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).


  1. 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.

  2. 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? ;-)

  3. 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.

  4. 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."

  5. "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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. "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!"

  9. Well, so much for the Lutheran Confessions.

  10. 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?

    : )

  11. 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.

  12. 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."

  13. 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.

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