Sometimes people fail to understand how deeply affected they are by theological errors of the past.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
20 September 2017
One of the most fruitful things we can do to grow intellectually, spiritually, and personally as Christians is to become historically conscious of the life of the Church through a theological study of history. This particular form of study is a way of looking into history by the light of faith. We call this process “historical theology.” If done properly, it allows a look into the past using an accurate historical context as a lens by which to see, understand and discern, which helps us to grasp the present with new insight and clarity. Historical theology takes into consideration the heritage of the Church Fathers whose writing helped to pass on and develop Tradition; it cherishes the perennial belief of the Church, her Sacred Tradition, Scripture and 4000-year faith history; it considers historical contexts, movements, ideologies and philosophies, and how these shaped both the past and the present. Further, historical theology helps us to better grasp the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Church and defend her against post-modern misconceptions, prejudices, errors, and threats.
Let’s do some historical theology. Our subject is the 16th-century German priest and professor of theology, Martin Luther, and some aspects of the subsequent Protestant revolution he sparked. Please note that I intentionally use the term “revolution” because it best describes the sometimes violent, always damaging rupture in Christendom that occurred in the 16th century. The term “Protestant Reformation” is, in contrast, an English Protestant phrase that does not accurately characterize the historical reality of that day. The Protestant revolutionaries who followed Luther were not interested in reforming abuses found in the Catholic Church. On the contrary, they were determined to jettison the Church and set up new ecclesial communities with new, often diverse theologies. Further, German princes and other nobility sought to foster and perpetuate the rupture in the Church for their own political, social, and financial ends. Note also that I do not apply the term “revolutionaries” to non-Catholic and/or Protestant Christians today. They’re not responsible for 16th-century events.
Martin Luther did not set out as a revolutionary; but he soon went in that direction, backed into a corner by the failures of people on both sides, and spurred on by particular personality traits. He was the type of man who, when pushed, pushed back harder. He was a powerful preacher, a humanist scholar (familiar with classical literature), but not a systematic theologian. It helps to understand his theological perspective by noting that he was influenced by a nominalist and voluntarist theology initiated by William of Ockham. Luther also suffered from a scrupulosity in which he believed it impossible to please God. Of course, much more can be said, but all these things shaped Luther’s views and activities in the early 1500’s.
Luther attempted to correct some abuses in the Church, mainly concerning an incorrect preaching on indulgences by men such as Johann Tetzel, which was something important, necessary and admirable for him to do. Luther’s desire to oppose and/or debate these abuses is what led to his 95 theses, nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church in October 1517. However, what started out as his sincere intention to reform, soon turned into a stubborn, pride-filled rebellion against the authority of the Church, the pope, and particular elements of Church theology and Tradition. This grew to such an extreme that Luther rejected some of the O.T. canons the Church held as divinely inspired, called The Letter of St. James an “epistle of straw,” and developed his own subjective theology that was ultimately incompatible with Tradition, Scripture, and Church teaching. When asked to recant, he refused to do so. He would not back down even though he had rejected foundational theological tenets that Christians had held as doctrine for about fifteen centuries. Making use of the Gutenberg printing press invented around 1440 to distribute his tracts, he soon sparked a revolution causing a mass splintering in Christendom which continues to this day.
The point I want to make is that some of Luther’s theology ran far off the rails, such as his denial of five of the seven sacraments (which is in large part what caused his excommunication from the Church). Unfortunately, non-Catholic Christians today, generally speaking, continue to deny nearly all the sacraments save baptism (some see marriage as a sacrament, others do not). It’s noteworthy that this loss of the sacramental principle among non-Catholics is rooted in Luther’s theological missteps as well as those who followed in the wake of the dissent he created. A sound historical consciousness allows us to see how Luther’s errors have carried over into the present, unwittingly affecting many Christians today.
In other elements of Luther’s theology are found subtle faults that lead to deep fissures. An example is his over-emphasis on the common priesthood of all believers and his subsequent rejection of the ministerial priesthood. For Luther, the ministerial priesthood was merely an administrative position, not a divinely instituted office as the Church teaches. This led him to an outright denial of the sacrament of Orders through which men are configured by a special grace to the priesthood of Christ and enabled to act in his person, in persona Christi, which is Latin for “in the person of Christ.” The result was loss of a valid priesthood among Protestants and a subsequent inability to confect the Eucharist. The effects of his theological errors in this area are significant, tragic, and readily apparent today.
Further, some Protestant revolutionaries following Luther, such as Ulrich Zwingli, who is considered the founder of the Reformed Tradition, rejected the Church’s theology on the Eucharist as the body of Christ itself. Zwingli argued that while Christ could be omnipresent in his divinity, he could not be multi-present bodily and invisibly in the sacrament of the Eucharist. For Zwingli, the Eucharist was purely symbolic, something which the Church had never believed over her entire history. Of course, such a view is incompatible with Scripture, for the Church would never teach what contradicts the divinely inspired word of God: “Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (Lk 22:19). Christ said, “This is my body,” not “this symbolizes my body” or “contains my body.” Interestingly, the Eucharist was one of the two remaining sacraments in which Luther still believed. He held it to be the body and blood of Christ (although he thought the bread was present too, alongside Christ, a heretical principle called “consubstantiation”) and argued bitterly with Zwingli about it. In frustration, Luther wrote to Zwingli:
Listen now, you pig, dog or fanatic, whatever kind of unreasonable ass you are: Even if Christ’s body is everywhere, you do not therefore immediately eat or drink or touch him; nor do I talk with you about such things in this manner, either; go back to your pigpen and your filth.¹
Another example of a theological misstep is Luther’s teaching on the total depravity of human nature. He believed human nature was completely corrupted as a result of original sin. If taken far enough, such teaching would imply that man can do nothing but sin. Luther believed that the sacrifice of Christ and the grace he offers merely covers over that depravity. Simul justus et peccator, “simultaneously just and a sinner,” was part of Luther’s doctrine of imputed righteousness or forensic justification, which referred to how the righteousness of Christ was imputed to the sinner as a type of cloak covering over a person’s sinful nature.
I sometimes hear Catholics use language similar to Luther’s when they say, “Christ’s blood covers our sins.” It is important to understand that the grace of justification God offers through faith in Christ and baptism is not in any way a mere covering over of sin. The grace of justification and the subsequent process of sanctification that takes place in virtue of the infusion of the Holy Spirit creates a true change or transformation in the person. That is why grace is a huge deal. It’s not something insignificant that merely cloaks us in righteousness. If we are serious about attaining sainthood and heaven, we must seek the grace conferred by the sacraments of the Church. Here’s a quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this subject:
Justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God, sanctified . . . [and] called to be saints, Christians have become the temple of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit of the Son teaches them to pray to the Father and, having become their life, prompts them to act so as to bear the fruit of the Spirit by charity in action. Healing the wounds of sin, the Holy Spirit renews us interiorly through a spiritual transformation. He enlightens and strengthens us to live as children of light through all that is good and right and true. (1695)
Luther advocated salvation by faith alone—note that “faith alone” does not appear in the Bible except in James, where it is preceded by the word “not”: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Luther’s theology led him to reject the Letter of St. James and develop a canon within a canon of Scripture. He lost sight of the tension between St. Paul and St. James’ teaching on the role of faith and works; a tension which, when properly understood, deepens and clarifies doctrine. St. James is primarily pointing out that we cannot be saved by a merely intellectual, shallow faith. Rather, we are saved by the kind of faith which is an attitude of complete self-gift to Christ. That is the full dimension of faith, and from that foundation, good works flow forth which God has prepared for us to complete in Christ. In the absence of these works, our faith is a dead faith: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead” (James 2:26).
The Church agrees in accord with Scripture that the grace of initial justification is a free gift from God received by virtue of faith and baptism, and that God has prepared good works for us to do in union with Christ by which we merit greater glory:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Eph 2:8-10)
For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. (Rom 2:6-10)
Actually, Luther had no significant problem with works. Principally, he emphasized salvation by faith in Christ. The Church agrees with that. Consequently, there’s really no longer an argument about the role of faith and works and their interconnectedness in the ongoing sanctification of the person. It is faith in Christ that saves us. Good works completed by those in a state of grace are supernaturally good works, pleasing to God, that change us by aiding in our growth in love of God and neighbor, and contribute to meriting further glory. We grow in Christian character by virtue of freely engaging in the activities of good works made possible by God’s grace. Justification and sanctification, which are interrelated, refer to an ongoing process (after initial justification) involving the virtue of charity—the love of God for his sake and love of neighbor for the sake of love of God—in which one advances in holiness and perfection in cooperation with the grace of God. That means good works completed in Christ will spring forth as the fruits of our love of God and the gift of his Spirit infused into our hearts. People who continue to argue about faith and works, labor under a misunderstanding.
Nevertheless, the issue of saved by faith alone was taken to extremes by some people who followed in Luther’s wake. An example is John Calvin (1509-1564), who lived a generation after Luther, and who was the systematizer of the reformed tradition. In order to protect the integrity of salvation by faith alone, attempting to harmonize it with his understanding of God’s absolute divine freedom and omnipotence, Calvin developed his doctrine of double-predestination or positive reprobation. This is connected to the doctrine commonly known as “once saved always saved” found in the U.S. today. Calvin thought that grace was irresistible and could never be lost. This led him to conclude that God gifted some people with the grace of justification, while intentionally withholding it from others. That is, some were predestined by God to heaven and others to hell: those slated for hell, the reprobate, could do nothing to alter their fate. In a similar way, thought Calvin, those who were predestined to heaven could do nothing to change that final end, either. In Calvin’s theology, fate is terrifying: God apparently creates some human persons for the sake of eternal suffering. It makes God into a malevolent tyrant of the worst kind. Further, if we analyze positive reprobation in the context of human freedom, it means there’s no such thing.
Of course, Calvin’s double-predestination is out of sync with Scripture and the teaching of the Church.
[God] desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all. (2 Tim 2:4-6)
It is the universal will of God that all people be saved through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ. Anyone who fails to achieve the status of the elect, fails through their own fault. That is, God predestines all people to heaven; hell is something the individual chooses for himself, against God’s plan of love.
The doctrine of “once saved always saved” so prevalent among non-Catholics in the U.S., finds its historical origin in the faulty theology of John Calvin, rooted in the Protestant revolution of the 16th century. It is most certainly unbiblical. In opposition to it, Scripture and the Church teach with one voice: salvation can be lost:
Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty, how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? (Heb 2:2-3)
The “one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Mt 10:22)
I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (Jn 15:5-6)
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. (1 Cor 15:1-2)
These are but a few examples which show how a correct historical consciousness helps us to understand how past errors are often translated unwittingly into the present. Although Martin Luther began his attempted correction of abuses in the Church with noble intentions, the subsequent revolution he sparked expanded rapidly and is responsible for causing significant damage to the unity and doctrinal integrity of Christendom, then and now. Two tragic examples include the loss of both the ministerial priesthood and the sacramental principle among non-Catholic and/or Protestant Christians today. This is particularly serious because, in absence of validly ordained priests, the sacraments cannot be celebrated; and it is through the sacraments celebrated in the Church in faith that God comes to meet man.
What’s the solution? Swim the Tiber. Be Catholic. Live the truth: it’s the key to happiness.
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- Martin Luther, from That These Words of Christ,“This is My Body,” etc., Still Stand Firm against the Fanatics, qtd in Readings in the History of Christian Theology: From the Reformation to the Present, vol. 2, ed. by William Placher and Derek Nelson, p. 14. Print.
Photo Credit: Martin Luther. Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.