Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Luther's Belief in Papal Authority, Purgatory and Other Shockers in the 95 Theses: "Celebrating" Reformation Day

Today is not just Halloween (check out my post and podcast on Ghosts and Saints in Scripture and Catholic Teaching here), it is also "Reformation Day". Today Protestants celebrate Martin Luther's nailing of 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.

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.

For example, Henry VIII  had opposed the Reformation, writing a famous defense of the Seven Sacrament (pictured right). He was even given the title Fidei Defensor ("Defender of the Faith") by the pope! However, when the pope refused to recognize his divorce and remarriage--which had major political implications for him--he switched sides.

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 [2010]: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 [1995]: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!


Bryan said...

Happy Reformation Day?! Happy All Hallows' Eve!

Anonymous said...

Happy Reformation Day?!? We can't celebrate sin. To speak of the Protestant Revolt as something to be "Happy" over is denying all of the souls which have been lead astray over the centuries by the establishment Protestant Doctrine. This is not to say that Luther did not have some good points. However, Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide have lead to over 30,000+ Christian Ecclesial Communities outside of communion with the only Church that Christ established. We must not cease to proclaim The One True Faith of Catholicism that our Blessed Lord established. One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic

Dwain and Amanda said...

It is obvious that later Luther's views on the authority of the Pope changed. He called the pope an "ass" and believed him to be an anti-christ. So, I find this post to be more than a little misleading.

He was a faithful Catholic even a while after posting the 95 theses. So if you are going to make a statement about what Luther believed about the Pope you would have to also look at his later beliefs. If my memory serves me correct he held to a high view of Mary even late in his life, so that is one thing I believe is correct even late in his life.

Sili said...

Your troll amuses me in their certainty of their own rectitude.

Anonymous said...

One must separate reverence for an office from believing in the moral rectitude of a holder of that office. In the USA, the Presidency is recognized as an important office with certain powers. Not every holder of that office (e.g. Harding, Nixon) is necessarily righteous in all his actions. Dante Aligheri describes his vision of locations in Hell for some of the bishops and popes of the 1200s - 1300s.
Similarly, Luther may have (at least in 1517) recognized powers inherent in the Papacy without necessarily considering the current holders of those powers as being in the State of Grace a/c personal sins.

Anonymous said...

This post is deeply misleading. Luther's views changed dramatically after this, his first public announcement of his criticisms of some of Roman Catholic faith. Anyone who reads the primary sources knows this. Reconciliation between churches requires honesty and not self-congratulatory criticism of another communion.

Anonymous said...

Good article. As a confessional Lutheran, I appreciate its tone. And I 'celebrate' this occasion with the same spiritual posture I assume Catholics take on a feast day for any martyr.

Simple question: was the Church in need of reform during this point in her history? (undoubtedly)

Was there ego, hubris, and rashness indulged by both Luther and Rome? (yep)

Is the Reformation the first divergence in Church history? (no, and for the record, neither was the Schism of 1054)

Most Catholics I meet have a favorable impression of Luther and his intentions/efforts and place him (and his remarks) in their appropriate historical and cultural context.

Reunification begins with dialogue. Dialogue facilitates understanding, and understanding is informed by reading primary sources.

Thanks for the call to get educated!

Cassandra said...


You're taking these theses out of context. Luther was calling for a debate on these points. By placing statements that apparently support papal authority in a list of debatable items, Luther is hardly upholding the teaching.

Anonymous said...

I was raised Protestant and I believed the canned answers they gave me about Catholicism. Until I started attending a Catholic Church and found those canned answers to be far from the truth. When I began reading the Church Fathers I found they have been fighting against heretics since day 1. Reading the Church Fathers brings this whole argument into perspective. Sure reform was needed, but the split did not resolve anything.

Anonymous said...

To be "celebrating Reformation Day" rather than " 'celebrating' Reformation Day" invites one to specify what actual 'reforms' followed fairly directly from Luther's actions.

What (if anything) justified 'then', 'there', and 'in that way', against charges of rashness?

For recognition of the need for 'reforms' was widespread and of long-standing, though full of diasgreements as to all sorts of specifics. (Which made it hard in practice for such reformers as Pope Hadrian VI!)

And 'counter-reformation' is, as the Concise Oxford Dictionary puts it, "Reformation running counter to another" (though one might consider adding 'attempt(s) at' before "another", "Reformation", or both).

Another matter worth pursuing would be the history of the celebration of "Reformation Day", considering how quickly 'Reformers' were effectively at war with each other. Luther's attack on Karlstadt in 1522 for doing what the latter thought was in the spirit of the former in his absence, is not even the earliest example. And then there is the failure of Marburg in October 1529. And the grotesque-sounding tract, 'Des scandales' (1550) by Calvin which seems to have introduced a 'progressivist' critique allowing easy, selective dismissal of those from the 'dawn' of a 'Reformation' which had now reached its 'noon'!

Anonymus II

Rob B. said...

First, it is instructive to note that the Ninety-Five Theses are neither statements affirming or denying anything. They are essentially debate topics that Luther is proposing. Just the fact that he was proposing such topics was somewhat problematic.

Second, I agree that most Protestants don't actually read Luther. At my school, I teach the Reformation to tenth graders (mostly Protestants and evangelicals) who think that Luther is heroic. When they actually read texts like his Letter to the German Nobility, they often note that he sounds like a real jerk. Then they read his work denying the freedom of the will... :)

Brad said...

Luther's flawed theology shows through. "Violat(ing) the Mother of God?" OK, by whatever he meant by that, let's just take it at face value. This is merely an alternate example of the same tired old trope that's constantly asked of Catholic apologists: are Hitler's sins forgivable? To which anyone which a true and safe knowledge of God's mercy replies, yes, they are. God's mercy is for the asking. The unforgivable sin is the unrepentant sin. Our Lord saw each and every sin, and all of those sins combined into one horror, in the Garden. He assented to suffering for every outrage, even the outrageous outrages, and offered his redemption for all of them. To doubt the power, the completeness of it, of the pardoning mercy of God, via his ordained ministers, of which the Holy Father is one of them, is witheringly hard-hearted. Consider, O man, the source of the mercy: the voluntarily-spilled blood of the Lamb, Who knew what He was doing. Papal pardons can forgive anything, but not because they are papal (they are merely God's mercy flowing through a regular and divinely-appointed channel). Because intra tua vulnera absconde me.

Jesus, I trust in you.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the criticisms of this article made in the com box. I only add that politics is a consideration with Rome as well. He who throws stones shouldn't live in glass houses. Just because politics is a consideration doesn't mean the expression of theology is necessarily tainted with hypocrisy.


fact said...

I hear that commenters assert that these selected theses do not reflect what luther believed later in life. ok. so which luther had it right? the earlier one, the later one, the much later one? if he had lived another 100 years and his opinions evolved, should we agree with THAT luther?

This is the problem with private interpretation rather than following the Magisterium that Jesus has invested in his church. One is left with one's personal papacy and 30,000+ splits in the body that Jesus prayed should be ONE.

Shan said...

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Anonymous said...

Martin Luther originally broke with the Roman Catholic Church because they forced him out. For the previous 500 years the Papacy had held that it
"can do no wrong." to quote pope Gregory VII upon hearing about the battle of hastings however scripture gives examples of the Apostle Paul correcting the first pope, the Apostle Peter. When Luther came along at first he was trying to reform the church he was in. When they cast him out he continued to preach that reform which ultimately led to Prodestantism.