Causes of the Protestant “Reformation” (vs. a Lutheran Pastor)

Causes of the Protestant “Reformation” (vs. a Lutheran Pastor) October 23, 2017


(11-20-07; abridged somewhat on 10-23-17)


Pastor Larry A. Nichols is the author of several books, including Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions, and the Occult (Zondervan Publishing House, 1993, with George A. Mather & Alvin J. Schmidt), Masonic Lodge (Zondervan, 1995; with George A. Mather & Alan W. Gomes), Discovering the Plain Truth: How the Worldwide Church of God Encountered the Gospel of Grace (Intervarsity Press, 1997; co-author George A. Mather), and Encyclopedic Dictionary of World Religions (2006; with George A. Mather & Alvin J. Schmidt). He has also written many journal articles.

He was the minister at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Smithfield, Rhode Island (Lutheran – Missouri Synod, or “LCMS”) for many years (starting in 1988). In November, 2013 he was reinstated as an ordained Lutheran pastor in the North American Lutheran Church (NALC), and became the minister at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Johnston, Rhode Island.

Pastor Nichols’ words will be in blue.


At long last I find some time to write a response. I must say that with my current pastoral responsibilities, PhD work, and teaching responsibilities, that if it were not for Johnny Montalvo [who was considering Catholicism and soon after became a Catholic], I would not be engaging in this debate. It is not that I do not enjoy theological exchanges, but the demands on my time right now are enormous. I do, however, take my pastoral role with Johnny quite seriously as I would with any member of my congregation and therefore I will indeed, along with my colleague, Rev. Ben Maton, take time to see this through so as to do all I can to help answer his inquiries towards the end of ultimately hearing the Gospel in all of its purity. 

I appreciate your taking the time to engage in a fruitful, educational discussion, and I am sure Johnny does, too. Thank God for clergymen who are attentive to the needs of their flock. And I am interested in promulgating not only the Gospel in all of its purity (amen!) but also the fullness of the complete apostolic deposit, and all the Christian truth that God has for us.

First of all, I would like to state up front where we are coming from because I’m afraid that there has been a great misunderstanding. After addressing this, I will get to each of David’s arguments and point out where we believe that there are inconsistencies and misrepresentations concerning what we were arguing in response to Johnny’s question concerning the authority of “Luther to start his own church.” 

I am sure that with more interaction we can understand each other’s viewpoints better. That’s the great thing about dialogue. I want to hear your opinions and learn more about Lutheranism, and am grateful for the opportunity to help explain Catholicism a bit, too.

First to the very issue of Lutheranism and the Reformation.

I would like to offer an analogy from Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten in his book Mother Church, 1998. Dr. Braaten is one of the most participatory theologians in the current ecumenical dialog between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. His views (mostly) represent my own. WithReformation Sunday having just taken place, I recently wrote an article reflecting upon whether we should continue as Lutherans to call the Reformation a “celebration.” Dr. Braaten, borrowing from Jaroslav Pelikan, (The Riddle of Roman Catholicism, (1959), calls it a “tragic necessity.” Dr. Braaten shares a modern day parable. In the first chapter of his book titled, The Tragedy of the Reformation and the Return to Catholicity, he writes:

In June of 1940 Adolf Hitler’s army invaded and conquered France. Marshall Petain became the head of the state under Hitler and formulated what was notoriously known as the Vichy Government. Petain acted as a puppet in Hitler’s occupation army. Many a loyal and patriotic Frenchmen, however, for the love of the true fatherland protested against the Vichy government. A man came forth – a kind of a savior figure for France at the crucial hour. He was General Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle raised the cross of Lorraine in Britain and became the rallying point for all free Frenchmen who joined with him in the fight to liberate their beloved country. Frenchmen became divided. Some were loyal to the Vichy government of Petain, and others joined the free French forces in exile. Their purpose in being outside of France was to preserve the glory of France, to protest against a false government, to struggle for the liberation of their homeland, and on V-Day be reunited with their fellow countrymen.

What if those free Frenchmen had forgotten the reason for their exile, became accustomed to life outside of France, lost interest in returning, and began to think and act as if what was meant to be a temporary arrangement and provisional expedient in an emergency situation had actually become for them a permanent home and satisfying establishment? Suppose they had ignored the cause of liberation for which they rallied around de Gaulle and instead set up a new government in some other colony, calling it France, enjoying their newfound life so much that the very thought of ever going back to the land of their birth made them ill. Now if that had happened one would call it a tragedy – a tragedy very much like the tragedy of the Reformation. (Carl Braaten, Mother Church: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), pp. 11-12)

Braaten then applies his parable to the fact of both the tragedy and the necessity of the Reformation. In so doing, any responsible Lutheran would agree that the events of the sixteenth century were indeed tragic. The question is – were they necessary? Part of the tragedy was the very abysmal state that the Roman Church had fallen into by the time of Luther. The tragedy also lies in the fact that Luther’s reforms should have been heeded. Any responsible Roman Catholic theologian, priest, etc. admits to the sorry state of affairs of Roman Catholicism in the late Middle Ages and that Luther’s protest over the sale of indulgences did indeed merit debate and reform. Instead, in the response from Armstrong, we see an attempt to defend the practice of indulgences.

But I don’t disagree, for the most part, with this analysis (I do to some extent, but not nearly as much as you may imagine). I can assure you and our readers that “great misunderstanding” is present on both sides, as will be clearer as I proceed.

First of all, I’m the very last person who would ever deny that the Catholic Church needed to be reformed in the 16th century. It needs to be reformed at all times. I would say, in agreement with you, that not only any “responsible” Catholic should think that, but indeed, any conscious or sane Catholic whatsoever. In fact, I’ve never met any Catholic who thinks and knows history at all, who would deny this. That isn’t the issue at all. No one disagrees with it. Rather, the real issue, as a Catholic sees it, is what should have been done to reform the tragic corruptions and nonsense and nominalism that were going on at the time.

We strongly agree with you that reform was necessary. But we would deny that a split (schism) or what is known as the “Reformation” was necessary. That is where the difference lies, rather than the common Protestant caricature of one side acknowledging problems and doing something about it and the other denying the problem and putting their collective heads in the sand. The Catholic Church had its own reform shortly afterwards, in the form of the Council of Trent.

Nor have I ever met an informed Catholic who would deny that the Catholic Church and Catholics shared a great deal of blame in the events of that time. The Catholic Church is often making “official” statements of regret and apology. To my knowledge, I don’t recall seeing similar “official” pronouncements from Lutherans (if there are some, I’d love to be directed to them). There are some in the ongoing ecumenical dialogues, but LCMS rejects those from the outset. You may personally be interested in ecumenism (good for you), but your denomination has opposed the”official” Lutheran-Catholic dialogues.

One of the finest and most respected Protestant Church historians of our time, Alister McGrath, wrote:

[R]ecent scholarship has moved decisively away from the earlier tendency . . . to underplay the social and economic aspects of the emergence of Protestantism in order to emphasize its religious and political elements . . . and has rightly cast doubt on any attempt to define the movement solely or chiefly in terms of the theological agendas of its leading figures. . . .

In the second place, the tidal wave of studies of local archives and private correspondence has confirmed the suspicions of an early generation of scholars — that it is unacceptable to determine the state of the pre-Reformation European church through the eyes of its leading critics, such as Luther and Calvin. It is increasingly clear that attempts to depict the late medieval church as morally and theologically corrupt, unpopular, and near-terminal decline cannot be sustained on the basis of the evidence available. As in every period, the church possessed strengths and weaknesses and sought to consolidate the former and address the latter. It is now clear that Catholic reforming movements were not a response to the criticisms of the Protestant reformers but were deeply enmeshed within the pre-Reformation church — where, paradoxically, they created an appetite for reform that laid the ground for Protestantism in some respects. (Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution — A History From the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First, New York: HarperCollins, 2007; from Introduction, p. 8)

Both sides need to get beyond the stereotypes. Most Catholics freely accept their share of the blame. But how many Protestants are aware of this “cutting-edge” history, described by Dr. McGrath? I suspect, far fewer than should be . . . One must have a balanced view. Widespread corruption existed, but it was not quite as bad as Protestant partisan histories (for obvious reasons) have often made out, and it was probably not the primary — let alone sole — cause of the “Reformation.” One need not take my word for that (the partisan Catholic apologist); one can go by folks like the Anglican scholar Alister McGrath.

It isn’t quite fair to me to characterize my response on the issue of indulgences [part of a larger dialogue occurring at the time], with one passing line (“Instead, in the response from Armstrong, we see an attempt to defend the practice of indulgences”), that implies that I have my own head in the sand. I was asked the question: “where is the sale of Indulgences for example, . . . anywhere a part of the apostolic tradition?” And I replied:

I recently put together a paper on indulgences, derived from my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. The essence of the doctrine of indulgences is derived from explicit biblical proofs, as I contended in the book. The key notion is the power of the Church to bind and loose. “Binding” is penance, whereas “loosing” is an indulgence. Thus, when the fathers write about those issues or related ones, they are touching upon indulgences, insofar as penances are lifted.

I carefully answered the question I was asked. If my paper referenced is seriously considered, then one will see that it delves into the question of medieval abuses at some length. But it does so with an eye to shooting down common exaggerations and misconceptions (much as McGrath’s analysis above, does). Catholics fully agree that abuses took place, and they were dealt with in the 16th century. I noted how “The Council of Trent forbade the selling of indulgences.” Now, if by “indulgences” one means only the corrupt practices of Luther’s time that have long since been reformed, then most people (including Catholics) would agree that they were in need of reform. Everyone knows this. It’s not at issue. [see also my more recent paper, Myths and Facts Regarding Tetzel and Indulgences (published in The Catholic Herald) ]

I was asked where this was “anywhere a part of the apostolic tradition” and I replied by providing the biblical rationale, which is hardly even disputable. It is rooted in the notion of “binding and loosing”: a quite explicit biblical concept. Protestants want doctrines to be grounded in Holy Scripture. I provided that grounding for indulgences. “Indulgence” is not an intrinsically “bad word” like “adultery” or “greed” or “cruelty” or suchlike. It is not the case that “everyone” knows it is wrong and ridiculous, by the mere mention of the word (though lots of Protestants would love for that to be the case). It has to be discussed.

On the other hand, as Lutherans, we should not ever affix ourselves to the mindset that the Lutheran Reformation was, is, or should be a permanent state of affairs. We do not believe that the Lutheran church should remain in exile. But the only basis for meaningful dialog is that while Lutherans should agree that the Reformation was a “tragedy,” Roman Catholics should in kind agree that the Reformation was indeed a “necessity.” If both parties can concede to that point, then there is a basis for conversation and dialog. And indeed, credible people on both sides have indeed conceded that point.

I (in line with the present pope and the previous one: both of whom are profoundly committed to ecumenism and Christian unity) have conceded as much as a Catholic can concede without ceasing to be Catholic. Obviously, if we thought that Protestantism was an essential improvement over what was before, and the Catholicism that has developed since the 16th century, then we should become Protestants ourselves. As consistent, orthodox Catholics, however, in the end, we have to deny that the “Reformation” as it proceeded, was either necessary or preferable theologically and ecclesiologically.

Some, even many aspects of it were indeed on the right track, and needed, but, as Louis Bouyer argues in his seminal work, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, whatever emphases Protestantism got right were already part of authentic Catholic tradition that was simply poorly understood (for a variety of reasons) in the early 16th century (more on that later, since you cite Bouyer as part of your “case”).

This is where modern ecumenical dialog is at right now. One of the problems I have with the various popular books listing the sundry conversion stories of those who have found their way “home to Rome” is that they tend to reflect a most antiquated apologetics that were being employed over a century ago when both sides were hurling insults and barbs at each other, motivated by the enthusiasm and conviction that “our side represents the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and our opponents are liars who are filled with the devil.”

Sometimes that is true. I think it is far more true of former Catholics, however, than of former Protestants. Former Catholics tend to become anti-Catholics, whereas former Protestants generally do not trash Protestantism wholesale (we do critique its doctrines, of course). I’m regularly described as a liar, deceptive, apostate, insincere, motivated by unsavory goals, etc., by anti-Catholic Protestants on the Internet (recently, for example, one person compared me to Castro and the dictators of Iran and North Korea; then called me a schizophrenic). I never reciprocate those sorts of character assassinations. I even defend some of these severe critics of mine when they are trashed by others. I have never held that Martin Luther was an essentially evil man (as I have been falsely accused of doing).

I would challenge you to produce examples of (non-fringe) Catholic converts using this kind of rhetoric. I could easily provide a dozen examples of prominent (credentialed, published, pastors) online anti-Catholic Protestant apologists trashing our motives, judging people’s souls, etc. I know because I’ve encountered it firsthand.

For the last forty to fifty years, great Roman Catholic theologians have readily acknowledged the huge theological contributions of Luther and the theology of the Augsburg Confession to Western Christendom. And Lutherans, represented by people like Braaten are spending their careers in listening and dialoging with Rome. This is the level of discussion that needs to take place in a debate that is going to maintain integrity and respectability and an honest search for truth.

I agree. And if you and I are to participate in that ongoing task, we need to listen to and interact with each other, too. I’m motivated by an honest search for theological and spiritual truth, and I think you are, too.

Consider some of the big Roman Catholic names and what they have been saying: Around 1940, the great Roman Catholic historian, Joseph Lortz, in his writings on the Reformation described the utter worldliness of the papacy, the abuses in church practice, superstitions in piety, and the decadence of late scholasticism. On the other hand he presented Luther as a pious monk posing the ultimate question of salvation.

That is correct and all well and good. I agree. But on the other hand, you are only presenting one side of Lortz’s thought (this will be a problem with other Catholics you cite, too, as I will proceed to demonstrate, with documentation). To summarize briefly, Lortz doesn’t regard the “Reformation” as fundamentally a movement within Catholicism, because he states: “The Reformation is above all the disavowal of Catholic dogmas.” He also blames both Luther and his Catholic debate opponent Eck for being saddled with corrupt Ockhamistic nominalism:

[B]oth are thinking in nominalistic terms. Luther proceeds from this way of thinking with due consistency to the denial of Catholic dogmas. Eck, proceeding from the same nominalistic thought, is unable to illuminate theologically even in a measure satisfactorily the Catholic theses to which he firmly holds . . .

Let us now summarize: at the end of the Middle Ages a dangerous lack of theological clarity existed. It was of such a kind that it was relatively easy for a theologically independent person to become a heretic . . .

See my very in-depth compilation of sources: William of Ockham, Nominalism, Luther, and Early Protestant Thought. In Lortz’s book, How the Reformation Came (New York: Herder & Herder, 1964, translated by Otto M. Knab), indeed he takes great pains to be as fair towards our Protestant brethren as he can be (I think, admirably so), but he does not totally excuse Luther and the Protestants from blame, by any stretch of the imagination:

Imagine . . . Luther filled with the theology of Thomas or the Roman Missal instead of Ockhamist theology, and his reformist action simply could not have happened. (p. 33)

Ockhamism was no longer fully Catholic. The missal knows nothing of an arbitrary God, It knows nothing of a cruel, forever threatening judge . . .

Ockhamism teaches an arbitrary God instead of a Father-God, a God who “without objective reason” predestines one for heaven and another for hell, who only accidentally determined one thing to be good and another evil . .

The theological consequence has logically to be a belittling of grace which in turn could but end in a misconception of the very essence of Christianity . . .

The theological consequences of such thinking, in the direction of a radical ecclesiastical democracy, and the destruction of the properly understood mediative role of the priest, of logically followed through, are incalculable.

These consequences manifested themselves in Luther in various ways . . . in the modes of perception to which Luther constantly adhered (as exemplified in his attack on reason, in his imputation theory); they showed again in his assault on conservative Church theologians in questions of the Eucharist and the Mass. (pp. 55-58)

Carl Braaten writes: “Against the nominalistic theology and indulgence piety of late medievalism, Luther placed his theology of the cross, his absolute trust in God’s grace, not in his own works; his reliance upon the Scriptures, not upon the opinions of the schoolmen, and his protest against superstition in low places and corruption in high places. Lortz said, the Roman Catholic Church must definitely be on the side of Luther.” [emphasis mine] (Braaten, Mother Church p. 14-15)

But if we are to believe Joseph Lortz, whom you just cited, and whom Braaten cites, Luther, too, was adversely affected by corrupt nominalistic thought, so it is by no means agreed that he entirely opposed it. On the same page 14, Braaten also wrote: “Luther could now be interpreted in light of the conditions which produced him.” As we saw above, Lortz regards Ockhamistic nominalism as a key influence on Luther. He was by no means alone. Luther biographer Roland Bainton agrees with this appraisal:

In the Protestant camp Luther’s view was Occamism grown religiously vital. Faith was pitted even more violently against “the harlot reason,” but faith was mightily sure of itself. Melanchthon and Zwingli, while toning down Luther, still held to the essential irrationality of faith. (Studies on the Reformation, Boston: Beacon Press, 1963, 131)

So does Alister McGrath:

Luther’s own theological development . . . can only be properly evaluated in light of the theological currents prevalent in the later Middle Ages. The tendency to regard the study of the theology of the later medieval period as serving as little more than a prologue to that of the Reformation has recently been reversed, with increasing emphasis being placed upon the importance of the later medieval period as a field of study in its own right. As a consequence, we . . . are thus in a favourable position to attempt an informed evaluation of Luther’s initial relationship to this theology, and also the nature of his subsequent break with it.

Luther was not a man without beginnings, a mysterious and lonely figure of destiny who arrived at Wittenberg already in possession of the vera theologia which would take the church by storm, and usher in a new era in its history. Although it is tempting to believe that Luther suffered a devastating moment of illumination, in which he suddenly became conscious of the vera theologia and of his own divine mission to reform the church on its basis, all the evidence which we possess points to Luther’s theological insights arising over a prolonged period at Wittenberg, under the influence of three main currents of thought: humanism, the ‘nominalism’ of the via moderna, and the theology of his own Augustinian Order . . .

. . . between 1509 and early 1514, Luther’s theology in general, and his theology of justification in particular, was typical of the later medieval period. This suggestion is not, of course, new. In his celebrated critique of the reformer, Heinrich Denifle argued that Luther’s rejection of catholic theology was ultimately a reflection upon the particular type of ‘catholic’ theology with which Luther was familiar. For Denifle, Luther was only familiar with the ‘unsound’ theology of the later medieval period, such as that of Gabriel Biel, and not with the catholic theology of St Thomas Aquinas or Bonaventure. Perhaps surprisingly, modern Luther scholarship has tended to endorse Denifle’s judgment: whereas Luther frequently demonstrates first-hand knowledge of the writings of the leading theologians of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, such as Pierre d’Ailly and Gabriel Biel, such knowledge is conspicuously absent in the case of earlier medieval theologians, such as St Thomas Aquinas. It must, of course, be pointed out that this is precisely what is to be expected, if Luther was educated within the via moderna, characterised by its logico-critical attitudes and an epistemological nominalism: the great theologians of the thirteenth century belonged to the via antiqua, characterised by an epistemological realism, from which Luther would have been taught to distance himself by his mentors at Erfurt . . .

Luther began his theological career at Wittenberg in 1512 steeped in both the methods and the presuppositions of late medieval theology . . . It must therefore be regarded as methodologically unacceptable to attempt to study Luther’s theological development in isolation from, or with purely incidental reference to, this context . . .

. . . if Luther’s difficulty [over justification] represented a problem which had been adequately discussed within the earlier western theological tradition, it remains to be explained why Luther appears to have been quite unaware if the established solutions to this problem. The answer given to this objection is substantially the same as that given to the charge of Heinrich Denifle — that Luther had misrepresented the western theological tradition as a whole. According to Denifle, not a single writer in the western church, from Ambrosiaster to the time of Luther himself, understood iustitia Dei in the sense which Luther noted. Both objections are based upon the assumption that Luther was familiar with the earlier western theological tradition — which, as we have emphasised earlier, appears not to have been the case. Luther is only familiar with the theology of the moderni, such as William of Ockham, Pierre d’Ailly and Gabriel Biel at first hand, and shows little familiarity with other theologians. Indeed, where such familiarity can be demonstrated, there are usually grounds for suspecting that he has encountered them indirectly, at second hand. (Luther’s Theology of the Cross, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1985, 25, 72-73, 103-104)

So does Louis Bouyer:

All the ‘heresies’ Protestantism may have fostered, far from being its creations . . . appear already to be taking shape in the nominalist thinkers before the Reformation. Whether we take the theory of extrinsic justification, or the completely subjectivist view of faith . . . or a conception of the Word of God that . . . opposes it to any ecclesiastical institution and makes it incomprehensible, and even incapable of formulation — none of this is a Protestant innovation . . .

In such a system, God is only God in so far as he is beyond the true and the false, good and evil. Truth, falsehood, good, evil, are no more than hypotheses he has actually adopted; there is no reason why he should not have taken them in the contrary sense . . .

Our conclusion from this chapter is that the negative, ‘heretical’ aspect of the Reformation neither follows from its positive principles, nor is it a necessary consequence of their development or vindication, but appears simply as a survival, within Protestantism, of what was most vitiated and corrupt in the Catholic thought of the close of the Middle Ages . . .

This latter point, the utter corruption of Christian thought in nominalist theology, quite uncritically retained and applied by all the ‘orthodox’ Protestant thinkers, should by now be thoroughly clear. (The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, translated by A.V. Littledale, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1955, 161-164)

Catholic theology did not teach Pelagianism (needless to say), nor did it denigrate Scripture, as if “the schoolmen” were placed higher than Holy Writ.

Dr. Braaten seems to be expressing (surprisingly, given his profound ecumenism) at least some aspects of the populist historical myths about late medieval Catholicism (things noted and decried by no less than Alister McGrath). Many Protestant scholars would disagree that the Catholic Church denigrated Scripture, over against the Bible-soaked early Protestants:

There was never a time in the history of the western Church during the ‘Dark’ or ‘Middle’ Ages when the Scriptures were officially demoted. On the contrary, they were considered infallible and inerrant, and were held in the highest honour. (Peter Toon, Protestants and Catholics, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Books, 1983, 39)

The view expressed by Augustine was the view the Roman Catholic Church believed, taught, and propagated through the centuries . . . It can be said that the Roman church for more than a thousand years accepted the doctrine of infallibility of all Scripture . . . The church has always (via Fathers, theologians, and popes) taught biblical inerrancy . . . The Roman church held to a view of Scripture that was no different from that held by the Reformers. (The Battle For the Bible, Harold Lindsell, former editor of Christianity Today, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1976, 54-56; after quoting 19 eminent Church fathers to the effect that Scripture is infallible and held in the highest regard)

For more on this theme, see my paper, Catholic Church: Historic “Enemy” of the Bible?

You cite Louis Bouyer (quite selectively) in your favor below. Here is what he writes about medieval Catholic love for the Bible:

In the same way that Popes, Councils, theologians, always resorted to the scriptural argument as the really fundamental one, the practice of the great spiritual writers of every epoch attests the fully traditional character of a devotion based on the Bible . . . The same is true of the great teachers of the Middle Ages . . . Not only did they know the Bible and make abundant use of it, but they moved in it as in a spiritual world that formed the habitual universe of all their thoughts and sentiments. For them, it was not simply one source among others, but the source par excellence, in a sense the only one . . .

What in fact was for so many monks the most important of their religious practices, the one which virtually contained all the others? It was what the Benedictine rule, which only codified in this the practice of the sixth century, called the ‘lectio divina.’ This ‘lectio,’. . . was nourished exclusively on the Bible . . .

Not only with the approval of the hierarchy but by the positive and emphatic insistence of the Pope himself, there has come about a general return to the close study of Scripture, which has been restored, not only as the base, but as the source, of all teaching of theology.(Bouyer, ibid., 133-134)

In a review of the book by Carl Braaten that you cite above, by Michael Kinnamon (Christian CenturyFeb. 3, 1999), the writer states:

Braaten encourages Lutherans (and other Protestants) to recognize that the reunited church of the future should include both bishops in apostolic succession and the papacy. These offices, he argues, can give visible expression to unity and serve as signs of continuity in the faith. Not all Lutherans will be pleased with this conclusion.

These were hardly characteristic traits of early Lutheranism (nor of LCMS). They specifically sent the bishops packing, by stealing their churches and monasteries, and opting for princes to rule the Church instead. The pope was regarded as anti-Christ. Popes and bishops alike were subjected to vulgar woodcuts; some depicted bishops being hanged and their tongues torn out. Apostolic succession, as previously known from the beginning of the Church, was ditched.

Braaten includes other Catholic voices. . . . Karl Adam – “all who are serious about ecumenical dialog must go back to Luther himself. The gulf can be bridged only after we retrace our steps and gain a real understanding on where both sides went wrong. [emphasis mine]

Yes, absolutely. That’s true. Each side must 1) understand the other, 2) know the basic historical facts, as ascertained by historiographical consensus across party lines, 3) admit wrongs where necessary, and 4) exhibit a spirit of hopeful good will. But as we saw above. Adam rejects what Luther’s “solution” was, by writing (after acknowledging Luther’s many praiseworthy qualities):

But — and here lies the tragedy of the Reformation . . .– he let the warring spirits drive him to overthrow not merely the abuses in the Church, but the Church Herself . . . what St. Augustine calls the greatest sin . . . he set up altar against altar and tore in pieces the one Body of Christ. . . . The longer the strife continued . . . the confusion in his eyes between the abuses in the Church and the essence of the Church increased; . . . It was not ecclesiastical abuses that made him the opponent of the Catholic Church, but the conviction that she was teaching falsely. And this conviction dates from long before the fatal 17th October, 1517.

Yves Congar – “Luther must be seen in one long line of Reformers in the Church.”

Braaten continues: “According to Congar, Luther addressed a question that the church at that time was in no position to answer, and which it still has never answered in a serious way. Certainly excommunication was no answer to the kind of legitimate questions Luther was asking. Certainly the Council of Trent’s response was not to Luther’s basic intention and meaning, but only to some of the extreme inferences that his disciples drew from his teachings. (emphasis added)

I’d have to see the context of these remarks to comment further. There is a sense in which Luther was in a long line of reformers. Adam acknowledges that, but he condemns the radical solution of schism that Luther adopted. According to Adam, the theological differences didn’t simply come about in the heat of battle, but were present before Luther nailed the 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Many Protestant try to deny this, but I think the facts contradict them. One can study, for example, Luther’s early commentaries on Romans and Galatians, and see his Protestant theology developing clearly.

Father Louis Bouyer even more emphatically than any of the others, proposed the thesis that the positive principles of the Reformation were not an attack uponCatholic faith and doctrine but were truly at home in the Catholic Church. (emphasis added).

That’s right. But in his book, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (translated by A.V. Littledale, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1955), — I read it in 1990 and was profoundly influenced by it –, Bouyer devotes 17 pages to a chapter entitled “The Positive Principles of the Reformation.” In the middle chapters he mostly shows how these positive principles are reiterations of previous Catholic tradition and dogmatic theology. But from pages 136 to 177 he writes about “The Negative Elements of the Reformation” and “The Decay of the Positive Principles of the Reformation.” Braaten mentions this other aspect:

Bouyer saw the Reformation as particularly tragic because, to the extent that the Protestants drew false and heretical inferences from those positive principles, the Catholics were driven to oppose the principles, and thereby, lost much of the good with the bad. (Mother Church, 16)

Here is a sampling of Bouyer’s thought:

[T]he Lutheran sola gratia . . . this assertion . . . is a genuinely Christian one, and fully in accord, of course, with Catholic tradition properly understood . . . Luther’s basic intuition, on which Protestantism continuously draws for its abiding vitality, so far from being hard to reconcile with Catholic tradition, or inconsistent with the teaching of the Apostles, was a return to the clearest elements of their teaching, and is in the most direct line of that tradition . . .. . . . by the very logic of its nature, it should have initiated in the Church itself a powerful movement of regeneration . . . Unfortunately, that is not what happened, though the blame, in any case, does not lie exclusively with the basic principle of the Reformation. Considered in itself, and in the natural course of its development, it does not lead to division and error. These are only the accidental results of the Reformation . . . the schisms and heresies of the sixteenth century resulted, not from its initial impulse, but from external and adventitious factors which disturbed its development.

. . . the negative, ‘heretical’ aspect of the Reformation neither follows from its positive principles, nor is it a necessary consequence of their development or vindication, but appears simply as a survival, within Protestantism, of what was most vitiated and corrupt in the Catholic thought of the close of the Middle Ages . . . What the Reformation took over from the Middle Ages was just what it should have criticised and rejected; in fact it led the positive principles the Reformers had brought to light to assume a negative and polemical aspect . . . (pp. 43-44, 164, 166)

Does Bouyer give the Protestants a pass in terms of responsibility and blame for schism? Hardly. Let’s observe some more of his words:

[H]ow could a movement, starting from such principles, create a schism, turn aside form the Catholic tradition, set up over against the Church a multiplicity of ‘Churches’, very often as hostile to one another as to Catholicism? . . . to set up a Christianity disrupted from tradition, and to injure and attack of set purpose the Church it had wished to renew?

. . . with these [positive] principles were associated others that the Church could not accept . . . (pp. 136-137)

Bouyer notes, for example, the radical dichotomy involved in sola Scriptura:

[W]e notice, at the very outset of Protestantism, the tendency to equate it [supreme authority of Scripture] with an absolute denial of the authority of the Church, whether manifested in tradition or in particular decisions of her magisterium. (p. 141)

He makes a host of scathing criticisms of Protestantism throughout the book:

In point of fact, the Reformers, though desirous of accentuating the divine, transcendent, aspect of Christianity, promoted more than anyone else the development of humanism and, in particular, the religious individualism of modern times. (p. 97)

Three different possibilities were open to Protestant organisations, once the rupture with the Church of tradition was accomplished. Either, as with the Anabaptists at first, or later with the Quakers, the rejection of all visible authority, resulting in an absolute, anarchical individualism; or else, as in the Lutheran reaction, the handing over to the civil authority of the organisation and direction of the Church; or, as in Calvinism and the sects following and opposed to it, the artificial construction of a new Church, created in all its elements by the genius (or fantasy) of an individual . . . In the three cases, the result was the same; in the place of divine authority in the Church Protestantism set up purely human ones, with the inevitable consequence of an enslavement of man to man, stifling the idea of personal religion and Christian liberty. (p. 212)

The final result is that the Protestant who seeks, in his Church, food for his faith finds it only in the form of a total subjection to all the peculiarities, the momentary idiosyncrasies, of his minister’s personal devotion. (p. 216)

From the moment of their creation, the Protestant Churches were merely the works of man. In so far as they manage to attain any authority at all, it is always the authority of a man, either of a founder or organiser or of a simple minister, and, if that fails, they break up into fragments, to the sole profit of the authority of each individual, his private views, tendencies or experiences. (p. 218)

I probably should include an obscure name like (then) Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who nearly 50 years ago reflected the same spirit as some of these other voices. He wrote these words:

“There is no appropriate category in Catholic thought for the phenomenon of Protestantism today (one could say the same of the separated churches of the East). It is obvious that the old category of “heresy” is no longer of any value. Heresy, for Scripture and the early church, includes the idea of a personal decision against the early church, and heresy’s characteristic is pertinacia, the obstinacy of the one who persists in his or her own private way. This, however, cannot be regarded as an appropriate description of the Protestant Christian. In the course of a now centuries old history, Protestantism has made an important contribution to the realization of Christian faith, fulfilling a positive development of the Christian message, and above all, often giving rise to a sincere and profound faith in the individual non-Catholic Christian.” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Meaning of the Christian Brotherhood, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), pp. 87-88)

One only wonders whether Pope Benedict still maintains these sentiments and whether he realizes that Luther resisted the errors of his day as a loyal son of the Church. 

Yes, of course he does. This is standard Vatican II ecumenism. Pope Benedict XVI is no different from Pope John Paul II. They are both eminently men of that council, and committed ecumenists. I’m very fond of it also. I have cited Pope Benedict, for example, saying that the Tridentine anathemas do not apply to present-day Protestants in many cases.

This is a small sampling of Roman Catholic theologians and leaders who are interested in digging into the deeper heart of the Reformation. I believe this presents a spirit of honesty and integrity in a debate that has been and should be held in earnest. 

I’m all in favor of open and honest and congenial discussion. I think even heartfelt differences can be discussed in such a manner, and constructively so. I hope and pray that I am doing that right now. Honest discussion doesn’t sweep things under the rug simply because they are controversial. If we all truly respect each other as brothers and sisters in Christ (and especially in the context of warm personal friendship), we ought to be able to frankly discuss any theological topic, and to be able to take criticism without becoming angry, defensive, or insecure.

Both parties saw total continuity with the Apostolic and Patristic periods. There was no “protestant consciousness” of breaking away from, or concluding that Rome was a false church. 

Well, there wasn’t at first, but it soon (sadly) developed. I agree with Louis Bouyer’s and Karl Adam’s and Joseph Lortz’s analyses. Moreover, much of Lutheranism today (as you must know) is plagued by a denominationalism that has not the slightest desire to ever unite with Rome.

In conclusion, we do not see Luther as having broken from what he perceived to be a false church. He was a loyal son of the Church and wished for his reforms to take place. The Augsburg Confession is Apostolic, and proffers the first definition of the Church (Article VII), since the Fathers confessed the Church as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”

Thank you very much for your time. I look forward, as always, to future installments. God bless you in your ministry and service to God and your flock.


Photo credit: Luther posting his 95 Theses on 31 October 1517 (1872), by Ferdinand Pauwels (1830-1904) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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