An Interview with Jared Wicks, S.J., Catholic scholar of Luther

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Jared Wicks is a theologian and writer at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio. We asked him a few questions about his unusual vocation.

How did you as a Jesuit become a scholar of Luther?

My pre-ordination theology studies were at West Baden in southern Indiana, some 45 miles from Louisville, Kentucky. From our school, in 1960-61, along with some fellow Jesuits, I set up exchanges of visits with students at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary and Southern Baptist Seminary. This confirmed me in wanting to give my theological work a strong ecumenical dimension. I did a Licentiate paper on Karl Barth and found in him fascinating enrichments of the notion of revelation that we had studied in our official course, focusing on the reason/faith divide inherited from the First Vatican Council of 1869-70.

During my preparation for graduate theological work in Germany, I met Fr. Killian McDonnell, O.S.B., who had just completed his dissertation on Calvin. He told me there was a topic for a good dissertation on “certainty of salvation” in Calvin. In the process of enrolling in the Catholic Faculty of the University of Muenster, I visited a professor whom others had urged me to talk to, Joseph Ratzinger. He proved helpful, even though he was at the moment overwhelmed with work with doctoral candidates and had to be in Rome for months at a time as an expert at Vatican Council II. He told me that Prof. Erwin Iserloh was about to move from Trier to the Muenster faculty and that Iserloh would in all likelihood welcome me for a dissertation on a Reformation theological topic. Also, 18 months later, I was relieved not to be a Ratzinger disciple, since he packed up and moved to Tuebingen, which would have been disruptive in my work.

When I met Iserloh and mentioned Calvin to him, he said that it might work out as a dissertation topic, but I surely had to study Luther first. In those days Iserloh was finishing his chapters on the Reformation volume of the German Handbook of Church History and he was defending in various venues his view that Luther never posted the 95 Theses publicly in 1517, but only sent them to the Archbishop of Mainz to show that the indulgence doctrine needed clarification and preachers had to tone down their preaching on indulgences.

In my reading of Luther I was quickly impressed by his conception of the penitential life as fundamental in Christian spirituality. Also, I had the good fortune to discover a text by Luther which sets forth an ingenious theology of indulgences, but which had been mistakenly dated in the Weimar Edition (in fact, it was from 1517 and sent in the packet to the Archbishop with the 95 Theses). That text became a key to my dissertation and I published it in English with commentary in Theological Studies at the time of the 1967 observance of the 450th anniversary of the Reformation’s outbreak.

While in Muenster, I had good contact with Protestant theologians and students, who worked in the Evangelical-Lutheran sister-faculty of the University. Also, Iserloh took me with him to Finland for the 1966 Luther Research Congress, where I met Berhard Lohse, Martin Brecht, and Otto Hermann Pesch, and watched from the back row while Gerhard Ebeling and Heinrich Bornkamm tried to demolish the thesis of Ernst Bizer that Luther’s big insight into faith and justification came in early 1518. My dissertation on the young Luther’s penitential account of Christian living left a number of unresolved questions and when I began teaching near Chicago I found time to keep up publishing. When I moved to Rome to teach at the Gregorian in 1979, I had a lighter teaching schedule and greater ease of contact with European centers of work on Luther.

What do you think about Luther’s “Reformation breakthrough”? How does it relate to the Catholic tradition?

I agree with Ernst Bizer and Oswald Bayer that Luther, in early 1518, came to feature a new aspect of the penitential life, namely, the powerful, clear, and certain-making word of sacramental absolution spoken to the penitent. I worked this out for a seminar at the Luther Research Congress in Erfurt in 1983 and brought it out the next year in Gregorianum, the journal of my university in Rome, under the title, Fides sacramenti—fides specialis (also in Luther’s Reform, an essay collection, published in Mainz in 1992).

From this shift of 1518, the penitential life continues to unfold in daily self-denial, but Luther has it firmly anchored in God’s gracious word which applies Christ’s saving grace in moments of clear, unambiguous communication. From 1519 on, it is no accident that Luther turned out engaging short pamphlets on the sacraments, in which the certain-making word resounds in its variant expressions. This had not been present in his works on penitential living and prayer down through 1517.

When I worked out in 1983-84 this momentous shift in Luther’s teaching, I added a series of considerations in favor of a nuanced or even positive Catholic assessment of Luther’s point. Luther did not feature aspects ascribed to him by critics like Cardinal Cajetan (1518) and Paul Hacker (The Ego in Faith, 1970). He appealed to Bernard of Clairvaux as holding something very similar—which gives us pause. We Catholics also take the sacraments very seriously and should recognize in Luther an ally against religiosities of subjective experience.

Does this mean that Luther has something to offer to Catholics today?

Yes, and I said this in June 2008 in Quebec, at a theological symposium on eucharistic theology. My paper reviewed recent ecumenical agreements and convergences on the Lord’s Supper, as in the Anglican-Catholic dialogue and in Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982) of Faith and Order. But I noted that Lutheran reactions to BEM were in some cases noteworthy in their critique of a dominant “eucharistizing” of the Lord’s Supper—which deserves our attention too. Also, the Lutheran theologian Albrecht Peters, made an incisive critical comment about the 1978 Lutheran/Catholic study, Das Herrenmahl (= The Eucharist) for the way it so emphasizes the upward movement of thanks and glorification of God that the descending grace of Christ’s death for us and for our salvation is obscured.

As a Catholic theologian, I feel obliged to go against the grain of our dominant liturgically-based conception of eucharistic worship and ecumenical theology. That is, I am convinced that we, especially Catholics, need to bring out just what the sacrament memorializes, namely, the Lord’s giving of himself in death, with his body broken and his blood shed “for you”—pro vobis, fuer euch!

What do you see as the main ecumenical exchange in the other direction, namely, in elements of Catholic tradition that can enrich Lutheran faith and life?

In this I reflect on the experience of three extended Lutheran-Catholic dialogues in which I took part: (1) the 1986-94 world-level dialogue that produced The Church and Justification; (2) the 1996-2005 dialogue leading to The Apostolicity of the Church, and (3) the dialogue in the USA on “The Hope of Eternal Life,” begun 2005 and about to end later in this year of 2010.

Clearly, we Catholic members have a notable advantage in these exchanges, since we draw repeatedly on clearly elaborated, and sometimes recent, declarations of doctrine by the Catholic teaching office. Our work on apostolicity was emblematic, in the way that the conciliar teaching office, not that of the popes, but of the Councils (Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II) repeatedly gave us doctrinal orientations. The Lutheran side had its Book of Concord and did good work in drawing on it. But you can see the asymmetry in binding clarifications of what the word of God means and how it should be applied to emerging questions.

Our Catholic side also had the advantage of scholarship based on the papers of these Councils, such as that of Joseph Freitag on Trent’s conception of the pastoral ministry or of Hermann J. Pottmeyer on the background of Vatican I on papal authority. It was not a case of simply citing conciliar texts as shutting down any further discussion, but of finding in them valuable pointers toward the future. Lutherans seem to see Catholics as bound to a teaching office “monopolized” by the bishop of Rome as a sole teacher issuing his mandated doctrines. I think a careful review of how the Catholic teaching office functions would show that this is a caricature put up to make its rejection easy.

I know this is a difficult area for Lutherans. It comes out in the account of how Lutherans see the church maintained in the truth in The Apostolicity of the Church, nos. 355-389, which is historically informative and lucid on the complex interaction of factors when Lutherans work toward an updated statement of doctrine or morality.

From my historical knowledge of the Reformation, I think that the state-based constitutions of the first Lutheran territorial churches left Lutherans with an endemic weakness that has not been overcome. Lutheran bishops are far from being figures of magisterial impact and authority; they could never assemble as a body able to produce what came of the great councils. I recall how Melanchthon foresaw this result at Augsburg in 1530 when the powerful representatives of Nuremburg began exercising control over the issues of doctrinal dialogue with the Catholic side.

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