Unbridled Sectarianism, Sola Scriptura, Luther, & Calvin

Unbridled Sectarianism, Sola Scriptura, Luther, & Calvin December 9, 2018


The Protestant Revolution, er (sorry; let me be PC: “Reformation”) started from Luther adopting a viewpoint of irrational, anti-traditional dissent against many aspects of received Catholic tradition (in large part, not totally, as I have carefully noted). Luther had, alas, departed from at least 50 Catholic teachings and longtime practices by 1520, even before he was excommunicated.

One would think that such massive, radical departure from received Catholic precedent and tradition would have a solid rationale (to put it mildly), but it is really as simple as Luther claiming that he is right, because God told him so, and is with him in a special way, and Catholic tradition (i.e., where he dissents from it) is wrong. The Bible is plain, according to Luther’s take.

Other Protestants who disagree with him (Zwingli, Anabaptists et al) are wrong and are going to hell because they don’t see what Luther plainly sees (and Luther favored the killing of Anabaptists, too). I’ve documented the facts of these matters a hundred times in papers listed on my Luther web page and need not do so presently.

The same thing applies, of course, to John Calvin as well, and to either if another Protestant self-proclaimed, self-anointed leader disagreed with them (including with each other). How does one decide who is right, and what is true doctrine? By consistent Protestant rules of authority, there is no way to decide. The individual simply chooses one over the other. This is the central dilemma and difficulty of Protestant dogma or orthodoxy. No one has ever solved it, and no one has ever given me a cogent reply to this challenge in my 28 years of being a Catholic apologist.

I want to reiterate the basic dilemma that faces Protestants who wish to adopt sola Scriptura in any form: whether the shallow extreme Bible Only view that eschews all non-biblical elements altogether, or the sophisticated, nuanced version adhered to by Reformed scholars and defenders such as Keith Mathison.

All alike have a fundamental problem (only to different degrees): how to resolve the differences of opinion that arise precisely because the binding authority of an infallible Church is no longer present to check departures from “orthodoxy”; however defined.

I wonder: who gave Luther the authority to proclaim his dogmas when they contradicted existing Catholic dogmas? It’s an excellent question. What would Luther himself say about that? Well, he says exactly what folks today say: he appeals to God. He’s God’s man; God’s man of the hour; God’s pseudo-prophet or oracle. It’s the oldest trick in the book, for who can disagree with God??!! In just his reply to Henry VIII in 1522, seething with rage, fresh from his excommunication, he made the following astonishing claims:

For I am certain that it is from heaven that I have my teachings; . . .

For my teaching is in no particular contradictory, nor can be contradictory, because it is Christ’s.

I do not ask them to believe me; but to believe the clear word of God.

But I against the sayings of the Fathers, of men, of angels, of devils place not ancient usage, not multitudes of men, but the word of the one Eternal Majesty, the Gospel, which they are forced to approve, . . .

Catholics who dared disagree with Prophet Luther, Oracle of God, would, of course, end up in hell:

They will have a double affliction, the torment of their present hatred, and that which it is earning for them,–the eternal torment of Gehenna.

Luther responded the same way to Erasmus, the greatest scholar of the 16th century, when he dared to disagree on the matter of free will (a thing that even Philip Melanchthon: Luther’s best friend and successor, believed):

Assuredly, any Jew or Heathen, who had no knowledge at all of Christ, would find it easy enough to draw out such a pattern of faith as yours. . . . Your whole air is Lucian, . . .

. . . your words sound as though, like Epicurus, you accounted the word of God and a future state to be mere fables . . .

Erasmus of Rotterdam is the vilest miscreant that ever disgraced the earth . . . He is a very Caiaphas.

Erasmus was poisoned at Rome and at Venice with epicurean doctrines. He extols the Arians more highly than the Papists . . . he died like an epicurean, without any one comfort of God.

I hold Erasmus of Rotterdam to be Christ’s most bitter enemy. . . . He wrote a book against me, called Hyperaspistes, wherein he proposed to defend his work on free-will, against which I wrote my De servo Arbitrio, which has never yet been confuted, nor will it ever be by Erasmus, for I am certain that what I wrote on the matter is the unchangeable truth of God.

Erasmus is the enemy to true religion, the open adversary of Christ, the complete and faithful picture and image of Epicurus and of Lucian.

Erasmus is bad through and through, as is evident in all his books . . . To him, ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’ is a ridiculous thing. . . .

I wonder that a man can fall so far from the knowledge of God as Erasmus has fallen. He is as certain that there is no God and no eternal life, as I am certain that I see.

He has injured the Gospel as much as he has advanced the science of grammar. He has been a shameless fellow. Zwingli was led astray by him . . . He died without the cross and without light. . . .

Fellow Protestant “reformer” Zwingli and other non-Lutheran Protestant leaders fared no better than poor Erasmus. In his work, Brief Confession Concerning the Holy Sacrament, written in September 1544, Luther calls Zwingli, Karlstadt, Oecolampadius, and Caspar Schwenkfeld (on whose name Luther does a play on words throughout his tract, making it mean “Stinkfield”) -– and by implication those who believe as they do — “fanatics and enemies of the sacrament” (Luther’s Works, 39, 287), men who are guilty of “blasphemies and deceitful heresy” (39, 288), “loathsome fanatics” (39, 291), “murderers of souls” (39, 296), who “possess a bedeviled, thoroughly bedeviled, hyper-bedeviled heart and lying tongue” (39, 296), and who “have incurred their penalty and are committing ‘sin which is mortal’,” (39, 296), “blasphemers and enemies of Christ” (39, 302), and “God’s and our condemned enemies” (39, 316).

He described Zwingli as a “full-blown heathen” (39, 290), and wrote: “I am certain that Zwingli, as his last book testifies, died in a great many sins and in blasphemy of God” (39, 302-303)

With Calvin it was exactly the same. Though not as “vociferous” as Luther, and less obviously brazen, he, too, thought his authority came straight from God (so that no man could disagree with him), and his own (subjective) conscience. For example:

Though denounced as a deserter of the Church, and threatened, I was in no respect deterred, or induced to proceed less firmly and boldly in opposing those who, in the character of pastors, wasted thy Church with a more than impious tyranny. My conscience told me how strong the zeal was with which I burned for the unity of thy Church, provided thy truth were made the bond of concord. As the commotions which followed were not excited by me, so there is no ground for imputing them to me. (A Reformation Debate: Sadoleto’s Letter to the Genevans and Calvin’s Reply, edited by John C. Olin, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966, 86)

The dirty, rotten, wascally “papists” who disagreed with Calvin did so because they were evil demons, led by Satan:

We indeed, Sadoleto, deny not that those over which you preside are Churches of Christ, but we maintain that the Roman Pontiff, with his whole herd of pseudo-bishops, who have seized upon the pastor’s office, are ravening wolves, whose only study has hitherto been to scatter and trample upon the kingdom of Christ, filling it with ruin and devastation. (Olin, ibid., 75)

Even when he disagrees with Luther, he can’t show respect for the Founder of Protestantism. He is too consistently Protestant to do that:

. . . if Luther has so great a lust of victory, he will never be able to join along with us in a sincere agreement respecting the pure truth of God. For he has sinned against it not only from vainglory and abusive language, but also from ignorance and the grossest extravagance. For what absurdities he pawned upon us in the beginning, when he said the bread is the very body! And if now he imagines that the body of Christ is enveloped by the bread, I judge that he is chargeable with a very foul error. What can I say of the partisans of that cause? Do they not romance more wildly than Marcion respecting the body of Christ? . . . (Letter to Martin Bucer, January 12, 1538; in John Dillenberger, editor, John Calvin: Selections From His Writings, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co. [Anchor Books], 1971, 47)

In their madness they even drew idolatry after them. For what else is the adorable sacrament of Luther but an idol set up in the temple of God? (Letter to Martin Bucer, June 1549; in Jules Bonnet, editor, John Calvin: Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters: Letters, Part 2, 1545-1553, volume 5 of 7; translated by David Constable; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983; reproduction of Letters of John Calvin, volume II [Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858], p. 234)

This is the fruit of the Protestant rule of faith (sola Scriptura), with its corresponding private judgment and individualistic supreme right of conscience. There is no way to resolve it. There ain’t no way out of it. It’s catch-22. It comes with the territory. One has to either accept the notion of an authoritative Church that can issue binding, infallible decrees, or one becomes their own pope.

The bald appeal to Scripture is only as good as the interpretation of Scripture, and as we all know, folks (even good “Bible-based” Protestants) differ about that. It is either the pope in Rome or 600 million Protestant popes + the one in Rome. This state of affairs flows from the system itself: from its internal principles. It is unbridled individualistic subjectivism and lack of solid thinking.

Why should Luther and Calvin’s authority be respected above the claimed authority of others? Because they were good writers and speakers? Because they were so good at insulting Catholics and the Catholic Church and could rile up the crowds and create resentment and hostility? Because anything (no matter how absurd or self-contradictory or anti-traditional, or impious) was better than Catholicism? Because they constantly appealed to “plain” Scripture?

Is it because they were good at excoriating true Catholic corruptions in practice, and the hypocrisy of individual lackluster Catholics (a thing that Erasmus did just as well) and were experts at throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Because now they’ve been known for 500 years (in fact, Calvin’s 500th birthday is this year) and have earned “authority” by being old and familiar?

None of that is biblical or in accord with how the Church fathers viewed things. For the apostles and fathers it was apostolic succession and historic continuity and infallible Church decrees determined in ecumenical councils, confirmed by popes. That was (and is, in Catholicism) how authority and true apostolic doctrine was conferred and passed on, not because someone had a big mouth or an elegant, prolific pen, and was good at insults and propaganda, and whipping a crowd and a populace into a frenzy, and so gained a following.

The present-day legatees of these same self-appointed supposed saviors of Christianity and the gospel never seem willing to sufficiently think through the implications of their own stated position, and so (almost despite themselves and the many truly good and Christian elements in their systems) end up with a mess of unworkable contradictory propositions, leading to many hundreds of denominations that contradict each other all over the place.


(originally 6-24-09)

Photo credit: Lifeinthetrees (12-24-17). A 120 degrees 2 forked IFS fractal [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]


"When I say "orthodox," I intend it to include acceptance of Church moral teaching and ..."

On the Last Three Popes’ Appointments ..."
"Why wouldn't every priest ordained be "rock-solid, faithful, 100% orthodox"? There are a lot of ..."

On the Last Three Popes’ Appointments ..."
"I didn't deny in my article that he appointed good cardinals or bishops, too. I ..."

On the Last Three Popes’ Appointments ..."
"Todd, thank-you for speaking up. One thing I would like to add is that Pope ..."

On the Last Three Popes’ Appointments ..."

Browse Our Archives