Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Luther's View of Church Councils (1)

I've been meaning to post some information on Luther's view on Church councils. I'd like to begin in a place many wouldn't expect, with one of Luther's earliest biographers and arch-enemies, Johannes Cochlaeus. The excerpt below is from the Book, Luther's Lives.

Keep in mind, one of the paradigm's Cochlaeus used to evaluate Luther was to use Luther’s own words, set up in such a way that they appeared contradictory and absurd. Cochlaeus divided up the life of Luther into seven distinct periods, each represented by one of the heads on the monster. Each head held a contradictory opinion to the other. Cochlaeus explains:

“Thus all brothers emerge from the womb of one and the same cowl by a birth so monstrous, that none is like the other in either behavior, shape, face or character. The elder brothers, Doctor and Martinus, come closest to the opinion of the Church, and they are to be believed above all the others, if anything anywhere in Luther's books can be believed with any certainty at all. Lutherus, however, according to his surname, plays a wicked game just like Ismael [lat. ludere—Luder, Saxon pronunciation for Luther]. Ecclesiastes tells the people who are always keen on novelties, pleasant things. Svermerns rages furiously and errs in the manner of Phaeton throughout the skies. Barrabas is looking for violence and sedition everywhere. And at the last, Visitator, adorned with a new mitre and ambitious for a new papacy, prescribes new laws of ceremonies, and many old ones which he had previously abolished—revokes, removes, reduces. This is the sum of my book.”

Here is the excerpt from Cochlaeus explaining Luther's view on councils from his chapter on the year of Luther's life, 1523:

"[Luther] in another pamphlet, using the most shameful flatteries and the crudest pretexts of Scripture, he set up the German common people as the judges of doctrines and decrees — not only decrees of the Pope and the Bishops, but also of the General Council. For, among other things, he said as follows:

'In business of this sort, namely in judging doctrines and in appointing and removing teachers, or caretakers of souls, it is by no means appropriate to pay attention to human laws, rights, habits, usage, or custom, etc.; whether a matter has been so ordained by the Pope, or by the Emperor, by Princes or Bishops; whether the whole world, or half the world, has held to it; whether it has lasted one year or a thousand years. For the soul of a human being is an eternal thing, and above all that is temporal; therefore, it ought to be ruled only by the eternal Word.'

And again, The words and doctrines of men'(he said)'have decided and ordained that judgment about doctrine should be entrusted to Bishops, Teachers, and Councils; and that all the world should accept whatever these people have decided as a law and as an article of faith. But see how shamelessly and foolishly this vainglory of theirs, through which they have placed the entire world under a yoke, fights against God's Law and Word. For Christ decreed precisely the opposite, and took the right and the power of judging doctrines away from any Bishops, Teachers, or councils at all, giving both of these universally to each and every Christian. For he says, in John 10, "My sheep know my voice," and again, "My sheep do not follow strangers, but flee from them, for they do not know the strangers' voice," and again, "However many came, they are thieves and robbers: my sheep do not hear them."

Here you see entirely clearly whose the right of judging doctrines is. A Bishop, the Pope, the learned, and anyone else at all have the power of teaching; but the sheep must judge, whether these men teach the voice of Christ, or that of strangers. I ask, how can Bulls about waters contradict this, Bulls which clamor, "Councils, Councils - Bishops, teachers, and everyone must listen to the councils"? Do you think that the Word of God should yield to your usage, your custom, your bishops? Never. For who does not here see that all bishops,colleges, monasteries, universities, with their whole community, rage against this plain word of Christ; who does not see how shamelessly they take the judgment of doctrines away from the sheep, so that they may hand it over to themselves, through their own decrees and acts of boldness? Therefore, they most certainly must be considered as robbers and thieves, as wolves and Apostate Christians, as people who - as has here manifestly been proven against them - not only deny the Word of God but even decree and act in opposition to it, as befits the Antichrist. They create the Antichrist's Kingdom, according to St Paul's prophecy in 2 Thessalonians 2.'And below: 'Owing to their seditious delusion, Paul concludes, as one certain of victory, that for this reason alone those who lord it over us, and teach us contrary to God's word and will more than deserve to be driven out of Christendom and to be avoided as wolves, thieves, and robbers.'"


Tim Enloe said...
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Tim Enloe said...

As I argue at some length in my own paper about Luther's view of Councils, the papalist propaganda that Luther is combatting regarding the appeal to and authority of Councils is very hypocritical counsel.

Luther was faced with a papacy that, no joke, believed itself to be god on earth--a papacy whose occupants had no intention whatsoever of backing down from their unreasonable, divisive, and destructive claims of personal power and prestige. They had no concern for the souls under their care, but were too busy fornicating and hunting and warring over their feudal territories to do the job their rhetoric said God had called them to do, and they would brook no interference whatsoever with their whims. No rational justification was required for their pontifications. People were just supposed to do whatever they said regardless of how it conflicted with any other authority. It was an out of control, self-absorbed and self-referential tyranny that numerous people from bishops to priests to laymen for several hundred years prior had come to believe was wrecking "the Barque of Peter" (the ship of the Church) and had to be stopped.

Luther was also faced with radical fanatics, unbalanced polemicists who couldn't see the forest of for the trees of antiquated feudal assumptions about authority. In Luther's day, the appeal by papalists to a Council really amounted to an appeal by papalists to the pope, for no authority could be above the pope or in any sense judge the pope. Examine the Fifth Lateran Council and the manipulative, power-mad politicking of Pope Julius II in relation to it for an idea of what papalists meant when they appealed to Councils.

Interestingly, Luther was not engaging in novelties by opposing this view of papal power. The "backstory" of conciliar supremacy over the pope is long and interesting, and very much needs to be understood by us Protestants.