Luther Wasn't Just Another Moral Reformer (Updated)

But that’s what Cardinal Walter Kaspar 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. Folk would very much like to believe that there is no real substantive difference between Protestants and Rome, that’s it’s all just a big 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 50 minutes at the Gospel-Driven Life conference this winter. You can get that lecture here. R. C.’s lecture is the next to last in the list.

UPDATE  7 March 2008 8:47 AM  — some have commented by saying that my reaction to the renewed papal interest in Luther is sour grapes. Nonsense. 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. They Luther with whom they want to make friends is not the Luther of history. He’s the Luther of a fuzzy ecumenicity that makes him into just another moralist like Erasmus and hundred of others. The medieval church and the sixteenth century were chock full of folks who wanted to clean up the Roman mess without fundamentally altering it’s doctrine.

Luther wasn’t one of those.

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.

To those who say that my objections make me the older brother whining about the prodigal I say: The Roman bishop is not my father!

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  1. Amen! I read the article and couldn’t help but think that these folks were getting Luther all wrong. A reformation of doctrine, not mere morals. They seem to be mistaking Erasmus for Luther!

  2. I think the good Cardinal means “Erasmus” when he says “Luther.” Seems what causes the justification/sanctification confusion found its way into the water supply.

  3. Scott,

    Sort of like those who talk up a figure like Horton but don’t really realize just what it might mean to affirm what he’s saying in substance. I like Riddlebarger’s “stew-like” anaology to modern Evangelicalism where you can champion a Mike Horton and Bill Hybels at the same time. It just proves nobody is really listening and is more interested in the latest and presumably fahsionable things being said, etc. It’s hard to know where the rotted carrot ends and the meat begins.


    Bendict is also saying that baptisms not done in the name of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” are invalid. Guess we have to find another sarcastic term about certainty, as the Pope is less Catholic and more Anabaptist now. Do-overs are only a good idea when you’re out on the links…


  4. My thought is, what was the infallible church thinking when they excommunicated him in the first place??

    Actually, Cardinal Kaspar is kind of loose gun, having come to an agreement with the Orthodox not long ago that the papacy needs to go back to what it was prior to the split in 1054. (Ratzinger has also suggested something like that, although, with the papacy not having started until the fifth century, and with them throwing out the last 10 centuries, all that’s left are the 5th thru 10 centuries, probably among the most corrupt, and so what’s the point of keeping that institution around anyway?

  5. To those who say that my objections make me the older brother whining about the prodigal I say: The Roman bishop is not my father!

    Perhaps not, but he is at least is some sense a brother – if even a prodigal one. This is what I meant when I employed the parallel, and I recognize that it isn’t accurate because there hasn’t really been reconciliation (yet).

    I also noted that they probably won’t deal honestly with Luther. But I see dealing with him at all as a step in the right direction. As I see it, Luther is one of the most, if not the most, controversial figure in the history of Roman Catholic Church (according to them). If he is declared “not a heretic” by the bishop of Rome, even if they are not completely accurate about why he was excommunicated to begin with, this will open up his life and works for further examination, and no longer as the guy who wrecked the Western Church.

    But the best part about this is that the purpose of the whole thing is to open dialogue with Protestants, and Protestants will bring the Word to the table and God’s Word accomplishes His purposes.

    May the gospel of peace bring peace.

  6. Ron Smith: Roman Catholicism cannot stand without some kind of equivocation, and here you are doing it:

    “Perhaps not, but he is at least is some sense a brother – if even a prodigal one. ”

    The person who holds that office may or may not be “a brother,” but the office itself is a corruption that has done great damage to “the gospel of peace.” The office itself is the obstacle to any “reconciliation” you may want. “The story” in this story is not Luther, whose life and works are what they are, but it is the office of the papacy, which continues to espouse the lie that it always has espoused.

  7. The person who holds that office may or may not be “a brother,” but the office itself is a corruption that has done great damage to “the gospel of peace.” The office itself is the obstacle to any “reconciliation” you may want.

    I agree. The bishop of Rome will have to come down and take his place among the rest of the Church’s bishops before any reconciliation will be possible.

    The story” in this story is not Luther, whose life and works are what they are, but it is the office of the papacy, which continues to espouse the lie that it always has espoused.

    But not the lie about Luther being a heretic, it appears.

  8. You are the one here making the papacy out to be your “prodigal brother.” The prodigal in the gospel admitted that he erred. The papacy will never admit it has erred.

    When I said “the story,” I meant “the news story.” Luther is known. He cannot make news. If the Catholic Church changes its official position regarding Luther, they still will not consider it “a lie.” No confession of guilt, no repentance will have taken place. It will be “a restatement,” or “a reformulation.” What will be missing, is the acknowledgement that the papacy is in any sense guilty of anything.

    You want the Bishop of Rome to “come down and take his place…” But what is really needed from that office is a confession of sin and a remorseful repentance. That will never happen. The office of the papacy is no kind of brother at all. It is a pure lie.

  9. The papacy will never admit it has erred.

    You only say that because of what you see.

    You want the Bishop of Rome to “come down and take his place…” But what is really needed from that office is a confession of sin and a remorseful repentance.

    I would equate the two. Relegating the office of the Bishop of Rome back to what it was before the papacy would be an admission that the papacy was an error and would constitute repentance from that particular error.

  10. Ron – It is not just “what I see.” Of course, God could drop a bomb on the Catholic Church, and it would repent of all its sins and errors. But He has not done that, historically, and I am not hopeful at all that it will happen.

    Equivocation and misstatement is now official policy of the Roman Catholic Church. David Wells, in his small 1972 book “Revolution in Rome,” pointed out the deliberate and official policy for making ambiguous statements. What follows is something that I’ve cited elsewhere, but I think that this will explain well what we will see in the forthcoming statement about Luther:


    One kind of interpretive problem, then, which an analyst of the documents faces concerns the existence of those passages which are so brilliantly ambiguous as to be capable of serving the interest of both parties. The statement on biblical inerrancy best illustrates this problem. The council affirmed: “since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”

    This statement, over which there was a considerable tussle both in private and in public, seems at first sight to affirm Rome’s traditional stance on this matter. For this reason, conservatives in the Council agreed to it, and some Protestants subsequently have been led to think that Catholicism’s historic stance on this mater is unaltered….

    But is this really the case? A careful scrutiny of the Council’s statement shows that it can be interpreted in an entirely different way, one which a majority of Catholic scholars are now following. In perhaps the most lucid account of the Council’s theology, B.C. Butler the English bishop and progressive theologian, explains how. The council obviously spoke of the Bible “teaching without error”, but the significance of this phrase, he argues, depends on the view of “the truth” which Scripture is said to teach without error. ‘Here the word “truth” is qualified by a statement of the finality or purpose of inspiration; it is a question of truth relevant to God’s saving purpose summed up in Christ The point he is making is that many truths of science and history have no part to play in our salvation. “For instance” he says, “the date of the appearance of the human species in natural history is not formally relevant to our salvation; the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection is formally relevant.”

    The illustration in the first half of Butler’s sentence is so obvious that the reader is disarmed against the thrust of the second half. The council’s statement, he argues, guarantees as inerrant only those truths necessary for our salvation. The meaning of the passage, therefore, turns on the question of how much we need to know with certainty to be saved. Apparently there is room for discussion on this point. Butler has limited the inerrant statements of Scripture to those which bear on the saving actions of God which were summed up in Christ, but Gregory Baum has trimmed this core even further. To be saved, he says, we need to know exceedingly little; exceedingly little, then, is inerrantly taught in scripture.


    (In case you want to check it, the item that Wells quoted is taken from Dei Verbum, Section 11, found here:

    My lack of enthusiasm that the Catholic Church will ever repent was previously articulated by Robert Strimple, the President Emeritus of Westminster CA, who expanded on this theme in his contribution to the 1994 John Armstrong effort, “Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides And Unites Us.” Strimple cited theologian Raymond Brown’s method for understanding both Scriptures and official church documents in the post Vatican II era. Brown said:

    “The Roman Catholic Church does not change her official stance in a blunt way. Past statements are not rejected but are requoted with praise and then reinterpreted at the same time…For me the principle that the teaching office (the Magisterium) of the Church can authentically interpret the Bible is more important now than ever before, granted the diversity and contrariety among biblical authors uncovered by historical criticism.

    Strimple responded by saying, “This is precisely why I am convinced that the theological situation in the Roman Catholic Church today must be viewed as worse than it was at the time of the Reformers.” Strimple was writing in 1994, just after ECT was released.

    The papacy is going to do whatever it can, say whatever it can, to hold onto power in an environment in which it is seeming to lose ground. If you think the Clintons are skilled and practiced liars, they are only so skilled as they are because they have had excellent teachers in the papacy.

  11. Wait, so how is that not about what you see?

    My point was that if you are relying merely upon what you see, sure, there appears to be little indication that the Roman Catholic Church will be repenting of anything any time soon.

    But we walk by faith, not by sight. Jesus prayed for the unity of those who believe by the word of His disciples. I have faith that his prayer will be answered. Paul says that God gave His Church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints until we all attain to the unity of the faith. (Eph 4) So as long as it takes, that work will continue until the Church attains the unity of faith.

  12. RS: “But we walk by faith, not by sight.” I agree too that we must work for unity in the faith, but we must also do so with an attitude of discernment. I walk by faith too, but I have pointed out Rome’s official method of using words to deceive both sides. This is a long historical method of theirs, going back to the casuistry of the Jesuits.

    Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true, and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

    “Awake, O sleeper,
    and arise from the dead,
    and Christ will shine on you.”

    Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, …

    If you are interested, look at JPII’s 1996 encyclical “Ut Unum Sint,” which called for theologians (Catholic and non-Catholic) to look for “a new situation” for the papacy, though, without giving up any of its authority. If you follow the recent history of the pronouncements about the papacy, you will note a marked regression. I believe this is due to some of the historical work, which undermines what Catholics have historically taught about the papacy (see Peter Lampe’s “From Rome to Valentinus, Christians in Rome the First Two Centuries,” and also the work “Papal Primacy,” by the Catholic historian Klaus Schatz. That is, I grew up being taught that the papacy was instituted by Christ and passed on from Peter to Linus to Anacletus to Clement, on and on, in an unbroken chain, down to the present. Lampe, however, through meticulous historical work, supports the historical evidence that the Roman church was not even led by a monarchial bishop in those first two hundred years, but rather, was led by a Presbyterian-style of government (a council of elders). Schatz goes even further to suggest that there was no such thing as “Primacy” as we know it until the 5th century.

    After “Ut Unum Sint,” the Vatican held a symposium on the papacy, the results of which have not been published in English. Now this official Vatican symposium has published the “Preface” to its work, in which it clearly points to “development” in the Papacy (in clear contradistinction to the Vatican I pronouncements, which “infallibly” declare that it was a historical fact), and more telling, this preface, written by Cardinal Ratzinger, clearly ends in what can be nothing other than a “hissy-fit,” stating that none other than the Bishop of Rome himself will decide upon the fate of the papacy

    In any case, it is essential to state that discerning whether the possible ways of exercising the Petrine ministry correspond to its nature is a discernment to be made in Ecclesia, i.e., with the assistance of the Holy Spirit and in fraternal dialogue between the Roman Pontiff and the other Bishops, according to the Church’s concrete needs. But, at the same time, it is clear that only the Pope (or the Pope with an Ecumenical Council) has, as the Successor of Peter, the authority and the competence to say the last word on the ways to exercise his pastoral ministry in the universal Church.

    In recalling these essential points of Catholic doctrine on the primacy of Peter’s Successor, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is certain that the authoritative reaffirmation of these doctrinal achievements offers greater clarity on the way to be followed. This reminder is also useful for avoiding the continual possibility of relapsing into biased and one-sided positions already rejected by the Church in the past (Febronianism, Gallicanism, ultramontanism, conciliarism, etc.). Above all, by seeing the ministry of the Servant of the servants of God as a great gift of divine mercy to the Church, we will all find with the grace of the Holy Spirit – the energy to live and faithfully maintain full and real union with the Roman Pontiff in the everyday life of the Church, in the way desired by Christ.

    The full communion which the Lord desires among those who profess themselves his disciples calls for the common recognition of a universal ecclesial ministry “in which all the Bishops recognize that they are united in Christ and all the faithful find confirmation for their faith”. The Catholic Church professes that this ministry is the primatial ministry of the Roman Pontiff, Successor of Peter, and maintains humbly and firmly “that the communion of the particular Churches with the Church of Rome, and of their Bishops with the Bishop of Rome, is — in God’s plan — an essential requisite of full and visible communion”. Human errors and even serious failings can be found in the history of the papacy: Peter himself acknowledged he was a sinner. Peter, a weak man, was chosen as the rock precisely so that everyone could see that victory belongs to Christ alone and is not the result of human efforts. Down the ages the Lord has wished to put his treasure in fragile vessels: human frailty has thus become a sign of the truth of God’s promises.

    When and how will the much-desired goal of the unity of all Christians be reached? “How to obtain it? Through hope in the Spirit, who can banish from us the painful memories of our separation. The Spirit is able to grant us clear-sightedness, strength, and courage to take whatever steps are necessary, that our commitment may be ever more authentic”. We are all invited to trust in the Holy Spirit, to trust in Christ, by trusting in Peter.

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