The Nature of the Church: Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue

The Nature of the Church: Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue April 3, 2018

Pastor Ben Maton (Lutheran – Missouri Synod [“LCMS”] ) serves at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. His words will be in blue

* * * * *

Dear Dave (and the rest of cyberbia reading this stuff) —

The Lord be with you! And thank-you for your patience in waiting for our reply. Larry [another Lutheran pastor who was participating in the dialogue] is very busy and I am just lazy!

We ended our first essay “If we have written clearly…” We did not – at least not as clearly as we could and should have. You are right to pick up on a seeming contradiction in our response. However, it is a seeming contradiction in our response only and stems from our attempt to cut-and-paste two individual essays into one. Rather than exegete our own essay and try to explain how Larry and I managed to say seemingly contradictory things, let me instead enter into dialogue regarding the more important writings of Luther and the Lutheran confessions regarding the nature of the church and to what extent the RCC reflects it.

You use Luther’s Wider Hans Wurst to highlight what you see as a contradiction in Luther. You argue Luther wants to have it both ways: Rome is not true church but is true church. A closer contextual reading of the treatise will make clear what Luther is saying, namely: insofar as human traditions are taught in the RCC as the commands of God for the meriting of eternal rewards thereby robbing glory from Christ and comfort from burdened consciences left to doubt the grace of God, the RCC is not the true church but a false one. Yet, insofar as things like Holy Baptism and the Holy Scriptures are maintained in the RCC, God in his mercy, continues to use her to create and sustain Christians. As it is the Roman hierarchy insisting on the salvific efficacy of these human traditions, it is that hierarchy that comes in for the most criticism.

I think this is good in some ways and bad in others. The good part is that Luther and Lutherans do not view the Catholic Church as totally apostate, in the way that standard anti-Catholicism today (often emanating from Reformed and Baptist circles) does. On the other hand, there some misunderstanding as to what Catholics truly believe. And so we see the notion that Catholics can be saved despite all these teachings about “meriting of eternal rewards thereby robbing glory from Christ” and “burdened consciences left to doubt the grace of God.”

This is not what our soteriology entails. Accurate mutual understanding of each others’ soteriology is absolutely crucial. Our theology of salvation is scarcely any different from St. Augustine’s, since he firmly believed in merit, too. We don’t differ at all from his own conception (in fact, he is cited in the Catholic Catechism on this point: #2005-2006, 2009):

The Lord made Himself a debtor not by receiving something, but by promising something. One does not say to Him “Pay for what You received,” but, “Pay what You promised.” (Commentary on Psalms 83:16)

You are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts. (En. in Ps. 102:7; cf. Ep. 194, 5, 19)

Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due . . . Our merits are God’s gifts. (Sermo 298: 4-5)

Someone says to me: “Since we are acted upon, it is not we who act.” I answer, “No, you both act and are acted upon; and if you are acted upon by the good, you act properly. For the spirit of God who moves you, by so moving, is your Helper. The very term helper makes it clear that you yourself are doing something.” (Sermons 156, 11)

Wherefore, even eternal life itself, which is surely the reward of good works, the apostle calls the gift of God . . . We are to understand, then, that man’s good deserts are themselves the gift of God, so that when these obtain the recompense of eternal life, it is simply grace given for grace. (Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love, chapter 107; NPNF 1, Vol. III)

Thus, the deeper question becomes: “does the very idea of merit intrinsically detract from the glory and grace of God?” St. Augustine and Catholics say “no.” Lutherans say “yes.” Yet Lutherans (like Calvinists) claim to be following St. Augustine’s theology of grace. This is the disconnect that I keep emphasizing: between distinctive Lutheran theology and previous medieval and patristic theology; particularly that of St. Augustine. It’s a contradiction for Lutherans to continue to claim to be legatees of Augustine’s theology, while at the same time disagreeing and repudiating Catholic theology, when (as in this instance) it simply agrees with Augustine’s.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes it quite clear that merit in Catholic theology is not opposed to either God’s grace or glory at all. Nor is this merely “human tradition”; we maintain (rightly or wrongly, but we do claim this) that it is biblical, apostolic, and patristic tradition. Nor is “the Roman hierarchy insisting on the salvific efficacy of these human traditions” — because we deny that they are merely human traditions (meaning “corruptions” of biblical theology) and we deny that we place faith in them rather than in Christ and His grace. Hence, we observe how the Catechism explains merit:

2005 Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith. We cannot therefore rely on our feelings or our works to conclude that we are justified and saved. However, according to the Lord’s words “Thus you will know them by their fruits”- reflection on God’s blessings in our life and in the lives of the saints offers us a guarantee that grace is at work in us and spurs us on to an ever greater faith and an attitude of trustful poverty.

A pleasing illustration of this attitude is found in the reply of St. Joan of Arc to a question posed as a trap by her ecclesiastical judges: “Asked if she knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.'”

2007 With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator.

2008 The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.

2009 Filial adoption, in making us partakers by grace in the divine nature, can bestow true merit on us as a result of God’s gratuitous justice. This is our right by grace, the full right of love, making us “co-heirs” with Christ and worthy of obtaining “the promised inheritance of eternal life.”60 The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness.61 “Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due. . . . Our merits are God’s gifts.”62

2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God’s wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.

2011 The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.

After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone. . . . In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.63 [St. Therese of Lisieux, in Story of a Soul]

2025 We can have merit in God’s sight only because of God’s free plan to associate man with the work of his grace. Merit is to be ascribed in the first place to the grace of God, and secondly to man’s collaboration. Man’s merit is due to God.

2026 The grace of the Holy Spirit can confer true merit on us, by virtue of our adoptive filiation, and in accordance with God’s gratuitous justice. Charity is the principal source of merit in us before God.

2027 No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods.

I think that if Lutherans properly understood exactly what Catholics mean by “merit”, that this would be much less a point of contention, if at all, since all we are teaching is what St. Augustine and (so we contend) St. Paul taught (Rom 2:5-13 [esp. 2:6]; 1 Cor 3:8-9, 15:10,58; 2 Cor 6:1; Gal 5:6; Eph 2:8-10, 6:8; Phil 2:12-13; Col 3:23-25; 1 Tim 6:18-19; 2 Tim 4:7-8). The Council of Trent asserted the same doctrine shortly after Luther (Decree on Justification, Chapter XVI and Canons I-IV on Justification). Martin Luther himself expressed something not all that different, in his statements on the importance and necessity of good works.

The very passage you quote to highlight a seeming contradiction, in fact, makes this argument clear. Unfortunately, in your citation, you elide Luther’s most crucial words:

We acknowledge not only that you have, with us, come from the true church and been washed and made clean in baptism through the blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as St. Peter says here, but also that you are in the church and remain in it. Indeed, we say that you sit and rule in it as St. Paul prophesied in II Thessalonians 2 [:3–4], that the accursed Antichrist would sit (not in the cowshed), but in the temple of God. But you are no longer of the church, or members of the church, for in this holy church of God you are building your own new apostate church, the devil’s brothel with limitless whoredom, idolatry, and innovation, by which you corrupt those who have been baptized and redeemed along with yourselves. (LW 41, 209-210)

As far as I can see, this reaffirms my initial impression that Luther contradicts himself. For what does Luther say later on the same page about how much truth and how many true believers remain in the Catholic Church?:

But it is God, who by his wonderful almighty power in the midst of so much abomination among you and the whoredom of the devil, nevertheless still sustains the young children through baptism, and some old people, but only a few, who at the end of their lives have turned once more to Christ [Dave: i.e., became Lutherans?], of whom I myself have known many. So it is that the true ancient church with its baptism and the work of God still remains with you, and your god, the devil, has not been able to obliterate it entirely with all this new idolatry and all your devilish whoredom. (LW 41, 210)

The “idolatry,” and so forth, is, of course, in Luther’s eyes, the sacrifice of the mass. But St. Augustine (along with many many Church fathers) strongly held to the sacrifice of the mass. All faithful Catholics participate in this rite every week at church. So it isn’t just the popes and bishops who are guilty of this so-called “idolatry” and “devilish whoredom” but in fact, any faithful, committed Catholic whatsoever. But if Catholics forsake these Catholic, patristic, apostolic, biblical beliefs and become good Lutherans, while remaining inconsistently in the Catholic Church, then for Luther they will be “of the Church” (not just “in the Church”, as the pope, the “anti-Christ” is) and good Christians.

Luther expresses the same thought later on:

Therefore those who teach, baptize, or distribute the sacrament falsely cannot be or remain in the church, as Psalm 1 [:5] says. For they act not only against the life the church must endure—particularly when it is hidden—but also against the doctrine that must gleam and shine in public to be a guide for life. This has been taught from the beginning, as St. John says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us” [I John 2:19], and, “They are in the church but not of the church”; or, “In number but not in merit,” and the like. Accordingly, we draw this distinction: not all are Christians who pretend to be Christians. But when there is disagreement in doctrine, it becomes quite evident who the true Christians are, namely, those who have God’s word in purity and refinement. (218-219)

And the “true Christians” will be, of course, those who agree with Luther (and later, with the Lutheran confessions, that agreed for the most part with Luther). The question immediately becomes, of course: “why should agreement with Luther [or the Lutheran confessions] be the criterion of Christianhood, rather than agreement with the unbroken apostolic tradition of the Catholic Church?” And, “by what authority does Martin Luther [or the Lutheran confessions] become the new standard-bearer of orthodoxy and who and who is not a Christian?”

The Catholic approach to authority is self-consistent. non-circular, and in accord with the past history of Christianity: “God preserves one true Church down through the centuries, via apostolic succession and the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit. Hence, whoever agrees with this one Church (headed by the pope in Rome) is orthodox and a true Christian.” This is what the Church fathers, and the apostles, and the Bible taught, contra Luther and Protestantism. For example, St. Augustine:

[I]f you acknowledge the supreme authority of Scripture, you should recognise that authority which from the time of Christ Himself, through the ministry of His apostles, and through a regular succession of bishops in the seats of the apostles, has been preserved to our own day throughout the whole world, with a reputation known to all. (Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, 33:9; NPNF 1, Vol. IV, 345)

For in the Catholic Church, not to speak of the purest wisdom, to the knowledge of which a few spiritual men attain in this life, so as to know it, in the scantiest measure, deed, because they are but men, . . . – not to speak of this wisdom, which you do not believe to be in the Catholic Church, there are many other things which most justly keep me in her bosom. The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age. The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate. And so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house. (Against the Epistle of Manichaeus 4:5; NPNF 1, Vol. IV, 130)

For my part, I should not believe the gospel except moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. (Against the Epistle of Manichaeus 5, 6; NPNF 1, Vol. IV, 131)

God has placed this authority first of all in his Church. (Explanations of the Psalms, Tract 103:8, PL 37:520-521; in Congar, 392)

It is obvious; the faith allows it; the Catholic Church approves; it is true. (Sermon 117, 6)

To be sure, although on this matter, we cannot quote a clear example taken from the canonical Scriptures, at any rate, on this question, we are following the true thought of Scriptures when we observe what has appeared good to the universal Church which the authority of these same Scriptures recommends to you; thus, since Holy Scripture cannot be mistaken, anyone fearing to be misled by the obscurity of this question has only to consult on this same subject this very Church which the Holy Scriptures point out without ambiguity. (Against Cresconius I:33)

. . . the Roman Church, in which the supremacy of an apostolic chair has always flourished. (To Glorius et al, Epistle 43, 7; NPNF 1, Vol. I, 278)

And thus a man who is resting upon faith, hope, and love, and who keeps a firm hold upon these, does not need the Scriptures except for the purpose of instructing others. Accordingly, many live without copies of the Scriptures, even in solitude, on the strength of these three graces. (On Christian Doctrine, I, 39:43; NPNF 1, Vol. II, 534)

I believe that this practice [of not rebaptizing heretics and schismatics] comes from apostolic tradition, just as so many other practices not found in their writings nor in the councils of their successors, but which, because they are kept by the whole Church everywhere, are believed to have been commanded and handed down by the Apostles themselves. (On Baptism, 2, 7, 12; Jurgens, III, 66; cf. NPNF 1, IV, 430)

. . . the custom, which is opposed to Cyprian, may be supposed to have had its origin in apostolic tradition, just as there are many things which are observed by the whole Church, and therefore are fairly held to have been enjoined by the apostles, which yet are not mentioned in their writings. (On Baptism, 5, 23:31; NPNF 1, IV, 475)

Petrine, papal, Catholic, apostolic authority is also strongly rooted in the Bible, as I think I have shown in many papers.

The argument is simple: The RC opponents “are IN, but not OF the church.” Just as the kings and priests of Elijah’s day had all the churchly trappings IN the church, it was faithful Elijah and the 7000 who were truly OF the church. (210) As, of course, they must, RC’s take issue with the Reformers referring the papacy as the Anti-Christ, as Luther does here. However, that very claim has ecclesiological significance. Speaking with scripture, one of the chief marks of the Anti-Christ is that he takes his seat “not in the cowshed, but in the temple of God [that is, in the church].” Therefore, every mention of the papacy as the Anti-Christ is at the same time an assertion that the RCC is church. If it was not church, the pope could not be the Anti-Christ.

But the faithful Catholic is bound to accept papal and conciliar teaching. The pope teaches the sacrifice of the mass (one of the main targets of Luther’s charge of “idolatry”). And Catholics practice that every week, and (for many) even daily. So if the pope is a “bad guy” for teaching this supposed false doctrine, so is every Catholic who accepts this teaching and worships accordingly, and so is St. Augustine, etc. That makes us anti-Christ, too, doesn’t it?, or at least his pawns and dupes.

Recourse to the distinction between the visible and invisible church is not enough for you to “reconcile the extremity of Luther’s statements.” However, properly understood — in a Lutheran as opposed to a Reformed sense, that distinction is precisely the place to look to resolve your difficulty. For a Lutheran, the idea of the invisible church is nothing more than the ecclesiological correlate of the sola fide. In other words, we are not talking, as the Reformed often seem to, about two free floating churches with little interaction. The church is only invisible in the sense that faith is invisible – i.e., only the Shepherd can know which sheep are his and which are faking it. However, God creates and sustains that salvific faith through very visible means – namely through the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the Gospel sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Those visible “marks” or “means of grace” tell us where – and only where – Christians are to be found because only they make Christians. Even if those marks cannot tell us exactly in which individuals the Spirit has worked faith through them, they nonetheless tell us where God is making Christians according to his promise and where we ourselves should gather to be sustained in the faith. It should go without saying that the church cannot then be said to be co-extensive with any particular outward communion – Lutheran, RC, or otherwise. Instead, the church exists wherever God works through his means. Those outward/visible means in turn become the criteria by which true and false communions are judged.

With all due respect, I must contend that this is inconsistent, too, though, with Lutheran belief, and how Lutherans acted when their movement began. You (and Luther) say that the Catholic Church possessed the means to salvation: particularly baptism and the Scriptures. Transubstantiation is far closer to the Lutheran view of the Eucharist than both the Reformed belief and the pure symbolism of the Anabaptists and Baptists today.

Hence, Luther’s and Melanchthon’s opinion that Zwingli and the Sacramentarians were not part of the Church at all; they were damned, which had a lot, no doubt, to do with their consent to have them executed, largely based on their repudiation of infant baptism and supposed “seditious” characteristics. On the other hand, Luther did not reject a person from his party due to belief in transubstantiation:

Now, I have taught in the past and still teach that this controversy [over transubstantiation] is unnecessary, and that it is of no great consequence whether the bread remains or not. I maintain, however, with Wycliffe that the bread remains; on the other hand, I also maintain with the sophists that the body of Christ is present. (Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, [written in 1528], LW 37: 296)

I have often asserted that I do not argue whether the wine remains wine or not. It is enough for me that Christ’s blood is present; let it be with the wine as God wills. Sooner than have mere wine with the fanatics, I would agree with the pope that there is only blood. (Ibid., 317)

He had expressed the same opinion in his famous tract, Babylonian Captivity of the Church, in 1520:

Therefore, I permit every man to hold either of these opinions [transubstantiation or substance of bread remaining with the Body of Christ also present], as he chooses. (LW 36:30)

The 1577 confessional Formula of Concord, unfortunately, didn’t see fit to enshrine Luther’s “metaphysical agnosticism” on the exact nature of eucharistic change, and stated:

[W]e unanimously reject and condemn . . . papistic transubstantiation . . . (Epitome, Article VII: “Lord’s Supper”; p. 484 in Theodore G. Tappert edition, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959)

We . . . reject the papistic transubstantiation . . . (Ibid., Solid Declaration, Article VII: “Lord’s Supper”; p. 575)

[W]e reject and condemn with heart and mouth as false, erroneous, and deceiving every error which is inconsistent with or opposed and contrary to the aforementioned doctrine, based as it is on the Word of God:

First, papistic transubstantiation . . . (Ibid., Solid Declaration, Article VII: “Lord’s Supper”; p. 588)

Therefore, if the Catholic Church possessed all these true Christian elements, mixed in with the rotgut and idolatry (as Luther saw it), and if, as you say, “the church cannot then be said to be co-extensive with any particular outward communion – Lutheran, RC, or otherwise. Instead, the church exists wherever God works through his means” — why, then, did the early Lutherans justify the theft of hundreds of Catholic churches and monasteries, and go out and commit these deeds? This suggests to me that they had deemed them (the ones they plundered and stole) to be false churches through and through. Luther expressly justified such theft, saying that the “goods are no longer his”, referring to Catholic bishops (and I have documentation of that, but I won’t belabor readers with it at this juncture).

In my last response, I noted (citing Catholic historian Warren Carroll) that the Lutherans, who claimed to be attempting some sort of lasting reconciliation at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, flatly refused to return these stolen properties:

Early in July the bishops presented their complaints to the Diet of the plundering and destruction of churches, seizure of monasteries and hospitals, prohibition of Masses, and attacks on religious processions by the Protestants. When Charles called upon the Protestants to restore the property they had seized, they said that to do so would be against their consciences. Charles responded crushingly: “The Word of God, the Gospel, and every law civil and canonical, forbid a man to appropriate to himself the property of another.” He said that as Emperor he had the duty of guarding the rights of all, especially those Catholics unwilling to accept Protestantism or go into exile, who should at least be allowed to remain in their homes and practice their ancestral faith, specifically the Mass; the Protestants replied that they would not tolerate the Mass . . .

How, then, can this attitude square with the present argument that “the church cannot then be said to be co-extensive with any particular outward communion – Lutheran, RC, or otherwise. Instead, the church exists wherever God works through his means”? Every time a church was stolen and plundered, it had been determined that God was no longer working there? There was(we’re supposed to believe) no longer any baptism, or Scripture reading, etc.? The Lutherans who were (quite conveniently) acquiring all this property for themselves had made a sober, reasoned judgment that this was the state of affairs in these individual churches?

This makes no sense. Either this behavior, sanctioned and encouraged by Luther himself, was (in this scenario, as with Luther’s own views) vastly contradictory to the Lutheran opinion of the historic Catholic Church headed by the pope in Rome, or the true opinion of Catholicism must have been otherwise, in order to justify the highly questionable and ethically dubious behavior.

The Lutherans had decided (at least on an individual parish level), that the Catholic Church possessed not enough “truth” for Catholics to be allowed to retain their property and right to worship as they pleased in Lutheran territories. This material in my previous response has all been passed over without comment. But I submit that it is quite relevant and crucial to understand what happened in the 16th century and why both sides believed and acted as they did. Ecclesiology ties into that.

As the foundational statements of the Augsburg Confession V and VII put it:

To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, provided the Gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel…It is also taught among us that one holy Christian church will be and remain forever. This is the assembly of all believers among who the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.

An understanding of this sense of the church visible/invisible distinction allows one to see the consistency of Luther’s comments vis-à-vis Rome. Insofar as the faith creating means of grace are at work in the RCC, God is there creating and sustaining faith. Insofar as doctrines of men are added to the Gospel and so turning men away from Christ upon themselves, the devil is at work to destroy such faith.

Insofar as Catholicism is deemed a mixture of truth and falsehood, that isn’t much different from how we view any form of Protestantism. But we were not the new movement in the 16th century, that justified for itself theft and plunder of the Church that had established itself in an unbroken tradition of 1500 years, and the suppression of the Mass and — oftentimes — even the banishment of Catholics from Lutheran territories.

The Anabaptists and Zwinglians could be executed, according to Luther and Melanchthon (Luther rejoiced at news that Zwingli had been killed in battle, because he had long since concluded that he was “damned” anyway). Whatever relatively greater respect for Catholics was present, it didn’t prevent plunder and theft. Nor was there enough respect for the Christian elements remaining in Catholicism to avoid statements such as “in the papal realm the worship of Baal clings — namely, the abuse of the Mass” (Article XXIV: “The Mass,” in The Book of Concord). 

If in Hanswurst Luther highlights those places in which the devil is at work in the papacy, he elsewhere praises the work God continues to do in her. Against those who wanted to throw out the baby with the holy water, Luther, while lamenting false accretions, wrote the following in thankful recognition of the work God continued to do even under the papacy:

…Christ himself came upon the errors of scribes and Pharisees among the Jewish people, but he did not on that account reject everything they had and thought (Matt. 23[:3]). We on our part confess that there is much that is Christian and good under the papacy; indeed everything that is Christian and good is to be found there and has come to us from this source. For instance we confess that in the papal church there are the true holy Scriptures, true baptism, the true sacrament of the altar, the true keys to the forgiveness of sins, the true office of the ministry, the true catechism in the form of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the articles of the creed … I contend that in the papacy there is true Christianity, even the right kind of Christianity and many great and devoted saints.

Listen to what St. Paul says to the Thessalonians [II Thess. 2:4]: “The Antichrist takes his seat in the temple of God.” If now the pope is (and I cannot believe otherwise) the veritable Antichrist, he will not sit or reign in the devil’s stall, but in the temple of God. No, he will not sit where there are only devils and unbelievers, or where no Christ or Christendom exist. For he is an Antichrist and must thus be among Christians. And since he is to sit and reign there it is necessary that there be Christians under him. God’s temple is not the description for a pile of stones, but for the holy Christendom (I Cor. 3[:17]), in which he is to reign. The Christendom that now is under the papacy is truly the body of Christ and a member of it. If it is his body, then it has the true spirit, gospel, faith, baptism, sacrament, keys, the office of the ministry, prayer, holy Scripture, and everything that pertains to Christendom. So we are all still under the papacy and therefrom have received our Christian treasures.

… We do not rave as do the rebellious spirits, so as to reject everything that is found in the papal church. For then we would east out even Christendom from the temple of God, and all that it contained of Christ. But when we oppose and reject the pope it is because he does not keep to these treasures of Christendom which he has inherited from the apostles. Instead he makes additions of the devil and does not use these treasures for the improvement of the temple. Rather he works toward its destruction, in setting his commandments and ordinances above the ordinance of Christ. But Christ preserves his Christendom even in the midst of such destruction, just as he rescued Lot at Sodom, as St. Peter recounts (I Pet. 2 [II Pet. 2:6]). In fact both remain, the Antichrist sits in the temple of God through the action of the devil, while the temple still is and remains the temple of God through the power of Christ … (LW 40, 231ff)

If we can see beyond the 16th century polemical language, it should be clear by now what Luther then and Lutherans now claimed and claim about the nature of the church as it pertains to the RCC. It is really little different from what Rome has said more recently about ecclesial communions not in outward communion with her. In her view, though those separated brethren are deficient in some respects, because they retain the written word of God, baptism, etc., the Spirit of Christ continues to use them as means of salvation. That is precisely the Lutheran claim going the opposite direction. Tragically, but necessarily, Lutherans cannot be in outward communion with Rome because to do so would be to countenance error. Nonetheless, thank God the Spirit of Christ still uses her as means of salvation.

I don’t see how this can be squared with the behavior of Lutherans, in stealing Catholic churches, monasteries, even hospitals. What sense does it make?


(originally 11-19-07)

Photo credit: Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Lehre, Germany (Lower Saxon): originally constructed in the 13th century. Photograph by Kirchenfan (Summer 2010) [Wikimedia Commons /  Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication]


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