Developing an Ecumenical View of Luther

Posted on Posted in Theology

The wonderful and insightful statement “Martin Luther: Witness to Jesus Christ” (please! take ten minutes and read the whole thing!) stakes out some common ground for Lutherans and Catholics to share regarding the person of Luther himself.

One important aspect of this is a confession of Lutheran churches’ failure to do justice to Luther in many ways:

“18. The Lutheran churches have tried over the centuries to conserve Luther’s theological and spiritual insights. Not all his writings, however, have influenced the Lutheran churches to the same degree. There has often been a tendency to give more importance to his polemical works than to his pastoral and theological writings. Those writings which were given the status of confessional documents are of special ecclesial significance. Among these, his two catechisms occupy a special position in the life of the churches. Together with the Confessio Augustana, they form an appropriate basis for an ecumenical dialogue.

“19. Nevertheless, Luther’s heritage has suffered various losses and distortions in the course of history.
—The Bible was increasingly isolated from its church context, and its authority was legalistically misunderstood because of the doctrine of verbal inspiration;
—Luther’s high estimate of sacramental life was largely lost during the Enlightenment and in pietism;
—Luther’s concept of human beings as persons before God was misinterpreted as individualism;
—The message of justification was at times displaced by moralism;
—His reservations about the role of political authorities in church leadership were silenced for long periods of time, and
—His doctrine of the twofold nature of God’s rule (the doctrine of “the Two Kingdoms”) was misused to legitimate the church’s denial of responsibility for social and political life.”

This is followed by a Catholic admission:

“21. A defensive attitude toward Luther and his thinking was in some respect determinative for the Roman Catholic Church and its development since the Reformation. Fear of the distribution of editions of the Bible unauthorized by the church, a centralizing over-emphasis on the papacy and a onesidedness in sacramental theology and practice were deliberately developed features of Counter-Reformation Catholicism.”

In fact, many “Lutheran” elements have indeed found their way into the Catholic Church. Some of these happened already following the Council of Trent in the later 16th century, such as “the renewal of preaching, the intensification of religious instruction and the emphasis on the Augustinian doctrine of grace” (§21). Some are more recent:

“24. Among the insights of the Second Vatican Council which reflect elements of Luther’s concerns may be numbered:
—An emphasis on the decisive importance of Holy Scripture for the life and teaching of the church (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation);
—The description of the church as “the people of God” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, chapter II);
—The affirmation of the need for continued renewal of the church in its historical existence (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 8; Decree on Ecumenism, 6);
—The stress on the confession of faith in the cross of Jesus Christ and of its importance for the life of the individual Christian and of the church as a whole (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 8; Decree on Ecumenism, 4; Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 37);
—The understanding of church ministries as service (Decree on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office in the Church, 16; Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests);
—The emphasis on the priesthood of all believers (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 10 and 11; Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, 2-4);
—Commitment to the right of the individual to liberty in religious matters (Declaration on Religious Freedom).”

The airtight bubble around our two churches has already broken down. There are countless ways we are affected by each other, and for the good. It’s simply dishonest to pretend that we have gotten along fine without each other and can continue to do so.

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