The Witness of Martin Luther to the Catholic Church of Today

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As an introduction to this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Catholic Church, under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), prepared and published the following statement [full text here]:

In 1517 Martin Luther raised concerns about what he saw as abuses in the Church of his time by making public his 95 theses. 2017 is the 500th anniversary of this key event in the reformation movements that marked the life of the Western Church over several centuries. This event has been a controversial theme in the history of inter-church relations in Germany, not least over the last few years. The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) has been building up to this anniversary since 2008, by focusing each year on one particular aspect of the Reformation, for example: the Reformation and Politics, or the Reformation and Education. The EKD also invited its ecumenical partners at various levels to help commemorate the events of 1517.

After extensive, and sometimes difficult, discussions, the churches in Germany agreed that the way to commemorate ecumenically this Reformation event should be with a Christusfest – a Celebration of Christ. If the emphasis were to be placed on Jesus Christ and his work of reconciliation as the center of Christian faith, then all the ecumenical partners of the EKD (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite and others) could participate in the anniversary festivities.

Given the fact that the history of the Reformation was marked by painful division, this is a very remarkable achievement. The Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity has worked hard to produce a shared understanding of the commemoration. Its important report, From Conflict to Communion, recognizes that both traditions approach this anniversary in an ecumenical age, with the achievements of fifty years of dialogue behind them, and with new understandings of their own history and theology. Separating that which is polemical from the theological insights of the Reformation, Catholics are now able to hear Luther’s challenge for the Church of today, recognising him as a “witness to the gospel” (From Conflict to Communion 29). And so after centuries of mutual condemnations and vilification, in 2017 Lutheran and Catholic Christians will for the first time commemorate together the beginning of the Reformation.

The particular phrase that caught my attention is the declaration, citing From Conflict to Communion (another document produced by the PCPCU with the Lutheran World Federation), that “Catholics are now able to hear Luther’s challenge for the Church of today, recognising him as a ‘witness to the gospel'”. This statement is both stunning and exciting. It is true, of course, that those who have kept a close eye on the trajectory of the Catholic Church since Vatican II may not be surprised, as is even evident in the aforementioned From Conflict to Communion [full text here]:

28. In light of the renewal of Catholic theology evident in the Second Vatican Council, Catholics today can appreciate Martin Luther’s reforming concerns and regard them with more openness than seemed possible earlier.

29. Implicit rapprochement with Luther’s concerns has led to a new evaluation of his catholicity, which took place in the context of recognizing that his intention was to reform, not to divide, the church. This is evident in the statements of Johannes Cardinal Willebrands and Pope John Paul II.(7) The rediscovery of these two central characteristics of his person and theology led to a new ecumenical understanding of Luther as a “witness to the gospel.”

Although post-Vatican II Catholicism seems to have been primed for a recognition of Luther as a witness to the gospel, this is without doubt a stunning development when considered from the perspective of the 450 years or so of preceding history. Who could have imagined, after the harsh polemic and vitriol of the 16th century, that the Church which excommunicated and anathematized Luther would laud him as a witness to the gospel nearly a half-millennium later? What can account for this change? It is obviously not because Luther finally recanted! No, it can only mean that something has indeed changed in the Catholic Church itself, a change that, however small, is finally permitting the voice of Luther’s witness to the gospel to be heard on the other side of the Tiber.

To this I can only exclaim “Praise God!” It is undeniable that problems and differences, some of which are staggering in significance and scope, still remain between Catholics and Protestants. Yet as Jesus indicated in his parables, the gospel of the kingdom that will one day fill the whole earth starts, like a seed, with such small beginnings. We should not, as the prophet Zechariah admonished Israel, “despise the day of small things” (4:10), for it is in the small things that God demonstrates the greatness of his power.

As exciting as it is to read an official Catholic document that acknowledges Martin Luther to be a witness of the gospel to whom Catholics today can listen, I believe that it is premature to declare the Reformation to be over on its 500th anniversary. From the perspective of historic Protestantism, much reforming work still needs to be done in order to fully align the Western Church under the banner of Luther’s call to sola gratiasola fide, and solus Christus.

I do not want to sound naive or idealistic, nor do I want to exaggerate what has occurred, but I do want to give full credence to the power of the gospel on which Luther staked his entire life’s work. Who is to say that this day of small things — the Catholic Church’s recognition that Luther is a true “witness to the gospel” — does not mark the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the one Church of Jesus Christ? I, for one, am certainly praying that it is. Only time will tell.

The challenge for many Catholics, however, will be to heed the example and teaching of the Church — whose authority they claim to uphold — by laying down their rhetorical weapons and starting to actually listen to Luther rather than brandishing him as a heretic and schismatic without further adieu. The question that remains in my mind is this: will such Catholics persist in following the example of Charles V at the Diet of Worms in regarding Luther as “a notorious heretic”, or will they be willing to listen to him, indeed as their own Church encourages them to do, as “a witness to the gospel”? My hope and prayer is that they (along with Protestants as well!) will lend an attentive ear to words which preface their own Church’s From Conflict to Communion:

In 2017, Catholic and Lutheran Christians will most fittingly look back on events that occurred 500 years earlier by putting the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center. The gospel should be celebrated and communicated to the people of our time so that the world may believe that God gives Godself to human beings and calls us into communion with Godself and God’s church. Herein lies the basis for our joy in our common faith.

To this joy also belongs a discerning, self-critical look at ourselves, not only in our history, but also today. We Christians have certainly not always been faithful to the gospel; all too often we have conformed ourselves to the thought and behavioral patterns of the surrounding world. Repeatedly, we have stood in the way of the good news of the mercy of God.

Both as individuals and as a community of believers, we all constantly require repentance and reform—encouraged and led by the Holy Spirit. “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Thus reads the opening statement of Luther’s 95 Theses from 1517, which triggered the Reformation movement.

Although this thesis is anything but self-evident today, we Lutheran and Catholic Christians want to take it seriously by directing our critical glance first at ourselves and not at each other. We take as our guiding rule the doctrine of justification, which expresses the message of the gospel and therefore “constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ” (Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification).

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