Did Luther stand in the wrong place?

Recently I’ve been reading some books by William J. Abraham and NT Wright about the Bible. Both books argue to some degree that we read the Bible incorrectly when we make it primarily about settling arguments and establishing truth.

And then I read this story about indulgences being made available for people who follow the Pope’s trip to a youth conference on Twitter. Roman Catholic teaching about indulgences is complex and related to Catholic teachings about sin, sanctification, penance, and purgatory — among others. I do not pretend to be an expert, but like all heirs of the Reformation, know the story of Johann Tetzel and Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.

Now, I like this story because it gives me an opportunity to post a link to my favorite Lutheran polka tune.

But I do find the story also pressing back against the general undertone of both the books I’ve been reading. Both of them argue that while the Reformation had some good points, its emphasis on the Bible as the final authority on matters of faith and practice went wrong or too far or off base.

As I’ve been reading these books, I’ve been aware that they are both a sharp critique on John Wesley’s understanding of scripture, which would be called fundamentalist today. I’ve been stewing a bit about whether it is possible to hang on to Wesleyan theology while tossing aside the foundation upon which it was built.

But today’s news story about the indulgences raises a slightly different question.

Abraham, Wright, and a great number of contemporary Christians would reject Martin Luther’s doctrine of scripture. So do we also reject his defiance of the Roman Catholic Church? Or was he somehow right to oppose the practices of his own church even though he was basing his resistance on what we consider today to be an erroneous view of scripture?

18 thoughts on “Did Luther stand in the wrong place?

  1. Very interesting, John. But if one is not quite current with the latest NT Wright and William Abraham writings, can you tell us what they say is wrong abotu Luther’s doctrine of Scripture? I should know this, but I don’t.

    I DO know that many modern evangelicals, in a rush to distance themselves from the transactonal nature of sola fide, have defined “the gospel” in such a way that it has much less to do with sin, substitute, and salvation than it used to.

    Thanks for the help!

    1. Of course this is an excellent question, Talbot. I am guilty here of writing about stuff that I have not explained.

      My short take goes this way. Luther held a strong view of the inspiration of scripture and its inerrancy. I think he’d be labeled as a fundamentalist today.

      Abraham’s big argument is that we all view scripture too much as the source to settle arguments. He says it is not primarily a criterion of truth but as a means of grace. He argues that Christians get in trouble — and not just since the Reformation — when we resort to saying something like “because the Bible says so” as a way to win an argument over the truth.

      Wright’s argument is less philosophical, but he clearly argues against what he call pre-modern kinds of reading of scripture that would have been Luther’s entire way of reading it.

      I think Wright and Abraham might both fall into the camp of your sola fide refugees.

  2. Another book that’s very worthwhile to read, but very dense (lots of untranslated Greek and Latin and German!) is Alister McGrath’s Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. I just finished it, after several months (granted, a lot of that time was only reading a few pages at night before bedtime, but it definitely wasn’t an easy read!).

    McGrath doesn’t judge whether Luther was “wrong”; but he makes very clear that Luther’s notions of justification and the righteousness of God and imputation were theological novelties, with no precedents in Christian theology; that Protestant theologians since them have put an entirely disproportionate weight on the doctrine of justification to what anyone before them had. I get so frustrated when especially Christians of the Reformed variety rail against the Catholic Church, saying “sola fide is the Gospel,” when it’s very clear that if that were the case, every Christian since the Apostles and before Luther was in trouble. I definitely think Luther and Calvin and many other Protestant theologians have had some valuable insights, and I’m more than willing to grant Protestants their theologies, but it strikes me as arrogant and un-Christian to presume, with no historical basis at all, to proclaim that one is right and everyone else is wrong. At last the Catholic Church has a historical basis before we go around saying things like that. 😉

    I’m obviously a little biased — but as far as your question, whether Protestants should discount the Reformers’ anti-Catholicism: I definitely say they should give the Catholic Church a good look of their own rather than taking the Reformers’ word for it. There were many things in the Church at that time that needed to be reformed; there’s no doubt about that. But there were already efforts in motion (slow motion, sadly) to reform. It’s unlikely that there would have been any kind of radical reform in the Catholic Church on the level that Trent brought if Luther hadn’t set fire to the place; but I tend to think that if Luther had been a little more patient and a lot less impetuous, he could have been a very influential reformer within the Catholic Church. It seems he rejected more and more of Catholic doctrine as he became angrier and angrier — and I personally think (again being biased) that he threw way too many babies out with the bathwater.

    Speaking of indulgences: I recently read, too, a pretty lengthy treatise on the history and development of the doctrine of indulgences. I wouldn’t exactly recommend it for Protestants, but I can say that I understand indulgences and appreciate them a lot better than I did before. 🙂

    1. I’ve not read that book by McGrath, so thanks for the suggestion. I have read some of his other — its sounds like much less technical — works.

      This is partially my point. When Protestants are as critical of Luther (and other Reformers) as Roman Catholics, then what is the basis upon which we maintain our separate identity. If we are convinced that the Roman Catholic Church has gone wrong on some important matters of faith and practice, then what is our basis for making that claim?

      It must be that we hold on to some kernal of Luther’s insights and method even while we tend more and more to reject what drove him.

      Of course, I’m a Wesleyan Methodist, so I already disagree with Luther about some things. But for a least a couple hundred years, the Methodists agreed with Luther about scripture as the foundation for doctrine and practice. Anymore, it appears that we want to undermine the foundation while still arguing that there is a rational basis for our existence.

      I wonder how we do that.

      1. Wesley himself, though, was very much formed by the Book of Common Prayer and his understanding of the church of the first five centuries. These shaped his interpretation of scripture. So for Wesley and his Anglican ilk, scripture was never thought to be interpreted in a vacuum, but in dialogue with the core traditions of Christian belief (and no, I’m not arguing in favor of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”).

        I think it’s also helpful to keep in mind that unlike Continental Protestants, Anglicans did not break from the RC Church over reasons of doctrine, but because the king wanted a divorce. Anglicans such as Richard Hooker sought to maintain continuity with RC doctrines on many points, which was why they developed the via media, rather than crying “sola scriptura!” with Luther, Calvin, and company.

      2. By the way, I purchased the third edition of McGrath’s Iustitia Dei last night so I could have my own copy — what I read from the library was the second edition. The third edition, it turns out, is a significant revision. Among other things, McGrath replaced all of the “hardcore” citations of primary sources in untranslated Greek, Latin, and German, with English translations. He even transliterated Greek characters into Roman characters! A part of me is kind of annoyed that he “dumbed it down” for the masses — but that part is the intellectual snob. I can only barely read the Latin and Greek, and can’t read the German at all! Anyway — I think it will be much more readable now, and I feel much better recommending it to people. 🙂

        It seems to me, especially with the Calvinists I was complaining about, that they continue to desperately rail against the straw men of the Reformation for exactly the reason that you name — they realize, even if only nascently, that without those straw men, they have no rational basis for existence. I re-read the beginning of McGrath’s revised book last night, and it seems that more and more, as you write above, Protestant scholars are deciding that Luther had the wrong idea about Paul (McGrath still not taking a position, but surveying recent literature) — not only that Luther misinterpreted Paul’s words about justification and “law” and “faith,” but that the tradition of Reformation theology placed an entirely inappropriate emphasis on the doctrine of justification in Paul’s theology.

        Again, I’m pretty biased, but I consider the Protestant Reformation to be the single greatest tragedy in the history of Christendom — the vicious rending of Christ’s spotless Bride. The Eastern Schism was pretty bad, too, but at least the West and the East can still agree on some things. That schism was more of a long drifting apart than a sudden and brutal dismemberment. And the West and the East still generally accept each other as Christian and apostolic. With the Reformation, not only did large parts of the Western church tear themselves off from the Holy Mother Church, but they completely divorced themselves, denied any kinship — and what’s worse, they’ve been continuing it ever since. I have read that there are something like 40,000 distinct Protestant denominations today. If the idea of the Protestant Reformation was to “reform” Christianity as Christ intended it, I think it has utterly failed. Christ prayed that we all would be one, as He and the Father are One, that the world might know He sent us (John 17:21).

        The problem with appealing to Scripture as the ultimate authority of truth is that what many Protestants really mean is their interpretation of Scripture — which really places authority in the individual conscience. What alienated me so much from Protestantism was my frustration that there were so many competing and conflicting doctrines, all appealing to divergent interpretations of Scripture, and all vehemently proclaiming that they were the only ones following sola scriptura, Scripture alone, and that everybody else had it wrong and was contradicting Scripture. And so many of them seemed to have valid arguments, and there was ultimately none of them that had any real authority by which to assert its correctness over any other. I really don’t believe that Jesus would have left us with such an impossible mess.

        I think the main issue that divides Protestants and Catholics (and Catholics and Orthodox, too) is that issue of authority. Many Protestants, especially in the evangelical tradition, really do seem to have a problem accepting that there is any authority above their own individual interpretation of Scripture. Such an idea simply isn’t biblical, since the apostles clearly appointed bishops and presbyters over each flock. The issue between the East and West was the East’s rejection of the idea that the bishop of Rome had ultimate authority over all other bishops, where before it had supposedly been an issue of him being “first among equals.” I think, with the Protestant Reformers, their appeal to sola scriptura and rejection of the Catholic Church’s authority probably started out as a genuine attempt to achieve reform from a body that was (and is) impossibly slow-moving and resistant to change. But in cutting off the head, they rejected the idea of there even being a head, and we see where that’s gotten the Protestant churches.

        Sorry; I am rambling (and probably preaching!). I really would encourage Protestants to examine the Protestant Reformers’ complaints and examine the Catholic Church today; because I don’t think most of their complaints hold much water. The issue of authority is going to be a real obstacle between Catholics and Protestants coming together today — but you’re right, with many mainline denominations today rejecting the authority of Scripture altogether — ultimately rejecting the idea of authority at all! — it seems you have to go one way or the other. Scanning your blog, I see that you are pretty conservative, looking to Wesley and to Scripture and to traditional teachings about marriage and sexuality and such — I really admire that. I know there are liberals in the Methodist Church, as there are nearly everywhere, pushing the opposite direction. I think we are in for a fight, and conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants need each other more than ever.

        By the way — I have Methodist roots. I spent several years growing up in the Methodist church, and half of my family, and my grandparents today, are Methodist. I have three or four ancestors who were prominent Methodist preachers and I’m proud of them. The Catholic parish I’m now a part of meets at the building of a former Methodist church, one of the oldest churches in the county — and my Methodist ancestor the preacher is buried there. So I really feel a close kinship with Methodists.

        1. I’ve not studied the topic seriously, but I think authority is a big issue. I don’t think most Protestants would accept the description that they accept no authority other than themselves, but I do see how it might look that way from a Roman Catholic position.

          But it is not just authority, of course. Many of the teachings that come as a result of that authority strike many Protestants as coming from outside the Bible.

          William J. Abraham has been arguing that this need for authority is what gives rise to our real problem. But I’m sure I am not wise enough to successfully describe his argument in the kind of depth necessary to be helpful here.

          I have noticed over the years that a lot of folks move between Methodism and Catholicism. Wesleyan theology feels similar to RC theology in a lot of ways.

        2. Well, I know that’s a gross generalization. But it seems to me that it often comes down to that. Denominations that have maintained an episcopal hierarchy do generally accept the authority of that. But individuals in Protestant denominations seem to have a much greater tendency to consider their own interpretation of Scripture and compare that against their denomination’s, and whether they agree with it or not. Some “shop around” for a church they agree with it — I know that’s what I was trying to do.

          And I know in speaking of what divides Catholics and Protestants, it can’t be reduced to just one issue. But I think authority is the fundamental thing, the most difficult to resolve. I accepted some of the more difficult Catholic doctrines because I accepted the authority of the Church and was prepared to submit to it, not because I found them particularly credible. (I’ve since grown to understand them and accept them better — speaking in particular of things like purgatory and some of the Marian dogma. And they do have a foundation in Scripture, just not a “sola scriptura” foundation.)

          That’s an interesting idea, coming from Abraham. Could you cite me some titles that would be good to read? And no, don’t feel like you have to resolve anything with me. I’m just talking. I like your blog and think I’ll enjoy following along. 🙂

          When I was a Methodist (if I can be said that “I was a Methodist”), I was like eight years old, and didn’t have much of an appreciation for theology. But from what little I’ve studied — and I’d like to learn more! — Wesleyan theology definitely has some affinities with Catholic theology — particularly Wesley’s ideas of prevenient grace, which is more or less straight out of Augustine, and entire sanctification — which, as a Protestant, I thought was a strange idea, but as a Catholic, I think is brilliant.

        3. Canon and criterion is Abraham’s most complete argument of his position. Thanks for your participation on my little blog. I hope you find it time well spent

  3. John, I think that Wesley is not always consistent on scripture. Of course, over as long of a period as he was actively writing, not many people would be. Yes, Wesley’s specific teaching about scripture does sound much like modern “fundamentalists” at times. What he actually did with scripture, however, varied from time to time and place to place. He used scripture more or less “literally” depending upon the circumstance. In fact, Wesley had a concept he called the “whole tenor of scripture” which was very close to the analogy of faith, that he used to interpret individual scriptural passages. Regardless of what it seemed to mean at face value, if a passage of scripture seemed to stand in tension with or contradict the whole tenor of scripture, it could not mean what it appeared to mean. Wesley, then, was not really a “biblical literalist” as we tend to use this term today. Rather, he was a theological reader of scripture whose readings were determined by a rule of faith, a specific understanding of the content of the gospel. In this sense his way of reading scripture resembles that of some of the early church fathers.

    1. David, thank you for this reply. I do see how my reference to “fundamentalists” was somewhat ham-fisted.

      The “analogy of faith” and “whole tenor of scripture” are both phrases that I am familiar with from Wesley. So, do I hear you arguing that even if we find his “pre-modern” conceptions of scripture non-defensible, we can still claim continuity with his way of using scripture by engaging in a similar kind of theological reading?

  4. I like the way you’ve phrased that, John. For Wesley, scripture had one main purpose: to lead people into salvation. Whether he admitted it or not, though, it only worked this way read in continuity with the analogy of faith. The theological reading, then, becomes the key to allowing scripture to function as it should: soteriologically.

    Thanks for getting this very interesting conversation started!

    1. Thank you for jumping in and sharing your perspective. About half the time I post things just to get a conversation going or to get the benefit of other people’s thoughts.

      I really appreciate it when people take the time to share those thoughts.

  5. John,

    I agree with everything David has said, and would add that Luther, himself, was no inerrantist. Inerrancy does get introduced into Protestantism via Lutheranism, but about a century and a half after Luther. To be sure, the Lutheran inerrantists seek to ground some of their arguments in Luther’s writings, but, I would argue, that would be to take a few statements out of context, and in particular out of the much larger context of interaction with tradition and reason in which Luther actually did his work.

    As for Luther’s particular arguments regarding scripture, it is to be remembered that a good number of them, especially in the 95 Theses, were about translation from the Greek to the Latin, particularly regarding repentance and therefore also issues relating to indulgences, doing penance, and ultimately soteriology. These were not exactly arguments about scripture versus tradition, per se, but rather arguments that scripture had been badly translated, and such poor translation had come to underwrite a whole host of corruptions and misunderstandings in the tradition. This is actually at least significantly an academic argument rather than merely a principled one (i.e., commitment to sola scriptura), per se. It is to say, “We now understand more clearly what the Greek texts are, and we know what the Greek means; so we should fix the Latin translations that have led us astray, and fix the ways we’ve been led astray.” As an academic, then, as well as as a theologian and by that time leader of reform, Luther really couldn’t have taken up a different place to stand with integrity. Key translations in the Vulgate and the traditions of penance, indulgences and soteriology built upon them were simply wrong. “Metanoiete” (repent/change your life and worldview) does not mean “poenitentiam agite” (do penance). One didn’t have to commit to “sola scriptura” as an absolute priniciple in order to object to the mistranslations and their aftermath and seek to do something about them.

    1. As always, Taylor, thanks for the to time and thought you take to respond. My point, which you may dispute, is that in today’s mainline church, many folks would limp him in with the fundamentalists. My reference to inerrancy was based on a couple quotes, so I’m not going to defend that claim in the face of more knowledgeable folks.

    2. So do you agree with my Catholic commenter that had Luther been more patient, he might have reformed from within the church?

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