Tag: Martin Luther

“Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”

So opines an article by Ed Kilgore in New York Magazine on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On a variety of issues, the two camps have moved closer together theologically (see, for example, our article “Protestants and Catholics Celebrate Agreement on Justification”). Protestants have warmed toward some of the church’s historic liturgies and practices (such as the increasing popularity of observing Lent). The Roman Catholics have had their own internal reformations both in response to Luther in the 1600’s, and more recently with the reforms instituted by the Vatican II council.

Catholics have by and large embraced what might have previously been considered distinctly Protestant practices, like the use of vernacular languages in worship, personal Bible study (again, in the language of the reader rather than Latin), congregational singing of hymns, etc; and they have shed some of the more egregious practices that rankled Protestants (and also internal critics), such as the selling of indulgences. And as the article points out, “Moreover, virtually all Christians have abandoned some of the more unsavory habits of thought and deed they once shared, from aggressive anti-Semitism to active state-sanctioned persecution of “heretics.”

Today, the real divide is within denominations more than between them. “The difference among Christians these days tend to break along a left-right rather than a Catholic-Protestant spectrum,” says Kilgore.

The NY magazine article quotes Atlantic writer Emma Green, who observes the same shifts in an essay entitled “Why Can’t Christians Get Along, 500 Years After the Reformation?“.

Historian Mark Noll of Notre Dame notes that Catholics and Protestants have come closer together. “In my lifetime, there has been a sea change in Protestant-Catholic relations, opening up an unimaginable array of cooperation.”

Yet these denominations are beginning to fracture over LGBTQ issues and more fundamental disagreements between traditional Christians, especially in places like Africa, and the intellectual elites in the west who embrace a more worldly and progressive stance. In reaction,

A growing number of Christians are organizing themselves based on ideological convictions, rather than a shared confessional tradition. “As a lot of denominational traditions are experiencing pressure and even fracture,” said Noll, “so also [is] interdenominational cooperation amongst like-minded people growing in leaps and bounds.”

Luther, on trial for his life at the Diet of Worms, refused to recant his writings. Here is the famous conclusion of his speech, as determined by Reformation Scholar Keiko Olbermann:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”

(Luther is often quoted as saying “Here I stand, I can do no other.” While stirring, this is felt by most Luther scholars to be spurious).

See Christianity Today article “What Luther Said“.

On the approach to the 500th year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, some major efforts have been made to bridge the theological divide. In July, the World Council of Reformed Churches (WCRC) joined the Lutheran World Federation, Roman Catholics, and the World Methodist Council in accepting a common view of the doctrine of justification, one of the key issues of contention between the parties. The Anglicans have passed affirming resolutions in the Anglican Consultative Council, and in the Church of England’s general synod. The Archbishop of Canterbury plans to spend Halloween celebrating the accord during a service at Westminster Abbey on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s revolt. (See article from Christian Today.)

The Protestant understanding of justification states that we are saved through faith alone (“sola fide”) by God’s grace alone (“sola gratia”). No human cooperation is of any merit. This was central to Martin Luther’s teaching.

The Roman Catholic Church grappled with this idea and soundly rejected it in the 16th century Council of Trent:

Canon IX: If anyone says that the ungodly is justified by faith alone in such a way that he understands that nothing else is required which cooperates toward obtaining the grace of justification . . . let him be condemned.

At the heart of the new agreement is an attempt to formulate a statement on justification to which both parties can assent. As a Jesuit publication, American Magazine, summarized:

The Joint Declaration effectively closes the centuries-old “faith versus works” debate by merging the Lutheran and Catholic views on salvation rather than setting them against each other.
“By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part,” its key passage said, “we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.”

The Catholic church states that the anathemas in the 16th century Council of Trent do not apply to Protestants who agree with the Joint Declaration.

The Joint Declaration is not without criticism from both sides. One need not look too far to find Catholics who feel that this betrays the Catholic doctrines advocated in the 16th century Council of Trent. One example is the theologian Dr. Christopher Malloy of the University of Dallas:

“In fact, I am quite concerned that many people–even many Catholics and perhaps some of those who have recently become Catholic–are under the misimpression that, since the JD, Catholicism now holds that humans stand just before God by “faith” apart from charity and apart from observance of the commandments. Many high-caliber theologians have contended that Catholicism has changed some of its dogmas on justification. Catholics are rightly horrified”.

Furthermore, he is concerned about the diverse views held by Lutherans:

“We do not have a consensus of interpretation on the very identity of Lutheranism. Therefore, the JD’s claim to reconcile Lutheran and Catholic positions on justification begs the question: Which Lutheranism?”
(Source: 2007 interview by Ignatius Insight).

A very good summary of the issues, and criticism of the accord can be found in a 1999 essay penned by the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, entitled “Two Languages of Salvation: The Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration.”

On the Protestant side, there is considerable dissent as well. The more conservative Lutheran and Reformed bodies (such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) have repudiated it. In an essay entitled “Betrayal of the Gospel” Paul McLain charges,

“In fact, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is a fraud. It was a sell-out by revisionist Lutherans to Rome.”

In the end, this accord is largely a symbolic gesture, but then symbols do matter. It is encouraging that the heirs of the disagreement that so bitterly raged centuries ago have agreed to seek common ground and soften their condemnations of each other. I don’t foresee Protestants and Catholics achieving institutional unity, as a great many other serious issues divide us.

Still, I might echo the statement of a prominent evangelical (who was recalling a similar rapprochement between evangelicals and Catholics):

“There is enough commonality that evangelicals and Catholics with a living faith can recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ with a common Lord and common grace that brought them together.”
(Dean of Beeson Divinity School, Timothy George, quoted in Christianity Today).

(A 13th-century fresco of Sylvester and Constantine, showing the purported Donation. Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome; public domain)

Someone at a satellite music channel has declared March to be “Bible appreciation month”. Of course, we ought to appreciate (and read and study) those remarkable writings year round. I am going to stray a bit to comment on one of the ways the Bible has been studied and scrutinized, namely the discipline of textual criticism. Textual criticism entails the careful examination and comparison of manuscripts and copies. I was recently reminded of one of the earliest examples of textual criticism, being used to demonstrate that a medieval document was a forgery.

In the western half of the Roman Empire, as the remnants of political power crumbled into the chaos of the “dark ages”, the papacy emerged as an energetic contender. The bishop of Rome had originally been one among many sources of authority within the church in the immediate post-apostolic period. His power grew over time, and the Pontiff began to claim temporal authority as well as spiritual primacy.

Pope Innocent III (1160-1216) had this humble impression of his role as not just a spiritual leader, but as one to whom kings are subject:

Just as the founder of the universe established two great lights in the firmament of heaven, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night, so too He set two great dignities in the firmament of the universal church…, the greater one to rule the day, that is, souls, and the lesser to rule the night, that is, bodies. These dignities are the papal authority and the royal power. Now just as the moon derives its light from the sun and is indeed lower than it in quantity and quality, in position and in power, so too the royal power derives the splendor of its dignity from the pontifical authority…
(Letter to the prefect of Aserbius and the nobles of Tuscany, available online at this Fordham University site).

By the end of the 13th century Pope Boniface IV was claiming ultimate authority on earth. His papal bull Unam Sanctam insisted that

“We are informed by the texts of the gospels that in this Church and in its power are two swords; namely, the spiritual and the temporal.”

And of course, the papacy claimed both. The document concluded:

“Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.

(The text may be read here.)

I might pause and note that Boniface was unable to wield anything like the power he claimed to have. In his dispute with King Phillip IV of France, whom he excommunicated, he ultimately lost out to such an extent that mercenaries loyal to Phillip attacked his palaces at Anagni and kidnapped the pontiff, nearly killing him. Although he survived, he died just a few weeks later, in October 1303. Upon reading of the “two swords” in the Bull, one of Philip’s ministers is alleged to have remarked, “My master’s sword is steel; the Pope’s is made of words” (Ruggio 51).

One of the sources upon which this kind of papal authority and power was justified is the so-called “Donation of Constantine.” This document appears to have been “discovered” conveniently in the ninth century. The document purports to be by the emperor Constantine the Great in 315, and “donates” the western empire, including Rome and all lands to its west, to Sylvester, bishop of Rome, supposedly out of thanks for curing him of leprosy at his baptism. (Portions of the Latin and English texts may found at Hanover.edu).

The Renaissance, with its flourishing of scholarship in ancient latin texts, spelled the end of this forgery. In 1440, the priest and humanist scholar Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457), in De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamatio, demonstrated that the donation was a more recent forgery (text available here). To be fair, by the time of Valla, the document was no longer as important as it had been in prior centuries.


Valla began his discourse by noting that Constantine wasn’t the sort to enter into this kind of agreement, and furthermore all of the historical evidence would suggest that he continued to reign over the western Roman Empire, while there is no evidence that Sylvester had done so. He then analyzed the language of the document, showing that terms used, such as “satrap” were not from the 3rd century, but rather much later in the 8th century. The terms “consul” and “patrician” were misused in a clumsy way that would not have happened in ancient Rome. There is reference to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, at a time when the city of Byzantium was neither the seat of a patriarchate nor even yet renamed “Constantinople.” His other arguments can be read in the site which was linked at the end of the previous paragraph.

The work of Valla did much to fuel the anti-papacy furor of the Protestant Reformers. The work was apparently read by Martin Luther in 1519. He described his reaction to discovering the truth about the forgery to his friend Spalatin:

I have at hand Lorenzo Valla’s proof (edited by Hutten) that the Donation of Constantine is a forgery. Good heavens! what a darkness and wickedness is at Rome! You wonder at the judment of God that such unauthentic, erass, impudent lies not only lived but prevailed for so many centuries, that they were incorporated in the Canon Law, and (that no degree of horror might be wanting) that they became as articles of faith. I am in such a passion that I scarecely doubt that the Pope is the Antichrist expected by the world, so closely do their acts, lives, sayings, and laws agree. (Martin Luther, Letter to Spalatin, Feb. 24, 1520., as recounted in epistole blog).

In 1534, Valla’s work was translated by William Marshall for Thomas Cranmer in England, where it was used to bolster claims of independence of the English church (Parrish, 119).

For further reading:

  • “Donation of Constantine” in Wikipedia
  • Pearse, Roger. “The Donation of Constantine”, online at his blog, Tertullian.org.
  • “The Donation of Constantine” in Catholic Encyclopedia, online at newadvent.org.
  • Lorenzo Valla,
    Discourse on the Forgery
    of the Alleged Donation of Constantine
    , In Latin and English translation by Christopher B. Coleman
    (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1922). Available online at Hanover College
  • Whitford, David. “The Papal Antichrist: Martin Luther and the Underappreciated Influence of Lorenzo Valla”, Renaissance Quarterly, 61 (2008): 26-52; abstract online here)
  • Lorenzo Valla, a review of his life and works online at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.