But I wonder how closely Protestants actually have read these. Did you know that Luther affirms the pope's authority to remit sins in them? That he affirms that God uses priests to communicate his forgiveness?
I'm even more surprised that Protestants still celebrate these! People don't read primary texts and that's a shame.
Of course, I think there's a lot of misrepresentation / misunderstanding here of Catholic teaching and practice. Indeed, even Protestant scholars today seem to recognize that Luther had some pretty big gaps in his understanding of Catholic teaching.
Still, the 95 Theses--which my Protestant friends are celebrating--contain numerous statements they would surely not celebrate. Let's take a look.
The Pope as God's Agent
"6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God's remission; though, to be sure, he may grant remission in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in such cases were despised, the guilt would remain entirely unforgiven." [emphasis added]In sum, Luther affirms that the pope can only remit guilt because God has granted him such authority. To deny "his right to grant remission in such cases . . . the guilt would remain. . . "
As a Catholic, I say, "Amen"!
Also, check out Thesis 9, which affirms that the Holy Spirit works through the pope.
"9. Therefore the Holy Spirit in the pope is kind to us, because in his decrees he always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity." [emphasis added]
I doubt many today are celebrating Luther's "courageous" statement in Thesis 39 either:
"39. Nevertheless, the remission and participation [in the blessings of the Church] which are granted by the pope are in no way to be despised, for they are, as I have said, the declaration of divine remission." [emphasis added]
Theses 61 also affirms the pope's power:
- "61. For it is clear that for the remission of penalties and of reserved cases, the power of the pope is of itself sufficient." [emphasis added]
God's Use of the Priest and the Pope
Luther also affirms that God remits sins by subjecting sinners to his vicar, the priest.
"7. God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest." [emphasis added]
Thesis 26: Purgatory and the "The Pope Does Well"
"26. The pope does well when he grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the power of the keys (which he does not possess), but by way of intercession." [emphasis added]Obviously, this does not reflect my own understanding, but I wonder: how many Protestants are today celebrating Luther's affirmation that the pope does well when he grants forgiveness to souls in purgatory?
He also affirms the power of indulgences:
64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first. [emphasis added]
Luther's Anathema on Those Who Speak Against Apostolic Pardons
Luther even pronounces an anathema upon anyone who denies the bishop's authority to grant an apostolic pardon.
- 69. Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of apostolic pardons, with all reverence.
71. He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed! [emphasis added]
Luther's Reverence for Mary
Luther also warns that some sins cannot be remitted by papal pardon. In Thesis 75 he specifically mentions sins against Mary as among them:
"75. To think the papal pardons so great that they could absolve a man even if he had committed an impossible sin and violated the Mother of God -- this is madness."To be clear, Catholics would affirm that indulgences are meaningless without repentance; actually one cannot gain an indulgence without that.
Luther's Warning: Don't Go Against the Pope
Near the end, Luther explains as follows:
"91. If, therefore, pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved; nay, they would not exist."
The Reformation and Politics
So what really happened with the Reformation? How did Luther go from these statements to rejecting the pope as the anti-Christ?
Some will say that Luther's early work was necessarily less harsh in its criticism of Catholicism. Luther, it will be claimed, had to be political given the climate. But why then affirm that Luther's later views were less politically motivated? Think about it.
Let's be honest: the reason the Reformation took off had a lot more to do with politics than it did with careful theological argumentation.
My friend Jeff Morrow, a brilliant Catholic scholar who himself converted to the Catholic Church after years of study, makes the case for the political fuel of the Reformation in a recent article ("The Politics of Biblical Interpretation: A 'Criticism of Criticism'", New Blackfriars 91/1035 :1-18).
Among other things, Morrow cites the work of Travis Frampton:
". . . the Reformation was, at heart, politically engendered. What were the protests of Magisterial Reformers, if not political? Did Catholicism or Protestantism represent the kingdom of God on earth—and if the latter, which of its divergent forms would be representative? What part were churches of the Reformation to have in the numerous, reli- giously disparate European states? In the end, were leaders like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin satisfied with the Catholic Church, wanting only to reform church practice and dogma? Why did so many Lutheran and Reformed churches vie against Catholicism—and at times against each other—in order to become the established church of the (repre- sentative) state? Certainly the vision of Protestants did not exclude the political sphere!" (Travis Frampton, Spinoza and the Rise of Historical Criticism [New York: T & T Clark, 2006], 13).Drawing from William T. Cavanugh ("A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House': The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State," Modern Theology 11/4 :400-1), he explains:
". . . here it is interesting to note that the regions of Europe which remained Catholic through the Reformation had prior concordats that limited the pope’s authority in their realms. Meanwhile, the Protestant Reformation was most successful in realms where there were no such means of limiting the pope’s reach" (Morrow, 7).That latter point is seldom recognized, but I think it is a hugely significant observation.
So I suppose it is appropriate that we are celebrating Reformation Day as we gear up for a big political election.
I can't re-fight all the battles here, but I do urge everyone to actually read the primary texts and to listen to people from different perspectives. It can be really illuminating!
Happy Reformation Day!