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.