Dialogue with a Lutheran, on Lutheran-Catholic Differences

Dialogue with a Lutheran, on Lutheran-Catholic Differences May 14, 2017


St. John’s Lutheran Church in Zanesville, Ohio [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]



This is an exchange I had with a friendly Lutheran woman, on the Coming Home Network board; posted with her permission. Her words will be in blue.

* * * * *

Hi [name],

So nice to “meet” you, and welcome to our forum. I hope you enjoy it here and find what you want and need.

I hope you all can help me. I have a few specific questions that may seem like I’m trying to play devil’s advocate or to stir up trouble, but I assure you I’m not; I am a sincere seeker! I converted to Catholic many years ago but didn’t stay in very long, and even though I joined the Lutheran church a few years ago, I read Catholic web sites all the time. Hmm, what does that tell me?

Understood. I’ll try my best to offer some decent answers.

Anyway. Here are some things I thought of yesterday while sitting in church. I’ve read a whole lot of posts here but have not been able to find any answers written in the way I’m asking these questions. My faith issues are sort of reaching critical mass. (no pun intended!)

Please don’t get too scholarly on me though; I’m not that bright!

Depends on how difficult the questions are to answer! Sometimes an objection can be voiced in one sentence, but it takes 10 pages to properly answer. But I’m just a regular old layperson and not a scholar. I have no formal training in theology.

1. The thing that set this off most recently was a Bible study about marriage. Even the pastor couldn’t come up with a definitive answer about divorce; he allowed as how the person could divorce for infidelity or desertion, and “there’s always forgiveness”, and that was about that. Not only that, but some participants in the class didn’t even agree with him, taking the stance of no divorce allowed. Well, even though I’m a Lutheran, I don’t think that’s right. That’s not a question so much as it is an expression of frustration. I don’t see any ultimate authority being exercised there. Maybe Protestants don’t need ultimate authority despite all that has been written on the subject. It just doesn’t sit right with me. Oh, and by the way, I am even divorced and remarried and I’m still uncomfortable with it.

The traditional Catholic position is that a valid sacramental marriage between two baptized Christians is indissoluble. You are right to be uncomfortable, because you instinctively know that marriage was meant to be lifelong. Catholics, of course, have this thing called annulments: which is a determination that an ostensible marriage may not in fact have been so, because key conditions were not met.

2. Catholics say that the Church is protected from error by the Holy Spirit so the Catholic Church has to be the right one. Well, what if the invention of the printing press and Luther’s hellraising was God’s way of making sure the gates of hell did not prevail against the church? You know, like the guy sitting on top of the house in a flood, praying for God to rescue him, waving off helicopters –with God answering, “I sent you three helicopters, why didn’t you take one of them?” What if the road made a major fork back in the 16th century and Catholics don’t recognize it; sort of like the Jews not recognizing Jesus as the obvious Messiah?

I understand the reasoning (having once held it myself) but I don’t think that case can be made, because many things in Luther’s teaching essentially departed from what came before. If indeed, this was a true reform (as is claimed by Lutherans and Protestants in general) and not a revolt or revolution, then it would have to be shown that distinctively Lutheran teachings were consistent with prior Church history. I’ve documented myself how Luther introduced at least 50 doctrinal novelties, even before he was excommunicated (in his three great treatises of 1520).

Lutherans often claim, e.g., that their teachings are more in line with the Church Fathers than Catholic teaching is. I think (with all due respect; and I do love and respect my Lutheran brothers and sisters) that if that debate takes place, the Lutheran loses every time. They just don’t have the historical facts on their side. It’s a question of fact. I’ve engaged in several of these debates myself, with educated Lutherans (one of them a professor of history). Each issue has to be approached in its own right, and then it is an historical discussion. What did the Fathers believe?

3. Luther’s personal offensiveness is justifiably castigated by Catholics: “How could such a vulgar, rude, (etc.) man possibly be used by God for His purposes?” Well, I can see that, but how about St. Peter himself who denied Jesus three times? Or, other saints or religious who had great saving faith but might have been obnoxious as well? The Pope when teaching about faith and morals is said to be infallible, but everyone knows that there have been personally reprehensible Popes in history. Maybe Luther was a guy like that?

Yeah; we understand the difference between impeccability and infallibility. You are right. There is, however, a big difference in Luther’s case. St. Peter wasn’t introducing anything himself, of his own authority. He was a disciple and eyewitness of Jesus, and simply passed on what he had seen and had been taught.

Luther, on the other hand, was introducing new teachings that hadn’t been held prior to his time (contrary to the claims made), and he was dogmatically claiming that he was right and that the entire Catholic Church, with its 1500 year history, was wrong. This is vastly different from Peter or indeed any pope whatever. I recently did a big study of Erasmus’ response to Luther, in the former’s book, Hyperaspistes (1526). He makes several cogent points about Luther’s anti-traditionalism and how implausible it was. Here are a few examples:

We are dealing with this: would a stable mind depart from the opinion handed down by so many famous men famous for holiness and miracles, depart from the decision of the church, and commit our souls to the faith of someone like you who has sprung up just now with a few followers, although the leading men of your flock do not agree either with you or among themselves . . . (p. 203)

And here once more you have the impudence to scoff at orthodox Greek writers whom you deprive of all authority by a marvellous assumption, that the saints have sometimes erred because they are human . . . (p. 207)

Therefore do not insist that on the issue of free will you have the advantage of having Augustine so often on your side — as you boast, though I will soon show that this is quite false — lest we turn your comparison back against you. Or if you deprive them [the Church Fathers] of all authority, stop making use of their testimony. If they said many things devoutly, many things excellently, although they sometimes made mistakes, allow us to make use of what they said well, as you claim the right to do also. (p. 208)

. . . you demand that we reject their [the Church Fathers’] authority, that we hold to your teachings as if they were articles of the faith. At least grant us, for their teachings as well as yours, the same right to suspend judgment about either. (p. 225)

. . . I called into question which interpretation we should follow, that of the ancient Fathers, which has been approved for so many centuries, or yours, which has sprung up so recently. (p. 244)

Now look at the laws which you prescribe, though you are not yet the victor: lay down whatever arms are supplied by the ancient orthodox teachers, the schools of the theologians, the authority of councils and popes, the consensus of the whole Christian people over so many centuries; we accept nothing but Scripture, but in such a way that we alone have authoritative certainty in interpreting it; our interpretation is what was meant by the Holy Spirit; that brought forward by others, however great, however many, arises from the spirit of Satan and from madness; what the orthodox taught, what the authority of the church handed down, what the people of Christ embraced, what the schools defend is the deadly venom of Satan; what I teach is the spirit of life; believe that in Scripture there is no obscurity at all, not even so much as to need a judge; or, though all are blind, I am not blind; for I am conscious that I have the Spirit of Christ, which enables me to judge everyone but no one to judge me; I refuse to be judged, I require compliance; let no one be the least bit moved by the multitude, the magnitude, the breadth and depth, the miracles, the holiness of the church’s saints; they all were lost if they meant what they wrote, unless perhaps they came to their senses before the last day of their lives; whoever does not believe my proofs either lacks common sense or commits blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and subverts Christianity. If we accept such laws as these, the victory is indeed yours. Then again, you demand that we not believe the ancient orthodox Fathers because they sometimes disagreed amongst themselves, whereas the few of you fight very much with each other about the prophets, images, church rules, baptism, the Eucharist; and you want us nevertheless to believe your teachings, especially because every day we expect new ones. And we are called blasphemous because we still cling to the old church and do not dare to join your camp . . . I am not making any of this up; I am saying what is certain and well known. (p. 261)

4. It seems to me that the Protestant way of looking at Sola Scriptura is not really that they think/claim the Bible says of itself that it is the only thing to rely on in faith and practice, but that it is evident from years of objective analysis of what’s said in the Bible. That all that is needed for salvation is put forth in the Bible without needing to rely on Tradition or the Magisterium. Of course I know that this way of thinking has caused endless Protestant variations which I think is wrong. Also, this is not to call into question how Protestants got the Bible or anything. What I mean is, I’ve never heard of a Protestant saying that the Bible itself states that the Bible is all that is needed.

Sola Scriptura means (from many Protestant definitions that I have seen) that the Bible is the only infallible authority, and that no church or pope or particular Christian tradition is infallible. It was a frontal assault against the authority of the Catholic Church. Catholics believe that the Bible is materially sufficient, but not formally sufficient, meaning that all that is required for salvation can be found there, but that authoritative proclamation of correct doctrine is still needed, because men on their own split into innumerable factions, as Protestantism itself has proven beyond any doubt.

5. For the more “obscure” teachings like Purgatory and the Marian doctrines, Protestants seem to draw a line that they won’t cross, saying that those teachings aren’t in the Bible even though Catholics point to those teachings’ “seeds” in the Bible. So where is that line that they won’t cross, delineating which teachings are/aren’t in the Bible? Right, I should ask a Protestant theologian that question, but maybe a Catholic could enlighten me without getting defensive, dismissive, or stymied.

It’s pretty simple, in the final analysis, I think. For the most part, the “line” is simply that (what is now seen as) distinctively Catholic tradition was rejected by Protestants. The “line” is wherever the Catholic Church disagreed with Luther. It has far more to do with that than it does with what is supposedly “biblical” and what isn’t. Also, the line comes as a result of the premises involved in Protestant distinctives, which rule out various traditional Catholic doctrines by logical reduction. A choice was made, and every time we make one choice, many other things are logically excluded.

For example, Luther held to sola fide, which meant that God declares someone righteous (imputed or extrinsic justification). This is how he is saved. This one belief (which I argue is most unbiblical) takes out notions of merit, purgatory, penance, and moral assurance of salvation, as opposed to an absolute assurance. Of course, for many Protestants, the same belief takes out baptismal regeneration. But Luther didn’t go that far, and retained that. He was still sacramental to a large extent. The Real Presence is rejected by most Protestants on largely the same basis, because they don’t think realism and sacraments are necessary to pass on God’s grace. But Luther (and, I contend, the Bible itself) profoundly disagreed. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to reject the Sacrifice of the Mass, that was also firmly taught by the Church Fathers.

Luther also rejected purgatory, also, because he came to believe in a sort of “soul sleep” that even Calvin rejected, as I recently discovered, to my surprise.

That’s a classic case of false premises causing one to reject something else. If souls after death are unconscious, then obviously purgatory is a senseless position. Luther saw that purgatory was clearly taught in 2 Maccabees. When a few years later he rejected belief in purgatory (he hadn’t yet in 1517 or even by 1519 in his famous Leipzig Disputation with Eck), then he also rejected 2 Maccabees. So now part of what was the accepted Bible in Christianity for 1100-1200 years is rejected because Luther had this goofy, heretical, unbiblical view of soul sleep. One thing affects another.

Luther taught sola Scriptura. This takes out (by the nature of logical contradiction) apostolic succession, an infallible church, infallible councils, infallible popes, infallible apostolic tradition, and the hierarchical or episcopal form of Church government. All of that goes once sola Scriptura is asserted. But sola Scriptura was not the patristic or biblical position. I have shown the former in over 100 pages in my book on the Church Fathers and Catholicism. The latter was shown in an entire book, and even from Scripture alone in over 100 pages in my latest book [Bible Proofs for Catholic Truths].

You can have an e-book copy of that, too, for free, if you like.

Does the way I’ve asked any of these questions make any sense?

It makes perfect sense, coming from your Lutheran presuppositions. One thing follows from another. You seem to be questioning some of those presuppositions (or you are willing to subject them to scrutiny, anyway) and wondering if they can hold up. I maintain that they cannot. Whatever is true in Lutheranism, was already true and present in Catholic teaching for 1500 years.

Truth be told, I’m getting bored like anything going to the Lutheran church. Same old Law & Gospel, same old “faith alone” (except where St. James says not by faith alone!), same old “silent where the Bible is silent” etc. etc. etc. BTW, I don’t mean to offend any Lutherans/Protestants who read this.

I think there is a lot more to Christianity than Lutheranism (or any form of Protestantism) offers. That’s why I am a Catholic (I came in in 1991 after being a fervent evangelical for 13 years, including three spent at a Lutheran church: though I was not fully Lutheran in a doctrinal sense). We believe that Catholicism offers the fullness of fully-developed apostolic Christianity.

Thank you SO much…

My pleasure, I hope my answers (agree or disagree) are helpful to you, in working through these issues; and I’d be delighted to discuss any of these things further. I particularly enjoy dialoguing with Lutherans, as I’ve had a lot of good dialogues with them (including a series of big, meaty dialogues with two friendly Lutheran pastors).

Dave, I look forward to reading the links you provided. I gotta say, the quote from Erasmus to Luther was kind of surprising. Well, not that a Catholic defending his faith is surprising of course, just that Erasmus’ calling out Luther on his attitude shows me that there must be lots of stuff Luther thought that maybe most Lutherans don’t know about.

I guess that means that it’s over and above Luther’s personality, that his basic errors from “stuff he made up” would mean that it’s just not a case of God using an imperfect man to keep the Church going? OK, I get that; in fact from the Erasmus quote you provided, it looks as though Luther was trying to have things both ways and even hypocritical, e.g. “don’t quote Church fathers if you don’t accept their authority” and this in particular, “though all are blind, I am not blind; for I am conscious that I have the Spirit of Christ, which enables me to judge everyone but no one to judge me; I refuse to be judged, I require compliance” which really does uncover Luther’s attitude.

It’s nice to hear from people who used to be Protestant too! I think your background probably places even more emphasis on Bible study than Lutherans do. We have an anemic Bible study before worship service (as I alluded to with the marriage one) but that’s about it.

The books are on their way, in your regular e-mail. Enjoy! And feel free to keep the discussion going in whatever direction you want to take it.

Dave, thanks for your downloads, from what I’m reading so far they’ll help me a lot! I will read all of your links as time permits too. Dave, I have just finished the papers you wrote about Erasmus answering Luther. And, I also read a couple of papers having to do with the movie “Luther”, Luther’s polemics, his unintentional advocacy of the peasants’ uprising, and his EXTREME nastiness, vulgarity, etc. It took me a while but–even though I knew about his personality (as I’d asked about in my original post) –good grief, this man was horrible! I won’t get into specifics, but I will say that I found myself cheering Erasmus on, and picturing some honest, erudite politician (yeah, assuming there are some still around) having to defend himself and the whole Western Tradition against some unhinged radical who unleashes the devil against it all. (Your turnabout essay about Catholics doing the same thing against the Protestants in modern-day America was brilliant!) Now I will delve into the two you sent me; it does take a while to read while I’m waiting for stuff to happen at work, but I will get it done!

Thanks for reading, [Name], and I am happy to be of any service. You can also have my book about Luther if you like, but most of what is in it is on my Luther page somewhere already.

God bless you as you ponder all these things. I don’t believe Luther was a “bad” man, but certainly many of his notions and doctrines can be opposed on the grounds of Scripture and apostolic and patristic tradition.

I am WELS [Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod] . . . I am starting to feel increasingly judgmental and thinking about a Catholic Mass when I’m at church, rather than focusing on the sermon. Like, trying to notice when the pastor says stuff about Luther or what Lutheranism teaches, and instead thinking about what the Catholic church teaches, as far as I’m able to. Obviously there’s a whole lot of stuff I don’t know! . . . I’m continuing to read and think and pray; I always pray and ask God to lead me to the truth, no matter where it is.

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