Nature of Tradition & Church: (vs. Two Lutheran Pastors)

Nature of Tradition & Church: (vs. Two Lutheran Pastors) July 30, 2018
Pastor Larry A. Nichols (Lutheran – Missouri Synod, or “LCMS”) 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.
Pastor Benjamin O. Maton (Lutheran – Missouri Synod [“LCMS”] ) pastors two congregations: in Ashaway, Rhode Island and New London, Connecticut.
Pastor Nichols’ words will be in blue, Pastor Maton’s in green, their combined words in brown.  Words of former Lutheran, now Catholic Johnny Montalvo will be in purple.

Jesus taught concerning Church discipline that if a brother refuses to hear the Church’s verdict on a dispute, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Mathew 18:15-20. This is also taught in the Law of Moses. However, in Deuteronomy 17:8-13 the sentence is harsher. This binding and loosing Authority by the Church was given to her by God and should be taken very seriously. I would like to know by what authority did Luther have to start his own church after he was excommunicated for refusing to listen to the Church?

Here is our response to your first question. We collaborated on the answer.

This lead question in our debate contains false assumptions which, if they were not challenged, would immediately concede the very thing that we are attempting to debate in the first place, namely, the nature of the Church, where is the one true Church? 

The above question would have made sense neither to Luther nor to his 16th century papal opponents. It seems it is asked from the (unfortunate) perspective of the fractured denominationalism of post-reformation Christendom — a time when disgruntled pastors and laity up and desert their communion for whatever reason and “start their own Church” in a space rented from the local Elks’ Club. Whether such a state of affairs is to blame on Lutheran ecclesiology, we can debate somewhere down the road.

For now, let it suffice to say that from the perspective of the 16th century combatants it was not a matter of being in this Church or that Church. It was a matter of being the Church or not the Church (or perhaps Church or anti-Church or Church or the “devil’s Church” as Luther would say in good 16th century polemical fashion). Since the Church is the product of the Gospel and the outcome of the evangelical mission of the Triune God, one could (or can) as little “start a new Church” as one could gin up a new gospel (“let him be anathema!”) or alter God (“who changest not”). The question in not then, “by what authority did Luther (or whoever, whenever) start his own Church.” The question is “who is the Church.” On that Luther and the Lutheran reformers could not be clearer.

Johnny’s question assumes that Luther was convinced that he suddenly, or perhaps gradually, found himself in a false Church or that somehow or other, the Church that used to be the true Church at some point became a false one to which he now needed to step outside of and start a new one.

We cannot read anywhere in Luther or in the Confessions where the Reformer(s) ever came to this conclusion. In the Preface to the Augsburg Confession, one reads where the Lutherans refer to their adversaries as “papists” or “the papacy” or “Romanists,” or “our party” verses “their party,” etc. But one does not find references to we, the true Church, addressing the Roman Catholic Church as the false Church. This was simply not part of the consciousness of the day and to conclude so would be anachronistic, at best. Luther did, however, eventually reach the conclusion that the papacy was the antichrist foisted upon the one holy catholic and apostolic Church of which she need rid herself of.

When the Lutherans (excluding Luther himself), made the presentation of the Augsburg Confession in 1530 to the Emperor, at the Emperor’s request, they were not doing so because they now wanted to start a new Church. Not at all! This was never their understanding nor was it their intention. They wanted rather, to present a confession of the truth and point out where the Papacy had erred and veered off the path from the apostolic tradition and the rule of faith. We in turn pose the question in reverse of Johnny’s question: “By what authority did the Papists jettison the teaching of the apostles and start a new Church?” This is the underlying question that was being presented at Augsburg in 1530. 

At the conclusion of the both part of their foundational confession before the emperor at Augsburg in 1530 the Evangelical princes affirmed that there was nothing in their confession “that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic faith.” The confession is replete with such language.

Seven years later as it was becoming increasingly clear that the pope would never call a truly free universal council of the Church to which the Lutherans would be invited as full participants to debate on the basis of Scripture rather than as heretics prostrate before the pope, Luther penned his Smalcald Articles where he says plainly, “We do not concede to them that they are the Church, and frankly they are not the Church.”

Earlier in those same articles Luther rejects the pope’s excommunication both theologically — the pope’s excommunication counts for nothing because in forbidding the gospel to be freely preached he is not a true bishop, and jurisdictionally — at most the pope is the bishop of the Church at Rome and those who willingly attach themselves to him and so has no authority to excommunicate someone from the universal Church. 

The Augsburg Confession is not a document that signaled the beginning of a “new Church” with a cornerstone marked “1530.” It is a glorious statement of true catholic and apostolic teaching. Where are the words of the AC not catholic or apostolic? On the other hand, where is the sale of Indulgences for example, or the popular practice of the day to gaze at relics anywhere a part of the apostolic tradition? Where do we see any support for Indulgences among the writings of the Church Fathers, even those most sympathetic to legitimizing the papacy? Clearly, the AC is a true presentation of the doctrine of the blessed apostles.

If we have written clearly, we are left now to discuss the nature of the true Church.

This was the complete joint reply of Pastors Nichols and Maton. I thank my esteemed brothers in Christ for the succinct statement and the opportunity to interact with it. I’m afraid that it is impossible to respond with similar brevity, from a Catholic perspective, because we also believe that a number of assumptions made here are by no means self-evident. Part of the difficulty in Catholic-Lutheran dialogue is that words and concepts are often defined differently. We can only try to do our best to clarify and make the proper distinctions.

What strikes me above all in this reply is a seeming contradiction (perhaps, however, I have misunderstood some finer nuances). On the one hand, it is stated:

one could (or can) as little “start a new Church” as one could gin up a new gospel . . . or alter God . . .

Johnny’s question assumes that Luther was convinced that he suddenly, or perhaps gradually, found himself in a false Church or that somehow or other, the Church that used to be the true Church at some point became a false one to which he now needed to step outside of and start a new one.

But one does not find references to we, the true Church, addressing the Roman Catholic Church as the false Church.

How is the preceding statement (and Luther’s common rhetoric of the “devil’s Church” etc.) not in contradiction to the following cited statement from the Smalcald Articles?:

We do not concede to them that they are the Church, and frankly they are not the Church.
The Smalcald Articles (XII: Of the Church) continues:

. . . nor will we listen to those things which, under the name of Church, they enjoin or forbid. 2] For, thank God, [to-day] a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.
What is this, if not a claim that what was known as the Catholic Church was indeed not the true Church? Even a child knows what the Church is, so Luther informs us (and it is defined in an invisible sense). Luther, in fact (I must respectfully disagree) made many such statements (that I have compiled elsewhere) “addressing the Roman Catholic Church as the false Church”. Here are just a few clear examples of a “true church vs. false church” scenario (with some additional words of Luther not included in my previous paper):

From: Wider Hans Wurst, or Against Jack Sausage (1541), translated into English in Luther’s Works, 55 volumes, Philadelphia: Fortress Press (also Concordia Publishing House), 1955 -, General editors: Jaroslav Pelikan (vols. 1-30) / Helmut T. Lehmann (vols. 31-55). This was a polemical piece against the Catholic (and corrupt) Duke Heinrich (or Henry) of Braunschweig / Wolfenbuttel. It is reprinted in Volume 41 of Luther’s Works, pp. 179-256; translated by Eric W. Gritsch:

[T]hey allege that we have fallen away from the holy church and set up a new church. This then is the answer: since they themselves boast that they are the church, it is for them to prove that they are. If they can prove it with a single reason (I don’t ask for more), then we shall give ourselves up as prisoners, willingly saying, “We have sinned, have mercy upon us.” But if they cannot prove it, they must confess (whether they like it or not) that they are not the church and that we cannot be heretics since we have fallen away from what is not the true church. Indeed, since there is nothing in-between, we must be the church of Christ and they the devil’s church, or vice versa. Therefore it all turns on proving which is the true church. (pp. 193-194)

“But what if I prove that we have remained faithful to the true, ancient church, indeed, that we are the true ancient church and that you have fallen away from us, that is, the ancient church, and have set up a new church against the ancient one?” Let us hear that! (p. 194)

We have proved that we are the true, ancient church . . . Now you, too, papists, prove that you are the true church or are like it. You cannot do it. But I will prove that you are the new false church, which is in everything apostate, separated from the true, ancient church, thus becoming Satan’s synagogue. (p. 199)

. . . yet you still want to be honored as the church. Besides, the private mass is one of the worst abominations, whose harm and trouble can neither be measured nor fathomed. With it you have built the devil a new church and worshiped him, thereby turning into murderers of souls, just like Moloch, the devourer of children. (p. 203)

We are certainly the true, ancient church, without any whoredom or innovation. (p. 205)

If they are not the church but the devil’s whore that has not remained faithful to Christ, then it is irrefutably and thoroughly established that they should not possess church property. (p. 220)

But Luther seems to contradict himself. He will make these sorts of statements, but then qualify them with others:

We acknowledge not only that you have, with us, come from the true church and been washed and made clean in baptism . . . but also that you are in the church and remain in it. (pp. 209-210)

It is true 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. (p. 210)

He may have in mind the distinction between the visible and invisible church, but that can’t totally reconcile the extremity of his statements.

Now, when I cite Luther, Lutherans will invariably “inform” me of something I already know: that Luther is not the norm of Lutheran theology, but rather, the confessions in the Book of Concord comprise that rule. But we don’t find much better rhetoric there, either. For example, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession rather absurdly compares the Catholic mass to the worship of Baal:
Carnal men cannot stand it when only the sacrifice of Christ is honored as a propitiation. For they do not understand thew righteousness of faith but give equal honor to other sacrifices and services. A false idea clung to the wicked priests in Judah, and in Israel the worship of Baal continued; yet the church of God was there, condemning wicked services. So in the papal realm the worship of Baal clings — namely, the abuse of the Mass . . . And it seems that this worship of Baal will endure together with the papal realm until Christ comes to judge and by the glory of his coming destroys the kingdom of Antichrist. Meanwhile all those who truly believe the Gospel should reject those wicked services invented against God’s command to obscure the glory of Christ and the righteousness of faith. (Article XXIV: “The Mass,” in The Book of Concord, translated and edited by Theodore Tappert, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House / Muhlenberg Press, 1959, 268)
Martin Luther, in the Smalcald Articles (part of the Book of Concord), states:

Besides, this dragon’s tail — that is, the Mass — has brought forth a brood of vermin and the poison of manifold idolatries. (Part II, Article II: “The Mass,” in Tappert, ibid., 294)
And in the same section, Luther rails:

The Mass in the papacy must be regarded as the greatest and most horrible abomination because it runs into direct and violent conflict with this fundamental article. Yet, above and beyond all others, it has been the supreme and most precious of the papal idolatries . . .

. . . Will the Mass not then collapse of itself — not only for the rude rabble, but also for all godly, Christian, sensible, God-fearing people — especially if they hear that it is a dangerous thing which was fabricated and invented without God’s Word and will?

The Mass is again called an “abomination” in the Formula of Concord (Solid Declaration, Article VII: “Lord’s Supper”; Tappert, ibid., 588). The implications of this jaded view are wide-ranging, as I’ve stated:

[Y]ou [i.e., Lutherans] would be in the incoherent, odd position of agreeing that Catholicism is Christian, despite the fact that its central rite is utterly non-Christian (and, far beyond that, anti-Christian, as it is idolatry, blasphemy, etc.).
The difficulty for Lutherans on this point is the fact of widespread patristic belief in eucharistic sacrifice (i.e., the Mass). Lutheran historian Jaroslav Pelikan, in his study of patristic doctrinal development, concluded:

By the date of the Didache [anywhere from about 60 to 160, depending on the scholar]. . . the application of the term ‘sacrifice’ to the Eucharist seems to have been quite natural, together with the identification of the Christian Eucharist as the ‘pure offering’ commanded in Malachi 1:11 . . .

The Christian liturgies were already using similar language about the offering of the prayers, the gifts, and the lives of the worshipers, and probably also about the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass, so that the sacrificial interpretation of the death of Christ never lacked a liturgical frame of reference . . .

. . . As Irenaeus’s reference to the Eucharist as “not common bread” indicates, however, this doctrine of the real presence believed by the church and affirmed by its liturgy was closely tied to the idea of the Eucharist as a sacrifice. Many of the passages we have already cited concerning the recollection and the real presence spoke also of the sacrifice, . . . One of the most ample and least ambiguous statements of the sacrificial interpretation of the Eucharist in any ante-Nicene theologian was that of Cyprian . . . “the passion of the Lord is the sacrifice that we offer” [Ep. 63.17]

. . . Liturgical evidence suggests an understanding of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, whose relation to the sacrifices of the Old Testament was one of archetype to type, and whose relation to the sacrifice of Calvary was one of “re-presentation,” just as the bread of the Eucharist “re-presented” the body of Christ. (The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine: Volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), University of Chicago Press: 1971, 146-147, 168-170)

Protestant historian Philip Schaff concurs:

In general, this period, . . . was already very strongly inclined toward the doctrine of transubstantiation, and toward the Greek and Roman sacrifice of the mass, which are inseparable in so far as a real sacrifice requires the real presence of the victim.

. . . The Catholic church, both Greek and Latin, sees in the Eucharist not only a sacramentum, in which God communicates a grace to believers, but at the same time, and in fact mainly, a sacrificium, in which believers really offer to God that which is represented by the sensible elements. For this view also the church fathers laid the foundation, and it must be conceded they stand in general far more on the Greek and Roman Catholic than on the Protestant side of this question.

. . . In this view certainly, in a deep symbolical and ethical sense, Christ is offered to God the Father in every believing prayer, and above all in the holy Supper; i.e. as the sole ground of our reconciliation and acceptance . . .

. . . We pass now to the more particular history. The ante-Nicene fathers uniformly conceived the Eucharist as a thank-offering of the church; the congregation offering the consecrated elements of bread and wine, and in them itself, to God. This view is in itself perfectly innocent, but readily leads to the doctrine of the sacrifice of the mass, as soon as the elements become identified with the body and blood of Christ, and the presence of the body comes to be materialistically taken. The germs of the Roman doctrine appear in Cyprian about the middle of the third century, in connection with his high-churchly doctrine of the clerical priesthood. Sacerdotium and sacrificium are with him correlative ideas,

. . . The doctrine of the sacrifice of the mass is much further developed in the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers, though amidst many obscurities and rhetorical extravagances, and with much wavering between symbolical and grossly realistic conceptions, until in all essential points it is brought to its settlement by Gregory the Great at the close of the sixth century.

. . . 2. It is not a new sacrifice added to that of the cross, but a daily, unbloody repetition and perpetual application of that one only sacrifice. Augustine represents it, on the one hand, as a sacramentum memoriae, a symbolical commemoration of the sacrificial death of Christ; to which of course there is no objection. But, on the other hand, he calls the celebration of the communion verissimum sacrificium of the body of Christ. The church, he says, offers (immolat) to God the sacrifice of thanks in the body of Christ, from the days of the apostles through the sure succession of the bishops down to our time. But the church at the same time offers, with Christ, herself, as the body of Christ, to God. As all are one body, so also all are together the same sacrifice. According to Chrysostom the same Christ, and the whole Christ, is everywhere offered. It is not a different sacrifice from that which the High Priest formerly offered, but we offer always the same sacrifice, or rather, we perform a memorial of this sacrifice. This last clause would decidedly favor a symbolical conception, if Chrysostom in other places had not used such strong expressions as this: “When thou seest the Lord slain, and lying there, and the priest standing at the sacrifice,” or: “Christ lies slain upon the altar.”

3. The sacrifice is the anti-type of the Mosaic sacrifice, and is related to it as substance to typical shadows. It is also especially foreshadowed by Melchizedek’s unbloody offering of bread and wine. The sacrifice of Melchizedek is therefore made of great account by Hilary, Jerome, Augustine, Chrysostom, and other church fathers, on the strength of the well-known parallel in the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

. . . Cyril of Jerusalem, in his fifth and last mystagogic Catechesis, which is devoted to the consideration of the eucharistic sacrifice and the liturgical service of God, gives the following description of the eucharistic intercessions for the departed:

When the spiritual sacrifice, the unbloody service of God, is performed, we pray to God over this atoning sacrifice for the universal peace of the church, for the welfare of the world, for the emperor, for soldiers and prisoners, for the sick and afflicted, for all the poor and needy. Then we commemorate also those who sleep, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, that God through their prayers and their intercessions may receive our prayer; and in general we pray for all who have gone from us, since we believe that it is of the greatest help to those souls for whom the prayer is offered, while the holy sacrifice, exciting a holy awe, lies before us.
This is clearly an approach to the later idea of purgatory in the Latin church. Even St. Augustine, with Tertullian, teaches plainly, as an old tradition, that the eucharistic sacrifice, the intercessions or suffragia and alms, of the living are of benefit to the departed believers, so that the Lord deals more mercifully with them than their sins deserve. (History of the Christian Churchvol. 3, A.D. 311-600, rev. 5th ed., Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, rep. 1974, orig, 1910, 492, 503-504, 506-510; see further primary documentation by visiting the link provided)
Likewise, the same description of patristic belief in this regard is made by another prominent Protestant reference:

It was also widely held from the first that the Eucharist is in some sense a sacrifice, though here again definition was gradual . . . In early post-NT times the constant repudiation of carnal sacrifice and emphasis on life and prayer at Christian worship did not hinder the Eucharist from being described as a sacrifice from the first . . .

From early times the Eucharistic offering was called a sacrifice in virtue of its immediate relation to the sacrifice of Christ. (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, Oxford Univ. Press, 2nd edition, 1983, 476, 1221)

Patristic historian J. N. D. Kelly argues essentially the same thing also, citing Justin Martyr, the Didache, and Irenaeus. I have digressed a bit to examine the question of the Sacrifice of the Mass to make a very important point. Lutherans are simply incorrect about the history of this matter. The contradiction can be logically stated as follows:

1. Lutherans claim to be the ancient Church, and to adhere to and preserve ancient precedent, as represented by the 16th century Lutheran “reform”.

2. Lutherans (following Luther) assert that the Catholic Church headed by the pope in Rome is not the ancient Church and has departed from ancient precedent.

3. Lutherans (following Luther) argue that one prime example of this departure is the doctrine of the sacrifice of the mass, which is (so they allege) an invention of men, idolatry, blasphemy, and an abomination (hence, the widespread prohibition of the mass in Lutheran territories early on, and the self-serving justification for theft of Catholic church properties).

4. Lutherans argue that the Church fathers did not hold to this doctrine; therefore they reject it as an innovative corruption.

5. But in fact, the Church fathers did hold this doctrine, quite widely, according to non-Catholic historians, Pelikan, Schaff, Kelly, and The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.

6. Therefore, these facts support the Catholic position on the Sacrifice of the Mass, rather than the Lutheran denial of it (and considerable biblical indication can also be brought to bear).

7. I assert, furthermore, that this is but one example of many where the Church fathers are strong witnesses for the claim that the Catholic Church is indeed the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

8. Conclusion: John Henry Cardinal Newman: “to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”

This contradiction that we see in Luther (Catholics and Catholicism are and aren’t truly Christian), also runs through the Book of Concord. I do completely agree that both sides thought there could only be one true Church. It was not like today, where “Church” has had to necessarily become a far more abstract concept because of the scandalous multiplicity of denominations and sects (Luther, of course, despised sectarianism as much as anyone).

In practical terms, however, it is pretty much a distinction without a difference, because competing claims of being the one “Church” create a state of affairs in which ecclesial oneness becomes impossible. Both sides claim superiority, but both cannot be right. Thus, in my opinion, the truly fundamental and crucial question reduces to:

“Which side: the Catholics, or the Lutherans, has a more reasonable, plausible, biblical, historically defensible claim to being the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church? They can’t both be right, where they contradict, so how does one choose between the two, and on what basis?”
From the Catholic perspective, it is necessarily the case that if Catholic theology and ecclesiology is correct, Lutheranism is a competing ecclesiological claim; in effect, a claimed “new Church” (and as we have seen, Lutherans return the favor and charge of someone coming up with a “new Church”). We understand that Lutherans perceive themselves as reforming the one historic Church and not radically departing from it. But we must respectfully reject that contention, under the weight of scrutiny.

That gets to the heart of Johnny’s (I think, extremely relevant) question. Sure, he is assuming Catholic ecclesiology in his question, but how could he do otherwise (Lutherans assume theirs, too)? Our position is that these things were understood — as we understand them — prior to Luther’s time. Luther was the one who wanted to change the definitions, or change horses in midstream, so to speak. Therefore, it is incumbent upon him and upon Lutherans to prove that their new conceptions of ecclesiology are more defensible than the traditional Catholic outlook.

Luther and the early Lutherans couldn’t merely assert previously unacceptable notions. All of this has to be argued. Both sides claim to be going back to the patristic heritage of the early Church, as I stated last time. That is always what this discussion comes down to. We contend that Lutherans cannot (consistently and comprehensively) do this, and Lutherans say the same of us. Both sides recognize the high importance of precedent. For example, Luther wrote:

This testimony of the universal holy Christian Church, even if we had nothing else, would be a sufficient warrant for holding this article [on the sacrament] and refusing to suffer or listen to a sectary, for it is dangerous and fearful to hear or believe anything against the unanimous testimony, belief, and teaching of the universal holy Christian churches, unanimously held in all the world from the beginning until now over fifteen hundred years. (Martin Luther, in the year 1532; from Roland H. Bainton, Studies on the Reformation [Boston: Beacon Press, 1963], p. 26; primary source: WA [Werke, Weimar edition in German], XXX, 552)
I would contend at length that Luther radically contradicted himself on this score, because he cannot demonstrate that all the Lutheran distinctives were in line with this “unanimous testimony.” This is rather easily shown. I managed to identify (in a paper of mine) no less then fifty areas where Luther departed from received Christian tradition and doctrine in his three treatises of 1520 alone, all prior to the great confrontation of the Diet of Worms in 1521. Brief allusion was made to “heretics prostrate before the pope.” Yet I ask readers to stop for a moment and ponder just what the Catholic Church of that time was asked to accept in the face of Luther’s challenge (Protestants rarely consider this). I wrote in that paper:

I have summarized how he was heterodox by 1520, . . . this is not a discussion of whether Catholic teaching is right or wrong, but rather, whether Luther was “heterodox” or “heretical” by that same teaching (i.e., whether the Church was at least self-consistent in excommunicating him, or whether it was a power play unrelated to truth or Luther’s actual – or falsely-imagined – heresy).

It is absolutely evident that Luther was heretical and that the Church was under no obligation to even contend with him at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Since it was obvious that he was teaching heresy, it was equally obvious that the Church should demand that he recant, renounce, and cease doing so. He refused, because he knew more than the Church (as he in effect implied, many times). But no Protestant body would have acted any differently, then or now, in the face of dozens of rejections of its own stated dogmas.

. . . Is that enough [the 50 departures, just listed] to justify his excommunication from Catholic ranks? Or was the Church supposed to say, “yeah, Luther, you know, you’re right about these fifty issues. You know better than the entire Church, the entire history of the Church, and all the wisdom of the saints in past ages who have believed these things. So we will bow to your heaven-sent wisdom, change all fifty beliefs or practices, so we can proceed in a godly direction. Thanks so much! We are forever indebted to you for having informed us of all these errors!!”

Is that not patently ridiculous? What Church would change 50 things in its doctrines because one person feels himself to be some sort of oracle from God or pseudo-prophet: God’s man for the age? . . .

No sane, conscious person who had read any of his three radical treatises of 1520 could doubt that he had already ceased to be an orthodox Catholic. He did not reluctantly become so because he was unfairly kicked out of the Church by men who would not listen to manifest Scripture and reason . . .

Therefore, the Church was entirely sensible, reasonable, within her rights, logical, self-consistent, and not hypocritical or “threatened” in the slightest to simply demand Luther’s recantation of his errors at the Diet of Worms in 1521, and to refuse to argue with him (having already tried on several occasions, anyway), because to do so would have granted his ridiculous presumption that he was in a position to singlehandedly dispute and debate what had been the accumulated doctrinal and theological wisdom of the Church for almost 1500 years.

That is the Catholic perspective, and it is rarely heard or discussed in these terms, because most such discussions are conducted with Protestant starting assumptions granted beforehand, without argument or examination. But from this perspective, by what authority did Luther make his claims? He had none. He was simply an Augustinian monk. One has to virtually agree with Luther’s own self-perception as a sort of prophet who has an absolutely unique message to bring to the Church. But why should anyone do that? Because he cites Scripture? Obviously, Catholics could do that, too (though, granted, the Catholics in his time were not particularly known for their piety or biblical acumen; that would come later in the century after a revival took place).

Everyone cites Scripture for their side. How does one decide who is right when they disagree? This is one of the truly insuperable difficulties that all Protestants have. It’s not just the Catholic-Protestant divide. Luther soon found himself in vigorous, passionate disagreement with the Anabaptists and the sacramentarians: all of whom cited Scripture just as he did. Lutherans disagreed with the Calvinists on free will issues and the nature of the Eucharist and baptism. All appealed to Scripture. Calvin was every bit as confident and supposedly “unanswerable” in his Institutes as Luther had been in his many treatises. Who decides who is right?

That is, of course, the prerogative of the Church (1 Timothy 3:15; the Jerusalem Council in the book of Acts). But if one redefines the Church to simply one’s own set of assumptions, without reference to established precedent (read, Christian or apostolic “tradition”) then it is logically circular. This is what heretics had done all through history. Precisely for that reason, the Church Fathers always appealed, not just to Scripture (and they certainly did that) but to apostolic succession and the authority of the Church.

Tradition (always in harmony with Scripture) was the final arbiter as to who was heretical and who was orthodox. And so it was in Luther’s day as well. That is why the Catholics appealed to past precedent and the authority of the Church, based on apostolic succession. That was the patristic and the Catholic method of determining truth. We followed ancient precedent; Luther wanted to change that by adopting (almost by default, because he really had no other option) the method and rule of faith of sola Scriptura, that had always been the method of the heretics (Arians, for example, appealed to plenty of Scripture and were countered with Scripture and the ongoing tradition of the Church that Jesus was God, not a creature).

Finally, it was claimed by Pastors Nichols and Maton that the Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1530 was “a glorious statement of true catholic and apostolic teaching. Where are the words of the AC not catholic or apostolic?”, and that it was “a true presentation of the doctrine of the blessed apostles.” Well, it certainly wasn’t a true presentation of catholic, patristic doctrine concerning the sacrifice of the mass, as we have seen above (and that is one answer to their question that I have already provided in detail).

Nor could even Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon come to full agreement on matters connected with the Augsburg Confession, as indicated by a series of letters between them at the time of the Diet of Augsburg. Melanchthon, true to his more conciliatory, mild character, took a much different approach than Luther:

He sweated over every portion of the Apology, for he wanted to state the core of evangelical doctrine without alienating the Roman Catholics. (Melanchthon: The Quiet Reformer, Clyde Leonard Manschreck, New York: Abingdon Press, 1958, 182)
The nature of the Mass was a dividing point all along, and indicates the contradictory nature of the Lutheran position, that was claiming to be a continuation of “catholic history” but in fact was an innovation, if it didn’t even retain the central act of Christian worship, according to all those centuries from the time of Christ to 1517. Melanchthon biographer Manschreck subtly notes this disconnect:

Melanchthon’s letters that Sunday afternoon, June 19, to Myconius, Luther, and Camerarius show that he thought the entire dispute might be settled by correcting abuses. Melanchthon believed that the evangelical movement in Germany was a product of the vital spirit of the old Latin church, that the fundamental doctrines of justification by faith were not anything new but a reassertion of the heart of the Christian gospel, which in the centuries of church development had become obscured by ecclesiastical observances. In casting these aside Melanchthon believed the evangelicals were adhering to the pristine practices of the church, as reflected in Scripture and the early fathers, particularly Augustine. To Valdes he was trying to show that the reformation practices were in accord with the old canonical rules and compliant with genuine catholic Christianity, and ought, therefore, to be tolerated and encouraged by the Emperor.

But something happened. Although the evangelicals attended the early morning mass, June 20, as requested . . . not a single evangelical representative participated in the ancient, mysterious rites. Charles showed his displeasure, but the Protestants seemed to have determined upon another course of action. (Manschreck, ibid., 190)

Luther (as we would fully expect) was far less conciliatory than Melanchthon. He wrote to the latter on 28 or 29 June 1530:

I have received your Apology, and I am wondering what you mean when you say you desire to know what and how much we may yield to the Papists? According to my opinion, too much is already conceded to them in the Apology . . . I am ready, as I have always written to you, to yield up everything to them, if they will only leave the Gospel free. (Ibid., 195)
Luther seems to have thought (far differently than Melanchthon) that reconciliation with the Catholics was impossible. Indeed, Manschreck noted that “Historians writing on the Augsburg Confession usually criticize Melanchthon as childish if not traitorous for his activity during this period” (p. 204). He contends that Luther himself would not agree with such an assessment of his friend and successor, but clearly saw “that the basic difference was one of authority” (p. 205).

Catholic historian Warren Carroll presents a synopsis of these events:

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 . . .

By July it was clear that on matters of doctrine the Lutherans at Augsburg were dissimulating, concealing their real beliefs in the hope of avoiding a final breach without making genuine concessions. On July 6 Melanchthon made the incredible statement:


We have no dogmas which differ from the Roman Church . . . We reverence the authority of the Pope of Rome, and are prepared to remain in allegiance to the Church if only the Pope does not repudiate us.

As it happened, on the very same day Luther, in an exposition on the Second Psalm addressed to Archbishop Albert of Mainz, declared:
Remember that you are not dealing with human beings when you have affairs with the Pope and his crew, but with veritable devils! . . .
On the 13th [of July] Luther announced from Coburg that the Protestants would never tolerate the Mass, which he called blasphemous, and said of the Emperor:
We know that he is in error and that he is striving against the Gospel . . . He does not conform to God’s Word and we do . . .
Luther stated in a letter to Melanchthon August 26 [cited by Manschreck, p. 204]:
This talk of compromise . . . is a scandal to God . . . I am thoroughly displeased with this negotiating concerning union in doctrine, since it is utterly impossible unless the Pope wishes to take away his power.

In subsequent letters he declared that no religious settlement was possible as long as the Pope remained and the Mass was unchanged . . .

Luther prepared the final Protestant answer:

The Augsburg Confession must endure, as the true and unadulterated Word of God, until the great Judgment Day . . . Not even an angel from Heaven could alter a syllable of it, and any angel who dared to do so must be accursed and damned . . . The stipulations made that monks and nuns still dwelling in their cloisters should not be expelled, and that the Mass should not be abolished, could not be accepted; for whoever acts against his conscience simply paves his way to Hell. The monastic life and the Mass covered with infamous ignominy the merit and suffering of Christ. Of all the horrors and abominations that could be mentioned, the Mass was the greatest.
. . . no Catholic of spirit and courage could be expected, let alone morally required, to give up all his religious rights without a struggle; and few Protestants, at this point, would allow Catholics to exercise those rights if the Protestants were strong enough to deny them. These were the irreconcilable positions taken by the two sides at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, which made those long and bloody years of conflict inevitable. (The Cleaving of Christendom; from the series, A History of Christendom, Volume IV, Front Royal, Virginia: Christendom Press, 2000, 103-107)
The very notion that the Augsburg Confession was in entire agreement with prior Catholic history is quite debatable. Catholic Luther biographer Hartmann Grisar wrote:

In fact, the first official edition of the “Confession,” printed in 1530, contained the deceptive declaration (which was subsequently altered) that the impugned doctrines meant no deviation from the Scriptures or the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, in as far as that teaching could be ascertained from Catholic authors.

. . . the Catholic theologians . . . noted the absence of any declaration relative to the pope, whom the Lutherans had come to regard as Antichrist. The declaration was silent about the universal priesthood of all the faithful in place of the clergy, the incapacity of the human will to do good, and absolute predestination, the very pillars of the doctrinal system of Lutheranism. The antitheses between the two religions on the subject of indulgences and Purgatory were likewise hushed up, and the differences in the veneration of the saints had also vanished.

Hence, honest candor, the preliminary condition of reunion, was missing. (Martin Luther: His Life and Work, translated by Frank J. Eble, edited by Arthur Preuss, Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1950, 376)

Grisar says of Melanchthon that “His depressed condition of mind is the only thing that helps him over the charge of conscious deception” (p. 377). He implies that Luther (in his letter of August 26th, 1530, partially cited above) was aware of a certain “vacillation” — or at least likely perceptions of same — from the Protestants in the negotiations of Augsburg:

[W]e shall be charged with perfidy and vacillation. But what will the consequence be? Matters may easily be remedied by the steadfastness and the truth of our cause. True, I do not wish that it should so happen; but speak in such wise that, if it should happen, despondency do not ensue. For, once we shall have attained peace and escaped violence, we shall easily make amends for our tricks . . and failings, because God’s mercy rules over us. (Ibid., p. 388)
To briefly illustrate again my contention that Lutheranism cannot lay claim to being the historic Christian Church of the ages (i.e., uniquely apostolic), based on a harmony with patristic theology and practice, it is interesting to see how Luther treats the doctrine of intercession of the saints, in a little appendix of his work On Translating: An Open Letter, completed by 12 September 1530, shortly after the Diet of Augsburg:

“Nay,” say they, “that way you condemn the whole Church, which has hitherto observed this practice everywhere.” I reply: I know full well that the priests and monks seek this cloak for their abominations and want to put off on the Church the damage that they have done by their own neglect, so that if we say, “The Church does not err,” we will be saying at the same time that they do not err, and thus they may not be accused of any lies or errors, since that is what the Church holds . . . They inject this foreign question in order to lead us away from our case. We are now discussing God’s word; what the Church is or does belongs elsewhere; the question here is, what is or is not God’s Word; what is not God’s word does not make a Church. (from Works of Martin Luther, Volume V, Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Co. & The Castle Press, 1931; translated by C. M. Jacobs, 25)
Note how Luther doesn’t even attempt to show that the history of this doctrine throughout Christian history is more in accord with Lutheran belief than Catholic. He seems to concede the point without argument. But this doesn’t go along with his stated beliefs concerning, for example, the Real presence in the Eucharist. When dealing with that (especially when confronting Protestant sacramentarians, Zwingli, etc.), Luther vehemently appeals to the unbroken tradition of the Church, as in the citation from 1532, above. But here, all of a sudden, he becomes radically ahistorical, and the same history is irrelevant, since all we need is God’s word to settle any question.

The Lutheran co-opting of St. Augustine is another case in point of the weakness of their polemical historical argumentation. I looked up every single reference to St. Augustine in my copy of the Book of Concord (the doctrinal standard for Lutheranism). Without exception it claims that Augustine is in full agreement with Lutheran doctrine. Furthermore, it makes outright false factual claims, such as that Augustine denied ex opere operato (the notion that the sacraments have inherent power apart from the dispenser or recipient) and purgatory. These are erroneous judgments. As for purgatory, Augustine wrote:

The man who perhaps has not cultivated the land and has allowed it to be overrun with brambles has in this life the curse of his land on all his works, and after this life he will have either purgatorial fire or eternal punishment. (Genesis Defended Against the Manicheans, 2, 20, 30. From Jurgens, William A., editor and translator, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. III, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1979, 38)

Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment. (City of God, 21, 13. From Jurgens, ibid., 105)

The prayer . . . is heard on behalf of certain of the dead; but it is heard for those who, having been regenerated in Christ, did not for the rest of their life in the body do such wickedness that they might be judged unworthy of such mercy, nor who yet lived so well that it might be supposed they have no need of such mercy. (City of God, 21, 24, 2. From Jurgens, ibid., 106)

That there should be some such fire even after this life is not incredible, and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, – through a certain purgatorial fire. (Enchiridion of Faith, Hope and Love, 18,69, Jurgens, ibid., 149. See also — in the same work — 29,109-110; The Care That Should be Taken of the Dead, 1, 3)

In a paper on Lutherans and St. Augustine, I stated:

Does this mean that the Book of Concord and Philip Melanchthon (its primary author) were deliberately dishonest, and rascally scoundrels? I would not make that claim, and I don’t think so. Much more likely is that their Protestant and anti-Roman biases simply blinded them to certain facts and thus led to inaccuracies. Or they did inadequate research . . .
In any event, this sort of tension with the facts of history and selective espousal and appeal to it when it is an advantage to do so, and ignoring or downplaying it it when it is not, runs rampant through confessional Lutheranism, and Lutheran apologetics (insofar as the latter exists at all). And I respectfully submit that all of this is an indication of the superiority of the Catholic historical case and harmony with the patristic consensus in theology. In turn, that is a major reason why we view ourselves as the one true Church: apostolic and historically continuous, uniquely preserving true (developed) Christian doctrine in its fullness and specially guided by the Holy Spirit, Who grants the gift of infallibility in order to protect the Church from error.

On the other hand, where is the sale of Indulgences for example, or the popular practice of the day to gaze at relics anywhere a part of the apostolic tradition? Where do we see any support for Indulgences among the writings of the Church Fathers, even those most sympathetic to legitimizing the papacy? 

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. For instance, St. Ambrose states:

For those to whom [the right of binding and loosing] has been given, it is plain that either both are allowed, or it is clear that neither is allowed. Both are allowed to the Church, neither is allowed to heresy. For this right has been granted to priests only. (Penance 1:1 [A.D. 388])
Relics have explicit biblical support as well (most notably, Elisha’s bones bringing a man back to life).
Philip Schaff acknowledged the prevalence of the belief in relics in the early Church, amounting to an “avalanche” (p. 450) in a section of his History of the Church, Vol. 3, 449-460 (see further source data for this volume above). He stated that biblical miracles such as Elisha’s bones, the shadow of Peter, and handkerchiefs of Paul were cited as evidence for relics by “Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and other fathers” (p. 453). He mentions the advocacy of Tertullian, Epiphanius, Jerome (p. 452), St. Cyprian (p. 454), and St. Augustine (pp. 459-460), and the preservation and veneration of St. Ignatius of Antioch’s and St. Polycarp’s bones (p. 453). He concluded:
The most and the best of the church teachers of our period, Hilary, the two Gregories, Basil, Chrysostom, Isidore of Pelusium, Theodoret, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Leo . . . gave the weight of their countenance to the worship of relics. (p. 456; Schaff means by “worship” the same thing that Catholics would classify as a sub-worship “veneration”)

I informed my two pastor friends of my reply:

Be forewarned that it required extensive historical analysis and documentation because that was necessary in order to counter the claims made and to show exactly how and why Catholics disagree with them. It’s easy to claim continuity with the fathers; another thing to demonstrateit. So in opposing this particular Lutheran claim, I had to use a lot of “ink.” I enjoyed the discussion and look forward to future topics as we move along.

Thanks for your timely and thorough reply. Larry and I have both had a chance to read through it and will be forthcoming with a response. A couple of the many points you make are well taken, but several others require proper contextualization, clarification, correction, and indeed, rebuttal. We ask your patient indulgence (not the RC kind!) in awaiting our reply. Unlike you clearly do, neither Larry nor I have on hand previous work and ready responses from conversations like these from which to draw. We are starting from scratch, so to say. And as the blessed work of tending souls and forgiving sins (not to mention caring for wives and children) which our Lord has granted to us as parish pastors takes up much of our time, it might be a while before you receive our response. Should our Lord delay his return a couple more weeks (Come, Lord Jesus!), be assured the response will come.

Peace in Jesus,


Dear Pastor Maton [also sent to Pastor Nichols and Johnny Montalvo, like all the replies],

Thanks for your letter. I completely understand the demands of time. Please do not feel any pressure. This is what I do for a living, so I could simply take one long day and make a reply (and, as you note, draw from past work of mine that required many hours itself when I did that research before).

I am enjoying the exchange and am happy to hear that you plan to make some sort of rebuttal. I find that the “counter-response” stage of any discussion is always more interesting and educational (and fun) than the first round, because then challenges are being made and it is a real “debate.”

Please be assured of my great respect for your “blessed work of tending souls” and I will look forward (assuming the Second Coming will not preclude it) to your reply whenever it is made.

Your brother in Christ,



(originally 10-9-07)

Photo credit: Market Church of the Holy Spirit: largest wooden church in Germany (Lutheran), in Clausthal: completed in 1642. Photograph by hpgruesen (9-2-16) [PixabayCC0 Creative Commons license]


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