Was Martin Luther (substantially) Right?
by Anthony Egan SJ
Five hundred years ago the Church was a mess. Ordinary Christians – most of them illiterate and poorly catechised – practiced a mix of piety and superstition. The average clergy were unevenly trained; some barely understood the Latin they used for Mass. Many bishops and even popes misused their position for financial gain. Pope Leo X authorised the sale of indulgences to fundraise the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Outraged a zealous German Augustinian monk-academic named Martin Luther produced a series of theological questions for debate on 31 October 1517. According to legend he pinned these Ninety-Five Theses on the door of All Saints Church, Wittenberg. The intellectual dispute over whether salvation was earned (or in the case of indulgences, bought) or a free gift of God escalated into a crisis that became the Reformation.
Luther, like Catholic reformers before and after him, as well as a few contemporaries (including Desiderius Erasmus and Ignatius Loyola, who remained in the fold) simply wanted the Church to clean up its act. But faced with an institution unwilling to change, unwilling it seemed to him to even discuss change, he decided to break from it.
Looking back to Luther, I see aspects of his thought that are repugnant (specifically his virulent antisemitism), some things debateable (i.e. deserving careful and critical discussion), but much that is worth considering.
No serious Christian can disagree with his emphasis on the centrality of Scripture, its careful interpretation and the need for all of us to be able to read it in our own languages. Similarly, while we can debate his theological interpretation of the Eucharist, few can disagree with his defence of frequent reception of communion – under both kinds. And in his insistence on personal moral conscience we must not only agree, but remember that in this he was reiterating Thomas Aquinas before him and anticipating the Second Vatican Council by 450 years.
Above all, we can only agree with Luther’s affirmation, rooted in Scripture and tradition, that we are saved by God’s grace alone and out of thankful experience of grace we do our good works. In 1999 the Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith of the Catholic Church and Lutheran World Federation in fact confirmed this. Many Catholic and Lutheran scholars have observed that this single largest stumbling block to reunion between our traditions has been removed.
This month as many celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation we all need to take stock. We need to reflect on the ways in which superstitions still get in the way of faith, on the limitations of theological education for clergy and laity, and of corrupt financial practices within our traditions that exploit Christians today. And we need to recommit ourselves to the process of reunion of the Church.
Let’s be honest: in many ways, we are still in a mess. We are always in need of reformation. But now, as then, do we listen to the reformers among us before it’s too late?