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).