Luther: Not Just Another Moral Reformer

But that’s what Cardinal Walter Kasper wants to make him.*

There were a lot of “moral Reformers” before, during, and after the Reformation. Luther wasn’t one of them. The moral Reformers wanted to clean up the behavior of the Roman communion and to tidy up a dirty house. That wasn’t Luther’s calling. That wasn’t Luther’s message. His message was much more radical than that.

Yet Kaspar is right when he says that Luther recovered “central” Christian truths. He rediscovered justification on the ground of Christ’s imputed righteousness and faith as receiving and resting as the sole instrument of acceptance with God. These are central truths which the Roman communion declared to be eternally condemned in session 6 of the Council of Trent in 1547 and which it continues to reject in its most recent catechism.

If Rome succeeds in making Martin into just another floor sweeper in the Roman house, then the way is paved to obliterate the real message of the Reformation. Rome has a long history of saying what folk want to hear. Many would very much like to believe that there is no real substantive difference between Protestants and Rome, that the Reformation division was (and remains) a great, unfortunate, misunderstanding. This line of argumentation is widely accepted—despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary in the actual texts of the Reformation.

Rome wants to domesticate brother Martin, to make him just another rebellious Augustinian monk. Don’t you believe it. He was far more than that. The differences between Rome and confessional Protestants were and aren’t over “behavior” but over the very gospel itself. Does God accept us because we are sanctified (by the infusion of grace and our cooperation with grace) or does he accept us on the basis of Christ’s finished work imputed and received through faith alone? That was the question then and it remains the question today.

R. C. Sproul did a brilliant job of summarizing the issue in his chapter, “The Reformation, Luther, and the Modern Struggle for the Gospel” in Aways Reformed.

Some have argued that such criticism of the renewed papal interest in Luther is sour grapes. Not at all. Consider this paragraph from Kasper’s reflections on the Nature and Purpose of Ecumenical Dialogue relative to the Joint Declaration with the Lutheran World Federation:”

The Joint Declaration on Justification is a good example of growth in the deepening of the understanding of truth. In the Joint Declaration Catholics did not give up the Council of Trent and Lutherans did not give up their Confessional Writings. Yet by studying together the Scriptures and both our traditions we reached a new level of understanding, and were able to see and interpret each tradition and our common tradition in a new light. We did not give up anything, but we were enriched. The Joint Declaration was not the victory of the one over the other; it was the victory of truth through a deeper understanding of the gospel and of both our traditions.

What could Kasper mean by “deepening of the understanding of truth”? Do not Lutherans (and the Reformed) still confess that justification is God’s declaration that those who remain intrinsically sinful are nevertheless accepted as completely righteous on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s condign merit, received through faith resting upon and receiving Christ and his righteousness? Yes they do. The Augsburg Confession is still the Augsburg Confession. Has the Roman confession of justification changed? According the Catechism of the Catholic Church God accepts those who are intrinsically just by grace and cooperation with grace. These are two different definitions of justification, two different accounts of the ground of justification, and competing accounts of the nature of faith in justification.

Kasper seems to recognize this problem when he writes:

The confession that in Jesus Christ the fullness of time appeared once and for all implies that concrete, firm and decisive affirmations are typical of Christian witness. The Christian message withstands every syncretism and relativisation, also every relativisation in the name of a wrongly understood dialogue. Dialogue means living in relation but does not mean relativism. “Tolle assertiones et christianismum tulisti,” wrote Martin Luther against Erasmus whom he blamed for his scepticism.

It is not clear, however, that Rome is willing to be consistent with this recognition. It would be thrilling if Rome would deal honestly with Luther and accept his (and our) doctrine of justification as it was and is. This is not what is happening however. The deeper understanding to which Kasper refers is not a revision of the history of the Reformation on the basis of further historical investigation. So what has changed? Feelings and religious experience. Since the early 19th century there has been a move to redefine Christianity so that it is no longer a historical religion about objective historical claims but chiefly the expression of one’s religious experience of the risen Christ. There is a hint of this when Kasper quotes, without irony, the Reformation slogans: “Such a conversion is a gift of grace too – sola gratia, sola fide.” These two slogans, properly understood, are rocks on which the modern ecumenical enterprise must crash but Kasper sails on as if we all agree about what these slogans mean.

When confessional Protestants say sola gratia we mean “undeserved favor” whereby God unconditionally accepts sinners. When Rome says “grace” she means something rather different. When we confessing Protestants say sola fide we mean that faith is an empty hand, and the onlyinstrument that trusts, rests in, and receives Christ and his righteousness for us. When Rome says “faith” she means something quite different. Kasper must know this and yet he proceeds as if we all agree on the definition of these terms.

This explains why the Luther with whom Rome wants to make friends is not the Luther of history and the truth to which Kasper refers does not seem to the faith actually confessed by Protestants but rather an expression of their religious experience. The beauty of this sort of approach is that it achieves in our time what Trent attempted in its time: a sort of moral and spiritual tidying up without fundamentally altering Roman doctrine.

Luther (and his Reformation) won’t go away so quietly:

  • He proposed a radically different hermeneutic: law/gospel in place of old law/new law.
  • He proposed a radically different doctrine of justification: sola gratia et sola fide in place of grace and cooperation with grace.
  • He proposed a radically different view of authority: Sola scriptura in place of Scripture as normed by tradition.
  • He proposed a radically different definition of grace: Unearned divine favor in place of an infused medicine.
  • He proposed a radically different definition of faith: Receiving and resting in Christ and his finished work in place of trusting and obeying.

These were no small changes and these claims cannot be dissolved into religious experience.

Kasper criticizes what he calls “sectarian fundamentalistic uncommunicativeness” and seems to relegate the sorts of concerns confessionalists have to this category. Genuine dialogue, however, must begin with truth, with history, facts, and reality and it must be truly charitable. Kasper says something like this when he refers to “…the dialogue of love and the dialogue in truth. Both are important, but neither can be separated.” It is not charitable for us to misrepresent Romanist theology, piety, and practice nor is it charitable, even in the interests of ecumenicity, for Rome to misrepresent the nature of the Protestant cause and concerns. If ecumenical progress is ever to be made it cannot be made on the basis of religious feeling (experience) but on the basis of what was and is confessed by the different communions. If some want to set aside those differences in favor of shared religious experience then that should be revealed and discussed honestly.

There is some recognition of this when, after all, he asserts (following Ut Unum Sint)

…outside the Catholic Church there is – as the encyclical Ut unum sint 13 affirms – no ecclesial vacuum. There is Church reality, but – according to our Catholic understanding – not the Church in the proper sense, i.e. in the full sense the Catholic Church understands herself. There is Church in an analogous way, or a different type of Church.

Despite the apparent turn to religious experience as a way to leverage historical differences, Rome still believes in historical, concrete communions, and particularly in the Roman communion. Theoretically, if religious experience were sufficient, then might it not lead Rome to concede that the Protestant account of experience and the Protestant communions are the right and true expressions? In these comments, however, is an implicit recognition that religious experience is only a vehicle for achieving a confessional-ecclesiastical conclusion in favor of Rome. In the end, according to Rome, the only real resolution of the Protestant-Romanist schism is for Protestants to submit to the authority of Rome. If so, it puts the “deepened understanding” to which Kasper refers in a new light.


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