Preface, Part V, Part IV, Part III, Part II, Part I NOTE: Again, content is from Hendrix, Luther and the Papacy (pictured). Incidently, I have recently read all the book reviews I could for this book, and have been unable to find any negative critiques, but only glowing praise. Hendrix’s thesis and work seem sound.
In 1537, Luther recollected some of the earliest struggles that he had had with Church authority:
“True, when I was a young master at Erfurt [from 1503-1508], I was often downcast due to assaults of gloominess. Thus I devoted myself mostly to reading the Bible. In this way, from the naked text of the Bible, I soon recognized many errors in the papacy. But there in the library at Erfurt many thoughts came upon me such as: ‘Behold, how great is the authority of the pope and the church! Are you alone supposed to be clever? Oh, you might be mistaken!’ I yielded to these thoughts and suffered quite a setback in reading the Bible!” (Luther, 1537, WATR 3, 439.2-8; no. 3593 ; quoted in Hendrix, 1)
How long Luther felt compelled to yield those thoughts is a very interesting question. By May of 1521 Luther was absolutely convinced that he was dealing with the Antichrist, as a letter from that time to his friend Philip Melanchton reveals (p. 2). What kept Luther from arriving at – or at least stating – this viewpoint earlier?
A letter written one month later to another friend (Justus Jonas) gives us some clues to. Here Luther explained that he had not been hypocritical when submitting his writings to the judgment of the Pope in the recent years because his “sincere opinion of the pope, councils and universities was no different from the common one” (more on this in part III). He added: “Although much of what they said seemed absurd to me and completely alien to Christ, yet for more than a decade I curbed my thoughts with the advice of Solomon: ‘Do not rely on your own insight’ [Prov. 3:5].” (p. 3)
Hendrix ably sums up Luther’s views prior to 1517, which would likely include the “more than a decade” Luther spoke of. First of all, in Luther’s 1513-1515 lectures on the Pslams, he notes , citing Luke 22:32, that Christ has not forgotten the Roman church, which Luther also called the chief part of all the churches (p. 12). Hendrix states: “few have questioned… that Luther recognized the necessity of a visible human hierarchy, established by divine right, to guarantee the stability and permanence of the church.” (p. 13)
Second, “before 1517, Luther spent his academic life lecturing and preaching on the Bible, not writing ecclesiological treatise or taking stands on the relative authority of pope and council. Insights into his thinking must be gained indirectly from his exegesis, his sermons, and from the recollections of his early years. Although these works do not allow one to pin on Luther a papalist or conciliarist label, they do yield strong clues that Luther’s feelings about the papacy were at best ambivalent. First, the hindsights, when adjusted for perspective, document the presence of negative feelings about the Roman hierarchy and teachings of the church. Second, numerous passages criticize directly contemporary prelates and indirectly, perhaps, the papacy itself, especially in relation to an issue dear to Luther’s own scrupulous conscience: the power of the keys. Third, these early works establish the feeding of the faithful with the word of God as the criterion for claiming legitimate authority in the church. This criterion is a key building block in Luther’s construction of a new ecclesiology.
The pope was not a dominant figure in that ecclesiology; perhaps he was more ignored than intentionally excluded. Ambivalent feelings about a subject do result in lack of attention to it until one is forced to face the matter head-on. Perhaps that is what Luther meant when he said later that, while he was engaged in teaching and preaching, the papacy crossed his path. If so, the Reformation had begun, even if unintentionally, in the mind of Luther himself.” (p. 21).
Hendrix also notes that “much has been made of the afflictions of conscience that Luther suffered in his early years, but they have generally been divorced from the issue of church authority” (p. 8) This, along with the ambivalence Hendrix talks about is explored more in part II.
For now, let us take the remaining space in this post to, with the help of Hendrix, critically examine some of Luther’s later recollections of his views of the papacy.
It is worth noting that “the Augustinians[, of whom Luther was a part,] “were especially devoted to the papacy and inculcated this devotion in their novices”. Luther, whether for this reason or others, shows no familiarity with the writings of “Occam, d’Ailly, and Gerson which dealt critically with papal authority”. (p. 8) In a 1532 conversation recorded in Table Talk, Luther commented on Hebrews 13:17 (“obey your superiors”), and noted how this very text restrained him from writing against the pope. In more comments made in 1537, Luther “said that he came to his struggle with the pope quite innocently”, noting that twenty years before he realized that the papacy was the Antichrist he never would have entertained such a notion. In fact, Luther says that he would have sentenced anyone who held to such a teaching to the stake. (p. 6)
Elsewhere Hendrix notes: “Other recollections reinforce this picture of Luther’s early years as excessively propapal. Luther calls himself an ‘arch-papist’ and a ‘slave of the mass’ for fifteen years. He immersed himself in monasticism to the point of insanity and adored the pope out of pure devotion, oblivious of ecclesiastical reward or personal gain. In a sermon dating from the year 1536, Luther declares that if, thirty years earlier, anyone had preached the gospel to him as he now understands it, he would have collaborated in the persecution of Stephen himself. As evidence that he did not intentionally enter the battle against Rome, he notes that he opposed even Erasmus’s criticism of the papacy. It required a jolt from God to get Luther going, and even then he moved slowly… ”
Hendrix notes that in the preface to his Latin writings of 1545, where Luther recollects several of these things, he is concerned that people will not understand why he expressed so little criticism of the papacy in his early works – which Luther attributes to his circumstances and his own inexperience – and therefore, may have exaggerated his enthusiasm for the pope in the early years. He also notes that in light of Luther’s later hostility to the pope near the end of his life, his early faithfulness likely appeared to him more and more zealous. (p. 4)
Finally, it is also worth noting that “Luther always regarded his doctorate as the official sanction for his reforming work: ‘I have often said and still say, I would not exchange my doctor’s degree for all the world’s gold… God and the whole world bear me testimony that I entered into this work publically and by virtue of my office as teacher and preacher and have carried it hitherto by the grace of God.” (p. 12)