Today I am feeling my age. I was perusing one of my favorite Facebook sites, Catholic Directors of Faith Formation / Religious Education, when I came across a discussion between several catechists speculating about the origin of banners. Specifically, someone proposed the idea of each First Communicant making a little banner to hang on the end of his or her family’s pew for the big day. Several participants in that discussion observed that they had not been able to trace the origins of the modern liturgical use of banners, even with thorough Google searches. And I thought to myself, maybe even Google has seen fit to obscure a true icon of the early post-Vatican II liturgical renewal era. Depending upon your pragmatic or educational tastes, banners were either the Swiss Army Knife or the Hamburger Helper of parish life.
The official Vatican declaration on the Church’s worship, Sacrosanctum Concilium, was promulgated on December 4, 1963. SC and its supporting directives were fairly clear that the reforms were to be undertaken with a measure of artistic excellence, while at the same time calling for all the faithful to be fully involved in the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments. In the United States and Western Europe there was a pent-up energy to get on with this renewal, probably ahead of the due diligence that such a change should have evoked. Consider that such things as vital as an official Roman Missal, English translations, music standards, and church architecture would take some years to produce—the official Novus Ordo or rite of the Mass in the Roman Rite which we use today did not appear until 1970, and some complained that this rite was composed with too much haste. [The Vatican did provide a linguistic overhaul of the Mass in 2011.]
But because of the grass roots enthusiasm for change among many Catholics, the era of the 1960’s can be remembered as a true age of “liturgical improv.” For the record, I graduated from high school seminary in 1966 and Catholic University in 1971, so I had a front row seat, to be sure, and I will admit at the onset that I was also a supporter and occasional perpetrator of some liturgical innovations better retired today, being armed with my 12-string Martin guitar. Some day I may write a book about those years, but for the moment I will stick with my recollections of banners.
With a guiding principle of the liturgical reform being “participation,” the term was interpreted as involving as many people as possible in the preparation and execution of the rites. Thus, a proliferation of ministries appeared, such as baking breads, writing songs…and creating banners. Banners served a multitude of needs. Remember that in 1963 most churches and schools looked pretty much like churches of 1900, old and cluttered. There was a perceived need—visceral, in fact—to roll out symbols of change which emphasized, well, change. It would take time and money to remodel church worship space along the lines of Vatican II’s theology of worship. The large banner or banners in the sanctuary had a colorful immediacy and flexibility. They could be rotated with the seasons and the feasts as well as obscuring that 1895 plaster statue of St. Leo the Great. The first banners were relatively cheap and were usually a local product of church members and volunteers. It would be a while before the large liturgical production companies were turning them out en masse. Later, the commercial liturgical banners would be a godsend to communities celebrating Masses in social halls and other neutral sites. I bought a 16’ banner for our social hall in 1980 for about $800-$1000. Not Michelangelo, but not a third grade felt and glue creation, either.
In the atmosphere of the 1960’s, though, it is easy to see how catechists might be eager to incorporate banners into the curriculum of initiation. This was a hands-on project that incorporated arts and crafts into classroom instruction and, in the case of pew identifiers, family interaction. It was of a piece with making the first communion bread in class, a practice employed in several parishes until nervous canonists pointed out that the addition of honey and baking powder and whatever else goes into edible bread was not permitted by liturgical law—wheat and water are the only permissible ingredients in Eucharistic breads. In the 1980’s the liturgical diocesan director of a major city told a workshop I was attending that all those thousands of children who baked their communion breads had received invalid communions. “You take yourself too seriously,” I told him. But today that wheat and water rule is strictly observed, so do not get any ideas.
Banners in the 1960’s and beyond did have catechetical value, though in retrospect that is debated. Banners promulgated catechetical content by illustrating the sacramental signs [bread and wine, for example] and/or communicating a pithy instructional message, i.e., Bread of Life, for example. They could be made in all sizes: wall size, picture size, identification size. The practice of children and teens making banners for initiation sacraments and other purposes developed at this time.
In haste, though, the goal of participation should never have trumped artistic quality. The Church has a long tradition of patronizing and protecting the ageless wonders of the masters—the power of the Sistine Chapel is its seamless artistry and theology which has inspired the secular and religious soul for half a millennium. Having built a post Sacrosanctum Concilium church myself, I can tell you that the formative process of bringing a congregation from the mediocrity of plaster statues to exquisite wood, stone, wrought iron, and design is a struggle. In other words, a major ministry of any parish is education toward the fine arts over weddedness to the economical and the familiar, and it is Catholicism’s gift to its secular culture, too, in our case the utilitarianism of the United States. The nobility of sacred art is a stated liturgical goal of Vatican II. A leather-bound book of readings and hymns is an artistic sacramental in itself when held in the hands; even today, however, we remain bound to throwaway missalettes in many places, characteristic of our throwaway culture.
The religious nature of artistry is a principle that our post-Vatican II haste forgot to accommodate. A typical early renewal Mass could be a configuration of homemade banners in glaring disharmony with the older churches in which they were placed. Music—often played by musicians like me who knew three chords--was sung from mimeographed sheets, not bound hymnals. In the early 1970’s the reproduction of song sheets resulted in lawsuits by the rightful owners of the lyrics; art has its costs, too, another lesson that needs constant reminding where worship is concerned. More astute liturgists of that era criticized the chintz of these early experimentations, and conservatives rightly complained that poor artistic quality was a serious distraction from the power of the sacramental celebration.
Another issue with banners was their content and message. In the interest of space and good feeling, banner messaging could also be insipid. In college we would refer to some over-the-top creations as “kicky relevant,” in a derisive tone. For example, in 1968 I spent a year in a classroom facing a decorative banner made up of little gingerbread people holding hands over the message “Oh the more we get together the happier we’ll be.” Banners could also mangle theology. A story from the 1960’s era recalls how a famous theologian stopped to look at a home-made banner that hung from his podium. It read, “God is other people.” He thought for a moment, and then turned to the audience. “There is a grammatical error in your banner. It needs a comma,” he announced. “It should read, “God is other, people.”
As more churches were constructed or refurbished under the guidelines of the Council, there was less need for banners as the years went on, though I do see quite a few companies advertising them on-line. The banner-on-the-end-of-a pew is a popular item today, either as a finished product or as a do-it-yourself-kit. If they are well done and do not distract from more important elements of sacramental formation, I guess there is no harm. But if banners are a major part of your liturgical presentations of any kind, remember that all of us of Social Security age remember the old “kicky-relevant” days, so forgive us a discrete smile down our sleeves.
Jean Gerson [1363-1429] is one of the greatest figures of the Medieval Church who will never become a saint. He was a priest, scholar, writer, mystic, and Chancellor of the University of Paris at a time when the Church looked to its great European universities for doctrinal and moral guidance on the issues of the day. His career coincided with the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, and most notably, the age of the Great Schism, when multiple candidates claimed to be the lawful successor of St. Peter. Gerson championed reform of the Church and condemned violence and political assassinations.
Although saintly, he was never canonized and there is truly little likelihood that he ever will. No English language collection of his works appeared until Paulist Press published a major collection in 1998, and the first epic biography in English, Jean Gerson and the Last Medieval Reformation appeared in 2005 by the noted medievalist Brian Patrick McGuire. [See my review here.] It is interesting to note however that in the past twenty years there has been a resurgence in interest on Gerson; Amazon has two full pages of new offerings, including many new translations.
However, as I noted in my book review, the Church has always felt uncomfortable about Gerson, for his major claim to fame is his role in ending the Great Western Schism, the era of two [and sometimes three] competing popes. This era of papal confusion has been considered a major embarrassment to a church which esteems unbroken apostolic succession. Moreover, Gerson’s solution to this papal problem was the invocation of a reform council, which was eventually convened as the Council of Constance [1414-1418] and was planned by Gerson along with other scholars and civil rulers.
The first session of this council of Constance issued the decree Haec Sancta [“this holy (Council)”] which declared that a church council exercised a greater authority than the pope. Obviously, Constance was playing out this scenario when it deposed two popes and designated the third as the true successor of Peter, though it is hard to see what other options were open to the council fathers. The theory that a council could override and/or depose a pope came to be known as Conciliarism. After the Protestant Reformation Conciliarism fell into disfavor as Roman Catholicism dismissed Haec Sancta as a church teaching and rallied around the authority of the pope, and Conciliarism was formally condemned at the council Vatican I in 1870. Gerson, identified closely with Conciliarism, carried a taint after his death into modern times, though in truth his work was instrumental in restoring Church order in the fifteenth century. Modern Catholic scholars such as McGuire are looking at Gerson in a much more favorable life.
Gerson’s work and ministry made him other enemies in his lifetime. The murder of his political protector in Paris led him to decry civil murder and tyrannicide, making it unsafe for him to remain in Paris. Moreover, despite his scholastic training, he became more open to mystical experience. He expressed his belief that Joan of Arc’s “voices” were genuine divine messages. He eschewed Latin for his native French, so that more of his writings could be accessed by the laity, thus encouraging a democratization of spirituality that churchmen generally regarded as dangerous. Throughout his busy life he longed for the solitude of a life of prayer and reflection, and he would eventually take up residence in his brother’s monastery.
For all his demanding responsibilities, according to McGuire, Gerson found time to develop an intense devotion to St. Joseph. McGuire explains how innovative Gerson’s devotion was: “Joseph up to this time had no universal cult [following] in Western Europe and was often portrayed in art and in plays as a rather silly old man, tired and peripheral to the great events he witnessed.” [p. 235] Gerson investigated the apocryphal stories of Jesus and discovered that they were inconsistent with the Biblical description of Joseph, most notably that of the Gospel of St. Matthew.
Gerson composed a Mass formula for a proposed feast of the marriage of Joseph and Mary, an observance he hoped to see adopted by the universal church. As McGuire writes, “The chancellor imagined Joseph as a young man, full of energy and potency, able to take care of his wife and son by hard work, and not the broken-down, tired figure of popular imagination.” Gerson demonstrated a familiarity with Matthew’s Gospel narrative of the arduous trials of the Holy Family, fleeing Herod and resettling in an unfamiliar Nazareth.
Like many preachers of his time—and Gerson was the court preacher in Paris--he took texts from the Bible and used his imagination to elaborate on the stories. Again, from McGuire’s research, Gerson asserted that “Joseph knew Mary from friendly visits to her each year in Jerusalem, where she lived in the Temple. He was related to Mary by blood because Anne, her mother, after the death of her husband Joachim, had married Joseph’s brother, Cleophas. According to the Jewish custom of the time, Joseph took Mary to live with him in Nazareth.” [p. 237] In his attempt to explain the nature of this marriage, Gerson speculated that Mary told Joseph she was with child but did not have sexual experience. “Joseph was struck by ‘so great a novelty’ but subsequently an angel appeared to him and explained how it was God’s will.” [p. 237] This is a captivating mix of Gerson's imagination with the core Biblical teachings on the nature and birth of Christ.
McGuire examines Gerson’s groundbreaking reflection on the holy marriage. “Their union was a real marriage; it contained marital love with sexual abstinence. As a man whose way of life required chastity and sexual abstinence, Gerson found in Joseph a model, a loving man who embraced a woman, who brought up a child, and who at the same time remained calm, content, and pure.” Gerson would tell his readers and listeners that there was nothing doctrinally necessary in his description of the marriage, but he believed that their marriage should be an essential part of Church devotion. He suggested that his proposed feast of their union be celebrated during the week before Christmas.
Gerson’s writings on Joseph are exhaustive, composed of both prose and poetry. He advocated that Joseph was a true father of Jesus because he was the one who “nourished, guarded, and served” him through his own labor. For Gerson, McGuire observes, “Fatherhood is thus not biological: it is a function that is assumed when one takes on responsibility for a child. Joseph became the father of Jesus by acting as his father; in taking him by the hand, feeding him, comforting him, teaching him, Joseph was his father.” [p. 238] Gerson’s writings on Joseph were composed in French, for the edification of the populace at large.
It is somewhat surprising that in Gerson’s day there was yet no feast of St. Joseph in the Church’s calendar of saints. Although Gerson proposed the idea at the Council of Constance [1414-1418] it was not until the papacy of Sixtus IV [1474-1481] that the major Feast of St. Joseph as we know it today was established on March 19. Joseph’s identity as a laborer led Pope Pius XII to establish the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955 as a response to the Communist observance of May Day. In establishing 2021 as the Year of St. Joseph, Pope Francis observed that the current Covid-19 pandemic “has helped us see more clearly the importance of ‘ordinary’ people who, though far from the limelight, exercise patience and offer hope every day. In this, they resemble Saint Joseph, ‘the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence,’ who nonetheless played ‘an incomparable role in the history of salvation.’”
It is one of history’s ironies that another unsung worker in the Church’s long history would be responsible for promoting Joseph to his rightful place in the devotional life of the Church.
,It has been three months since the last post on the Reformation, and I feel bad about that because the Reformation stream has [or had] its unique band of followers. Alas, the issue of the Church and the Covid-19 crisis, particularly the future of the Church and the specter of this unexpected sabbatical, grabbed all my attention over the past summer. However, I think I have said about everything I can say about the Reformation through 1525, and particularly about Martin Luther, so I want to use today’s post to philosophize a bit about how Luther has changed the way all of us think about ourselves, our religion, and our civic lives.
In 1517, when Luther famously posted his 95 theses in response to the sale of indulgences, he did not intend to leave the Church nor to start another. His goal was simple enough: to engage Church authorities and the academic communities in what we would call a colloquy or a friendly debate over the practice of “selling salvation.” While it was true that Luther was outraged by the claims and tactics of the Dominican monk Tetzel [“when a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs”] Luther believed that the Church was open to a heartfelt appeal from one of its professed sons that it move away from the monetary bartering.
Unfortunately, Luther’s timing could not have been worse in terms of capturing the Church’s attention. The Church was in desperate need of money. While many Catholics may know that part of the proceeds of Tetzel’s indulgence campaign was allotted to the construction of St. Peter’s on the Vatican Hill, it is not as well appreciated that the Islamic Turks were making major inroads in Christian Eastern Europe, conquering Belgrade [Yugoslavia] in 1521, Hungary and Cyprus. Catholics of Luther’s time lived with apocalyptic fear that the Turks would take over the entire Christian West and talk of a new crusade was heavy in the air.
Luther’s defining conversion moment was his realization that humans needed a direct intervention from God to be saved, or to use his terminology, “justified.” Luther had studied the theology of St. Augustine from a millennium earlier; Augustine argued that the original sin of Adam had so wounded the human species that nothing a man could do would affect his forgiveness and grace. God would make the first move in a miraculous and generous outreach—and a man’s only response could be total faith in the revealed word of the Bible.
For all practical purposes, Luther cut the legs out from under the Church, which had always envisioned itself as the interpreter, guardian, and dispenser of saving grace. The indulgence controversy makes more sense in this light; Luther objected to indulgences not only because they were offensive, but more so that they were useless, unbiblical, and a usurpation of what belongs only to God, the power to save. Luther was not the first to drive daylight between the power of God and the practices of the Church, but he lived through a perfect storm of circumstances that his reforming predecessors had lacked.
To understand the historical meaning of the man, consider that every human in Western Christendom carried around the same “cosmic outlook,” a multidimensional mindset on reality which embraced God, creation, the Church, civil authorities, nature, and the human psyche. Much of the citizenry of Luther’s day at every level of society experienced life as this intertwined glue of reality. This conscious and subconscious mixture of reality existed for millennia before Luther; these various components of reality were sometimes at war with each other, but no one questioned the world order itself. Jesus referred to the corrupt King Herod as “that old fox” in Luke 13:32 but he also counseled “to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Even the most original scientific minds of Luther’s day worked within this synthesis. In his The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve , Stephen Greenblatt observes that when Christopher Columbus landed in the New World and discovered peaceful, naked communities, he wondered out loud if he had discovered a part of the Garden of Eden untouched by sin.
Luther’s thesis—his deepest belief, actually—that justification or salvation originated directly from God and called for a personal faith in God’s love and power—effectively unraveled the synthesis by which nearly everyone lived. The idea of God’s direct relationship to each person ennobled Christians to live free of the fear of damnation at the hands of the Church and the state. Many authors hold that Luther was the gateway of the Modern Era and the Enlightenment. Philosophers began addressing reality from subjective experience. The “Father of Modern Philosophy,” Rene Descartes [1596-1650], proclaimed a century after Luther a new rule of defining reality: “I think, therefore I am.” For better and worse, Luther’s thinking—with the help of Pascal and many others--continues to impact Catholics even today who make a personal assessment of Catholic formal teaching based upon personal impact and impression before automatically giving assent to the teaching. Even our country’s approach to wearing Covid masks demonstrates the individualist strain of thought we live with today.
The Lutheran revolution, then and now, is interpreted in the popular mind as the ultimate freedom. Luther understood his teaching as a freedom from the Church-imposed laws and rituals, particularly those involving judgment. He believed his reforms in this direction would save the Church, not destroy it. His debates with noted Catholic representatives failed; Luther talked reform, while the Church talked authority. Several of Luther’s insights—the importance of Sacred Scripture for each member of the Church, for example—are part of Catholic Church life today. But Luther was an activist more so than a mystic, which meant that he was neither a self-critic nor a long-range visionary.
Luther was correct to articulate the need to return to the Bible and, in his case, to St. Paul’s teachings on justification by faith. But he erred in ignoring the warning of James 2: 14-26 that faith without good works is useless, and over time the question arose among his followers as to where one turns for the proper interpretation of the source of salvation, the Holy Bible. It would surprise no one that disputes—quite violent ones—would break out among reformers who took Luther’s teachings further than Luther had, and that fragmenting of reform bodies would take on new energy.
Perhaps more tragic is the fate of the poorer populations who saw Luther’s preaching as an invitation to overthrow the entire social order. Luther was traditional enough to disengage from the determined militias whose quest for a better economic life led to wholesale loss of life in Germany. In his famous Address to the German Nobility  Luther invited German princes to take the lead in reforming the Church given the papacy’s excommunication of Luther and his writing. But soon the European princes sympathetic to religious reform rather enjoyed their newfound powers. [Think England’s Henry VIII.] As the number of different “denominations” continued to proliferate through the sixteenth century, a new political-religious principle emerged, cuius regio, eius religio. Roughly translated, “whoever is king, that is the religion [of his territory].
The Reformation would spread throughout Europe in many different forms, and eventually there would be the plurality of churches we have today. But it is important to understand the roots of the major Christian Churches and some of the outstanding leaders whose contributions overlap denominational boundaries. In post 46 of the Reformation posts I will turn to one of the most familiar names alongside Luther’s, John Calvin. The receiving dock of The Catechist Café has informed me that John Calvin for a New Reformation  has just arrived, so our Reformation series will push on.
If you are interested in a full treatment of the Reformation, I have recommendations. My favorite is The Reformation: A History  by Diarmid MacCulloch, which, although detailed, reads very well. The second is Carlos M.N. Eire's Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 , which sets the table of religious unrest quite well.
Over this sad and violent week across our country, I pondered some reflections to post today, but good folks of all faith traditions and humanitarian impulses have written and spoken with far more credibility and insight that I can muster. Of note is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement of Friday, May 29, which included this:
“Racism is not a thing of the past or simply a throwaway political issue to be bandied about when convenient. It is a real and present danger that must be met head on. As members of the Church, we must stand for the more difficult right and just actions instead of the easy wrongs of indifference. We cannot turn a blind eye to these atrocities and yet still try to profess to respect every human life. We serve a God of love, mercy, and justice.
While it is expected that we will plead for peaceful non-violent protests, and we certainly do, we also stand in passionate support of communities that are understandably outraged. Too many communities around this country feel their voices are not being heard, their complaints about racist treatment are unheeded, and we are not doing enough to point out that this deadly treatment is antithetical to the Gospel of Life.”
I had planned to pick up our Reformation stream on the Café today, and at first my heart was not in it. But upon reflection, I returned to where we left off the stream in February, and I realized that we had reached a point in the narrative where the theological debates between Luther and the Catholic Church would soon pass into violent confrontations and then to wholesale wars. 1524 began a period of violence that extended well over a century until the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and even beyond, that essentially divided Europe into Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist regions which did not necessarily correspond with national boundaries. It is impossible to know how many people were killed in what history now calls The Religion Wars [1524-1648].
Given the intertwining of religion and state in the late medieval and renaissance era, any significant stirrings in religious practice were bound to have implications throughout society. When Luther proclaimed his 95 theses of reform in 1517, he did not wish to eliminate the Roman Catholic Church. His hope was purification. His need was direct conversation with Church leadership to explain the theological principles of his protest, most notably his contention that the Scripture was final arbiter of faith and morals in the Church. He contended that too many aspects of faith and practice were man-made, notably but not exclusively the sale of indulgences and commercial means of attaining salvation.
Luther was excommunicated in 1521 and summoned to the Diet of Worms, conducted by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, where he would contend with the noted scholar Johann Eck. There are various opinions about this classic confrontation of Luther and Eck. The papacy, which Eck defended, did not appear interested in the various aspects of Luther’s theology, but instead pressed Luther to renounce several key points which could be interpreted as undermining the supreme power of the pope. For our purposes, Luther’s belief in sola scriptura, by Scripture alone is man saved, [the entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica outlines the precise points of contention] was the turning point. He would not turn his back on the freedom of conscience to obey the Bible. “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Luther’s position rendered him a heretic and an outlaw; any civil authority was bound by the Church to arrest him and turn him over to Church authorities for what would no doubt be public execution by burning.
Luther was ready for this martyrdom to his ideals, but his civil protector Frederick, Elector of Saxony, whisked him away to a hidden mountaintop retreat in Wartburg where he remained for about one year and produced one of his greatest works, a German text of the New Testament. While Luther was sequestered, his location known only to Frederick, circumstances in his home base of Wittenberg conspired to bring about a slow but certain nuclear meltdown of religious and civil disorder. The beginnings were simple enough. Luther had a devoted following across the board in Saxony, where he lived and taught at Wittenberg University. When Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther and ordered his writings burned in 1521, Frederick did not carry out his orders; Luther’s students and supporters instead burned the decree of excommunication.
Luther’s teaching on freedom to obey one’s conscience informed by Scripture was subtle for its time; the indispensable codicil, “informed by Scripture” was often forgotten by those who interpreted Luther as a prophet of free conscience, period, more along the lines of the contemporary “do your own thing.” In 1524 an army of peasants, inspired by two mis-interpreters of Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and Thomas Müntzer, decided to take up arms against German princes. This action was a major war; 100,000 peasants were killed by 1525 fighting for agrarian reform and fair taxation. Luther, returned to public life from Wartburg, was appalled at this breakdown of order, and sided with the princes in crushing the rebellion.
Among the Reformation figures, Luther was conservative. His goals were religious, pastoral, and theological. He was backward looking, drawing from early church structure and ancient writings of church fathers in his study of Scripture. He respected civil authority as an instrument of protection of reformed religious practice, just as he recognized the need for a holy church to promote community prayer, sacraments [Baptism and Eucharist], and theological competence. Perhaps because he was busy laying the groundwork for the German needs of the Church—creating and writing hymns for public worship, translating the Mass and the Scriptures into German, the vernacular language—he did not have time to think through the possible misuses of his teachings, which at their worst led to anarchy, bloodshed, and the further divisions of the Body of Christ. Nor was he always available to tamp the
Luther’s support of the princes led to great disappointment among the desperate farmers, and won him support among nobility, who themselves now felt free to engage in another assault on the accepted order, a refusal to pay church taxes to Rome. It was the German princes who provided Luther with something his reformist predecessors such as John Wycliffe and Jan Hus never enjoyed, civil protection in their regions. The common classes, disenchanted with emerging Lutheranism, often moved toward apocalyptic, future oriented sects and religious assemblies such as the Anabaptists, who held that only an adult could be baptized and who condemned the practice of infant baptism. In 1535 40 Anabaptists seized a police station in Amsterdam. Twenty-eight were killed, and the survivors were butchered in the town square while still alive.
The development of the Reformation is enormously complicated on the ground. If one were to rise above the European continent in around 1550, the general picture is the domination of three main Christian bodies, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. [England, under Henry VIII, had its own crisis of religious division.] One of the causes of so much warfare across the European continent was a new principle of governing independent of the Catholic Church, cuius regio, eius religio, “whoever is king, his is the religion.” The idea of two religions in the same region was considered at the time to be a danger to the state, such that conquest and eradication fueled the relationships of religious movements, nationally, regionally, and locally.
Conflicts great and small erupted regularly from the 1524 German peasants’ revolt to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Wikipedia has an extremely colorful and useful graphic of the forty or so major conflicts; by placing the computer cursor over a particular war, its reasons and casualties are immediately available. The history of sixteenth century France is but one of these wars but is a good example of the complications and violence of such engagements. About three million persons lost their lives in a 36-year conflict [1562-1598] between Catholics loyal to Rome and Calvinists, called Huguenots, loyal to the reforms of John Calvin, who trained young preachers and ministers to cross the border to return to France and make Huguenot converts. This war is remembered for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the conversion of Henry IV to Catholicism. Henry’s observation is still cited today: “Paris is worth a Mass.”
It is impossible to summarize the destruction and loss of life that plagued Europe during the Reformation, and hopefully it is inconceivable to believe that this mayhem pleased God or brought credit to any religious body. At the end of his comprehensive The Reformation , the historian Diarmaid MacCullough tallies the greater ironies of the religious war era: by 1648 many devout members of all the major religions longed for an inner peace and personal spirituality. The controversies and bloodshed had exhausted organized Christianity. Little wonder that the Catholic resurgence of devotion to the Sacred Heart in the seventeenth century led to the universal observance of the Feast of the Sacred Heart in 1670.
But there was another reaction to this troubled age. Given that one of the major dynamics of this troubled time was conflict between churches, educated persons across the Western world began to question the idea of divine providence and denominations in general. Again, no mystery that Rene Descartes [1596-1650] developed a philosophy of man as the center of reality, coining his famous Cogito ergo sum or “I think, therefore I am.” The Enlightenment and the modern era of life, law, and science without religious reference was born and created the stage for life today as we know it.
A recent Pew research study found that many Catholics in the United States do not believe in Real Presence, the fact that the living Jesus Christ is fully present in holy communion. This study has caused much consternation in the Church. In our first Reformation post of 2020, we will focus on Martin Luther’s understanding of Real Presence.
Although the development of the Eucharistic rites extended over several centuries, it is safe to say that for the first millennium of Christianity the teaching of St. Augustine in the fifth century on Real Presence summed up Church belief: “Once the bread that you see on the altar is sanctified by the Word of God, it is the body of Christ. And once the chalice is sanctified by the word of God, what the chalice contains is the blood of Christ.” [Sermons 227] It is easy to overlook, though, how the guarantee for this miracle is “the Word of God,” i.e., Scripture, specifically John 6, the famous Breads Narrative. Strange as it may seem today, Martin Luther held precisely the same belief. In 1000 A.D., had he been alive, Luther would have taught in full harmony with the Church. [I am painting here with a broad brush; a richer history of Eucharistic theological development is found, for example, in Doors to the Sacred [2014, pp. 239-315]
Late in the Dark Ages a monk theologian named Radbertus put forward the first metaphysical definition of the process of Eucharistic consecration, what we know today as “transubstantiation.” The term describes how the presence of Christ enters the bread and wine, namely, by displacing them. The appearance of bread and wine remains; in the early medieval philosophy of the day, the appearance, taste, and texture of communion remains. As my first communion class was taught in 1956, “the substance of the bread becomes Christ; the accidents-odor, taste, shape, weight-remain the same.” Ask an old Catholic about “substance and accidents.”
By the year 1000 A.D. a theologian, Berengar of Tours, put forward a novel formulation of the Eucharistic food. Berengar was a consummate realist; if communion looked like bread and wine to the human senses, then bread and wine it must be. When one received communion, he argued, one was receiving actual bread and wine. Receiving was not an empty act for Berengar; in his line of thinking, a faithful believer received Christ spiritually. There was a true change in the bread and wine during the consecration, but the change was spiritual while the substance of bread and wine remained to be eaten.
Berengar posed the first major threat to the Catholic doctrine of Real Presence, and as could be expected, the great minds of Catholic universities addressed the changes in the bread and wine with increasing precision. St. Thomas Aquinas [1225-1274 A.D.] spoke for many when he stated that the Mass itself was not a sacrament, but rather a sacred action that produced a sacrament, i.e., the consecrated species.] Using the terminology of Aristotle, Thomas provided the language for the change in the bread and wine. He used the substance-accidents formulary: that while the sacred food may appear to be bread and wine, its essence was the full presence of Jesus Christ, second person of the Trinity. The transubstantiation formulary was promulgated for the whole Church at the Council of Trent [1545-1563] To believe that these simple elements of food hid the eternal presence of God became not only a bedrock doctrine of belief, but an inspiration for a Eucharistic piety that continues to this day, such as Eucharistic adoration, benediction, etc. A product of this era is the Eucharistic hymn Adoro te, devote, written by St. Thomas himself. Note the emphasis upon faith in what cannot be seen, and trust in the Word of God that Christ is indeed present:
I devoutly adore you, O hidden Deity,
Truly hidden beneath these appearances.
My whole heart submits to you,
And in contemplating you, It surrenders itself completely.
Sight, touch, taste are all deceived in their judgment of you,
But hearing suffices firmly to believe.
I believe all that the Son of God has spoken;
There is nothing truer than this word of truth.
On the cross only the divinity was hidden,
But here the humanity is also hidden.
Yet believing and confessing both,
I ask for what the repentant thief asked.
I do not see the wounds as Thomas did,
But I confess that you are my God.
Make me believe more and more in you,
Hope in you, and love you.
O memorial of our Lord's death!
Living bread that gives life to man,
Grant my soul to live on you,
And always to savor your sweetness.
Martin Luther would not appear on the scene until the early 1500’s, and as we saw in earlier posts, he believed that many of the beliefs and practices of the Church were wrong, primarily in their distance from Sacred Scripture, which he believed to be the final arbiter of God’s revelation. Regarding the Eucharist and Christ’s Real Presence, Luther brought into the discussion his distaste for the philosophical system of St. Thomas Aquinas and the linguistics of describing reality, a system known as “scholasticism.” Luther was troubled that scholasticism, as defined in his day, “boxed” Christian faith into certainties that could not be clearly substantiated by Scripture. The Indulgence controversy, which thrust him into the public eye, is just one example.
As a Catholic academic and Augustinian monk, Luther shared belief in Real Presence, though not in the accepted formula of a St. Thomas Aquinas. In the process of transubstantiation as defined by scholastics, the substance or reality of bread and wine was obliterated [my word] and replaced by the reality of Christ himself. Luther—a scripture scholar—returned to the bible, specifically John 6, and derived his understanding that the correct doctrinal understanding of communion is the eating and drinking of Christ as bread and wine. To say, as the scholastics did, that the consecrated bread and wine no longer existed, was to contradict Jesus’ very words, “I am the living bread…he who feeds on me will live forever….”
Luther maintained that the essence of bread and wine was not removed in transubstantiation and argued that the communion meal was both bread and wine and the actual divine Lord. Here he makes an intriguing analogy, based upon one of Christianity’s most basic doctrines, the Incarnation, in which the eternal Lord became human, born a man. Put simply, the Church has taught definitively since the Councils of Ephesus [432 A.D.] and Chalcedon [451 A.D.] that the divinity of Christ never diminished the humanity of Christ, despite several attempts of heretical communities to assert otherwise. If the humanity of Christ is not diminished by his divine identity, why would the bread and wine need to be evacuated at the time of consecration?
Following this path of reasoning, Luther saw no reason to claim that the bread and wine at Mass lost its identity at the words of the consecration. Rather, he saw the Mass as a celebration of God’s love expressed in a reenactment of the Incarnation. The scholastic argument that the bread and wine ceased to exist at the time of the consecration seemed to Luther to run contradictory to God’s immersion in the world. Later Protestant thinkers applied the term consubstantiation to Luther’s thinking, after his death, the coexistence of bread/wine with the divine presence in the communion sacrament.
Luther’s theorizing on the sacraments in general was considered heretical by the Church, and the Council of Trent [1545-1563] reinforced the scholastic formulations of Catholic truths. St. Thomas Aquinas would eventually be declared the official theologian of the Church. Para. 1376 of the Catechism  employs the scholastic terminology to describe Real Presence in the context of the Mass, specifically consecration. By the time of the Council of Trent , Protestant reformers were running far ahead of the aging Luther in their theology and practices of reform. Huldrych Zwingli, for example, stripped the Mass of much of its traditional meaning, speaking of the Catholic worship rite as a symbolic action only; this concept deeply upset Luther who believed strongly in Real Presence despite his objections to its doctrinal linguistics.
Luther died in 1546, just as the Church’s reform Council of Trent was working toward an opening quorum. Trent wished to clearly define Church doctrine in its traditional language in an age where Protestantism was splitting off in multiple directions, and it was not likely to have much patience with the speculations of Luther, Zwingli, or John Calvin, to name a few reform thinkers of the sixteenth century. Vatican II [1962-1965], by contrast, was called to address the postwar world and, among other things, to heal divisions between the churches [i.e., ecumenism]. Regarding Real Presence, the Church continues to use the scholastic/Thomistic formulation, but Vatican II called for greater respect of separated churches whose understanding of Eucharist differs from the Roman Catholic belief. Although interfaith communion is generally not permitted in Canon Law [though there are a few exceptions], Catholics are called upon to believe that Protestant communities which celebrate communion rites in good faith, are not devoid of a true spiritual communion with Jesus and should be respected for that fact.
Luther penned his third and final major letter in seclusion in November 1520. Hidden from Church arrest and trial by his friend Frederick the Elector of Saxony, Luther had already issued An Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, a letter invoking the German princes to step forward and oversee the reform of the Catholic Church. His second letter, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Catholic Church, outlined those Church entities and practices he believed to be unbiblical and thus to be pruned from the practice of the Church itself. [I will cite several examples below.] His final letter, entitled Christian Freedom, puts forth his doctrine of personal salvation and the rights of believers to seek redemption and forgiveness directly from God, without resort to human intervention. This radical teaching is the product of his intense study of St. Paul and his personal awakening to redemption.
There was some element of haste to Luther’s letters. The former monk, now dispensed from his Augustinian vows, had intended these letters as a formal response to the edict of excommunication issued by Pope Leo X, who had given Luther a limited amount of time to recant before the excommunication was finalized. Luther could have ignored the deadline for a response, but there were several compelling reasons to make his case. In the first instance, Luther never felt that he had received his “day in court,” so to speak. The debates prior to his seclusion with papal authorities in Germany had been little more than demands that he recant his errors; in one debate, his opponent succeeded in connecting Luther to the heretic Jan Hus of the 1400’s.
Second, excommunication once formalized would bring his friends into considerable danger. Harboring a heretic carried severe penalties. Pope Leo, if he chose, could have punished Frederick the Elector by placing all of Frederick’s subjects under the ban of interdict—i.e., withdrawal of all opportunities to receive the sacraments, including the deathbed sacraments for penitents deeply fearful of going to hell. Many a prince had lost his place due to the onus of interdict.
A third reason is Luther’s own fear of dying. He had resigned himself to martyrdom at the hands of the Church. This he could live with; what troubled him was the idea that his full vision of the reform of the Church and how it might come about would never be adequately, systematically, and forcefully laid out for his German countrymen. During Luther’s year in protective solitude, virtually no one knew where he was, and some citizens thought he had died. The worst outcome for Luther would have been his death—natural or otherwise—before he had the opportunity to lay out a full deposition of his theology of reform. Had he died in 1520, his organized thought unfinished, he would have simply taken his place as the most recent of a line of late medieval/early renaissance of famous if failed reformers such as John Wycliffe of the fourteenth century and Jan Hus of the fifteenth.
The Reformation historian Carlos M.N. Eire, whose 2016 assessment of the various stages of the Reformation is well worth a read of at least this lengthy review of his treatment, summarizes the major changes in the Church that Luther was advocating by the time his 1520 seclusion was drawing to a close:
 The creation of a German national church, proposing that all clerical appointments, including those of bishops, be taken away from Rome, and that the pope be stripped of the right to interfere in German church affairs.
 Clergy should be allowed to marry, on the grounds that all vows, including that of celibacy, were wrong and marriage was a natural right of every man and woman.
 Masses for the dead should be eliminated.
 The calendar should be stripped of all feast days; the only proper celebration was the Sunday Eucharist.
 All rural shrines and places of pilgrimage should be destroyed, along with the abolition and cult of the saints.
 University curricula should be reformed such that the study of the Bible would become central, and scholastic philosophy would be driven out. [Eire, Reformations, p. 171]
There can be no doubt that Luther avoided the fates of Wycliffe and Hus thanks to the new technology of the day, i.e., printing and publishing en masse. Luther was a prodigious author and sent drafts of his writing to his friends. It is known that Luther was aghast over the mass publications of many of his most radical ideas by his friends, who did so without the writer’s permission. Consequently, even with Luther out of the public view, Luther’s ideas were disseminated in the new institution of bookstores and in the time-honored custom of university debate, students and faculty alike.
The printing and publishing industry was utilized by the reformer to provide his country with “tools” for implementing Church reform, Along with his pastoral and theological treatises, Luther also published a German hymnal for use in worship, and to be expected, he translated the Bible itself into German with the expressed purpose that every baptized Christian might have direct access to the Word of God without interference of later Church invention.
It is often believed today that Luther’s ideas and writings were directed toward creating a new church separated from the existing Roman Catholic Church. After all, a new “Lutheran Church” did emerge from the actions that Lutheran set into motion. Perhaps the division and the “new church” [or, more correctly, “churches’] were inevitable. But even the radical nature of Luther’s reforms as Eire lists them above, are not a clear statement that Luther began his mission with the expressed idea of leaving the Catholic Church or even destroying it. From the distance of history, his ideas appear stark and foreign to the Catholic mind. One of my fellow parishioners told me recently that Luther did not believe in Real Presence of the Eucharist. I replied that Luther rejected the scholastic philosophy system used then [and now] to explain it, but he never denied that Christ was present in the reception of communion.
Looking back, a cataclysmic age of the Church was centuries in the making. Three centuries before Luther, a young Francis of Assisi received a vision from a crucifix telling him to “rebuild my house,” and against all odds, the powerful Pope Innocent III embraced the ideal of the simple Gospel life advocated by Francis. Innocent died prematurely, and the men who followed him were consumed by power more than poverty. It is a matter of great sadness that the Church could not reform itself until it had split into a number of fractured pieces.
Ironically, once the dam broke, the reformers themselves could not agree on the road to be taken, which is why Eire titled his book “Reformations.” Even the “Lutheran tradition” could not stay together. Future posts will continue to follow the struggles to redefine Christ’s Church, from the later Luther till the end of the bloody “religious wars” that extended for a century and a half.
A few weeks back I described Martin Luther’s year in seclusion, as the formal bull of excommunication by Leo X was issued on June 15, 1520. Typically, a public censure of excommunication rendered the accused subject to immediate arrest, trial, and probable excommunication if the accused heretic did not recant. Moreover, the capture of a heretic was considered the responsibility of church and civil authorities; the idea of separation of the two entities of Church and State was not yet firmly crystalized, and it was Luther’s first letter in seclusion, Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, that helped to nudge the separation along. Simply put, he was calling upon German nobility to take up what he saw as its Christian duty to reform the Church, by protecting those like himself to speak out against a tyranny of Church tradition divorced from the teaching of Sacred Scripture.
One can easily imagine the discomfort of these princes, particularly the Elector Frederick of Saxony who, as much as anyone, saved Luther’s life at the time of his excommunication. Frederick is one of the most interesting characters in the saga of Luther, and his own dilemma provides enlightenment on what the times were like. Frederick respected Luther, though not quite for the reasons one might expect. Frederick had issue with the indulgence crusades pouring forth from Rome—the very issue which led Luther to post his 95 theses in 1517—but Frederick’s ire was aroused because these Roman forays were cutting into Frederick’s relic business. Books differ on precise numbers, but the Elector was said to possess about 15,000 relics, which he displayed for veneration and curiosity for an admission fee.
But beyond that, Frederick shared a resentment with other German nobility over Roman Church taxation in the structure of the Holy Roman Empire. [Two centuries later, the French philosopher Voltaire would say that “the Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.”] Frederick was immensely proud of the University of Wittenberg which he had founded, a school under his protection where Luther had lectured with distinction and enjoyed great popularity. In the city square students routinely burned Church documents condemning Luther’s teachings and writings. Frederick died in 1524, during a bloody peasants’ uprising inspired in part by Luther’s reform crusade, and his funeral was conducted without much Roman trapping in the Cathedral of Wittenberg. For interested students of the Reformation, Frederick the Wise  is available in several formats, including Kindle.
It was to men such as Frederick that Luther addressed the first of his three letters during his year’s sabbatical-in-hiding [1520-1521]. The first letter [the previous Thursday Reformation post] devotes considerable attention to the princes’ right and duty to step in and enforce Church reform. But what kind of reforms did Luther specifically hope to effect, and were they compatible with the sixteen-century body traced to Christ and the Apostles? For starters, Luther traced all sound Church belief and practice to the Sacred Scripture, and those he could not find in Scripture—or at least in his analysis of Scripture—he considered the product of mere men, even popes.
In the post of Tuesday, September 24, I discussed at some length how the composition and selection of books of the New Testament Canon was a long and complex work of the Church extending several centuries after the death of Christ. [The Jewish Canon or Old Testament was produced in something of the same fashion.] While it is true that Scripture is the sourcebook of the Church, it is also true that Scripture is the product of the Church, which enjoys the Holy Spirit’s guidance in defining its books and guaranteeing that the Church would never err to the degree that it loses its Apostolic identity. The technical theological term is Magisterium [teacher]. The Wikipedia discussion of Magisterium is surprisingly good as an overview. A full treatment can be found in By What Authority: Foundations for Understanding Authority in the Church [2018, second edition] by Richard Gaillardetz.
Luther seemed to opt for a fundamental reading of Scripture fully dependent upon text alone. If a Church practice could not be found in Scripture, or directly instituted by Christ, such a practice was considered man-made and a baggage placed unnecessarily upon the lives of Christians, distracting them from the freedom of God’s justification and mercy outlined in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Scripture was the final forum of authority. What he denies here is the power of the Church to interpret Scripture over the progression of time, the idea that the Spirit has a dynamic life within the ecclesial community.
There is something to remember in deciphering Luther’s thought. The first is that Luther, to 1520, had spent his adult life as something of a “super-monk,” living an austere and stressful life to receive forgiveness for his sins. Biographers agree that he carried a strain of scrupulosity; I have treated patients in my lifetime with severe scruples, and it is a grim cross to carry. It should not come as a surprise, then, that having found relief in the text of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he would develop an ecclesiology in which the Gospel was preached directly and with a limit to human invention.
Consequently, Luther’s second letter is On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church  in which he addresses the sacramental/worship structure of the Catholic Church. He determined that only three sacraments could be traced to scripture—Baptism, Eucharist, and Penance. Later he dropped Penance, perhaps not surprisingly given his own quest for forgiveness which came with his reading of Romans. Luther argued that the proper way to receive the Eucharist was under the form of bread and cup. He was not wrong on this point, but for the next four centuries Catholicism would associate receiving under both kinds with “Protestantism.” Vatican II restored the ancient practice with the new rite of the Mass in 1970.
I need to add here that reception from the cup became something of a political and social issue in Luther’s Germany. The denial of the chalice came to be a sign of societal caste, i.e., that only a special privileged few were admitted to the cup while the peasants and working class were excluded.
Luther believed that medieval academics had substituted philosophy for faith. He came to deny the language of Transubstantiation, i.e., the essential change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, because the language had been derived from a philosophical system known as scholasticism, not from Scripture. However, he did maintain belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
This letter is sometimes regarded as the “breaking point” for Luther and the Church. Pope Leo X was penning his bull of excommunication while Luther was addressing the office of the papacy as the Antichrist. Certainly, this letter cost Luther one of his closest Catholic friends, the esteemed man of letters Erasmus. The Dutch scholar shared Luther’s passion for reform, but he could not embrace The Babylonian Captivity.
If you think the sale of indulgences is an old retired problem, or that no one "buys salvation" anymore, you might be intrigued by this news report from Christianity Today involving my old neighbor Pastor Benny Hinn.
During my years in the ministry I owned only subcompact cars, Dodge Colts to be precise. When I came into my 40's I discovered that leasing a 1992 Honda Accord cost the same as my monthly loan payment on a Colt, so approaching midlife I finally leased a basic Accord. For the first week I was almost too nervous to drive it. I had never owned a sedan before. So I was carefully driving down the road, starting to feel at home with my car, and listening to the local news on the car radio.
It seems that Pastor Benny, living in Orlando then, was coming under media attack for his high living. So Benny took to the microphone and made a statement: "I am an important man of God. Do you think a man in my position should be seen driving around town in a Honda?"
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Installment 41 of The Reformation is in preparation now.
After several encounters with Church officials in multiple German settings in 1518 and 1519 led to his being declared a heretic by the pope on January 3, 1521, Luther was formally designated an enemy of the Holy Roman Empire and subject to seizure and remand to Rome for execution by fire. In practice, any European civilian prince or authority was empowered—indeed, obligated—to capture this traitor of the Faith for the good of the Church. However, the monk remained enormously popular in his home regions of Germany among both the peasantry and local princes, both populations fatigued with Roman taxes and costly indulgence crusades, among other complaints. Consequently, his influential friends arranged for Luther to take a “sabbatical” in a secret and isolated castle, Wartburg Castle at Eisenach, where he remained for about one year.
During this period of isolation necessitated by his fugitive status, Luther composed three works which provide us today with the theological nature of his break from Rome and the roots of what we would call today Protestantism in the historical sense. Many churchmen in future years would take Luther’s writings in different and much more radical directions than Luther intended; there is significant difference between Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Evangelical bodies today. But Luther’s writings provided justification for breaking free from Rome and new insights into the primacy of the Bible, the process of salvation, and ecclesiastical governance.
Eric Metaxas makes the point [p. 220] that Rome’s responses to his call for reform brought about something of an apocalyptic mood in Luther: none of the Church’s responses to his various concerns for reform mentioned a word of Scripture. For Luther, this was a very ominous sign that all power and all judgment in the Church was drawn from the raw human authority of the pope, and none from the Word of God. Taking this fear to its extreme, Luther saw a Church drifting from its lifeline, and thus the pressure for reform took on something of a lifesaving desperation. This outlook led him to pen To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation . As Wikipedia summarizes its contents, Luther “attacked what he regarded as the "three walls of the Romanists": (1) that secular authority has no jurisdiction over them; (2) that only the pope is able to explain Scripture; (3) that nobody but the Pope himself can call a general church council.
Put another way, the Letter to Christian Nobility of the German Nation is a call to the civic leaders of the region to assume responsibility for the reform of the Church. Metaxas and others refer to this letter as one of the most significant statements in Western Civilization, on a par with the Magna Carta, a paradigm shift in the ways that mankind thought of itself. Luther was introducing a type of equality within the Church, with laity enjoying the same rank as clergy by virtue of Baptism. Later reformers would take these concepts much further, for Luther’s Letter, for all its shock value, was not as radical as some make it out to be. In the first instance, Luther is not calling for a new church; he believed then—and to some degree for his entire life—that implied in Baptism is the reality of one family in a Scripture purified Church. As will subsequently be seen, Luther maintained hope for some years that the Roman Catholic Church, reformed in this manner, would remain the mother church of Christendom.
Second, Luther’s own conversion experience of some years past came directly through his reading of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans on justification by faith. Luther believed—correctly for his time—that the role of Scripture in the Church had been diminished to source texting for expansion of Church practices, at best, and in many cases, Scripture provided no support for such innovations as indulgences. Of particular concern was the gulf between the printed Word of Scripture and the judgments and operations of popes.
Luther was cutting new ground here, the idea that the bible was a living document piercing the heart of each believer and commanding an ultimate obedience in conscience. Our term “freedom of conscience” is not appropriate here, for Luther was not advocating a “do your own thing” in matters religious and moral. Rather, he argued that every baptized person was obedient to the Word of God and would be judged by this obedience, and not by what Luther saw as the human inventions of the Church. He believed that in the case of indulgences, for which he could find no Scriptural reference, the Church was wrong to extract belief in the practice.
Luther has been called “the disobedient monk” by his detractors, but in truth he advocated obedience to the Scriptures as the primary responsibility of a believer. It was his faith and allegiance to the Scripture that led him to put his life on the line when he rejected papal commands to recant his preaching and writing on the need for reform, beginning with the office of the papacy itself. In the 1500’s the idea that the formation of the New Testament collection was put together by the Church over four centuries after Christ was not known by Luther and his contemporaries. The sharp distinction he made between the Scripture and the Church would not stand up in the scholarship of most Christian denominations today, including Catholicism.
The Letter makes its case for civil or princely intervention in Church reform by undermining three “errors” identified by Luther in his present-day perception of the Church’s condition. [Specifically, he refers to the process as “breaking down three Roman walls.”] His first identified wall/error reads that “secular authority has no jurisdiction over them [the clerical state.]” Luther did not deny the need for priests and bishops, but he interpreted that need as a function, not as an elevated state. He goes further to argue that in religious matters all the baptized laity should have power of vote or input. In Luther’s theology Baptism is the primary sacrament of identity. By virtue of baptism the natural order of society—individually and collectively—has input on good Church order. Hence, the civil authority of princes has a vital and natural role to step in when internal Church abuse damaged the lives of the faithful.
The “second wall” is the contention that only the pope can explain Scripture. Luther’s attack upon this tenet reflects his belief that all believers have the right to study and find the directive word of God in their own circumstances. But Luther may also have had in mind the growing contention that some of the most cherished documents buttressing Roman authority and power, notably the Donation of Constantine, were found to be hoaxes. Possibly the most famous of these historical investigators was Lorenzo Valla [1407-1457], whose works were published, ironically, in 1517, the year that Luther came into prominence.
The third and final Roman wall is the contention that nobody but the Pope himself can call a general church council. By Luther’s day the papacy was very skittish about reform councils. It was a mere century earlier that the Council of Constance [1414-1418] had been summoned by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to depose three claimants to the papacy and end the Great Schism. This Council had mandated regular reform councils at specified periods in the future, but once a valid pope was restored to the Throne of Peter, he and his successors were able to achieve a good measure of previous power in governing exclusively.
Under civil and ecclesiastical pressure from France, Pope Julius II convoked the Council Lateran V [1512-1517], but its five-year run was marked by political jockeying between the major national powers of Europe and internal bickering and housekeeping. That this Council ended in the same year as Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses is evidence enough that Lateran V had done nothing of substance to address the concerns of many Catholics across Europe regarding a true spiritual reform of the Church in capite et membris, i.e., in head and members. Luther’s letter argues that kings and princes, exercising their baptismal priesthood, should step in and summon clerics to councils when popes fail to summon such meetings or do not push agendas of true reform.
Luther’s To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation is seen today as one of the first documents of the modern era to advocate what in practice is a break between church and state, though others would later make this more explicit. Luther, fixated on reform in this work, probably set in motion more radical thinking than he anticipated. And, separated from the world as he was in hiding from church agents, he could not gauge the impact—good and bad—of his text as thousands of copies were marketed throughout Europe. He would pen two more extraordinary letters in his seclusion, and when he began to speak openly on the German landscape after a year, he would discover reform and regrets.
After their much publicized meeting, Luther’s failure to make an oath of submission—and rejection of his call for reform and a council to address the indulgence question—left the papal representative Cardinal Cajetan with nothing to present to Pope Leo X in terms of quelling Luther’s writings and speaking, which thanks to the printing press, were available and often well received by readers across Western European society. The next inevitable step would be a papal pronouncement of excommunication. Upon its declaration, Luther would become subject to arrest, deportation to Rome, imprisonment, probably torture, and summary excommunication by fire.
From his own writings it seems clear that by the time of the meeting with Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg in 1518, Luther had come to peace with the possibility that his calls for reform might very well lead to his martyrdom. But by the end of the Augsburg meeting, Luther was no longer a “voice crying in the wilderness.” Throughout Germany and much of Europe, thanks to the printing press, Luther had admirers as well as enemies. Some of these were German princes chafing under the taxes of the Holy Roman Empire. Others genuinely worried for the Church and appreciated the reform spirit of the Augustinian monk. At some stage along the way Luther’s pastoral instincts came into play: his mission was not simply to save his own soul, even with a glorious martyrdom. He was now responsible for an outline of a purified Church.
The encounter with Cajetan jarred Luther in the sense that he came to see more clearly the heart of we call today “the Reformation.” In the heat of debate with Cajetan, the Cardinal cited several papal pronouncements on indulgences from centuries past. He banked on Luther’s lack of historical familiarity with previous papal documents on the subject. [Looking back, Cajetan’s was an odd strategy given that indulgences had been the issue that roused Luther in the first place.] Luther knew the passages quite well, in fact, and used counterarguments to fluster Cajetan to the degree that the latter became quite flustered and to object of amusement to the audience.
With Luther piling up debate points, Cajetan resorted to consistent demands that Luther recant and submit to the pope, regardless of what Scripture did or didn’t say. As Eric Metaxas records, “And yet in all of this, Luther’s greatest fears were realized. He saw that the cardinal cared not a fig for the Holy Scriptures, and quite seriously maintained that church decrees superseded them…that the greatest minds of the church were genuinely unaware of having become unmoored from the rock of the Scriptures and were even indifferent to this.” [p. 150] Luther, of course, had found in the words of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans the understanding of justification and a new hope he would be saved; he could not understand how the Church would deny the saving words of the Bible in favor of erroneous teachings of churchmen, even the pope.
From our vantage point, we can see the errors of both sides of the question. Luther did not appreciate the origins of sacred scripture, how sacred books were written by members of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and how the Church fathers selected which books embodied the full message of salvation, a gradual process that lasted at least till 300 A.D. This selection process produced a canon or collection we know today as the New Testament. [For a deeper study of how the New Testament came to be written and determined, F.F. Bruce’s venerable 1990 book, The Canon of Scripture, is still a valuable source.] Four centuries of research stand between Luther’s era and today; he would not have had access to the research detailing the development of the Gospels, Epistles, etc. While it is true that God is the author of sacred scripture, it is the Spirit working in the Church that makes our bibles what they are today, the “words of life.”
The New Testament lays the groundwork for a “petrine ministry,” a position of leadership we attribute today to the pope. However, it is very reasonable to expect that (1) anyone holding the office preaches the Scriptures and the wisdom of the Church in interpreting the sacred Word, and (2) exercises his office with vigilance for reform in capite et membris, i.e., in head and members. The bane of many popes in the medieval and Renaissance era was hubris and worldliness. Luther would have been correct in his assertion that the pope cannot govern exclusive of the Bible, since the petrine ministry is derived from the Bible, i.e., the Holy Spirit through the Church. In 1518 Luther’s advocacy of the Bible created a conundrum of bible vs. papacy.
Several of Luther’s “guardians” realized his need for protection, even if Luther was a bit naïve of the full danger. Even in his home region, he was vulnerable to seizure by papal agents; the separation of church and state was a long time in the future, and the German states were members of the Holy Roman Empire. Moreover, those who harbored him or gave him comfort could become liable to a charge of heresy themselves. It is even more remarkable, then, that Luther’s Augustinian Superior released him from his vow of obedience so that Rome could not order the superior to silence him. Luther could continue to preach, write, and present his case as events unfolded.
Finally realizing his danger, Luther decided to leave Augsburg and return to his home turf, Wittenberg. On October 20, 1518, he fled the city, though all the gates of the town were locked, presumably to keep Luther within arm’s reach for arrest. It is unclear precisely how he escaped, but a horse and guide were ready for him on the other side of the wall. Luther rode 44 miles that night, and 45 the next, and he soon reached Wittenberg safely, though he would be saddle sore for days after. Luther had left none too soon. Cardinal Cajetan wrote to the Elector Frederick, Luther’s strongest civil protector, demanding that Luther be turned over to Rome.
Metaxas observes that Frederick’s protection of Luther is hard to fathom, given that the Elector was a well-known trafficker in relics and indulgences. The best guess is that his university theologians, supporters of Luther, encouraged Frederick to protect him. But Luther was wise enough to know that his continuing public presence in Wittenberg was creating problems for Frederick, and that he would need to go into hiding, to protect himself and more importantly, to write the foundational texts for a reform of Western Christendom.