In contrast to the standard story, Luther advocated a manifestly high and vibrant ecclesiology, indeed an ecclesiology which is thoroughgoingly catholic and evangelical, being firmly rooted in the great tradition of the church, particularly attuned to patristic sources.
Despite the way in which the later tradition of Protestant modernity came to see the doctrine of justification by faith as elevating the interior religious experience of the individual to the center of the faith, for Luther the doctrine of justification by faith was not understood as relegating salvation to an inner transaction between the individual and God, but rather was Luther’s attempt to recover the reality of the church as that body which purely receives and only subsequently mediates salvation. As such, salvation, for Luther does not consist “only in a spiritual act that occurs in deep solitude and with full mental clarity” as Karl Heim would have it. Rather it consists in being incorporated by the Spirit into the church, the body of Christ, God’s “Christian holy people” (“On the Councils and the Church” in Selected Writings of Martin Luther 1529-1546, ed. by Theodore G. Tappert [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007], 335.) Salvation by grace alone, for Luther was not the flight of the alone to the alone, but rather induction into a people. Christian salvation, for Luther is a distinctly social reality in which participation in the life of the visible church through the Word, the Sacraments and cruciform discipleship is at the very center of the Christian mystery.
What is central here is Luther’s primary depiction of the church as God’s holy people. For Luther’s mature ecclesiology it is the reality of the church as a gathered community of saints who together live under the command of God that is soteriologically important. It is into this reality that Christians are baptized and in and through which they are sanctified (CC, 336). Luther’s emphasis on the holiness of the people of God is a correlate of Luther’s real soteriological concern that drove him throughout his life. As Yeago points out, the notion of the young Luther who suffered egregiously from a troubled conscience, longing for a gracious God is not confirmed by a close reading of Luther’s early writings. “The troubling question that emerges from the preoccupations of the young Luther’s thought is not ‘How can I get a gracious God?’ but ‘Where can I find the real God?’ All the evidence in the texts suggests that it was the threat of idolatry, not a craving for assurance of forgiveness, that troubled Luther’s conscience if anything did.” Such an evaluation accords well with the themes that come from Luther’s earlier treatises in his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology and his Heidelberg Disputation in which the reality of the true God over against either the God of Aristotle and the Scholastics or a theology of the cross over against a theology of glory are the central themes.
Thus, the central ecclesiological question for Luther involved how the true church of the true God, his “Christian holy people” might be identified in the world. Luther’s dispute with the Roman hierarchy of his day was not in any sense based on a rejection of a strong notion of the church or catholicity, but rather on the conviction that the church catholic had been betrayed and duped by a corrupt ecclesiastical bureaucracy which had become apostate. The loss of the true God for which the early Luther sought had brought about the loss of the true form of the church as God’s holy people. Luther’s ecclesiology, far from subordinating the church to the individual is in fact a clarion call to return to a radically ecclesial form of life in which the central practices of the church mark and shape the lives of all Christians, for it is in and through these visible practices that, according to Luther, we are sanctified.
This is precisely the ecclesiology that Luther articulates in his treatise On the Councils and the Church. Such an ecclesiology poses a distinctive challenge both to contemporary Roman Catholic ecclesiology (which of course is to be radically distinguished from the Roman Catholic milieu of Luther’s day) and to the Free Church tradition deriving from the Radical Reformation. In engaging Luther’s ecclesiology, such a mutually critical and illuminative dialogue offers great promise to the contemporary ecclesial and ecumenical scene in which fragmentation and polarization seems to be the order of the day. Ironically enough, it may well be that the very Reformer who is alleged to have shattered Christendom into a thousand pieces may be instrumental in fostering the sort of “patient and fraternal dialogue” that is desperately needed in ecumenical discussions, both at a global and local level.