Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Revisiting Luther's Outrageous Statements on Being a "Prophet"

Recently I spent some time with this Luther snippet:

I say not that I am a prophet, but I do say that the more they despise me and esteem themselves, the more reason they have to fear that I may be a prophet . . . If I am not a prophet, yet for my own self I am certain that the Word of God is with me and not with them, for I have the Scriptures on my side, and they have only their own doctrine. This gives me courage, so that the more they despise and persecute me, the less I fear them. (An Argument in Defense of All the Articles of Dr. Martin Luther Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull, 1521; from: Works of Martin Luther [PE], Vol. III, 12-14; translated by C. M. Jacobs)

The person who posted this quote put up another quote of similar content, cited with a similar reference. As part of my general practice, not only do I try to read quotes like this in context, I also try to determine where the particular extract came from. That is, which secondary source is being used? Many Catholics who frequent discussion boards haven't actually read Luther, they typically are doing a cut-and-paste from a website of secondary citations. I had my suspicions about where the above quote (and the others being posted) came from. I asked,

I'm about 99.9% sure you're getting the Luther material in this discussion thread from a secondary source, rather than actually reading Luther's treatises and extracting these type of quotes. I'm about 99.5% sure it's the work of a particular Romanist apologist, based on the method of bibliographic citation, and that the quotes are from the PE set (a set currently on my desk). To save me some time, could you please give me either the link to his material you're using, or if it's one of his books, let me know which one? If I'm wrong about it being an this Romanist's extract, my apologies. If it's another Catholic source, I'd be very interested in seeing who's quoting PE, rather than the Concordia set.

The response:

You are correct, it was from his book on Luther. Maybe if I had taken the quote from my 34 page Word version of "An Argument -....." we could have avoided this obligatory "source" discussion. In fact though, if you need any portion of "An Argument -", just let me know and I will post it.

In the context of the quote, Luther argues at times in church history, the one stands against the many. To get an overview of the context and what Luther was saying, see my earlier entry. It's enough though, for the sake of this entry, to keep "the one stands against the many" in mind.

The Romanist source gives a broader context for the above snippet in his book. One should be able to make out Luther's argument, more-or-less from his citation. The Romanist source though isn't providing this quote to explain Luther's argument in context. Rather, he utilizes it to prove the following: Martin Luther’s Extraordinary (and Arbitrary) Claims Regarding His Own Authority. The quote is put forth to help demonstrate:

"The early Protestants (quintessentially with Martin Luther himself) were claiming infallibility (in a sense that will be explained as I proceed) in far more sweeping and revolutionary terms than any pope ever did."

"Luther’s “certain” claims are in fact (however he or his followers may characterize them) far more “infallibilist” than any Catholic claims."

"Protestants changed the rule of faith to sola Scriptura and private judgment, with the corollaries of perspicuity of Scripture and the primacy of the individual conscience over ecclesiastical binding authority, which meant that the highest authority was Scripture as interpreted by the individual -- hopefully illumined by the Holy Spirit, but still the primacy of the individual over against ecclesial bodies, when push comes to shove."

"Martin Luther didn't need trifles as insignificant as the decree of an ecumenical council to justify himself. He simply assumed his prophetic call and proceeded on, undaunted by precedent and Church authority alike, if it went against his "judgment," which, of course, also was "God’s" and not his own.

"...[Luther] considered himself some sort of infallible, unquestionable theological / spiritual guide or authority."

So with these qualifiers, Luther's actual point gets buried by the Romanist's polemical context. It's no wonder the guy on the discussion board missed Luther's point.

What's interesting to me is that many Roman Catholics will admit that Luther made some very accurate and good points about the state of the Church and the abuses present. They may even admit that Luther stood alone, and was mistreated by the papacy in the indulgence controversy. Many will admit that Rome eventually worked toward fixing some of the abuses at Trent. In other words, Luther's argument that sometimes the one stands against the many is valid, even to an extent, from a Roman Catholic perspective, in the case of Luther. The Romanist himself states in his book,

"Many things could have been different if Catholics had acted against various corruptions sooner. No one disputes that. Of course the Catholic Church needed to be reformed in the 16th century."

"The Catholic Church had its own reform shortly afterwards, in the form of the Council of Trent."

"Some, even many aspects of the Protestant Revolt were indeed on the right track..."

"Even the doctrine of indulgences (that had become corrupt and was later reformed by the Catholic Church)..."

"It is also said that Luther’s case against indulgences was clear-cut and unambiguous: that the Catholic Church was in the wrong, through and through. There were indeed abuses, and the Church dealt strongly with them -- to that extent we might be grateful to Luther as a 'precipitating cause.'"

But of course, there were many more factors at play. It may have begun with indulgences, but Luther went further. Recall, previous to Trent, there was not an official Roman definition of justification. There was no complete dogma on the indulgence when Luther posted the 95 Theses. There was no official doctrine as to the effect of the indulgence upon Purgatory. Rather than the allowed debate and dialog, Rome attacked with all its might. Sure, Rome tried a little bit, but it was much easier to simply declare him a heretic. The Romanist claims Rome had "ecclesiastical binding authority"- yet, unless he can produce the infallible standards by which Luther was to abide by, particularly for the doctrines previously mentioned, he's engaging in anachronism.

Yes, it's true, Luther appealed to the Scriptures as the only infallible authority to be trusted. But even in the document the Romanist pulled the quote from, Luther appeals to Cyprian, Jerome, Lombard's Sentences, a hymn from Aquinas, to name just a few. He argues from both Scripture and Church history- mentioning earlier heretical movements like the Donatists, and more recent controversial persons like Jan Hus. Of course, for Luther, Scripture is the infallible authority, church fathers are not. This doesn't mean though that history isn't important.

Some of you may think checking secondary citations isn't important, but if this person on the discussion board had first read the context in the Luther treatise the citation was pulled from, perhaps he wouldn't have used it. Luther was using the term "prophet" in a particular way, making a particular argument. He wasn't claiming to be receiving extra-biblical revelation, or predicting the future. He wasn't claiming to be an infallible source of revelation, nor was he appealing to some sort of subjectivist set of feelings. He was stating that at times in the history of the church, the one stands against the many. That's why Luther includes not only Old Testament prophets in his argument, but Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine.

From reading the Luther-snippet, you'd never know that the quote is part of a fairly simple opening argument. Then, throughout the treatise this quote comes from, Luther appealed to the Bible to prove his case. He also appealed (to a lesser extent) to historical personages and events within the history of the church. All of these were put forth as evidence to be evaluated by the reader, be they Roman Catholic or Protestant. The arguments weren't "right" because Luther said so, they were "right" if one followed his carefully laid out argumentation, and checked his facts.

Ironically, many Catholic apologists do the same thing in their books. One is to read them, and evaluate the argumentation. Some of their books don't even have Rome's official stamp of approval. They often appeal to Scripture as an infallible authority on verses that have not been dogmatically defined by Rome. Do we then argue against them as they do us, that they are appealing to their own subjective opinions of the Bible? Well, in terms of pointing out the double standard, yes. But to apply a correct standard, one should evaluate their Biblical argumentation exegetically. This was what Luther was asking for of his Catholic contemporaries. To simply dismiss his writing as claims of infallibility, or putting forth the primacy of the individual conscience is missing not only the context of this quote, but the entire Reformation as well.

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