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Bishop Peter Elliott: Was Martin Luther the Nordic Noir of the Church?

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Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Pomeranus and Crucicer around a table, translating the Bible.

At Melbourne University I tried to understand Luther’s theology and its philosophical basis, Nominalism (today revamped as “post-modernism”). I focused on his understanding of nature and grace, that is, how our fallen human nature relates to God’s free gift of grace in Christ. I noted his sharp separation between fallen nature and supernatural grace. This is dualism: separating body from soul, matter from spirit. Dualism runs through much of his teaching.

Luther’s Teachings about Human Nature

Luther insisted on a sharp separation between a perfect God and fallen humanity. He argued that human beings are helpless and have no free-will, the subject of a published debate with Desiderius Erasmus. At university we were taught that this debate revealed Luther’s medieval mind set against the more enlightened Renaissance, represented by Erasmus, his learned friends like St Thomas More, and the worldly Vatican of Pope Leo X.

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Today Luther’s views resonate with secular denials of free-will, and the Catholic insistence on free-will is not unqualified. The nuanced theology of St Thomas Aquinas sets grace before nature, while integrating both. But Luther detested Aquinas and the “schoolmen” and moved in an extreme Augustinian direction, systematised by John Calvin. Both Reformers taught that we are helpless fallen beings, and our only hope is faith in Christ, which Luther saw as trust in God’s promises in Christ.


His central affirmation is “Justification by faith alone”. Justification is how God’s justice (righteousness or pure goodness) is given to us by grace, a major theme in St Paul’s Letters. But here a problem arises because Luther taught that we do not receive grace. We are unfit for grace. Through original and actual sin we are not only helpless, with a will unable to turn to God, but we are “totally depraved”, that is, spiritually dead. Yet in mercy God “imputes righteousness” to those he has chosen. What does “impute” mean?

God regards me as good. I am covered with a cloak of the justifying merits of Christ to save me from the Father’s wrathful judgement. The gift of faith, trust in Christ and his promises, is at work. Yet for Luther, grace seems to be at work outside me. Grace is not the presence and work of the Holy Spirit within me, as the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches teach.

Do we need good deeds as well as faith to be saved, as St James and also St Paul teach? Luther’s response again shows his dualism. God’s commandments apply to the body, while God’s promises apply to the soul. God commands us to do good deeds. But these fleshly human works cannot justify us because, helpless and spiritually dead, we find it impossible to fulfil God’s commands anyway. So good deeds are necessary, in the sense that they are fruits and signs of faith, but deeds never cause justification, which is brought about by faith alone. Responding to the Word in the Gospel and trusting in God’s promises we are justified – yet we remain helpless sinners. This is a dilemma. Luther taught that each Christian is iustus et peccator, just and sinful at the same time. In my soul I am justified by God, yet in my body I always remain a helpless sinner, unable to fulfil divine Law.

It has been argued that Luther was trying to resolve his own spiritual tensions: guilt and scruples, aggravated by a sexual drive and, some claim, the psychological effects of constipation, which was no joke in the sixteenth century. A wise priest, well read in Lutheran studies, explained to me that in practice Luther was proposing not so much faith in Christ but “faith in faith”.

Justification, the Ecumenical Development

Catholic teaching on Justification is set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church nos. 1987-2028. This rests on the Church’s trenchant reply to Luther at the Council of Trent which took account of the whole New Testament understanding of human redemption in Christ. Through the grace of Baptism and the gift of faith, together with the infused gifts of hope and love, we are inwardly justified, forgiven, made holy and ultimately glorified. Good works, deeds of virtue, are part of our justification, but not the cause of it. We can fulfil God’s commandments. The Holy Spirit is central to our justification and sanctification in a sacramental way of life.

The 1999 ecumenical Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification tends to favour a more peaceful interpretation of his teaching developed by his successors, particularly Philip Melancthon (1497-1560). Catholics agree with Lutherans that we are saved by faith and not by doing good deeds. However, separate paragraphs carefully state the Lutheran and Catholic positions, so this is not so much an agreement as a partial convergence. This useful document also had to satisfy the different shades of Lutheranism that have developed over five centuries in a range of nations and cultures: liberal, high-church, conservative, evangelical, pietistic.

An ecumenical footnote: when it comes to justification, the Methodists and the Seventh Day Adventists are close to the Catholic teaching of Trent, although they would be horrified at this prospect. They come from another stream of the Reformation, the “holiness” tradition. They also highlight a weakness in Luther – not inherited by later Lutherans – his lack of emphasis on God’s call to be holy.

Faith Shaping Cultures

While his anatomy of human salvation seems unsatisfactory from a Catholic point of view, Luther does confront the dilemma of human existence. His understanding of the person is pessimistic, until you grasp how he places the “theo-drama” of salvation at the centre of our experience of good and evil. Therefore he has indirectly inspired much German and Scandinavian literature, theatre, television and films, with themes of human alienation, anguish, despair, faith and redemption.

Those who followed the confronting SBS Swedish detective series Wallender entered a gloomy Lutheran culture. Other televised detective stories reflect different religious cultures confronting the problem of evil and it is interesting to compare them.

In contrast to Wallender, in Midsomer Murders we enter the sunny world of an Anglican village, where good chaps and nice girls unfortunately encounter some unpleasant murderers. Agatha Christie’s Poirot operates in the light and shade of a Catholic world of saints and sinners. Here he is as much an indignant exorcist as a rational detective. On the other hand, Christie’s Miss Marple is wise old Lady Enlightenment, fighting evil with wit and reason. Luther distrusted reason.

The Right Question

Whatever cultures he influenced, Luther asked the right question, at least for people who believe in God. How can I be made right with God? But is that a twenty-first century question? Does it engage our search for meaning in a secularised world where God seems absent and aggressive atheism is spreading? Post-modern ideologies ignore grace, in any form, and even reject the Judaeo-Christian concept of a human nature, for example in the endless permutations and delusions of “gender theory”.

Evangelicals inspired by Luther say that he still asks the right question. This is why Catholic dialogue with Evangelicals and an “evangelical Catholicism” should be priorities today. I prefer the Second Vatican Council’s existential approach to the human dilemma, that each person is divided within (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 39), but Luther challenges me to bring God into the heart of this tragedy. Whatever we may believe and however we approach it, this is our shared tragedy, and Jesus Christ is the only one who resolves it. But does the Church have a role in salvation?

How he understood “the Church”

Luther never intended to found “a church” and his teaching on what constitutes the Church is rather vague. He argued that the members of the true Church are known only to God. While people need a visible institution with pastors and parishes, that is not the real spiritual church. Again we see him separating spiritual from material realities. Moreover, he taught that all believers are priests, so he seemed indifferent to the Catholic insistence on the apostolic succession of bishops. Except in Sweden, “bishop” was only the title of the leading Lutheran pastor.

The Sacraments

To Catholics his understanding of the sacraments also seems limited. Based on his interpretation of the New Testament, he taught that there are only three sacraments: Baptism, Penance and the Eucharist. This set him up as a target of St Thomas More, who ghosted Henry VIII’s defence of the seven sacraments against Luther. Some years passed and Henry’s marriage escapades conveniently drew him towards the reformer, yet the king always denied being a Lutheran.

Luther insisted on the Real Presence in the Eucharist, but he described this as “consubstantiation”, not a real change of bread and wine but bread and wine co-existing with the Presence of Christ, like fire in red-hot iron. Here we also find his dualism, matter containing some kind of spirit.

His belief in the Real Presence was modified by some of his successors. Luther also understood the Sacrifice of the Mass as only a sacrifice of thanksgiving, not the sacramental re-presentation of the Cross, offered for the living and the dead as the Church teaches. Luther rejected Purgatory.

Marriage in Luther’s Reform

When it came to Marriage, he wished to reform matrimonial law and morality in Germany. But in his teaching he moved backwards and forwards, now describing Marriage as a sacrament, then not a sacrament. Thirty years ago, during doctoral research in Rome, I struggled to find his real views on Marriage, also complicated by his role in a matrimonial case which scandalised Catholics.

He has been accused of permitting Philip of Hesse to enter a bigamous union in 1540. Whatever the truth of this complex matter, it only shows how dependent Luther and his followers were on the protection of powerful princes. At times that demanded costly compromises.

One point is clear. In his teaching and advice, Luther weakened the indissolubility of marriage, setting the course for a toleration of divorce and remarriage that unfortunately now characterises Protestants and even Anglicans.

However, is there any need for sacraments in Luther’s framework of justification by faith alone? If justification by faith alone happens in my mind and heart, why do I need to be baptised? Do I need the Eucharist? Is not the proclaimed Gospel word of God enough? Here he unwittingly initiated the unravelling of sacraments, taken further by Calvin, Zwingli and Cranmer. They logically concluded that sacraments are only symbols and memory-aids to inspire godly believers, but not the means of grace.

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