Martin Luther, the Father of the Reformation, or perhaps more aptly, the father of the Protestant Revolt 🙂 As someone who has quit my own personal protest and has indeed come into full communion with the Catholic Church; it may be surprising to hear that there are actually areas of commonality where I would wholeheartedly agree with Martin Luther.
Those who know me well can attest to the fact that even prior to becoming Catholic I wasn’t overly fond of many of Luther’s teachings and even less impressed with his tendencies to swing from one radical extreme to another. However, just because I would disagree with Luther on many topics; in the interest of ecumenism there are also areas where I can say wholeheartedly that, “I stand with Luther.”
Below are several examples of areas where we would agree, with quotations directly from Martin Luther, and then brief follow up comments from me.
“That the Roman Church is more honored by God than all others is not to be doubted. St, Peter and St. Paul, forty-six Popes, some hundreds of thousands of martyrs, have laid down their lives in its communion, having overcome Hell and the world; so that the eyes of God rest on the Roman church with special favor. Though nowadays everything is in a wretched state, it is no ground for separating from the Church. On the contrary, the worse things are going, the more should we hold close to her, for it is not by separating from the Church that we can make her better. We must not separate from God on account of any work of the devil, nor cease to have fellowship with the children of God who are still abiding in the pale of Rome on account of the multitude of the ungodly. There is no sin, no amount of evil, which should be permitted to dissolve the bond of charity or break the bond of unity of the body. For love can do all things, and nothing is difficult to those who are united.”1
Ecclesia semper reformanda is a Catholic insight that states, “The Church is always in need of reform.” This motto recognizes that the Church is always, and in every age, in need of reform. It was first formulated a century prior to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, and was tied to the ancient understanding of the Church as people on a pilgrimage – an institution existing in but not necessarily of this world. As John Henry Newman once observed, “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change; and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
Had Luther remained true to his own reflection that, “It is not by separating from the Church that we can make her better.” and remained a reformer within the Church, rather than breaking from her in order to promulgate his own doctrines and found his own church – well, we might find ourselves in a very different world indeed!
Perhaps a world where, as Luther speculated, love could accomplish all things through the bonds of Christian unity.
“We on our part confess that there is much that is Christian and good under the papacy; indeed everything that is Christian and good is to be found there and has come to us from this source. For instance we confess that in the papal church there are the true holy Scriptures, true baptism, the true sacrament of the altar, the true keys to the forgiveness of sins, the true office of the ministry, the true catechism in the form of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the articles of the creed . . . I speak of what the pope and we have in common . . . I contend that in the papacy there is true Christianity, even the right kind of Christianity and many great and devoted saints. . . . The Christendom that now is under the papacy is truly the body of Christ and a member of it. If it is his body, then it has the true spirit, gospel, faith, baptism, sacrament, keys, the office of the ministry, prayer, holy Scripture, and everything that pertains to Christendom. So we are all still under the papacy and therefrom have received our Christian treasures. . . . We do not rave as do the rebellious spirits, so as to reject everything that is found in the papal church. For then we would cast out even Christendom from the temple of God, and all that it contained of Christ.”2
Although Luther often railed against the pope (he frequently referred to the pope as the anti-christ), in this letter written over ten years after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, he rightly recognizes all the good that has come from the, “papal church.” Indeed in his words, “Everything that is Christian and good is to be found there and has come to us from this source.”
Who am I to disagree?
Notice as well that Luther affirms both the sacraments and the Church’s authority to forgive sins – doctrines that most modern-day Protestants roundly reject. Speaking of sacraments, let’s take a look at a few quotes from Luther dealing with the Eucharist, Baptism, and Confession.
“Who, but the devil, has granted such license of wresting the words of the holy Scripture? Who ever read in the Scriptures, that my body is the same as the sign of my body? or, that is is the same as it signifies? What language in the world ever spoke so? It is only then the devil, that imposes upon us by these fanatical men. Not one of the Fathers of the Church, though so numerous, ever spoke as the Sacramentarians: not one of them ever said, It is only bread and wine; or, the body and blood of Christ is not there present. Surely, it is not credible, nor possible, since they often speak, and repeat their sentiments, that they should never (if they thought so) not so much as once, say, or let slip these words: It is bread only; or the body of Christ is not there, especially it being of great importance, that men should not be deceived. Certainly, in so many Fathers, and in so many writings, the negative might at least be found in one of them, had they thought the body and blood of Christ were not really present: but they are all of them unanimous.”3
Martin Luther was utterly unwavering in his belief that the real presence of Christ was to be found in the Eucharist. Indeed, this issue became the cause of the first split amongst the churches of the Protestant movement. The infamous Colloquy of Marburg, a meeting called by the German Prince Phillip of Hesse to try and unite Luther and Zwingli into a united Protestant front, failed rather famously with Luther angrily carving Hoc Est Corpus Meum (This is My Body!) into the meeting table in chalk and making frequent uncharitable remarks about Zwingli throughout the proceedings.
Notice as well though, Luther’s appeal to the Apostolic Fathers and the traditions of the Church. Certainly the arguments he makes here could be applied to a great many issues of our day if we were only willing to ask ourselves, “What has been the historic and unanimous position of the Church throughout the ages on this particular issue?” Recent novelties such as the rapture would fade away, while the enduring teachings of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the necessity and efficacy of baptism, and the moral teachings of the church against contraception, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, etc. would remain.
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“Therefore, expressed in the simplest form, the power, the effect, the benefit, the fruit and the purpose of baptism is to save. No one is baptized that he may become a prince, but, as the words declare [of Mark 16:16], that he may be saved. But to be saved, we know very well, is to be delivered from sin, death, and Satan, and to enter Christ’s kingdom and live forever with him . . . Through the Word, baptism receives the power to become the washing of regeneration, as St. Paul calls it in Titus 3:5 . . . Faith clings to the water and believes it to be baptism which effects pure salvation and life . . . When sin and conscience oppress us . . . you may say: It is a fact that I am baptized, but, being baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and obtain eternal life for both soul and body . . . Hence, no greater jewel can adorn our body or soul than baptism; for through it perfect holiness and salvation become accessible to us . . .”4
“Little children . . . are free in every way, secure and saved solely through the glory of their baptism . . . Through the prayer of the believing church which presents it, . . . the infant is changed, cleansed, and renewed by inpoured faith. Nor should I doubt that even a godless adult could be changed, in any of the sacraments, if the same church prayed for and presented him, as we read of the paralytic in the Gospel, who was healed through the faith of others (Mark 2:3-12). I should be ready to admit that in this sense the sacraments of the New Law are efficacious in conferring grace, not only to those who do not, but even to those who do most obstinately present an obstacle.”5
Not much to add here. Luther believed that baptism was necessary for salvation and efficacious in cleansing, renewing, and changing the one baptized. He also firmly believed in paedobaptism – the baptism of infants and children.
“What is the Office of the Keys? It is the peculiar power which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent. What do you believe according to these words? When they absolve those who repent of their sins and are willing to amend, this is as valid and certain, in heaven also, as if Christ, our dear Lord, dealt with us Himself. What is Confession? Confession embraces two parts. One is that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, and in no wise doubt, but firmly believe, that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.”6
Granted, Luther appropriated to himself the right to the office of the keys – notwithstanding that it was never an office which was given to him! Christ extends to St. Peter alone7 (and through St. Peter to his successors) the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Luther seemed to think that any Christian could act as confessor to other Christians and said in a sermon preached in March of 1522,
“I wish him [the pope] to keep his hands off the confession and not make of it a compulsion or command, which he has not the power to do. Nevertheless I will allow no man to take private confession away from me, and I would not give it up for all the treasures in the world, since I know what comfort and strength it has given me. No one knows what it can do for him except one who has struggled often and long with the devil. Yea, the devil would have slain me long ago, if the confession had not sustained me… Therefore, no man shall forbid the confession nor keep or draw any one away from it. And if any one is wrestling with his sins and wants to be rid of them and desires a sure word on the matter, let him go and confess to another in secret, and accept what he says to him as if God himself had spoken it through the mouth of this person. However, one who has a strong, firm faith that his sins are forgiven may let this confession go and confess to God alone. But how many have such a strong faith? Therefore, as I have said, I will not let this private confession be taken from me. But I will not have anybody forced to it, but left to each one’s free will.”8
Nonetheless, Luther affirms both the efficacy of the sacrament of confession and the very real strength and sustenance received through it.
Let’s wrap up with a few more quotes from Luther on a variety of different topics.
“It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary’s soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God’s gifts, receiving a pure soul infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin… Therefore the Virgin Mary is in the middle between Christ and all other men.”9
“Christ…was the only Son of Mary, and the Virgin Mary bore no children besides Him…I am inclined to agree with those who declare that ‘brothers’ really mean ‘cousins’ here, for Holy Writ and the Jews always call cousins brothers.”10
“In the morning, when you get up, make the sign of the holy cross and say: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”11
“As for the dead, since Scripture gives us no information on the subject, I regard it as no sin to pray with free devotion in this or some similar fashion: ‘Dear God, if this soul is in a condition accessible to mercy, be thou gracious to it.’ And when this has been done once or twice, let it suffice.”12
“In the first years of his separation from the Church, Luther declared that the Bible could be interpreted by everyone, ‘even by the humble miller’s maid, nay a child of nine.’ Later on however, when the Anabaptists, the Zwinglians and others contradicted his views, the Bible became, ‘a heresy book,’ most obscure and difficult to understand. He lived to see numerous heretical sects rise up and spread through Christendom, all claiming to be based on the Bible.
Thus, in 1525 he sadly deplored the religious anarchy to which his own principle of the private interpretation of Scripture had given rise13 :
“There are as many sects and beliefs as there are heads. This fellow will have nothing to do with baptism; another denies the sacraments; a third believes that there is another world between this and the Last Day. Some teach that Christ is not God; some say this, some say that. There is no rustic so rude but that, if he dreams or fancies anything it must be the whisper of the Holy Spirit and he himself is a prophet.”14
This last quote from Luther can most properly be taken as a warning against the private interpretation of Scripture, but how bitterly ironic are the words above from the very man who invented the doctrine of sola Scriptura!
Luther’s comments could almost be a paraphrase of St. Peter who writes, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”15 and again, “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability.”16
It would seem that Luther observed firsthand the effects of the private interpretation which St. Peter warns against in his epistle.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this insight into some of the common beliefs that I share with the father of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther.
Next up? Maybe John Calvin 🙂
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Martin Luther An Instruction on Certain Articles: Late February 1519 ↩
Martin Luther Concerning Rebaptism: A Letter to Two Pastors, 1528, Luther’s Works [“LW”], Vol. 40, 225-262; translated by Conrad Bergendoff, pp. 231-232, 251, 256-257 ↩
Martin Luther, Luther’s Collected Works, Wittenburg Edition, no. 7 p, 391 ↩
Martin Luther, Large Catechism 1529 From edition by Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, 1935, sections 223-224, 230, pages 162, 165 ↩
Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, 1520, from the translation of A.T.W. Steinhauser, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, rev. ed., 1970, 197 ↩
Martin Luther, Small Catechism, 1529, 18-19 ↩
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:16b-19 ↩
Martin Luther, Sermon of 16 March 1522; LW, Vol. 51, 97-98 ↩
Martin Luther, Sermon: “On the Day of the Conception of the Mother of God,” 1527 ↩
Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, eds. Jaroslav Pelikan v.22:214-15, 1955, v.22:23 / Sermons on John, chaps. 1-4, 1539 ↩
Martin Luther, 1529 ↩
Martin Luther, 1528 ↩
John Anthony O’Brien, The Faith of Millions: The Credentials of the Catholic Religion pg.136, Published by OSV 1974 ↩
Martin Luther, 1525 ↩
2 Peter 1:20-21 ↩
2 Peter 3:15b-17 ↩