I was web surfing recently when I ran across a discussion of the “Catholic Luther.” I remember reading that Martin Luther had a deep devotion to Mary as the Mother of God, and that he had a statue of Mary near his burial site in the Castle Church in Wittenberg. But wasn’t he really an opponent of Catholicism?
My friend Dave Armstrong has written a book on the topic, and today I’ve invited Dave to share his insights into Luther’s Catholic beliefs, drawn from the reformer’s own writings.
Top Ten Remarkable “Catholic” Beliefs of Martin Luther
by Dave Armstrong
I recently compiled a book called, The “Catholic” Luther: An Ecumenical Collection of His “Traditional” Utterances. It was an attempt to gather together significant statements from the Founder of Protestantism (who lived from 1483-1546) that are theologically traditional and in total or very close accord with historic Catholic theology. Here are a few highlights that some might find interesting (as I did in discovering them):
10. Crucifixes: “The custom of holding a crucifix before a dying person has kept many in the Christian faith and has enabled them to die with a confident faith in the crucified Christ.” (Sermons on John, Chapters 1-4, July 1537 to Sep. 1540)
9. Private Confession: “Christ Himself placed His Absolution into the hands of His Christian people.… God through a human being looses and absolves him from his sins.… if you want to despise it and proudly continue without Confession, then we must draw the conclusion that you are no Christian and should not enjoy the Sacrament either.” (A Brief Admonition to Confession, 1529)
8. Good Works Are a Necessary Expression of the Authenticity of True Faith: “But our Antinomians do not see that they preach Christ without the Holy Ghost and against the Holy Ghost, because they are willing to let the people continue in their old life, and yet declare them saved, though the logic of it is that a Christian should have the Holy Ghost and lead a new life, or know that he has no Christ.” (On the Councils and the Churches, March 1539)
7. Baptism Regenerates and Saves: “By means of God’s Word, water becomes baptism, that is, a bath unto everlasting life, which washes away sins and saves men.” (Ibid.)
6. Jesus is Present Bodily in the Eucharist, Which Saves and is to be Adored: “Irenaeus and the ancient fathers pointed out the benefit that our body is fed with the body of Christ, in order that our faith and hope may abide and that our body also may live eternally from the same eternal food of the body of Christ which it eats physically.” (That These Words of Christ, “This Is My Body,” etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics, March 1527)
“[O]ne should not withhold from him such worship and adoration either… one should not condemn and accuse of heresy people who do adore the sacrament.” (The Adoration of the Sacrament, 1523)
5. Wrongness of Contraception and a Pro-Child Outlook: “How many girls there are who prevent conception and kill and expel tender fetuses, although procreation is the work of God! . . . The first class of spouses consists of those who seek to have offspring and have a desire for this kind of life in order that they may become parents. Although original sin is there too, nevertheless procreation is the main cause. These people are really angels in comparison with the others, because they desire to make use of marriage for procreation. But their number is very small,…” (Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 21-25, May 1540)
4. Prayer for the Dead: “[S]ince God has not permitted us to know, how it is with the souls of the departed and we must continue uninformed, as to how he deals with them, we will not and cannot restrain them, nor count it as sin, if they pray for the dead. For we are ever certain from the Gospel, that many have been raised from the dead, who, we must confess, did not receive nor did they have their final sentence; and likewise we are not assured of any other, that he has his final sentence. Now since it is uncertain and no one knows, . . . it is not sin if you pray for them; but in this way, . . .: Dear God, if the departed souls be in a state that they may yet be helped, then I pray that thou wouldst be gracious. … the prayer of the heart, of devotion and of faith;…will help the departed souls if anything will.” (Sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity; Luke 16:19-31, 1522-1523)
3. The Perpetual Virginity of Mary: “A new lie about me is being circulated. I am supposed to have preached and written that Mary, the mother of God, was not a virgin either before or after the birth of Christ, but that she conceived Christ through Joseph, and had more children after that.” (That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, 1523)
2. Mary Was Immaculately Conceived and Sinless: “. . . the infusion of the soul [of Mary], is piously believed to have been accomplished without original sin. So that, in that very infusing of the soul, the body was simultaneously purified from original sin, and endowed with divine gifts to receive that holy soul which was infused into it from God. And thus in the first moment it began to live, it was exempt from all sin.”(Sermon: On the Day of the Conception of Mary, the Mother of God, 8[?] December 1527)
1. An Infallible and Indefectible Church: “[T]he church must teach God’s word alone, and must be sure of it. The church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth [1 Tim 3:15], built on the rock, and called holy and irreproachable [Eph. 2:21]. Thus one rightly and truly says, ‘The church cannot err, for God’s word which it teaches cannot err.’ But whatever else is taught or whatever is not with certainty God’s word, cannot be the doctrine of the church, but must be the doctrine, falsehood, and idolatry of the devil.” (Against Hanswurst, April 1541)
“But if we have no true cleric or sacrament, then neither Christianity nor church has remained. This is clearly opposed to the article, ‘I believe in one holy, Christian church,’ and to the words of Christ, ‘I am with you always, to the close of the age,’ etc. [Matt. 28:18]. To this I reply thus: First, the church or Christianity has remained and must remain. (The Private Mass and the Consecration of Priests, Oct. 1533)
Luther held all these views throughout his life (several of my examples are seen to be from dates late in his life), with the exception of the Immaculate Conception. In later years (roughly after 1530), he held that Mary was purified and freed from original sin at Christ’s conception and not her own. I have described this view in my own papers on it (after extensive research), as “Immaculate Purification.” He always held that Mary was without actual sin.
Dave Armstrong is a Catholic apologist and author (convert from evangelical Protestantism in 1991). His conversion story is in “Surprised by Truth” (1994). He’s been published in “The Catholic Answer,” “This Rock,” “Envoy,” and other periodicals. Dave’s many radio appearances include “Catholic Answers Live” and “Faith & Family Live.”
His website / blog, “Biblical Evidence for Catholicism” has been online since February 1997, and contains more than 2500 papers (including 50+ separate web pages and 625+ dialogues). Sophia Institute Press has published five of his 30 books: “A Biblical Defense of Catholicism” (2003), “The Catholic Verses” (2004), “The One-Minute Apologist” (2007), “Bible Proofs for Catholic Truths” (2009), and “The Quotable Newman” (editor: 2012).