Yesterday was the 500th of Martin Luther saying, “Here I stand, I can do no other unless convinced by Scripture and plain reason. God help me.”
To hear tell, social media was rife with Lutherans crowing and Romans, crowing in turn. Sculptures and woodcuts of sacred figures casting Luther out of Heaven or ushering him into Hell adorned my twitter feed.
I consider it a credit to my social media curating that I only saw a handful of the adornments, and almost none of the crowing.
Whenever my position, which is “Lutheran”, comes up, I get commentary from my Roman friends who either explain patiently why Luther was a terrible person, or else offer him as much grace as possible, but patiently explain why Luther was terribly wrong. In my youth, I frequently got into such arguments with atheists over the basic facts of history (namely that Christ arose), and I never demurred until I was content than an objective viewer would see I had clearly beaten the pants off my opposition. But I frequently demure when it comes to defending Luther and his ideas. There are two reasons for this: a greater, and a lesser. Today I would like to concern myself primarily with the lesser. But let us first briefly (ha!) address the greater reason.
I don’t actually give two figs what Luther said or did.
When reading through the Encyclopedia of Catholicism, one of their entries, I’m not sure if it was on some Lutheran thing, or on the Lord’s Supper, commented that Luther believed that the Sacrament of the Altar does not confer forgiveness of sins.
Now, I cannot with 100% confidence, tell you that this is false. I think it is false. I can assure you that if I go to my priest, he will tell me it is false. But even if it is true, it doesn’t matter.
The Scripture says “This is the new covenant in my blood, shed for the forgiveness of your sins.”
I believe the sacrament forgives sins.
Every church with which I commune teaches that the sacrament forgives sins.
Now, I suspect that Luther also, at least at one point in his life, believed that the sacrament forgives sins, because Luther wrote two catechisms that teach this very thing. And the Lutheran churches preserve these two catechisms in our book of Concord, where we lay out our dogmas and our arguments for them.
But let us suppose Luther wrote these things by mistake and actually taught what the encyclopedia claims. Or perhaps he later changed his mind, and the teachings he finally settled upon are not the teachings the Lutheran church has preserved.
Luther is not now and was not then the Pope of Lutheranism.
The fundamental distinction between the Lutheran church and Rome is our views of authority. The Father has given all authority in Heaven and on Earth to the Son. On this, all the churches agree. The Son has given Magisterial Authority to His Apostles. On this, all the churches agree.
From here there are three positions. The Enthusiasts believe that Magisterial authority was passed on to their whims, the stirrings in their guts, and to divinatory arts. Rome and the East believe that Magisterial authority persists in the teaching office of the Church. And the Lutherans believe that it died with Apostles, making the record of their teachings the final authority. This position is called “Sola Scriptura,” and it boggles my mind that a Roman will one minute attack Sola Scriptura (fair enough, as this is actually our stance), and the next minute tell me that Luther was a bad faith actor.
We didn’t call ourselves Lutherans. That’s your term for us. We went with “Evangelical” (although, sadly, the term was already taken by the time we made it to America). Every church names itself with a name that means “We’re the True Church.” Rome calls themselves Catholic. The Greeks say they are Orthodox. And the Concordians claim to be Evangelical. Well, Christ’s church is Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical. If (as I suspect) the Lutherans are correct, it is because they are catholic. If, as my homies insist, Rome is correct, it is because they are evangelical.
The proper parallels to calling the church of the Book of Concord “Lutheran” is calling the church of Rome “Papist”. Which I hold to be true, but I do not actually use the term because I do not expect to win converts by needlessly pissing in the wheaties of my brethren. I favor the term “Roman” because it is not primarily an insult and yet neither does it concede the argument.
We are men, and not the children of antifa. We have better arguments than naming ourselves “the good guys” and insisting everyone else is the bad guys by virtue of our self-chosen name.
And the name “Lutheran” obscures the nature of the Lutheran churches, specifically, that they do not count themselves beholden to Luther’s words and actions any more than they count themselves beholden to the Bishop of Rome.
And now I turn to the point of this post. The lesser issue.
Do you actually think I believe that?
Here’s the thing. For every attack on Luther, there exists an answer. I presume, for every answer there is also a rebuttal, and a rebuttal to the rebuttal. This argument has been going on for half a millennium, after all.
Luther said “Sin boldly”? He was being bombastic and hyperbolic, and his instruction taken in context cannot be read as an endorsement of sin. Luther added the phrase “Apart from works” to a specific Bible passage in his translation? That translation was not unique or original to Luther; Aquinas had also used it. Luther was antisemitic? You do realize that On the Jews and their Lies was a tit for tat answer to On the Christians and their Lies, right?
500 or so years ago, when these arguments were first spun up, somebody was arguing in bad faith. Given human nature, there was likely multiple bad faith actors, even on whichever side was correct. These days, however, the stories are passed on in good faith. Your Roman priest is not lying when he says Luther said A, B, or C, and neither is my Lutheran priest lying when he rebuts by saying Luther actually said X, Y, or Z. They are both passing on to their sheep what they learned in good faith from their teachers.
And this is why I demure. Because the argument proceeds at this point on a he-said/she-said basis. You tell me in good faith what your priest told you in good faith. I tell you, in good faith, what my priest told me in good faith.
The natural rebuttal from Rome is, “well, my priest is validly ordained, whereas yours was falsely appointed by a heretical sect.” But don’t you see? This is ultimately the very point under contention. We would not care about Luther’s teachings or character unless we were considering which church is, indeed, orthodox.
You will not convince me by loading your conclusion into your premises.
The proper step at this point, then, is to turn to the original source material. To read Luther and his foes in their context. Ideally, in the original German and Latin.
And this I will not do. Mostly, because I don’t have the time. Partly because I really, really dislike the German language. And partly because, as I wrote above, Luther is not the pope of me.
If ever I have time to do in-depth original source investigation, it seems to me far more profitable to learn Koine and read the New Testament as written rather than as translated, along with the LXX and the earliest Church Fathers. Indeed, it is my hope to eventually do so. If I am converted to Rome (or the East, which frankly I think is far more likely) or else confirmed in my current position, let it be at the feet of Peter, Paul, Irenaeus, and Clement, rather than Luther or Trent!
There is also the matter of vocation to consider. I am not a professional apologist. I do not wish to become one. It is incumbent on professional apologists to go the source and get his facts straight. It is not incumbent on all the flock to become professional apologists. Some of us have to be farmers or shopkeepers or construction workers.
If God permits, I should like to be an entertainer.