The “More Ancient Than Thou” Claim

The Reformation was a claim by Protestants like Luther and Calvin to be “more ancient than thou” when it came to the Catholics, ignoring as they did the Orthodox. In a splendid essay on “The Catholic Luther,” a title with tilt if ever one had it, David Steinmetz (in Taking the Long View: Christian Theology in Historical Perspective) sorts out the history of interpreting Luther but in the process unveils what the Reformation was all about.

It’s still with us. Many today still claim “more ancient than thou.” Think Robert Webber, for one.

Was Luther Catholic or catholic? Is the Reformation over? Was it necessary? Is there reason to remonstrate with Catholics today? or Catholics with Protestants?

That the theology of Martin Luther might in certain respects be continuous with ancient and medieval Catholic tradition was not the first proposition the sixteenth-century Catholic opponents of Luther were
keen to demonstrate. On the contrary, they were eager to prove that Luther was the originator of a series of dangerous new ideas that clashed with orthodox Catholic thought on almost every topic. After all, Luther had rejected the authority of the pope, encouraged the closure of monasteries, ridiculed Catholic princes, and married a renegade nun. He had questioned the doctrine of transubstantiation (though not the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist), denied the possibility of human merit, and even suggested that sinners were justified by faith alone.

The original response to Luther was that he was a heretic, a term that many use far too loosely today. “Heresy is therefore less a failure of knowledge than a problem of will. According to the sixteenth-century definition, a heretic is someone who persists in error after the church has patiently instructed him or her in correct Catholic teaching. Heretics stubbornly insist on their own way.” That is, a heretic is not just being someone who is mistaken but someone who insists on remaining mistaken after being taught orthodoxy by the church.

The claim Luther was a heretic led to Luther having a bad character or was morally flawed (Cochlaeus), or that he was theologically incompetent (Denifle) or that he was psychologically disturbed (Grisar). Other Catholics thought he could be valued for many insights (Lortz, Pesch). Since the Second Vatican Council Luther has been more or less valued.

Protestants have appropriated Luther for all sorts of reasons and causes and agendas, not all of them supportive of others. There is a tendency today to see Luther more in continuity with Catholicism than totally against Catholicism.

Already during the Reformation and post Reformation era there was the attempt to show that Luther or Calvin — we are thinking here of justification and Eucharist — were retrieving more ancient traditions that Catholics had jettisoned during the Medieval church age. Or the other way around.

What, then, does it mean to be “catholic”? As in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic”?

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