with God's grace in order to merit eternal life for ourselves, and even for others (that is a paraphrase of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches). They view grace as a sort of "substance" that God infuses into us that permits us to do those works that are necessary in order that we might earn more grace. The Bible describes grace as the loving and favorable disposition of God; in other words, grace is all about what God is doing and giving.

We distinguish between the result of justification, which is the Christian life, and the work of God to save us. Rome mixes sanctification with justification. Why is this view troublesome? Because it teaches that something other than trust in Christ is necessary for or salvation. That "something other" is what we bring to the table. And the only thing we do bring to the table is our sin, not our good works. Our works are a response that God works in us, but not a contributing cause to our justification.

The Roman Catholic Church is very careful to state that even this "something other" is made possibly only because God has given us the "initial" grace to desire more grace. But in practical reality, it is apparent that the Roman Catholic Church is finally throwing people back on relying on what they are doing, or can do, to merit eternal life. When we mix in our works in the picture of our salvation, the glory and merit of Christ always end up becoming obscured.

But the Bible is clear that it is purely by grace, not by works, or else grace would just be a "help" for us to do the works that finally are what merit God's forgiveness. In the Roman Catholic view, justification is a process by which we participate with God in achieving our salvation. The Biblical view is that justification is God's declaration of our complete righteousness and total forgiveness, apart from any works. This gift is received by faith alone--apart from works (Rom. 3:28; Eph. 2:8-9).

Another point to be made is this: If, in fact, Rome does teach justification as the Bible teaches it, then there should be an immediate change in its view of indulgences, prayer to the saints and the myriad of other extra-biblical traditions that it has embraced. For if justification is the heart and center of the Bible, then these other things are incompatible with it.

I hope this helps you see that the Roman Catholic view of justification and the classical Lutheran view are definitely not complementary, but diametrically opposed to one another. The JDDJ did not change that fact. The Lutherans who signed the document did not insist on careful definition of terms so as to make absolutely clear that our salvation is by faith alone, through Christ alone, by grace alone.

The best short study of the historic differences between Rome and Lutheranism on the doctrine of justification is available in a book called "Justification and Rome" by Robert Preus. You may purchase a copy of this book from Concordia Publishing House (CPH) (800-325-3040).

The most complete treatment of this subject is in the 16th century Lutheran response to Trent, which still stands today as the best and most complete treatment of Trent by a Lutheran. It is "The Examination of the Council of Trent" by Martin Chemnitz, also available through CPH.

And here is a superbly done analysis of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification which shows how, tragically, Lutherans compromised the Gospel of Jesus Christ:


Randy Asburry said...

Hey, Paul,

Why don't you get your own blog for "comments" of such length and depth? ;-) (Oh, wait, you did post it there too - and on an email list. No wonder I thought I had read all that stuff before. :-)

Seriously, though, I wonder just what kind of weight our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters place on the Council of Trent and its decrees. I mean we Lutherans, of course, look to our 16th century documents in the Book of Concord as our standard, and as one who subscribes to those Lutheran Confessions, rightly so and not a problem. But do our R.C. friends do the same thing, or do they have a completely different "ethos" and understanding when it comes to such documents as you cite.

What I mean is this: For our R.C. brothers and sisters, do the decrees of Trent actually serve as "confessional documents" to which they subscribe? Or might they be more like a CTCR document that gives a certain approach or opinion (some being more helpful than others), but that is not subscribed to in, say, ordination vows? Or might they be viewed similar to the way that we Lutherans might view various writings from the periods of Rationalism or Pietism - specifically as in, "Yeah, that's what our ancestors of that time, thought, but now we see the error of that way"?

I have conversed with some Roman Catholic clergy who essentially said, "Trent was not our finest hour." Now, I don't know how widespread or even how official that view is, but it is intriguing. I have also been privileged to listen to a Roman Catholic priest give a series of talks on Roman Catholicism today. As he reads quite lengthy quotes from various papal and Vatican II documents, and as he briefly sketches various points of R.C. history, it is interesting to note how he treats the "official writings." He does not come at the documents with the view that every last statement, word, and syllable is infallible, etched in stone, or everlasting. Not at all. He appears to be very discerning as he leads this class through these "official documents." When there is a statement that is troublesome, he points it out without embarrassment or equivocation.

My point is this: is it possible that our R.C. friends do not look at such past documents - whether in general, or specifically something like the decrees of Trent - the way that we think they do, or in the same way that we look at our own confessional writings? After all, for example, we too have a way of distancing ourselves from some of Luther's own, shall we say, bombastic, less than charitable comments, and yet people outside of Lutheranism keep trying to paint us into a corner with such comments.

Another point I would make is this: Is it at all possible that Rome has learned from the Reformation-era? Is it at all possible that Rome herself has subsequently addressed and/or corrected some of the abuses which the Reformers called into question? I do think that we Lutherans need to look at that with more intellectual honesty than we have been in recent decades or centuries. We cannot keep painting them with the brush of the 16th century. I mean, after all, 500 years is a long time and a lot of things do change. (Just look at the LCMS in its shorter history of 160 years!) No, I'm not saying that everything is resolved and "hunky-dory," but I am saying perhaps we need to engage in the discussion now, in the early 21st century. Perhaps we need to figure out what each "side" believes and practices now, because I've heard many a caricature on both sides and from both sides, and such things are the least helpful, no matter how fervently we might pray for restored unity in Christendom.

Paul T. McCain said...

All interesting observations, but as for what RC folks think, or do not think, about the decrees and canons of the Council of Trent, that really is rather irrelevant since there is one Roman Catholic who has made it exceedingly clear and plain, as does the entire RC magisterium, that Trent stands, as is, and no recent conversations between Lutheranism and Rome have changed its status as binding, official dogma.

The conversations surrounding the "chief article" of the Scriptures was in fact discussed extensively and a big splash was made of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification but nearly as quickly the Vatican splashed a big old bucket of cold water on the whole thing by making it very clear Rome had not changed one iota on Justification.

The only ones who lost there were liberal Lutherans who are all too willing to sell their Evangelical birthright at the drop of the ecumenical hat.

These are well known, very public and widely publicized facts. So, yes, conversations are great. They have been going on formally for several decades. The LCMS has been in the thick of them. Yours truly was the one who drafted our Synodical president's letter to the Pope himself requesting that we not be shut out of the Lutheran Church/RC dialogues as the ELCA was earnestly trying to arrange.

Thanks to some interesting friends in surprisingly high places in the Vatican, a few strings were pulled as only the Vatican can pull them and we were back in again.

So, please do not assume conversations have not been going on.

My concern is that even as we may long for unity, and as painful as that longing is, we can not allow anything to deter us, or confuse us, into thinking that still, to this day, there is at the very heart of things a remaining deep and significant rift between the Biblical Gospel and the teachings of Roman Catholicism.

Randy Asburry said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Paul. I'm sure that the rift will continue for quite some time, most likely long past our lifetimes, perhaps even until the Last Day. However, that said, I do believe it is still incumbent upon us as Christians who subscribe to the Augsburg Confession actually to do what the Confession itself teaches, namely, strive for a united Christendom. No, not in the way of the "ecumaniacs" who advocate unity at the expense of sound doctrine, but in the very same way that the Augstana does: honestly and openly admitting and saying "Here are things we think we can agree upon, and here are things we know are disputed." Just because there's a rift does not mean that we should avoid trying to overcome it. Heck, what's the central Christian teaching about if it's not about confessing sins and wrongs and then living in forgiveness, both received from our Lord Himself and extended to one another? Yes, I know that dialog has been happening for some time. Great! (Though perhaps the details of such dialog should be discussed more in our own circles!) After all, we do join our brothers and sisters in Rome (as well as in Constantinople) in confessing, among the other parts of the Creed, "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church."

Paul T. McCain said...

"Just because there's a rift does not mean that we should avoid trying to overcome it."

That's why we are participating in ongoing dialog with the Roman Catholic Church.

Randy Asburry said...

To be sure. And it's also why we keep praying and working to restore proper unity in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Paul T. McCain said...

The reason I have such strong feelings of frustration and, yes, anger, with the errors of Romanism is precisely because there is so much there I love and cherish. "Tragic" necessity is no mere soundbite to me and I'm sure many other faithful Lutheran Christians.

I developed close friendships with many Roman Catholics growing up in the Deep South where Lutheran and Roman Catholics were but two sides of the same coin in the view of Baptists, Pentecostals, etc.

I attended a Roman Catholic High School and was so deeply moved and impressed by the Religious there who taught us everything from typing (thank you Sister Mary Jean!) and drilled us to death in English and grammar (thank you Sister Mary Margaret!). I loved Latin class when Father Pine, S.J., would wander in and engage in Latin with our teacher, and when he actually corrected my writing one day, walking up and down the rows of desks, "Ah, excuse me, Mr. McCain, but you seem to have a certain fondness leaving your "t's" uncrossed." Yes, Father.

And Father Foley regaling us with tales of lustful youthful episodes with a certain "fair lass" in Ireland where he hailed from, listening to him and Sister Mary Ellen rattle away back and forth in Gaelic.

And they even gave a Lutheran kid best religion student of the year award, twice in a row!

And the kind notes and remembrances from the priests, sisters and brothers who, in their own dear ways, encouraged me to become a Lutheran pastor.

I love all of them deeply and am eternally grateful.

But I sat seething through four years of Masses where the Gospel was terribly obscured with all manner of nonsense that one can only imagine might be possible in the 1970s with people trying to impress teenagers attending Mass. (Got so bad the Bishop announced he would no longer conduct mass at our high school until the behavior in Mass got better!).

At any rate, I've been deeply concerned and interested in Roman Catholicism for years and feel such a kindred spirit with the Roman Church, but also at the same time, such a heart-wrenching separation when I watch the Gospel not really proclaimed sweetly and clearly.

Tragic necessity.

Lord, have mercy.

Randy Asburry said...

"Tragic"? Yes. "Lord, have mercy"? Most certainly! On the one hand, from your experience and read on the situation, it sounds like the Church of Rome certainly needs the Gospel clearly proclaimed, as we all do. And, on the other hand, I too have sat in on Roman Catholic masses or watched a mass now and again on TV (I know, not the same thing as "being there."). Quite honestly, I've heard both - sermons that were devoid of the sweet Good News of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for sinners, and sermons that proclaimed it rather loudly and clearly. The funeral mass for one Barbara Olson shortly after 9/11/01 comes to mind. What a glorious proclamation of Easter joy and comfort in the Savior!

And then again, I suppose that we could apply the very same criteria to our own church body. I've sat in LCMS congregations in which the Gospel was strangely absent that day (along with the Lord's Body and Blood), and I've heard the sweet message many a time as well. And given some of the oddities we have in our own midst (churches desecrated by being converted into coffee houses--in the name of "missions"; a certain "Lent series" on sexuality with a bedroom scene front and center on the "stage," etc.), we should really tend our own glass house before we throw stones elsewhere.

So, again: "Lord, have mercy!"

Paul T. McCain said...

Well, so much for the Lutheran Confessions.

Randy Asburry said...


Surely you can't mean that the Lutheran Confessions say that the Gospel cannot or will not be proclaimed from a Roman Catholic pulpit, can you? Surely you can't mean that the Lutheran Confessions teach us to do whatever we want, regardless of the ancient traditions of the fathers, in our own midst, can you?

Remember that even Luther could admit that the Gospel and the Sacraments could be found in the Church of Rome (the quote that sparked this interchange). Also, the Augustana and the Apology even testify that both sides--the Reformers and the papal party--in 1530 could find certain points of agreement. No, not all across the board, to be sure, but at various points as they indicate. At least that was in the Book of Concord last time I checked. ;-)

Paul T. McCain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul T. McCain said...

Why, yes, that's precisely what I, as person who subscribes to the Lutheran Confessions, teach:

The Gospel can not be proclaimed, or heard, in a Roman Catholic Church.

We can do whatever we want in the liturgy.

And...I believe there is a Santa Clauss, that the Easter Bunny leaves eggs for good boys and girls on Easter and the US Goverment faked the moon landing, and the earth is flat.

Are there any other silly notions you would like to try to ascribe to me?

: )

Randy Asburry said...

Now, now, Paul! ;-) My questions were phrased so as to expect a "No" answer. Of course, I don't actually ascribe such silly notions to you. I just couldn't figure out what you meant by the cryptic comment "Well, so much for the Lutheran Confessions" or how it continued the discussion.

Paul T. McCain said...

I made that remark when you observed that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Which, upon more careful reflection, would mean that we poor miserable sinners could never say, about any false teaching, "We reject and condemn."

Randy Asburry said...

Well, that would be the ultimate in silly notions! Of course the Church has to reject and condemn the false teachings and wayward practices. I was in no way denying that. I was merely trying to express that we should do it equally in our own midst. If we insist on calling others in Christendom to the carpet for their errors and failures to preach the alone-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, we need to do the same thing in our own circles, perhaps even starting with ourselves - you know, more like the publican than the Pharisee.

Paul T. McCain said...

OK...you first.

; )

Randy Asburry said...

Daily and much, my friend, daily and much! :-)

Paul T. McCain said...



Randy Asburry said...

Pax tecum!