With many Protestants celebrating the 500th year anniversary of the Reformation, I have take the opportunity to read many of Martin Luther’s own words hoping this would be beneficial in engaging those who have remained separated from the Church.
After reading a variety of sources, I am struck by how clearly many of the prejudices and misconceptions about the Catholic Church we hear today found their voice in Luther. Rather than truly examining the doctrines of the Church (something that should reasonably be expected of Catholic priest as Luther was), Luther instead criticized and condemned Church teaching based upon a flawed and incomplete understanding and his own personal biases.
Below are a few examples of Luther’s misunderstandings of Catholic teaching. For those who are not Catholic, these words of Luther greatly misrepresent Catholic doctrine. For Catholics, you may be surprised (and saddened) to see how these ideas are still echoed by many of our Christian brothers and sisters today.
Justified by works?
In his own words, we can see how Luther adamantly yet erroneously taught the Catholic Church believed we are justified (saved) by our works:
I cannot get over the blindness of the Pope’s theologians. To imagine that the mighty forces of sin, death, and the curse can be vanquished by the righteousness of man’s paltry works, by fasting, pilgrimages, masses, vows, and such gewgaws. These blind leaders of the blind turn the poor people over to the mercy of sin, death, and the devil. What chance has a defenseless human creature against these powers of darkness? They train sinners who are ten times worse than any thief, whore, murderer. The divine power of God alone can destroy sin and death, and create righteousness and life.
…(the Cain-like saints) rely upon themselves and their works, and not upon God’s Son, who was sent to earth, was born of a woman and put under the Law. They do not believe that salvation through him was designed for them; nor are they concerned about it. They are occupied merely with their own works, endeavoring by such means to help themselves and to secure the grace of God. In persecuting faith and defaming and condemning it as heresy and presumption, the unbelievers conduct themselves as their father Cain did to his brother Abel. Thus in themselves they slay Christ their brother…
Read Catholic teaching on justification here.
Luther wrongly held the Church and the papacy imposed laws on men, deceiving men and taking away liberty. As a result, he also professed the pope is the Antichrist.
I only lift my voice to defend this freedom of conscience. I confidently cry out: no one – not men – not angels – may justly impose laws upon Christians without their consent…We must know and strongly affirm that the making of such laws is unjust, that we will bear and rejoice in this injustice…Nevertheless, since few know this glory of baptism and the blessedness of Christian liberty, and cannot know them because of the tyranny of the pope, I for one will walk away from it all and redeem my conscience by bringing this charge against the pope and all his papists: Unless they will abolish their laws and traditions, and restore to Christ’s churches their liberty and have it taught among them, they are guilty of all the souls that perish under this miserable captivity, and the papacy is truly the kingdom of Babylon, yes, the kingdom of the real Antichrist!…
…Therefore I have warned, and still warn, all men that the Pope and the universities have cast Christ and the New Testament farther out of the world than ever did the Jews or Turks. Hence the Pope is the true Antichrist, and his high schools are the devil’s own taverns and brothels…Let us, therefore, guard against the hellish poison of this false doctrine and not lose Christ, the consoling Savior…Through the laws of the Pope and the doctrines of men, the devil fills them with his pollution to constant overflowing, wherewith they contaminate the whole world. But they ever remain in darkness, attempting, while lacking faith in Christ, to force acceptance with God by their prayers and fasts, their masses, study and preaching.
Luther protested purgatory was not supported by Scripture and promoted this doctrine allowed men to live how they pleased, both of which are erroneous.
Many depend upon purgatory, living as it pleases them to the end and expecting to profit by vigils and soul-masses after death. Truly, they will fail to receive profit therein. It were well had purgatory never been conceived of. Belief in purgatory suppresses much good…It is a serious drawback to these three features of Christian living: soberness, righteousness and godliness. Moreover, God has not commanded, nor even mentioned, purgatory. The doctrine is wholly, or for the most part, deception…The injunction of Paul to live rightly in this present world is truly a severe thrust at purgatory. He would not have us jeopardize our faith. Not that I, at this late day (when we write in 1522), deny the existence of purgatory; but it is dangerous to preach it, whatever of truth there may be in the doctrine, because the Word of God, the Scriptures, make no mention of a purgatory.
From the collection Table Talk, DXV:
Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome held nothing at all of purgatory. Gregory, being in the nighttime deceived by a vision, taught something of purgatory…As for purgatory, no place in Scripture makes mention thereof, neither must we any way allow it; for it darkens and undervalues the grace, benefits, and merits of our blessed, sweet Saviour Christ Jesus. The bounds of purgatory extend not beyond this world; for here in this life the upright, good, and godly Christians are well and soundly scoured and purged.
[Of note, Table Talk is not a collection of words directly from Luther but is a collection of second hand comments from him written by those with whom he conversed.]
Read Catholic teaching on purgatory here.
The Church Prohibited the Bible from Being Read?
The Church has always encouraged the faithful to read the Scriptures but has warned against interpreting Scripture contrary to the deposit of faith. Luther rebuked the Church’s cautionary approach and claimed the Bible is clear and easy to understand. He also promoted the myth that the Catholic Church hid the Bible so that no one had access to it.
Observe, however, what the devil has accomplished through the Papists. It was not enough for them to throw the Bible under the table, to make it so rare that few doctors of the holy Scriptures possess a copy, much less read it; but lest it be brought to public notice they have branded it with infamy. For they blasphemously say it is obscure; we must follow the interpretations of men and not the pure Scriptures. What else is their proceeding but giving Paul the lie here where he says the Bible is our manual of instruction? They say it is obscure and calculated to mislead. How was God to reward such blasphemers and criminal destroyers of the Scriptures? Had he consulted with me about the matter, I would have entreated him – since they cast reproach upon his clear word, declaring it obscure and unsafe, and exclude it from the sight and knowledge of men, throwing it under the table – to give them in its stead Aristotle and Averrois, along with the endless statutes and fallacies of the Pope…
…I have hitherto determinately set myself against the Pope, in whose kingdom, nothing is more common, or more generally received than this saying: —’that the Scriptures are obscure and ambiguous, and that the Spirit, as the Interpreter, should be sought from the apostolical see of Rome!’ than which, nothing could be said that was more destructive; for by means of this saying, a set of impious men have exalted themselves above the Scriptures themselves; and by the same, have done whatever pleased them; till at length, the Scriptures are absolutely trodden under foot, and we compelled to believe and teach nothing but the dreams of men that are mad. In a word, that saying is no human invention, but a poison poured forth into the world by a wonderful malice of the devil himself, the prince of all demons.
Luther, like many non-Catholic Christians today, completely misunderstood the teaching of papal infallibility. The Church has always recognized that the primacy of the pope has nothing to do with his own personal holiness – infallibility does not at all proclaim impeccability – yet Luther claimed otherwise:
The hypocritical Papists, being well aware that their false claim for the supremacy of the Pope cannot stand unless backed by his personal holiness, proceed to bolster up that falsehood by a greater one. They endeavor to give him the reputation of personal goodness by saying he cannot err, for the Holy Spirit never forsakes him, and Christ is ever with and in him. Some of them, knowing the absurdity of denying that the Pope does openly sin, are so bold in their blasphemous utterances as to declare it is impossible for him to remain in mortal sins for a quarter of an hour…
Read Catholic teaching on papal infallibility here.
Intercessory Prayers of the Saints
Luther and his disciples degraded intercessory prayer of the Saints, completely misrepresenting the foundations for this practice:
The papists took the invocation of saints from the heathen, who divided God into numberless images and idols, and ordained to each its particular office and work. These the papists, void of all shame and Christianity, imitated, thereby denying God’s almighty power…The invocation of saints is a most abominable blindness and heresy; yet the papists will not give it up…
In the Defense of the Augsburg Confession, article XXI (IX), Melanchthon wrote:
There are those who attribute downright divinity to the saints, by saying, they see in us the hidden thoughts of our hearts…They make the Saints not only intercessors but also the mediators of redemption. They devised that Jesus Christ was more difficult, and the saints more easy, to be appeased; they confide more in the mercy of the saints, than in that of Jesus Christ; and flying from Jesus Christ, they seek the saints.
[Above translation from History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches by Bishop Bossuet, Vol 1, Book III, 57. A slightly different translation is available online, see #11,14-15.]
Read Catholic teaching on intercessory prayer of the Saints here.
The Consequences of His Prejudices
Whether it is Martin Luther or his spiritual descendants today, I appreciate those who are willing to debate these issues in the search for truth. However, we cannot even begin to debate when the tenets of the Catholic faith are misrepresented in order to support objections as Luther did. It is true we can all be mistaken at times, but where Luther lacked comprehension, he should have engaged in deeper study rather than condemning his own false preconceptions about the Catholic faith. And a tragic consequence is that many unknowingly uphold these prejudices today. This also demonstrates, whether Catholic or not, the importance of truly learning what the Church actually believes so that we can sincerely work towards unity and put an end to perpetuating misconceptions.