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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