Catholic Scholars of Luther

Posted on Posted in Theology

Johannes Cochlaeus was a contemporary of Luther’s and his first “heresiographer,” in the words of Ralph Keen*—in other words, the opposite of a hagiographer, one who demonizes a supposedly wicked and impious enemy of the church. Cochlaeus’s 1548 biography, “The deeds and writings of Dr Martin Luther from the year of the Lord 1517 to the year 1546 related chronologically to all posterity by Johannes Cochlaeus,” was but one of a vast number of pieces written by this energetic character to refute and debunk Luther as well as all the other reformers and demonstrate the necessity of a violent political suppression of their followers.

Keen also remarks that “two qualities give [Cochlaeus] a special place among the early Catholic respondents to Protestantism: the volume of his work and the rhetorical ferocity of his reaction to the beginnings of Protestantism. He was the most prolific and most acerbic of the Catholic polemicists, and both of these qualities in tandem give him a historical importance that is only now being recognized” (p. 40). For the next 400 years, Catholic scholarship repeated what Cochlaeus said with no further investigation, for no Catholic ever knew Luther’s writings as well as Cochlaeus did, even though he knew them purely for the purposes of debunking and humiliating their author.

It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that this static picture of Luther began to change. Joseph Lortz and his student Erwin Iserloh were the first pioneers of Catholics to take a fresh look at Reformation history and theology. Lortz’s book Die Reformation in Deutschland (The Reformation in Germany) was particularly influential, not only for Catholics but for Protestant scholars of the 16th century as well. Iserloh was the one who first proposed that Luther didn’t “post” the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg castle church at all, but that the story was a later-developing legend (he’s probably right; not as much fun as the legend, though it does at least deflate the polemical image of a strident Luther preparing to take down the whole system from the get-go).

Today the most important Catholic scholars of Luther are Otto Hermann Pesch and Jared Wicks. Pesch has written dozens of books on Luther, many with special reference to Thomas Aquinas, showing how close, in fact, their respective doctrines of justification are. (A good number of his books have been translated into English if you’re interested.) Wicks started with Luther’s early spiritual teaching in the book Man Yearning for Grace and has continued to contribute to the field ever since—he’s the one who first pointed out to us that Luther was technically a friar and not a monk.

We’re still waiting to see who in the next generation of Catholics steps up to the plate! If you think it might be you, be sure to check back in tomorrow—we’ll have an interview with Jared Wicks posted here.

*Luther’s Lives: Two Contemporary Accounts of Martin Luther, trans. & annotated by Elizabeth Vandiver, Ralph Keen, and Thomas D. Frazel (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002).

3 thoughts on “Catholic Scholars of Luther

    1. “Debunk” is a bit of a strong word. The main thing he argued is that they were not nailed physically to the door of the church but circulated privately among the fellow scholars who would have engaged in the debate, since they were framed in a particular scholastic style. Also the basis for saying they were nailed to the church is late and thin. It was the printers who got hold of them and started running off copies that made them famous, not their initial location. Iserloh didn’t make this argument, incidentally, as a kind of anti-Lutheran coup.

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