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Luther: The Standard Story

It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that throughout the ages since the Reformation Luther has tended to be viewed primarily as the harbinger of an entirely new form of Christianity, standing in radical discontinuity with all preceding Christian tradition. On the standard reading, Luther “was haunted by a question for which traditional catholic Christianity could provide no answers.” This standard narrative posits that Luther’s primary problem – for which the church dividing Reformation was the inevitable answer – “was a deep sense of the inauthenticity of our works before God; thus Luther could find no lasting peace in the edifice of catholic faith and practice, organized as it was around sacramental practice, dogmatic faith, and mystical aspiration”. Thus, on the standard reading, what precipitated the Reformation for Luther was a virtually complete revolution in the very concept of Christianity itself. It is purported that in Luther we find instantiated a new form of Christianity that came to characterize protestant modernity. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the great saint of liberal Protestantism described the matter thusly,

In so far as the Reformation was not simply a purification and reaction from abuses which had crept in, but was the origination of a distinctive form of Christian communion, the antithesis between Protestantism and Catholicism may be provisionally conceived thus: the former makes the individual’s relation to the Church dependent on his relationship to Christ, while the latter makes the individual’s relation to Christ depended on his relation to the Church.

Such notions, which Schleiermacher refrains from pushing back into the intentions and actions of the Reformers themselves have come to be a rather common sensibility among both Protestants and Catholics in regard to what was really going on with Luther and the Reformation. This has unfortunately come to be a rather common ecumenical sentiment as well, leading to an unfortunate conundrum for discussing the ecumenical implications of Luther’s theology. Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) reflects the standard narrative of Luther and Protestantism in his argument that,

…according to Luther, the church can neither assume the certain guarantee for personal salvation nor decide definitely and compellingly on matters (that is, the content) of faith. On the other hand, to the Catholic, the church is central to the act of faith itself: only by communal belief do I partake of the certainty on which I can base my life. This corresponds to the Catholic view that church and Scripture are inseparable while, in Luther, Scripture becomes an independent measure of church and tradition. This in turn raises the question of the canonicity and the unity of Scripture.

As David Yeago notes, such a reading of Luther over against his contemporary Catholic milieu renders the conflict between the Reformer and the Roman Catholic hierarchy as in effect a conflict between two “different religions.” Ecumenically, this way of telling Luther’s story is in fact “quite conservative in its effects, even though it presents Luther as a radical, because it functions as a legitimation of things as they are; it makes the present division of the church seem normal and inevitable to us.” Ironically enough both liberal Protestants and conservative Catholics find themselves attracted to the standard narration of Luther as some sort of proto-modern individualist, precisely because such a characterization allows us to avoid asking more difficult questions about what exactly Luther was really up to and whether or not those of us who stand in the tradition of the Reformation are in fact being faithful to the theological and ecclesial vision of the first Reformer.


  1. Ben George wrote:

    Can we get a ref on the Ratzinger quote? And the Yeago quote?

    Wednesday, April 30, 2008 at 8:40 pm | Permalink
  2. Hill wrote:

    Check here for some links for Ratzinger on Luther. This was a big stir in the news recently.

    I think the portion Halden quotes has to be taken in the context noted by Aidan Nichols (quoted above, reproduced here):

    “[Ratzinger] finds two figures within the Wittenberg Reformer. First, there is the Luther of the Catechisms, the hymns and the liturgical reforms: and this Luther can be received by Catholics whose own biblical and liturgical revivals in this century reproduce many of Luther’s own criticisms of the late medieval Church. But besides this Luther there is also another: the radical theologian and polemicist whose particular version of the doctrine of justification by faith is incompatible with the Catholic understanding of faith as a co-believing with the whole Church, within a Christian existence composed equally of faith, hope, and charity”

    The impression I get from Ratzinger is that Luther simply can’t be understood as a theologian without understanding the specific contours of his life. I’ll be interested in seeing how this conference unfolds. I think Ratzinger is probably one of the most sympathetic readers of Luther that one will find among Catholic theologians, and it is fortunate for ecumenism generally that he is the current pope. Yeago has come highly recommended to me on this topic, but I haven’t had a chance to read his articles yet. I’d like a reference on that as well. Hopefully it’s not in Pro Ecclesia (no online version as far as I know).

    Wednesday, April 30, 2008 at 9:17 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    The Ratztinger quote is from:

    “Luther and the Unity of the Churches: An Interview with Jospeh Cardinal Ratzinger“, Communio 11, no. 3 (1984): 219.

    The Yeago quote:

    David S. Yeago, “The Catholic Luther”, in The Catholicity of the Reformation, Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 14, 16.

    You’d probably enjoy Yeago, Ben. He’s a great Luther scholar and his own work on ecclesiology is quite good. He has a handful of essays out there, many in Modern Theology.

    Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 2:21 am | Permalink
  4. Ben George wrote:

    Thanks yo!

    This post is a bit seredipitous, as I have been digging around in Luther stuff, having seen with sadness the rapid de-sacramentalization of the LCMS. (The whole Issues radio show cancelling foufaraw, Funny thing, I feel so bad for the LCMS, even though they are some of the strongest “anti-papists” around.)

    I am down for my objective-Presence homies.

    My feelings on Luther are conflicted–so much of what he said is right-on, but on the other hand he seems to be the one who let the demon of individual-interpretation (“autopapism”) out of the box. I realize that’s simplistic, but I don’t think it’s totally off-base.

    Oh Luther…

    Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 8:29 pm | Permalink
  5. xristocharis wrote:

    Though interestingly enough, Ben, Luther actually lamented at one point in his life something like “Now even the milk maids think they can interpret Scripture!”

    Luther, despite how my uber-conservative Baptist school tried to convince me of it, simply wasn’t the kind of Protestant that is like, well, Protestants.

    As many problems the man had with Rome, he seemed to have even bigger problems with people who went too far away from Rome.

    “I’d sooner drink blood with the pope than drink wine with the Swiss!” Was his typical fire-brand (read “assh*le”) remark to such things.

    I like Luther, and I like Luther precisely because Luther has had one of the biggest influences on me drawing me in closer to the historic, catholic faith. Luther was a Catholic, and even if he was deemed a heretic, from his perspective that never changed.

    Definitely too Catholic for the by-and-large “average” Protestant today, or at least for modern Western Fundagelicals.

    Friday, May 2, 2008 at 2:41 am | Permalink
  6. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Xristocharis, right on. Pelikan’s book on Luther (earlier his dissertation), Obedient Rebels: Catholic Substance and Protestant Principle makes a similar argument…the chapter on Luther’s battle with not only the papists but the “radical” reformers seems pertinent here (contra Karlstadt, et. al).

    Friday, May 2, 2008 at 7:05 am | Permalink
  7. Ben George wrote:

    Some confessional Lutheran churches have a more “Romish” liturgy than many RC churches!

    Does anyone know the view of the RC on the Eucharistic presence of Christ in Lutheran liturgy? I mean to say: The RCs recognize the EO eucharist as real. Do they recognize the Lutheran eucharist? (And conversely, what do Lutherans think of RC and EO eucharists?)

    Friday, May 2, 2008 at 7:33 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    To the best of my knowledge, the Lutherans are viewed by the Catholics as having not preserved the fullness of the Eucharistic ministry by virtue of not having preserved the sacrament of orders (with apostolic succession).

    There is, though the matter of the Swedish Lutheran church (Porvoo) which is episcopally ordered and claims apostolic succession. However, to the best of my knowledge Roem does not recognize the validity of their orders.

    Friday, May 2, 2008 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  9. Adam Morton wrote:

    The matter of Luther and interpretation of scripture is not one of the more widely understood aspects of his theology, I think, though it is one of the more widely opined-on. Having done some research on it myself, I can make a couple of points here which may suggest Luther to be an interesting conversation partner on this issue.

    First, there’s nothing wrong with saying that Luther supported either individual or communal interpretation of scripture, as long as that phrase is parsed correctly. Specifically, replace the “of” with “by” and you get the sense of Luther much better. The human being, either individually or communally, could never stand over the Word of God for Luther. The Church is a creature of the Word, not its master. Just so for every human being. So the direction of this interpretation must always be kept in mind–Word and Spirit are active, and the human would-be subject is the one rendered passive.

    Therefore, the whole Christian life is a matter of being interpreted by the Word, coming under its power. This explains Luther’s “rule” for doing theology (find this in the preface to the 1539 Wittenberg edition of Luther’s German writings, vol. 34 of the American edition of Luther’s Works): oratio (prayer), meditatio (contemplation, but this is a public and intersubjective activity, not merely a private introspective one), tentatio (spiritual attack or anfechtung). In this, the human receives the Spirit through the Word and who gives understanding (not to be understood in a pure cognitive sense–faith is the better term, if that can be grasped in terms of the whole life) of the Word, wrestles with it, and comes under attack such that every other hope or possibility is torn away and he may cling only to the Word. In this sense, the movement of the human from death to resurrection in Christ is precisely a matter of interpretation–the Word of law interprets me as dead, and the promise interprets me as alive in him.

    Last, the way Luther develops this “rule” of interpretation (with reference to Psalm 119, from which he derives it) makes it clear that he sees it not as a post-Biblical innovation but as description of the relationship between the human being and the Word since the beginning. That is, Luther claims that David (that is, the psalmist) and all the other biblical authors and saints and patriarchs and so on operated according to this rule. What this means is that the psalms themselves, scripture itself, is the Word of God poured into text as the expression of the interpretation of the author by that same Word. This is no theory of inerrancy, but a doctrine of the Word handed over to sinful human beings (and therefore made flesh), living and effective from the beginning.

    So no, Luther was no Protestant in the modern sense. He’s much closer to the monastic tradition on this issue, though radically refining it. And, interestingly enough, incompatible with almost everybody these days. We all want to be masters of the Word, rather than his servants.

    Friday, May 2, 2008 at 10:36 am | Permalink
  10. Adam Morton wrote:

    And anyhow, in case it didn’t come through, very interesting post, Halden.

    Friday, May 2, 2008 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Thanks, Adam. Your comments are very good as well.

    Friday, May 2, 2008 at 11:15 am | Permalink

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. A Great Post on Luther. « on Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 7:26 am

    [...] May 1, 2008 · Filed under Historical Theology &#183 Tagged Catholic Church, Historical Theology, Luther, Martin Luther, Reformation Often times when you hear a lesson at Paradox you will hear us quoting this guy named Luther. For those who don’t have not much historical theology Inhabitatio Dei puts ups a great post on Luther. Read the entire post HERE. [...]

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