Luther: I honor the Roman Church. She is pious, has God’s Word and Baptism, and is holy
Myth #11: Luther thought that the Roman Church was no longer a true Christian Church
Luther: Are Those Who Defend the Roman Church Christians?
I recently re-read Luther's "Concerning Rebaptism" (1528) [LW 40:225-262]. It's an open letter in which Luther is apparently responding to two pastors in a Roman Catholic diocese that had asked him for help in dealing with anabaptist argumentation. One could read through this letter and think Luther was espousing a full-fledged ecumenical spirit with Roman Catholicism in general. Rather though, the document demonstrates that while the papacy (and those under the papacy) with the Lutherans (and even the anabaptists) share an inheritance of Christianity, Luther still advised that those under the papacy should flee the papacy. The papacy "is a work of wrath from which to flee, as other plagues also are works of God, but works of wrath and displeasure" (LW 40:256].
Some could read this document and think Luther considered all papists as fellow Christians. For instance, consider the following selective statements from Luther's open letter:
We on our part confess that there is much that is Christian and good under the papacy; indeed everything that is Christian and good is to be found there and has come to us from this source. For instance we confess that in the papal church there are the true holy Scriptures, true baptism, the true sacrament of the altar, the true keys to the forgiveness of sins, the true office of the ministry, the true catechism in the form of the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the articles of the creed . . . I speak of what the pope and we have in common . . . I contend that in the papacy there is true Christianity, even the right kind of Christianity and many great and devoted saints.
. . . The Christendom that now is under the papacy is truly the body of Christ and a member of it. If it is his body, then it has the true spirit, gospel, faith, baptism, sacrament, keys, the office of the ministry, prayer, holy Scripture, and everything that pertains to Christendom. So we are all still under the papacy and therefrom have received our Christian treasures.
. . . We do not rave as do the rebellious spirits, so as to reject everything that is found in the papal church. For then we would cast out even Christendom from the temple of God, and all that it contained of Christ.
I've dealt with this context before. I'd like to suggest that these comments, when placed back in their context, do not imply that those who knowingly defend the papacy are fellow Christians. Luther is not suggesting that any similarities he and the papists share bonds them together as Christian brothers with differences to be debated but not divided over.
What's fascinating about these comments is that Luther makes them under the guise of "appearing to be a papist again and flattering the pope" (LW 40:231). In this context, Luther speaks of how the pope "dissembles" his position towards the Lutherans, and how he likewise will "dissemble" his position on the papacy. To dissemble is to "Conceal one's true motives, feelings, or beliefs" or "Disguise or conceal (a feeling or intention)." Luther says that this is done by pointing out what is shared in common. Look at the full quote:
In the first place I hear and see that such rebaptism is undertaken by some in order to spite the pope and to be free of any taint of the Antichrist. In the same way the foes of the sacrament want to believe only in bread and wine, in opposition to the pope, thinking thereby really to overthrow the papacy. It is indeed a shaky foundation on which they can build nothing good. On that basis we would have to disown the whole of Scripture and the office of the ministry, which of course we have received from the papacy. We would also have to make a new Bible. Then, also, we would have to disavow the Old Testament, so that we would be under no obligation to the unbelieving Jews. And why the daily use of gold and goods which have been used by bad people, papists, Turks, and heretics? This, too, should be surrendered, if they are not to have anything good from evil persons.
The whole thing is nonsense. Christ himself came upon the errors of scribes and Pharisees among the Jewish people, but he did not on that account reject everything they had and thought (Matt. 23[:3]). We on our part confess that there is much that is Christian and good under the papacy; indeed everything that is Christian and good is to be found there and has come to us from this source. For instance we confess that in the papal church there are the true holy Scriptures, true baptism, the true sacrament of the altar, the true keys to the forgiveness of sins, the true office of the ministry, the true catechism in the form of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the articles of the creed. Similarly, the pope admits that we too, though condemned by him as heretics, and likewise all heretics, have the holy Scriptures, baptism, the keys, the catechism, etc. O how do you dissemble? How then do I dissemble? I speak of what the pope and we have in common. He on his part dissembles toward us and heretics and plainly admits what we and he have in common. I will continue to so dissemble, though it does me no good. I contend that in the papacy there is true Christianity, even the right kind of Christianity and many great and devoted saints. Shall I cease to make this pretense? [LW 40:231-232]The comparison of the scribes and Pharisees to the papacy is quite telling. Yes, within the papacy there is "true Christianity" if one speaks of what is shared in common, but it would be a mistake to think that by the things shared in common Luther believed devout papists were fellow-Christians. Luther goes on to point out that the pope was the Antichrist:
Listen to what St. Paul says to the Thessalonians [II Thess. 2:4]: “The Antichrist takes his seat in the temple of God.” If now the pope is (and I cannot believe otherwise) the veritable Antichrist, he will not sit or reign in the devil’s stall, but in the temple of God. No, he will not sit where there are only devils and unbelievers, or where no Christ or Christendom exist. For he is an Antichrist and must thus be among Christians. And since he is to sit and reign there it is necessary that there be Christians under him. God’s temple is not the description for a pile of stones, but for the holy Christendom (I Cor. 3[:17]), in which he is to reign. The Christendom that now is under the papacy is truly the body of Christ and a member of it. If it is his body, then it has the true spirit, gospel, faith, baptism, sacrament, keys, the office of the ministry, prayer, holy Scripture, and everything that pertains to Christendom. So we are all still under the papacy and therefrom have received our Christian treasures.
As a veritable Antichrist must conduct himself against Christendom, so the pope acts toward us: he persecutes us, curses us, bans us, pursues us, burns us, puts us to death. Christians need indeed to be truly baptized and right members of Christ if they are to win the victory in death over against the Antichrist. We do not rave as do the rebellious spirits, so as to reject everything that is found in the papal church. For then we would east out even Christendom from the temple of God, and all that it contained of Christ. But when we oppose and reject the pope it is because he does not keep to these treasures of Christendom which he has inherited from the apostles. Instead he makes additions of the devil and does not use these treasures for the improvement of the temple. Rather he works toward its destruction, in setting his commandments and ordinances above the ordinance of Christ. But Christ preserves his Christendom even in the midst of such destruction, just as he rescued Lot at Sodom, as St. Peter recounts (I Pet. 2 [II Pet. 2:6]). In fact both remain, the Antichrist sits in the temple of God through the action of the devil, while the temple still is and remains the temple of God through the power of Christ. If the pope will suffer and accept this dissembling of mine, then I am and will be, to be sure, an obedient son and devoted papist, with a truly joyful heart, and take back everything that I have done to harm him. (LW 40:232-233)Luther's next comment points out that those under the papacy are in grave danger of losing their souls. He expresses this by pointing out that when the anabaptists argue against the traditional understanding of the sacraments, they are taking away a means those under the papacy can use to save their souls:
In fact they remind us of what one brother in the forest of Thuringia did to the other. They were going through the woods with each other when they were set upon by a bear who threw one of them beneath him. The other brother sought to help and struck at the bear, but missed him and grievously wounded the brother under the bear. So these enthusiasts. They ought to come to the aid of Christendom which Antichrist has in his grip and tortures. They take a severe stand against the pope, but they miss their mark and murder the more terribly the Christendom under the pope. For if they would permit baptism and the sacrament of the altar to stand as they are, Christians under the pope might yet escape with their souls and be saved, as has been the case hitherto. But now when the sacraments are taken from them, they will most likely be lost, since even Christ himself is thereby taken away. Dear friend, this is not the way to blast the papacy while Christian saints are in his keeping. One needs a more cautious, discreet spirit, which attacks the accretion which threatens the temple without destroying the temple of God itself. (LW 40: 233-234).In other words, without the sacraments, what the papacy teaches does not save. If salvation comes to those in the Roman church of Luther's day, it was despite the papacy. Luther goes on to point out that the papacy was a persecutor of the gospel and Christians:
Thirdly, [the papacy] is not a work of God. For he exercises no office to the welfare of his subjects. Indeed, he persecutes the gospel and Christians, let alone that he ought to be a teacher and guardian. He only teaches his filth and poison as human notions, discards the gospel, even persecutes it, though without avail. He makes a sacrifice out of the sacrament, faith out of works, work out of faith. He forbids marriage, [and issues prohibitions concerning] food, seasons, clothes, and places, tie perverts and abuses all Christian treasures to the injury of souls, as we have sufficiently proved elsewhere. Since on all three counts the papacy is deficient, we must judge it as a pure human invention, which is not worthy of belief and is in no way comparable to the institutions of parenthood and government (LW 40:238-239).Luther goes on to state:
For where we see the work of God we should yield and believe in the same way as when we hear his Word, unless the plain Scripture tells us otherwise. I indeed am ready to let the papacy be considered as a work of God. But since Scripture is against it, I consider it as a work of God but not as a work of grace. It is a work of wrath from which to flee, as other plagues also are works of God, but works of wrath and displeasure (LW 40:266).Conclusion
When Luther spoke of the Roman Church, he had something much different in mind than most people do today. Luther made a sharp distinction between the Roman Church and the Papacy. Of Rome's leadership, Luther states:
Can anything be said that is more horrible than that the kingdom of the papists is the kingdom of those who spit upon and recrucify Christ, the Son of God? Christ, who once was crucified and rose again—Him they crucify in themselves and in the church, that is, in the hearts of the faithful. With their rebukes, slanders, and insults they spit at Him; and with their false opinions they pierce Him through, so that He dies most miserably in them. And in His place they erect a beautiful bewitchment, by which men are so demented that they do not acknowledge Christ as the Justifier, Propitiator, and Savior but think of Him as a minister of sin, an accuser, a judge, and a condemner, who must be placated by our works and merit. [LW 26:199-200].
Therefore let anyone who is seriously concerned about godliness flee this Babylon as quickly as possible, and let him be horrified at the very hearing of the name of the papacy. For its wickedness and abomination are so great that no one can describe them in words or evaluate them except with spiritual eyes [LW 26:201].For Luther, the papacy was something from which one should flee. Luther's opinion appears to be in part that since the Roman Church was given the scriptures, sacraments, etc., in that sense she is a Christian church. However, these elements functions quite independently from the Roman magisterium. No analogy is perfect, but if I had to describe Luther's position I would do so like this: The Roman church is like a pristine ship that's been commandeered by pirates. The ship still functions, but it's crew is in bondage to her captors. Some of the crew mutinies and joins the pirates. Others though, maintain allegiance to her rightful captain.
Luther concludes Concerning Rebaptism by stating, "Christ has faithfully stood by our side up to this point and will continue to trod Satan under our foot. He will protect you all against the seductions of your tyrant and Antichrist and mercifully help us to gain his freedom" (LW 40:262). Apparently, Luther thought these Roman pastors held allegiance to the rightful captain.
So for Luther, is the Roman church basically Christian? I can certainly understand why Luther, looking at the church of his day thought so. On the other hand, Luther certainly considered those who defend papalism as apostates. Consider his strong statement from 1541:
Here they might say and probably will say, “Why do you depict us shamefully as a new, apostate church, when we have baptism, the sacrament, the keys, the creed, and the gospels, just like the ancient church from which we derive? Haven’t you already admitted above that we, as well as you, derive from the ancient church?” I answer, “It is true, I admit, that the church in which you sit derives from the ancient church as well as we, and that you have the same baptism, the sacraments, the keys, and the text of the Bible and gospels. I will praise you even further and admit that we have received everything from the church before you (not from you). What more do you want? Are we not devout enough? Will you not call us henceforth unheretical? We do not regard you as Turks and Jews (as was said above) who are outside the church. But we say you do not remain in it but become the erring, apostate, whorelike church (as the prophets used to call it), which does not remain in the church, where it was born and brought up. You run away from this church and from your true husband and bridegroom (as Hosea says of the people of Israel [Hos. 1:2]) to the devil Baal, to Molech and Astaroth. Do you understand that?” I will explain. You were indeed all baptized in the true baptism of the ancient church, just as we were, especially as children. Now if a baptized child lives and then dies in his seventh or eighth year, before he understands the whorelike church of the pope, he has in truth been saved and will be saved—of that we have no doubt. But when he grows up, and hears, believes, and obeys your preaching with its lies and devilish innovations, then he becomes a whore of the devil like you and falls away from his baptism and bridegroom—as happened to me and others—building and relying on his own works, which is what you whoremongers preach in your brothels and devil’s churches; whereas, by contrast, the child is baptized to rely and build on his one dear bridegroom and Lord, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us. It is as if a devout man were to bring up a poor, young, servant beggar girl as his future bride and become betrothed to her, and she were to keep herself pure until she came to womanhood, and then turn her attentions elsewhere and look at other men who pleased her better, and let herself be persuaded by them and become passionately desirous of them, thus abandoning her true, devoted bridegroom, who had rescued, nourished, educated, clothed, adorned, and treated her well, and let herself be made a whore by everyone. This whore, who before was a pure virgin and dear bride, is now an apostate, erring, married whore, a house-whore, a bed-whore, a key-whore, being the mistress of the house, having the key, the bed, the kitchen, the cellar, and everything at her command. Yet she is so evil that beside her the common unattached whores, the pimp-whores, the whores of the field, the country, and the army are almost holy. For she is the true arch-whore and the true whore of the devil.
Of such a whore Hosea speaks, and Ezekiel indeed does so much more coarsely, in fact almost too coarsely, in chapter 23. You should read that if you want to know what kind of a whore your church is. For this is what I mean when I call you an apostate, erring whore—you who were baptized as children in the dear Lord and even lived some years like the ancient church. But when you grew up and reached the age of reason (as I and everyone else have done), you saw and heard the lovely ceremonies of the papal church, and also its glittering profit, honor, and power, yes, its magnificent holiness, the mighty worship, and all the yarns about the kingdom of heaven. Then you forgot your Christian faith, baptism, and sacrament, becoming the diligent pupils and young little whores (as the comedies say) the procuresses, the arch-whores, until you old whores once more make young whores. Thus the church of the pope, indeed, the church of the devil, grew, transforming many of Christ’s young virgins, who were born in baptism, into arch-whores. This, I hold, should be said in German, so that you and everyone can understand what we mean. For if you hold these innovations of yours to be a joke—you who neither have a God nor honor him—then it is something terrible and abominable before God. It is idolatry, murder, hell, and every calamity, which God cannot bear, so that he will damn the arch-whore for eternity. St. Peter prophesies about that when he speaks of you, that is, of such new prophets and churches in II Peter 2 [:18–19], “For, uttering loud boasts of folly, they entice with licentious passions of the flesh men who have barely escaped, and who must now walk in error. They promise them freedom, forgiveness, and indulgences, but they themselves are slaves of corruption.” And again, “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, the dog turns back to his own vomit, and the sow is washed only to wallow in the mire” [II Pet. 2:19–22]. That is what you are, and that is what I was. There you have your new apostate erring church sufficiently described in German and portrayed clearly enough for you to see. We acknowledge not only that you have, with us, come from the true church and been washed and made clean in baptism through the blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as St. Peter says here, but also that you are in the church and remain in it. Indeed, we say that you sit and rule in it as St. Paul prophesied in II Thessalonians 2 [:3–4], that the accursed Antichrist would sit (not in the cowshed), but in the temple of God. But you are no longer of the church, or members of the church, for in this holy church of God you are building your own new apostate church, the devil’s brothel with limitless whoredom, idolatry, and innovation, by which you corrupt those who have been baptized and redeemed along with yourselves. And you swallow them down through the jaws of hell into the abyss of hell itself, with a countless multitude, along with the terrible wailing and deep sorrow of those who see this with spiritual eyes and recognize it. (LW 41:207-210)What are the ramifications of Luther's view for Protestants today? Luther considering the Roman church to be basically Christian in some respects is not the same thing as Luther considering zealous defenders of Rome to be basically Christian. To confuse this is to dissemble, the very thing Luther pointed out in Concerning Rebaptism. In other words, if a zealous defender of Rome selectively uses Luther's words as a basis to promote inter-faith dialog between Romanism and Protestantism, Luther would consider such a person to be a papist, and in danger of hell.
I've been asked from time to time if I think Roman Catholics are fellow Christians. It certainly is possible that God has preserved a remnant of believers within the Roman church despite Trent's anathematizing the Gospel. On the other hand, of those who zealously defend Rome, I do not consider these people to be Christians. I think such people are those who need to be either evangelized or refuted. Luther refers to Rome's defenders as a "breed of men condemned long ago, with corrupted minds [1 Tim. 6:5]" (LW 60:216) .