On October 31, 1517, Brother Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. This probably never actually happened, (it’s a later Protestant legend), but it’s why some Protestants celebrate October 31st as “Reformation Day.” From 2011-14, I did a series of annual posts recounting “Reformation Day” ironies (2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014), looking at some of the incoherence at how the Reformation is celebrated. For example, from the very first list:
The Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland is an enormous stone monument with engraved figures of the Calvinist Reformers. Four figures: Calvin, Beza, Farel, and Knox, tower over their mortal counterparts, and form the centerpiece of the wall.
And let’s be honest here. Calvin (and the others) are being venerated in this way for the religious contributions. If this were, say, the Apostles, or St. Augustine, instead of Calvin, Calvinists would be having a fit.
But perhaps it’s okay to have Calvin engravings, because modern Calvinists aren’t prone to superstition, and aren’t about to start worshiping a Calvin pumpkin or statue. That’s a fair point. Except that it’s an argument that Calvin rejects:
“Hence, again, it is obvious, that the defenders of images resort to a paltry quibbling evasion, when they pretend that the Jews were forbidden to use them on account of their proneness to superstition; as if a prohibition which the Lord founds on his own eternal essences and the uniform course of nature, could be restricted to a single nation.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter 11).
This year, in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I’ve decided to do another round of “Reformation Day Ironies.” This year, the theme is “Luther against the Reformation,” looking at the various ways that Martin Luther spoke against the Reformation he helped to spark:
Irony #10: Luther Against the Reformation – The Papacy
After the 95 Theses proved more controversial than he seems to have anticipated, Martin Luther realized that there was only way to resolve the dispute: turn to the pope. After all, #61 of Luther’s 95 Theses declares that “it is clear that the pope’s power is of itself sufficient for the remission of penalties and cases reserved by himself.” And so, in a letter written on May 30, 1518, Martin Luther writes these words to Pope Leo X:
Therefore, most holy father, I prostrate myself at your feet, placing myself and all I am and have at your disposal, to be dealt with as you see fit. My cause hangs on the will of your Holiness, by whose verdict I shall either save or lose my life. Come what may, I shall recognise the voice of your Holiness to be that of Christ, speaking through you. If I merit death, I do not refuse to die, for ” the earth is the Lord’s,” and all that is therein, to whom be praise to all eternity ! Amen. May He preserve your Holiness to life eternal.
And adjudicate the matter Pope Leo did. In 1520, Leo issued the bull Exsurge Domine, citing 41 specific errors in Luther’s theology. By Luther’s own terms, by his own words in 1518, the matter is over.
(Of course, Luther broke his word, responding to the Exsurge Domine by denouncing the pope as the Antichrist, but such petulance merely showed him to be an untrustworthy and unstable man.)
Irony #11: Luther Against the Reformation – Teaching Authority
One of the arguments that St. Francis de Sales made against the Reformers (in The Catholic Controversy) was that they had no teaching authority, since Christ never sent them directly (through a private revelation) or indirectly (through His Church):
Now you cannot be ignorant that they neither had, nor have, in any way at all, this mission. For if Our Lord had sent them, it would have been either mediately or immediately. We say mission is given mediately when we are sent by one who has from God the power of sending, according to the order which he has appointed in his Church ; and such was the mission of S. Denis into France by Clement and of Timothy by S. Paul.
Immediate mission is when God himself commands and gives a charge, without the interposition of the ordinary authority which he has placed in the prelates and pastors of the Church: as S. Peter and the Apostles were sent, receiving from Our Lord’s own mouth this commandment : Go ye into the, whole worlds and preach the Gospel to every creature (Matthew 28:19); and as Moses received his mission to Pharaoh and to the people of Israel (Exodus 3:9-10).
Why does this matter? Because Scripture teaches that you can’t just give yourself the authority to teach the Gospel. This idea is actually older than Christianity. Hebrews 5:1-6 notes that the priesthood wasn’t something that you could just give yourself, and that even Christ doesn’t make Himself a priest:
For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is bound to offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not take the honor upon himself, but he is called by God, just as Aaron was.
So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee”; as he says also in another place, “Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchiz′edek.”
This is also true for evangelists in general. The Biblical model is that preachers are sent by the Church (Romans 10:14-15)
But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!”
That’s why, in Acts 15:25-27, the Council of Jerusalem sent a letter explaining that the Judaizers went out without permission, and that Judas and Silas are being sent by the Church to repair the damage done by these unauthorized preachers:
Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us in assembly to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth.
Priests and preachers are “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20; Ephesians 6:20; Philemon 1:9), and you can’t make yourself an ambassador, any more than Dennis Rodman can make himself the U.S. ambassador to North Korea.
Interestingly, Luther recognized this, and had an answer to St. Francis’ objection. His teaching authority, as he notes in the (above-mentioned) letter to Pope Leo, came from the pope:
From this, most holy father, has such a fire been kindled, that, to judge from the hue and cry, one would think the whole world had been set ablaze. And perhaps this is because I, through your Holiness’s apostolic authority, am a doctor of theology and they do not wish to admit that I am entitled, according to the usage of all universities in Christendom, openly to discuss, not only Indulgences, but many higher doctrines, such as Divine Power, Forgiveness, and Mercy.
So Luther’s ability to publicly teach on, and dispute about, indulgences and other theological questions came from Pope Leo X. Now, before you’re tempted to conclude, “A-ha! Luther did have authority!” you should be aware that Pope Leo expressly revoked that authority in Exsurge Domine:
Therefore let Martin himself and all those adhering to him, and those who shelter and support him, through the merciful heart of our God and the sprinkling of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ by which and through whom the redemption of the human race and the upbuilding of holy mother Church was accomplished, know that from our heart we exhort and beseech that he cease to disturb the peace, unity, and truth of the Church for which the Savior prayed so earnestly to the Father. Let him abstain from his pernicious errors that he may come back to us. If they really will obey, and certify to us by legal documents that they have obeyed, they will find in us the affection of a father’s love, the opening of the font of the effects of paternal charity, and opening of the font of mercy and clemency.
We enjoin, however, on Martin that in the meantime he cease from all preaching or the office of preacher.
So Martin Luther’s teaching authority ceased to exist on June 15, 1520, after it was determined that he was teaching heresy.
This point is huge for anyone who cares about what the New Testament has to say about teaching authority, because Luther is acknowledging that he didn’t receive some special vision from Jesus Christ saying “re-found my Church,” but instead received his faculties to preach and teach from Pope Leo X… who then withdrew those faculties.
Irony #12: Luther Against the Reformation – Schism and Scripture
Luther himself, in one of his table talks, admitted to being a schismatic (while also blaming it on the pope… and on God’s grace):
The chief cause that I fell out with the pope was this: the pope boasted that he was the head of the church, and condemned all that would not be under his power and authority; for he said, although Christ be head of the church, yet, notwithstanding, there must be a corporal head of the church upon earth. With this I could have been content, had he but taught the gospel pure and clear, and not introduced human inventions and lies in its stead. […]
We, through God’s grace, are not heretics, but schismatics, causing, indeed, separation and division, wherein we are not to blame, but our adversaries, who gave occasion thereto, because they remain not by God’s word alone, which we have, hear, and follow.
In other words, Luther admitted that he and his followers were schismatics, but says that it’s the pope’s fault, because the pope isn’t a Lutheran.
These days, ignorant Protestants can say that Catholics aren’t Christians, meaning that there were no Christians before Luther re-founded the Church after the Church that Christ founded (Mt. 16:17-19) apparently failed. But Luther wasn’t that foolish, nor were the people to whom he was addressing. He couldn’t credibly claim that there were no Christians before 1517, because he’s talking to people who were faithful Christians (and whose parents, grandparents, etc., were faithful Christians) prior to 1517.
So there is no question that a Christian schism occurred. Nor is there any serious question about who broke from whom: Luther broke from the pope and the visible Church, not the other way around. Luther received his teaching authority from the pope, had his teaching authority revoked by that same pope, and then denounced the pope as the Antichrist. One of the earliest Lutheran confessions, The Augsburg Confession of 1530, ends by saying that schism is of the devil, but that it’s the Catholics’ fault:
Surely, all the world, all wisdom, all power ought to yield to Christ and His holy Word. But the devil is the enemy of God, and therefore rouses all his might against Christ, to extinguish and suppress the Word of God. Therefore the devil with his members, setting himself against the Word of God, is the cause of the schism and want of unity. For we have most zealously sought peace, and still most eagerly desire it, provided only we are not forced to blaspheme and deny Christ. For God, the discerner of all men’s hearts, is our witness that we do not delight and have no joy in this awful disunion. On the other hand, our adversaries have so far not been willing to conclude peace without stipulating that we must abandon the saving doctrine of the forgiveness of sin by Christ without our merit; though Christ would be most foully blasphemed thereby.
And although, as is the custom of the world it cannot be but that offenses have occurred in this schism through malice and by imprudent people; for the devil causes such offenses, to disgrace the Gospel, yet all this is of no account in view of the great comfort which this teaching has brought men, that for Christ’s sake, without our merit, we have forgiveness of sins and a gracious God.
Both Augsburg and Luther are saying the same thing: yes, schism is wrong, but we have to commit schism because the alternative is heresy. This is what I call the Protestant catch-22, the belief that you have to choose between heresy or schism. But here’s the grim irony: committing an act of schism in the name of Scripture is contrary to what Scripture demands. In fact, St. Paul warns (Galatians 5:19-21):
Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
So to the extent that Luther admits that he and the other Protestants are schismatics, he’s pronouncing a judgment of condemnation upon himself and them.
Irony #13: Luther Against the Reformation – The Fruits
As we saw in #10-11, early Luther lays out good reasons to reject late Luther. But it’s also worth pointing out that even late Luther would be aghast at the post-Lutheran Reformation project. Professor Peter Marshall of the University of Warwick points this out in a Time Magazine article:
“I suppose the danger with anniversaries is that they can serve to reinforce myths and entrenched narratives of the past, rather than encourage us to look afresh at historical events and processes,” Marshall says. “And there’s been a fair amount, especially in Germany, of uncritical celebration of the ‘achievements’ or ‘legacies’ of the Reformation — tolerance, liberal democracy, freedom of expression, scientific rationalism. All things Luther would have hated!”
So that’s the central irony of today’s “celebration.” Protestants around the world today are celebrating an event that probably never happened (Luther’s nailing the 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg) and the achievements of a Reformer who, by his own arguments, disproves the validity of the Reformation, and would have been aghast at how his “reforms” have turned out.