Luther is a stumbling block for Catholics—and often enough for Lutherans, who tend to have equally caricatured if more positive views of him. The real Luther is an incredibly complicated person.
The absolute best statement of a mature, ecumenical view of Luther shared by Catholics and Lutherans alike is “Martin Luther: Witness to Jesus Christ,” jointly authored by the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue on the 500th anniversary of his birth in 1983. I most highly recommend reading the whole thing! Here are a few select morsels from it, to whet your appetite.
The opening section on the path “From Conflict to Reconciliation” lays out how each church formed its image of Luther, and what revision of that image might mean now.
“2. For centuries opinions about Luther were diametrically opposed to one another. Catholics saw him as the personification of heresy and blamed him as the fundamental cause of schism between the Western churches. Already in the 16th century the Protestants began to glorify Luther as a religious hero and not infrequently also as a national hero. Above all, however, Luther was often regarded as the founder of a new church.
“3. The judgment of Luther was closely connected with each church’s view of the other: they accused one another of abandoning the true faith and the true church.
“4. In the churches of the Reformation and in theology, the rediscovery of Luther began in the early days of this century. Soon afterwards, intensive study of the person of Luther and his work started on the Catholic side. This study has made notable scholarly contributions to Reformation and Luther research and, together with the growing ecumenical understanding, has paved the way toward a more positive Catholic attitude to Luther. We see on both sides a lessening of outdated, polemically colored images of Luther. He is beginning to be honored in common as a witness to the gospel, a teacher in the faith and a herald of spiritual renewal…
“6. Luther’s call for church reform, a call to repentance, is still relevant for us. He summons us to listen anew to the gospel, to recognize our own unfaithfulness to the gospel and to witness credibly to it. This cannot happen today without attention to the other church and to its witness and without the surrender of polemical stereotypes and the search for reconciliation.”
In other words, it won’t work anymore to develop isolated views of Luther dependent on an inaccurate picture of the other church. Tomorrow we’ll look at specific ways an improved, communal view can emerge.