A number of observers are comparing Pope Francis to Martin Luther. Both are reformers of the Church! Catholic conservatives who resent how the Pope is seemingly trying to change the church’s teachings on marriage, homosexuality, and various traditional practices are making this comparison and treating it as a bad thing. Liberals and ecumenists are treating it as a good thing. (See, for example, this.)
But Carl Trueman sees a different comparison. From If Only Francis Were Luther, in First Things:
With the advent of Wim Wenders’s Pope Francis documentary in theaters, the policies of the current pontiff will no doubt be the subject of considerable and heated discussion in the media. Thanks to the turbulent history of the Roman Catholic Church, historical analogies will surely abound.
One such analogy is frequently proposed between Pope Francis and Martin Luther, and it is strengthened by Francis’s occasional positive comments on the life and work of the Reformer. The resemblance is so close, in the eyes of some, that it provided the basis for a rather amusing April Fool’s joke in 2017—amusing because it had a certain credibility to it. [The April Fool’s joke was that the pope was declaring Martin Luther to be a saint.]More recently, L’Espresso carried an article drawing a comparison between Bergoglio and Luther, sounding an alarm about what the author saw as the pope’s genuinely Lutheran tendencies and their implications for the Roman Catholic Church and Western civilization.
As a Protestant by conviction, and a sometimes sympathetic commentator on Luther, I wish L’Espresso were correct in its interpretation of Francis as standing in the tradition of the Wittenberg Reformation. A move, for example, towards justification by grace through faith is much to be desired. But I fear it is not so. Though I do believe the current pope possesses a sixteenth-century analogue, it is not the good Doctor. It is someone much worse: Desiderius Erasmus.
Dr. Trueman then goes on to unpack how Pope Francis is like Erasmus, with whom Luther had a famous dispute, as recorded in The Bondage of the Will. Pope Francis and Erasmus both advocate an undogmatic Christianity, focusing on love more than faith. That sounds good, but, as Dr. Trueman shows, it ultimately isn’t.
I’d say the conservative Catholics opposing Pope Francis are the ones, ironically, who are most like Luther. Opposing a Pope who is adding to Christianity, changing Christian teaching, violating traditional orthodoxy–which is basically what the office of the papacy has been doing for centuries–is exactly what Luther thought he was doing!
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