Saturday, April 24, 2010

How Accurate was Exsurge Domine in Refuting Martin Luther?

Over on the Catholic Answers Apologetics forum, the question was recently asked, "Which of the 95 does Rome disagree with today?" Now if you've never read the Ninety Five Theses, you're in for a tough read. It isn't a document that makes a whole lot of sense if you're not familiar with the historical and theological background of the controversy between Luther and the Roman church.

But don't worry, I'm going to explain why you're not alone if you're not sure what was going on in the Ninety Five Theses or what exactly Luther was saying at the time that so infuriated Rome. It appears Rome wasn't sure either what exactly Luther was saying in some instances.

The Roman Church issued a document explaining why they rejected Luther's teaching: Exsurge Domine, and this was noted by the Catholic Answers participants: "But there is the original rebuttal made on June 15, 1520 by Pope Leo X. This was a papal encyclical entitled Exsurge Domine. This document outlined the Magisterium of the Catholic Church's findings of where Luther had erred." And another comment: "Why not read Exsurge Domine (Arise, O Lord), which was the Vatican's official response to the Ninety-Five Theses and other writing of Luther. It specifically demanded that Luther retract some 41 specific errors. Some of them were from the Ninety-Five Theses, some were not. It does not, however, break the Ninety-Five Theses down point-by-point."

Despite being a papal document, I would argue Exsurge Domine isn't really any sort of help. It certainly isn't any sort of infallible help, as Roman Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin recently explained. I would also point out that Rome's sharpest minds didn't quite know what was going on either when they put Exsurge Domine together. I recently came across a comment pertinent to the failure of Exsurge Domine:

As a legal document Exsurge Domine presumed the theological refutations provided by Prierias, Cajetan, and, most demonstrably, Eck. The brief denunciations and an incomplete statement of Luther's teachings provide little opportunity for determining the finer points of magisterial objections to the reformer (Hillerbrand 1969, 108-112). The document contains no hierarchy of condemnation, never distinguishing which of the forty-one errors are heretical doctrinally and which are merely "offensive to pious ears" [Gregory Sobolewski, Martin Luther Roman Catholic Prophet (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2001), pp. 67-68].

Now digest the weight of this statement. It claims Exsurge Domine "contains no hierarchy of condemnation," and "never distinguishing which of the forty-one errors are heretical doctrinally and which are merely "offensive to pious ears."

For me though, the most interesting tidbit in this snippet is the word "Hillerbrand." This refers to an article by Hans Hillerbrand, "Martin Luther and the Bull Exsurge Domine (Theological Studies 30:108-112). the magic of the Internet never ceases to amaze, because here is the article, Martin Luther and the Bull Exsurge Domine (PDF alert). This is a fascinating short article, documenting how imprecisely Rome's theologians quoted and understood Luther's writings. Here are few interesting excerpts:

"There is agreement among most Reformation scholars that the Bull Exsurge Domine of June 15, 1520, which threatened Martin Luther with excommunication, constitutes a strange document and an evasive assessment of Luther's theological concerns."

"An additional weakness of the document was that it refrained from identifying the specific censures for the forty-one propositions."

Hillerbrand then lists a number of mistakes made in Exsurge Domine when it attempted to document Luther's errors. Here are a few excerpts:

Proposition 25, which pertains to the primacy of the Roman pontiff, cannot be located in any of Luther's writings prior to 1520.

Proposition 4...took two of the 95 Theses (Thesis 14, "Imperfecta ... magnum timorem," and Thesis 15, "Hie timor et horror satis est se solo... faceré poenam purgatorii"), and added, as a final clause, a passage from the Resolutions which read "horror ipse mortis... etiam se solo impedit introitum regni."7 It would seem that the "new" sentence does not precisely agree with Luther's own formulations.

Proposition 5 confined itself to a quotation of the opinion of others.

Proposition 20 condensed a lengthy statement from the Resolutions...This assertion does not express Luther's sentiment and overlooks the fact that the concrete setting of Tetzel's proclamation rather than the undefined doctrine of indulgences precipitated
the 95 Theses.

Proposition 33...forged one sentence out of two disjointed ones in Luther. Again, the quotation overlooked that Luther expressly referred to St. Jerome as guide for his own view.

In proposition 30 Luther was incorrectly quoted.

Proposition 37 changed Luther's "quod in universa scriptura non habeatur memoria purgatorii" into "purgatorium non potest probari ex sacra Scriptura."18 Again, one must take note of a divergence in meaning, if Luther's sense is taken to be that the word "purgatory" does not occur in Scripture.

Proposition 41, which rejected Luther's notion that the authorities "non male facerent, si omnes saceos mendicitatis delerent," was evidently understood as an attack upon the mendicant orders, but was in Luther a social concern that had to do with begging as such.

These are but a few of the many errors listed by Hillerbrand. I strongly suggest bookmarking this article if you're engaged in Reformation research, or discussions with Roman Catholics. Hillerbrand concludes:

In sum, no less than twelve of the forty-one propositions did not accurately quote Luther or cannot be taken to express his sentiment. While this leaves the majority of the propositions still intact, this fact does introduce a note of uncertainty.

Any consideration of the Bull Exsurge Domine raises varied and far-reaching questions that go beyond the modest scope of what was attempted here: Are the 41 condemned propositions a fair summary of Luther's teaching? If so, was his thought truly incompatible with the norms of the Catholic Church? We have already cited the scholarly consensus which answers this question negatively, if for no other reason than that the theologically weightier pronouncements on the part of Luther came only after 1520.

By the way, before someone points a finger at Hillerbrand, note that he was a partial editor / translator for Exsurge Domine for that version used on the Papal Encyclicals website, and linked to by the Catholic Answers participants: "Webmaster comment: This added text in italics was obtained from a secondary source, translator Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed. "The Reformation in its own Words" (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1964), pp80-84."


Nick said...

It is a difficult situation for many reasons, as you've noted. I'd say the two biggest are that (1) it's unclear which were condemned on doctrinal grounds versus practical grounds (i.e. 'offensive to pius ears') and (2) what sources of Luther's were being referenced.

Luther wrote and said more than most in Christian history, and even changed his mind various times (e.g. the 95 didn't condemn indulgences, only the abusive selling), so it's mostly speculation to say ExDom didn't accurately represent him 12 of 41 times.

EA said...

According to Jimmy Akin, we can't know which of the 41 "errors" referred to in this particular papal bull are either" heretical", "false", or "contrary to the Catholic faith".

Let's consider this for a moment. The epistemic advantage claimed by Roman Catholics is the Infallible Majesterium. Yet in the 500 years since Luther published his 95 Theses, the Infallible Guide of the Faithful has yet to define which of Luther's Theses fall outside the bounds of the Catholic Faith. The theological "innovations" that caused the biggest rift in Christendom have yet to be separated into categories as foundational as "false" and "not false". Where's that certainty when you really need it?

EA said...

See, that's what happens when you act as your own pope.

Thanks Andrew, that clears up my confusion. Wow, this thinking sure is hard. I'm done with that.

rmw2013 said...

Here is the updated link to that pdf document describing the discrepencies of the Bull:

James Swan said...

Thanks for the updated link.

John Thoits said...

Interesting writing on the Exsurge Domine. I just read most of it (I gleaned over about two thirds of the propositions) and was trying to figure out what it meant. You make some good points, particularly that it seemed that the Roman Church didn't understand exactly what was going on with Luther. That would fit their complaint that he wouldn't agree to see them face-to-face (which would have cleared up some confusion I'm sure). I think I've concluded that the Exsurge Domine was only a response to the 95 theses in as much as it was a condemnation of the errors of Luther. It's purpose is not to rebut any arguments, we'll have to look elsewhere for defense of the condemnation.