Monthly Archives: November 2012

A church within a church?

Pelikan, Jaroslav. 1964. Obedient rebels: Catholic substance and Protestant principle in Luther’s Reformation. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

From 17th century Lutheran John Gerhard (On the Church, p. 139):

“If the confession of true doctrine and the legitimate use of the Sacraments had been left free for us, perhaps we would not have departed from the external fellowship of the Roman church.”

Was it really honest for him to say that?  Indeed.  James Swan has a recent post entitled “The Revolutionary Reformers?”  Let’s take a look:

“Have you ever read the Roman mantra that Luther and his colleagues were radicals that split the church? You know… that they were hard-headed radicals that wouldn’t play nice with Roman authority? Well, here’s a different spin on things compliments of a footnote in the recent edition of Luther’s Works-

“In the interest of peace in the empire, moreover, Luther and his Wittenberg colleagues were prepared to make major concessions to the jurisdictional authority of the Catholic bishops. Accordingly, at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, Melanchthon, acting with the full knowledge and support of Luther and the Saxon government, offered restitution of the jurisdiction of the Catholic bishops over the Evangelical congregations on the condition that the bishops ordain Evangelical priests and recognize the legitimacy of Communion in both kinds, clerical marriage, and the Mass in German. This offer remained on the table through all the failed attempts of the 1530’s and 1540’s to find a peaceful solution to the religious divisions in the empire” (LW 59:276).”

Very interesting, to say the least.  Even more interesting, when one considers the following statement from Edward T. Oakes on First Thing’s blog:

“When the Western Church fissiparated in the sixteen century, the Reformers took a portion of the essential patrimony of the Church with them, and they thereby left both the Roman Church and themselves the poorer for it.”

All of the essential doctrines the Lutherans lay claim to in the Augsburg Confession had been believed, taught, and confessed in various times and places in the Church. Up to that point  And the Lutherans were not just claiming to be a kind of “cafeteria church” picking and choosing what they liked.  The claim of these first “evangelicals” was that these teachings truly were “holy, catholic and apostolic”.  What required the condemnation of the alternative doctrines (not persons) on their part was that those holding to these could not abide the evangelical’s teaching – which again, up to that point, had in fact inhered in the Roman Catholic Church.

Update: Good post to go with this one:

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Posted by on November 27, 2012 in Uncategorized


Good Thanksgiving reminders

A student of mine sent me a video her pastor showed them recently.  It is very thought-provoking:

It made me think of this video from Jefferson Bethke, the man who did the “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” video (since then, he has repudiated that first video):

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Posted by on November 21, 2012 in Uncategorized


Jordan Cooper on infant faith

Jordan Cooper, who writes the blog “Just and Sinner” (subscribe!), has an excellent post on infant faith.  Here is a clip:

“…Rather than answering the question in the way that Augustine does, wherein a parent’s faith or the church’s faith is imputed to the child, Luther argued that infants do indeed have faith.

In opposition to what human reason might suppose, infants can have faith. The Biblical testimony on this is clear. Look for example at Psalm 22.

“Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” (Psalm 22:9-10)

In this Psalm, David discusses his faith, and in doing so references the fact that he had faith at a time when he was still nursing. How is this possible? The answer is just as clear, “you made me trust you.” In Reformation theology (and all Augustinian theology for that matter) faith is a gift of God. It is not a human achievement, not something that one chooses out of a free will. If this were so, then infant faith would be impossible. But according to a monergistic scheme, faith is a divine gift, a divine work through the operation of the Holy Spirit. This being the case, why is it not possible that God could do such a work for an infant? To argue otherwise seems to imply that there is something necessary in a person for faith to be a possibility. This is in opposition to Reformation theology.

Peter Leithart makes the argument that infant faith is proven by the fact that we talk to infants. If we spend time talking to infants, and interacting with them, we do so because we know that they have an awareness of others. However limited that awareness might be, it is apparent. Are we, as Christians, willing to say that this is the case with other human beings but not God? Is not the reality of God even more apparent and real than that of creation? An infant has to constantly look outside of themselves to receive help; they look to others to get food, to move to where they need to be,and for every type of sustenance in life. Is this not precisely what faith is? Looking to one outside of ourselves as helpless creatures?


Read the whole thing.

Picture from Jordan’s blog post

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Posted by on November 14, 2012 in Uncategorized


The coming vindication of Martin Luther – loyal son of the Pope (part I of V)

Preface, Part V, Part IV, Part III, Part IIPart 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)

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Posted by on November 8, 2012 in Uncategorized


The coming vindication of Martin Luther – mystic-induced doubt (part II of V)

Johann von Staupitz instructs and comforts Luther in the 2003 Luther movie, urging him to look from his sin to Christ

Preface, Part V, Part IV, Part III, Part II, Part I

I believe that Scott Hendrix, in his book Luther and the Papacy, does a fine job in showing why Luther came to doubt the papacy’s fulfilling of its duty to take care of Christ’s sheep (all bold and italics mine):

“Although his study of the mass [in 1507 in preparation for his ordination] scarcely weakened his ties to the pope, in Luther’s memory his internal struggle with confession was very much related to papal authority.  The writings of John Gerson (d. 1429), mystical theologian and reform-minded chancellor of the University of Paris, played an important role in helping Luther recognize this relationship.  Several times in his Table Talk Luther identified Gerson as the one who began to relax the reins of papal tyranny.  Gerson argued that it was not a mortal sin to disobey the laws of the church unless the disobedience was deliberate.  When Luther applied this argument to the practice of confession, it meant that he and other Christians were not under pressure to confess every sin.   This spelled relief for the scrupulous conscience of Luther and made Gerson, in Luther’s memory, the great consoler among the medieval doctors and a forerunner of Christian freedom under the gospel.  From the perspective of the 1530s and 1540s, Gerson, as an advocate of conciliar authority in the church, also appeared to be a forerunner of Luther’s own opposition to the papacy.  Luther added to his comments on Gerson that no one could really understand the necessity of opposing the pope unless one had lived under the darkness of the papacy. 

In the period of 1505 to 1510, obligatory confession of every sin may not have raised doubts in Luther’s mind about papal authority per se.  Potentially, however, the questions were there.  The guidelines for confessing were conceivably one point at which Luther questioned the teaching of the church, especially since they touched the nerve of his own religious experience.  Nevertheless, he was hardly the first to voice his doubts about the degree of thoroughness required in confession.  In his Exposition, Biel, relying on Gerson, discussed quite openly the degree of certainty required of a priest who had confessed before celebrating mass.  According to Gerson, one should be as diligent in examining the conscience for past sins as one could be in any business where a great gain or loss was at stake.  Quoting Gerson in his dictionary of medieval theology, Altenstaig noted that repeated confession of the same sins might result in doubts about the efficacy of sacramental confession and thus pose a danger for scrupulous and timid consciences.  Luther’s struggles were not unique.  When, however, Luther came to recognize the connection between his internal religious struggle and the external authority of the church, his scruples sounded the keynote of his lifelong  opposition to the papacy: the pope must be opposed as long as he tyrannized the consciences of faithful Christians (p. 9, 10)….

“…Luther’s critical recollections of this period indicate that he was not able to divorce his internal struggles from the issue of church authority.  It is impossible to determine just what Luther meant by the “many errors in the papacy” which, he says, the naked text of Scripture revealed to him during his time in Erfurt [1501-1508].  The penitential practice of the church, however, was a likely candidate for one of those “errors”.  In fact, this was the discipline imposed on him by the authorities of the church and of his order whom he was bound to obey.  In his conscientious struggle to follow the discipline, questions about its wisdom and its effect on his life would spark further questions about the wisdom of the hierarchy and teachers who sanctioned and justified that discipline.  The ambivalence which Luther felt toward that discipline was more than enough to spawn ambivalent feelings about its source, regardless of the loyalty that he felt toward the church to which he now committed his life as preacher and teacher (p. 11)….

“A sermon preached by Luther in 1517 gives support to Preuss’s suspicion that Luther’s lack of reference to the papacy [in regards to his 1513-1515 lectures on the Psalms in which he discussed Matthew 16:18 (scholars have noted Luther’s interpretation was not unique)] was intentional. In this sermon Luther stressed orally what he would write down months later in the Explanation of the Ninety-five Theses: the power of the priests to bind and loose sins based on Matt. 16:19 was given to them for our comfort and certainty.  Their tongues are the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  Whenever we hear the word of absolution from their mouths, we should firmly believe in that word and no longer trust in our own contrition and repentance.  But, complained Luther, this word of comfort has been twisted into a tyrannical word.  For a long time, Luther recalls, Matt. 16:19 tormented his soul because he had thought it meant that the pope could do with him whatever he wanted; and, indeed, the keys are still being used to terrify and vex the people.  The Priests are badly mistaken if they think they absolve only those Christians whose genuine contrition can be proved.  On the contrary, faith in Christ through the word of the priest brings forgiveness to whoever trusts in that word.

By 1515, Luther could have decided not to apply the rock in Matt. 16:18 and the power of binding and loosing in Matt. 16:19 to the pope because he felt himself to be a victim of the misuse of that power in the penitential practice of the church.  Consequently, he decided to adhere to the safer traditional exegesis of which he was certain.  Even if Luther made such a decision, there is no reason to assume that he was questioning anything more than the misuse of papal and priestly power.  On the other hand, Luther’s neglect of the pope could mean that he was not yet concerned about any misuse of the keys prior to 1516 or 1517.  Arguments from silence are notoriously unreliable.  Silence may speak louder than words, but it is frequently impossible to determine what that silence is saying.  Still, Luther’s handling of Matt. 16:18-19 [in his 1513-1515 Psalms lectures] does fit into the ambivalence about the papacy which his recollections about this period reveal.

No ambivalence can be detected in the importance Luther attached to the priesthood during these years.  Throughout the early writings Luther extols both the power and the authority of the hierarchy.  The mouth of the priest is the mouth of God, and even preachers of the gospel who do not possess the Spirit serve God.  Priests and prelates are the seats from which Christ exercises his rule in the church.  Obedience is owed to these seats when they sit in judgment no matter how inappropriate their judgment might be, as long as it is not against God.  It is precisely because Luther valued the priesthood and obedience to the hierarchy so highly that he could criticize them as sharply as he did in his early works.”  (p. 13 and 14)

Part I coming in two days


Posted by on November 6, 2012 in Uncategorized


Martin Luther: “his patience in listening is incomparable”…

Martin Bucer at the age of 53

Martin Luther is often seen as being very colorful, confrontational, and quite frankly, “bombastic and harsh” (R.C. Sproul).

It is interesting then to note the reaction of one Martin Bucer, that time a young Dominican monk, to the presentation of Martin Luther’s presentation at the Heidleberg Disputation in 1518, shortly after Luther had nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door.  Evidently Bucer had had lunch with Luther and John Staupitz that day:

“Their [those in opposition to Luther at the disputation] wiles were not able to move him an inch.  His sweetness in answering is remarkable, his patience in listening is incomparable, in his explanations you would recognize the acumen of Paul, not Scotus: his answers, so brief, so wise and drawn from the Scriptures, easily made all hearers his admirers.”

From Gordon Rupp’s Luther’s Progress to the Diet of Worms, mentioned in a lecture on Luther by R.C. Sproul, entitled “The Indulgence Controversy”.  Looking more closely, we see that in regard to “his sweetness in answering is remarkable”, Rupp editorializes: “Bucer was not always to find it so remarkable in respect of himself!” (p. 56)

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Posted by on November 5, 2012 in Uncategorized


The coming vindication of Martin Luther – the collapse of Luther’s triage (part III of V)

Dr. Luther debates Dr. Eck – Martin Luther Memorial in Eisleben, Germany

Preface, Part V, Part IV, Part III, Part II, Part I

In Luther’s day, canon law stated that the statute of the pope should be regarded as if it came from the mouth of God or of St. Peter himself (Hendrix, Luther and the Papacy, p. 33).  And the pope at this time had clearly ruled that the papacy could forgive the temporal consequences of God’s punishment in purgatory.  So, how could Luther possibly think his reforming impulses regarding the issue of indulgences were acceptable?

When Luther was initially challenged by RC theologians after posting the 95 theses, his view of authority in the church was less than fully developed.  He operated with a principle of “mixed”, or consensual authority, that one might view as a “triage” of sorts, where, for example, certain doctrinal issues would be most easily taken care at the level of councils – given a healthy church, of course.  In his Explanation of the 95 theses, written in May of 1518, Luther says he acknowledges as authoritative the decisions clearly established by both pope and council in the canons of the church.  That said, even in this work, in the traditional declaration preceding the Explanation, Luther says that “he wishes to say nothing which cannot be held first on the basis of Holy Scripture, next on the basis of the church fathers, and, finally, on the basis of the canons and papal decrees (p. 40).

Before they met in Augsburg, Cardinal Cajetan responded to Luther’s Explanation, finding it wanting.  At their meeting in Oct. of 1518, Luther was challenged by Cajetan regarding his view of confession and absolution as well as his intransigence about indulgences.  Regarding indulgences, Cajetan cited Unigenitus, a little-known explicit papal decree – in short, he “appealed to the power of the pope, which he placed above that of a council, Scripture, and everything in the church (p. 59).  This kind of argumentation was new to Luther, and this “violated the principle of consensus which Luther had been using and which he had assumed to be normative in the church”.  Luther had said that he did not accept the merits of Christ as the treasure of indulgences because it could not be proved by Scripture or by good reasons.  He further argued that saying otherwise would make the church “vulnerable to the criticism of heretics who demanded probable reasons and authority”.  In other words, Luther was trying to “shield the church from ridicule” (p. 60).  Following their meeting, Luther quickly appealed “from a badly informed pope to a pope who should be better informed” (p. 45).  Shortly after this, Luther was shown the papal instruction Cajetan was given regarding him, Postquam ad aures, written on Aug. 23, ordering his arrest and recantation.  Luther “maintained that it was a forgery since it was ‘incredible that such a monstrosity should have been issued by the supreme pontiff, especially one like Leo X’”.  In a later writing, Luther commented on the letter, presuming Leo innocent and blaming the Dominicans – perhaps even those in Leo’s “curia” – for the false brief. (p. 66)  The pope had bad advisors.

By November 28, 1518, Luther is no longer appealing to a pope who should be better informed, but, as he said, a “legitimate future council assembled in a safe place” (p. 68).  Again, Luther cannot be considered a “conciliarist” though, as Hendrix reminds us a “council has long been part of his consensus of authorities” (p. 68)  He is not arguing that papal authority comes “from a council or that the council derives its authority from Christ”, but rather that, according to his “consensus principle of church authority”, papal decrees require the confirmation by a council.  Even then, “the verdict of a council must be supported by Scripture, the church fathers, and clear reason”.   He is resisting those who want to “make the pope’s decisions the exclusive principle of authority in the church” – not the pope himself (p. 69).

It was the man Luther debated on indulgences in Leipzig in July of 1519 – John Eck – who brought the matter of papal authority to the forefront, forcing the issue.  Again, ever since his 95 theses Luther had presented his arguments in such a way that he did not directly attack the Pope, but the “flatterers of the pope” – that is, those who in their ignorance of canon law would uphold the pope even when he contradicted Scripture.  At the time the traditional canonistic position was that the “objective authority of Scripture only supercedes that of the pope in the single instance when a pope has fallen into heresy and thus lost all authority” (p. 39) and neither Luther nor his colleagues had accused the pope of that.   Rather, for a long time Luther had been arguing using a point that his Wittenburg colleague, Andreas Karlstadt, had used in a debate (disputation) in Rome.  There Karlstadt had “opposed the infallibility of church councils by using the argument of the canon lawyer Panormitanu (Nikolaus de Tudeschis, d. 1445), that the judgment of an individual Christian in matters of faith, when based on Scripture, takes precedence over all other church authorities” (p. 38)  In the debate with Eck, Luther was forced to concede that Scripture must be the “norm according to which other authorities must be judged” (p. 88)  Hendrix states “with Eck’s help, Luther sought and found not the exclusiveness of Scripture, but the freedom of Scripture from false interpretations of human authorities”.  Luther: “the word of God is above all the words of men”. (p. 89)

Even if one does not accept Luther’s conclusion on the matter, one can hardly ignore the truth of what he said in his response to the papal court theologian Prierias, in August of 1518.  There, Luther noted the contemporary disagreement over the immaculate conception of Mary which Thomas and the Dominicans (of which Prierias was one) opposed even though the Church celebrated it.  Regarding the matter of indulgences, of which Luther was said to contradict the Church’s teachings, he asked why he should not be given the same privilege of disagreeing as long as a council had not ruled otherwise.  In other words, when Prierias wrote that “indulgences are not made known by the authority of Scripture but by the greater authority of the Roman Church and of the pope”, he himself was not being entirely consistent.

In sum, it is true that Lutherans would have only found a Council legitimate if it had ruled in accordance with the Word of God as it has come to be rightly (not perfectly) understood by what they know to be the true visible Church (which, in these last days, is a number Jesus Christ tells us that we can expect to be small).  The Dominicans may appear to have been vindicated hundreds of years after the fact with the acceptance of the immaculate conception, but I contend that Luther truly will be, even if, in these last days where the love of many grows cold, there are only a relative few who come to see the truth of his words regarding not only indulgences, but on the related issues of the penitential system as a whole, and the efficacy of the absolving word that delivers sure peace with God in particular. 

Part II coming in two days

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Posted by on November 4, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Timothy George’s confesssion about Luther (“never said before publicly”)

First Things recently re-posted something that the highly respected evangelical theologian and historian Timothy George wrote about the Reformation three years ago.

First of all, even though Dr. George speaks favorably of the Joint Declaration on Justification, he also says this:

“On these and many other issues related to authority and ecclesiology, the way forward is not to smudge over deep differences that remain between the two traditions but to acknowledge them openly and to continue to struggle over them together in prayer and in fresh engagement with the Scriptures. The way forward is an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation.”

A couple other quotes from his article:

On this Reformation Day, it is good to remember that Martin Luther belongs to the entire Church, not only to Lutherans and Protestants, just as Thomas Aquinas is a treasury of Christian wisdom for faithful believers of all denominations, not simply for Dominicans and Catholics.”


“Franz-Josef Bode, the Catholic Bishop of Osnabrück in northern Germany, when he preached on Luther at an ecumenical service[, said:]… “It’s fascinating… just how radically Luther puts God at the center.”


The triumph of grace in the theology of Luther was—and still is—in the service of the whole Body of Christ. Luther was not without his warts, and we can hardly imagine him canonized as a saint. (Remember: simul iustus et peccator!) But the question Karl Barth asked about him in 1933 is still worth pondering this Reformation Day: “What else was Luther than a teacher of the Christian church whom one can hardly celebrate in any other way but to listen to him?”

Recently, in an interview with Dr. Albert Mohler (about his new book Reading Scripture with the Reformers), Dr. George said the following:

I want to make a confession on your program here that I have never said before publicly. You know, I love Luther, and I love Calvin, and I probably would say even now, I am closer to Calvin than to Luther on most things. But, as I have gotten older and read more of both of them, I find myself drawn more and more back to Luther because I think Luther was the one great geniuses of the reformation. Calvin and others certainly built upon and extended and in some ways solidified his views. That is why if anything, you are right to say, “I tilt my head to Luther more than anybody else.” I think we probably have more to learn from him than anybody else.

Of course, readers of this blog know that I will heartily second Dr. George in his urging us to listen to Luther.  Likewise that we likely have more to learn from him than anyone else.  And yet, to truly learn like we should, I think it best to not only listen to what the man said but also to observe what he did.  I’m not so convinced that his actions were any less “saintly” than other great figures of church history.

Hence, my recent series, “The coming vindication of Martin Luther”.  Check it out the preface, and parts V and IV now (it is being posted in reverse order).

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Posted by on November 2, 2012 in Uncategorized


The coming vindication of Martin Luther – Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril, Maximus… Luther (part IV of V)

Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril, Maximus, Luther






Preface, Part V, Part IV, Part III, Part II, Part I

update: the first link below has been changed, linking to a paper by Pastor David Jay Webber

Athanasius and Augustine were two church fathers who, in their fight vs. heresy, found themselves needing to part with the Church’s past formulations of doctrine (see here)  In like fashion, Cyril of Alexandria found himself needing to create “novel” teachings.  In Olivier Clement’s “You are Peter” we also learn about Maximus:

“At [Maximus’s] behest, the pope convoked the Lateran Council in 649, which affirmed the full human freedom of Christ and which, for Maximus, had the weight of an ecumenical council… In the midst of this controversy, and when the support of Rome became clear, Maximus affirmed that Rome was ‘the head and metropolis of the churches,” “the ‘rock’ truly solid and unmoving… the greatest apostolic church.”

…But whenever Rome seemed to waver, ready to compromise, were it only by silence, the example of Maximus recalled that the pope’s confession of faith could never take the place of a personal act of faith.  The petrine charism cannot replace personal conscience, humble and courageous, based on the internal evidence of the Good News.  ‘Yesterday, the eighteenth of the month (April 658), on the day of mid-Pentecost, the patriarch [the new Pope Vitalian had just taken up again with Constantinople] spoke to me as follows: ‘To what church do you belong?  To the church of Constantinople?  To Rome?  To Antioch? To Alexandria?  To Jerusalem?  But they are all one.  If, then, you belong to the catholic Church, remain at one with it lest in taking a path other than the way of life you meet with something unforeseen.’  I said to him: ‘The catholic Church is the forthright and saving confession of faith in the God of the universe who showed this in proclaiming Peter blessed for confessing it forthrightly.

Thus it is Peter’s ‘forthright confession’ of faith that alone has the power to make him the ‘rock” on which Christ founded his Church.  Private conscience, informed by ecclesial communion, must, if need be, rise up in opposition, but its path should be that of martyrdom, not rebellion.  This is Paul, once again, ‘opposing [Peter] to his face, since he is manifestly in the wrong.’  It is a regrettable fact that the importance of Paul in defining the primacy of Rome diminished little by little until, in the sixteenth century, seeking to stem the tide of the Reformation which claimed the authority of the charismatic apostle, Rome denounced as heretical all those who stressed the equality of Peter and Paul.” (p. 36 and 37)

…one could say that the Church had several aerials for receiving what the Spirit had to say to her:

-The council as an expression of universal communion.

-The pope as being charged with care for this communion and watching over the Petrine and Pauline correctness of the faith.

-But also, the utilitas of the people of God, its ‘sense of the Church,’ which can express itself in times of major crisis through the witness, the martyrdom, of a lone prophet.  ‘Anyone who is not with me is not with the truth,’ exclaimed Maximus the Confessor when nearly everyone was content either to keep quiet or to compromise.  And Theodore the Studite, witness to orthodoxy during the second outbreak of iconoclasm and persecuted by the majority of bishops and the patriarch himself, affirmed most evangelically that ‘three believers who were united in the orthodox faith constitute the Church.’ (p. 54 and 55)

It is, in the end, an admirable complementarity, a providential collaboration between popes and councils.  The councils only achieved their full ecumenicity through the fruitful contribution of the Roman tomes, however freely debated and amended, through which both the West and the petrine charism expressed themselves.  If the councils had not been complemented in this way, the rule of faith by which we live could not have worked out.  Without the popes, more distanced from the political center of the empire and hence more independent (in which particular they joined hands with the monks), the ultimate transcendence of the Church could not have been preserved.

Each of the two structures, taken alone, can be seen to have failed.  Under Celestine the papacy vacillated, under Honorius and Vitalian it bent before the wind.  From the eighth century on, militarily abandoned by Byzantium, rescued from the Lombards by Carolingians, it fell back on the West, hardening its pretensions to the point of creating another emperor.  In this, too, the tension inherent in the Byzantine ‘symphony’ was replaced by a logic of another kind: the absorption by the ‘spiritual’ of the ‘temporal’.  Thus was the ground prepared for the schism between West and East.

For its part, the council could not prevent the tearing asunder of the Church in the ancient Christian lands of Egypt and Syria in the fifth and sixth centuries.  Clearly the dogma of Chalcedon was an immense accomplishment ; even today it is pushing back the horizons of Christian thought.  But how can one forget all those bishops in the Middle East who claimed that the new definition ran counter to Tradition?  Philoxenus of Mabbug, for example, who was no heedless theologian of little consequence, disputed the claim that the council had been ‘received’ by the entire Church, a reception which alone, for him, would have obliged acceptance of its decisions.  Who was right one might naively ask?  Choices are often influenced by geographical, social, cultural, even ethnic factors, but at this time in the East choices were also made according to conscience, as they would be in the West at the time of the pre-Reformation and Reformation, as Maximus the Confessor had made his at the decisive moment.  Conscience protects and justifies itself first though polemic.  Burrowing deeper over time, it seeks communion, so that it is today that Chalcedon (and Ephesus) can be universally received; it is today, too, that ways can be found of bridging the schism between Orthodox East and Catholic and Protestant West: not through compromise, but through a clearer discovery in the Holy Spirit of the original core of the message.

These schisms aside, the true greatness of the period of the ecumenical councils is precisely  that the power of decision rested with no one: neither pope, nor council, nor emperor, nor public feeling.  All thought they had the final word, which meant that no one had it except, rightly, the Holy Spirit.” (p. 56 and 57)

It is our task today, going beyond the words – words which ‘stick out their tongues at each other,’ as Antoine de Saint-Exupery said in Citadeelle – to reflect on the lived ecclesial experience of a period when, through compromise and miracles, tensions were resolved throughout the greater part of Christendom neither through forcible insertion, nor through violent schism, but after another fashion: and that was surely the free communication of personal consciences in the Holy Spirit.” (p. 58)

I note that words can surely do what Clement says they do.  On the other hand, we also know that God’s words to us are spirit and life – and that we live from every word that proceeds from His mouth.  Surely Maximus *the Confessor* , for one, was well aware of this: “The divine reading of the sacred Books reveals the counsels of the most holy God….  After they have heard it, they gather together among themselves in accordance with it, and in gratitude for their own salvation they offer their testimony; that is, they recite the divine Symbol of faith.”  (Translation by Thomas Spidlik, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, MI – Spencer, MASS, 1994).

Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril, Maximus, and Luther… these men stood strong with the Word of God.  To be sure, “internal evidence” and “personal conscience” “informed by ecclesial communion”, as Clement says… but always in captivity to the Word of God!

Part III coming in two days

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Posted by on November 2, 2012 in Uncategorized