Saturday, November 14, 2009

Luther: I honor the Roman Church. She is pious, has God’s Word and Baptism, and is holy

Here's a tidbit from David Waltz. He cites this Luther quote against "individuals who believe/maintain that the Catholic Church is not a Christian church":

What I find quite interesting is the fact that one of the most vehement critics of the Catholic Church, after years (20+) of polemical attacks, could state the following:

I honor the Roman Church. She is pious, has God’s Word and Baptism, and is holy. (Martin Luther, from his sermon on Matt. 21:42, D. Martin Luther’s Werke, Vol. 47.425* – also know as the Weimar edition; English trans. from What Luther Says, p. 126.)

Mr. Waltz also linked to the Weimar edition here.

I have a copy of the actual source he utilized: What Luther Says. The entire entry says a bit more. It reads:

Catholic Church
See also Church, Papacy

LUTHER always recognize an essential difference between Catholics and papists, between those who held the one, universal (catholic) faith of the children of God in Christ and those who accepted the perversions of this faith by the papal hierarchy. To the leaders of this hierarchy the Reformer does not hesitate to apply Matt. 21:42. They are the builders who have rejected the Stone, Christ.

368 Roman Catholic Church vs. the Papal Hierarchy
I honor the Roman Church. She is pious, has God's Word and Baptism, and is holy. But the Roman court, the pope, who is the bishop in this court, is the devil's bishop and the devil himself, nay, the filth with which the devil has defiled the church.1 (W 47, 425- E 44, 296 - SL 1112)

Luther makes a distinction between the Roman church and the papal hierarchy (see What Luther Says, entry 370). The editor, Ewald Plass goes on to say, "while scoring papal innovations, Luther never ceased to confess indebtedness to the Church of Rome and to regard it as a Christian organization... Between the Church of Rome and the Lutheran Church a relation exists similar to that which once existed between the Jewish Church and the apostolic Christian Church..." (What Luther Says, Vol. 1 p. 128). Plass cites Luther stating:

"We ourselves confess and concede that they are in the right church, have the office which was given by Christ, and which the apostles gave them as a heritage- the office to teach, baptize, administer the Sacrament, absolve, ordain, etc.. ... We allow all this to be right and do not call the office in question, although they do not want to admit that the same obtains among us. In fact, we confess that we have received these things from them, as Christ Himself came from the Jews according to His birth and the apostles found the Scriptures among the Jews" (Ibid.).

Plass then quotes the following from Luther explaining about believers within the Roman Church:
"All of you are certainly baptized, especially in childhood, with the true Baptism of the ancient church, as we are; and those who, thus baptized, lived for seven or eight years and then died before understanding the spiritual adultery of the pope's church were certainly saved and are still saved. This we do not doubt at all. But when they grow up and hear, believe, and follow the lies of your devilish innovations, they become the devil's harlots together with you and fall away from their Baptism and their Bridegroom, as happened to me and others" (Ibid.).

Plass points out that Luther believed despite the papacy, salvation was possible for adults as well , but this not because of the papacy (see entry 374). Within even the papacy God preserved a remnant (see entry 3216, 3217) by His own power.

In entry 375, Plass quotes Luther on why he could refer to the Roman church as "holy":

"Thus, we, too, nowadays call the Roman Church holy and all the bishoprics holy, although their faith has been undermined and all the bishops and their servants are godless. For God rules in the midst of His enemies (Ps. 110:2); again, Antichrist sits in the temple of God (2 Thess. 2:4), and Satan is present in the midst of the children of God (Job 1:6). Therefore, even though the church is 'in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation,' as Paul says in his Epistle to the Philippians (2:15), even though it is in the midst of wolves and robbers, that is, spiritual tyrants, it nevertheless is the church. Although the city of Rome is worse than Sodom and Gomorrah, yet Baptism, the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, the reading (vox) and text of the Gospel, Holy Scriptures, the ministry, the name of Christ, and the name of God remain in her. Those who have made these their own have them; those who have not done so are not excused, for the treasure is there."

And finally, Plass explains that Luther held it was not easy to find "the treasure" in the papacy "because they have turned the Gospel, the light of liberty, into a law of correct living. Thus they have externalized and formalized Christianity."

Plass also cross-references this section to Luther's comments on the papacy. Luther's scathing comments on the papacy go on for a number of pages. For instance:

3238 "Come Out of Her, My People" (Rev. 18:4)Can anything more horrible be said than that the kingdom of the papists is the kingdom of those who spit at Christ, the Son of God, and crucify Him anew? For they do crucify Christ... in themselves, in the church, and in the hearts of the faithful. ...Therefore let everyone who is honestly given to piety flee out of this Babylon as quickly as possible, and let him tremble at the very name of the papacy. For so great are its impiety and its abomination that no one can express them in words; they can be discerned only by eyes that are spiritual."

I actually posted a similar blog article on this topic a few years back: Luther: The Infallible Church Declared The Contents of Scripture?
Luther's opinion appears to be in part that since the Roman Church was given the Scriptures, Sacraments, etc., that in that sense it is a Christan church (see also his reasoning above). 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. Perhaps some of the crew mutinies and joins the pirates. Others though, maintain allegiance to her rightful captain.

Since Rome officially anathematized the Gospel at Trent, I don't consider her part of the Catholic Church. The debate on this amongst the reformed still goes on. In fact, it was debated by James White and Douglas Wilson: Are Roman Catholics Our Brothers and Sisters in Christ? . Here would be a good example of something I part company with Luther on, and even many of my Reformed friends. I don't think the papacy can be extracted from the Church of Rome and still have the term "Church of Rome"make sense. Ironically, I would argue similarly as Luther did, that even though the Israelites were given such things like the oracles of God (Romans 3:1-4), their rejection of Christ cuts them off from the church. In the same way, a rejection of the Gospel by the Roman Church cuts them off from the church (Galatians 1:8-9).

The contexts of the Luther quotes above cited by Plass from W 47, 425 are scheduled to be translated into English in a forthcoming volume of Luther' Works [4.9 Matth. 18-24 in Predigten ausgelegt / Sermons on Matthew 18-24 (1537-1540). Aland 477.WA 47:232-627]. The quotes appear to be from an exposition of Matthew 21.


Anonymous said...


Does your position lend support to those who say the "Roman Church" is as old as the "papacy" ? If it does, would that place the papacy near the origins of chistianity ?

I think this would create difficulty for Catholics (not Roman) in ascertaining the time when the Roman Church rejected Christ. In the case of apostate Jews, scripture helps determine the time.

Ben said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edward Reiss said...

Ben M,

I checked your post, and frankly it consisted of little more than vigorous assertion coupled with selected quotes from "the" Fathers. In my experience, those who throw around "the"Fathers as if they are a theologically coherent whole that happens to agree with your POV. Unfortunately, things are much more complicated than that.

To illustrate this, just watch an EO and RC go at it about the papacy, or whether grace is an uncreated energy of God or a created accident infused into our nature.

Now, getting back to the main topic, the problem is that the RCs in question assume RC Hierarchy=Church, which is not the Lutheran view. So, if luther "approves" of the Church, he approves of the hierarchy. While he doe smention the "offices given by Christ" h does not mean the hierarchy, but the actual ministers at the churches. The Lutheran view is that the Church is gathered around the Gospel. So, even though the papacy obscures the Gospel, they still have Baptism and Holy Communion, and even teach the Gospel on occasion. In that sense they are "church", but not in the RC sense.

I do not think Luther was giving a plenary blessing on the RCC, nor do Lutherans. To say otherwise seems to take his remarks out of context, in an historical as well as theological sense.

James Swan said...

Does your position lend support to those who say the "Roman Church" is as old as the "papacy" ?

The Roman Church predates the papacy. It even predates Peter going there, if he actually did. And, the Papacy is result of development, at least according to some Roman Catholics.

Ben said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Swan said...


Your comments are not relevant to the blog post. Perhaps you can comment on the Luther quote used by Mr. Waltz, and if he accurately cited it, or if he left out important qualifiers.