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What Was (Is) Wrong With Martin Luther’s Thinking?

June 21, 2014 Frontpage No Comments


(Editor’s Note: Fr. Deutsch is a retired Maryknoller who served in Tanzania.)

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When Martin Luther broke away from the Church in 1517, he defied the authority of the Pope and the Church. He went off on his own, not only in the matter of indulgences, but also in some very basic concepts of Church teaching. For example, he began to believe that he could not overcome concupiscence (man’s inclination to evil). In fact he called these appetites and desires “invincible concupiscence,” that is, they cannot be conquered, so therefore, give in to them and don’t worry about them, for we are saved not by “good works,” but by “faith alone.” He based his beliefs and teaching on St. Paul’s epistles, especially the Epistle to the Romans.
Yes, Paul does say that we are saved by faith and not by works. But Paul did not mean by this that we should therefore be free to sin, as Luther said “sin bravely,” and belief alone will bring salvation. Yes, grace is a totally free gift by which we are saved. But in chapter 6 of Romans, Paul clearly states that this does not mean we can sin. He wrote:
“What then shall we say? Shall we persist in sin so that grace may abound? Of course not! How can we who died to sin yet live in it?. . . Consequently you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.”
St. Peter, the first Pope, speaks clearly about this matter. On the day of Pentecost, Peter fearlessly stood up and began to preach in Jerusalem. When he explained who Jesus was whom they had crucified, the people asked: “And what should we do now?” Peter said,
“Repent, and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will received the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Yes, it was and is a free gift, but one has to be disposed to received it through faith and repentance (see Acts 2:38).
The other teaching of Luther regarding “authority,” that is, authority based on “Scripture alone” (Sola Scriptura), is equally easy to show as not tenable. Where did the Bible come from in the first place, if not from God through the Church? Without the Church there would be no Bible.
It wasn’t until the later part of the fourth century that the Church under Pope Damasus finalized the Bible, which books should be included and which ones not (Council of Rome in 382). He also commissioned St. Jerome in 383 to translate the Bible into Latin. Someone had to decide, and of course it was the Church, which Jesus promised to be with until the end of the age, through Peter, to whom Jesus gave power to loose and to bind (Matt. 16) The Council of Trent in the 16th century also approved the same canon (list of inspired books).
The Second Vatican Council settled this question once and for all in the document on Divine Revelation. I had the supreme good fortune of studying this document in Rome in 1982 under a peritus (expert) of the council, Fr. Duncar, a Dominican, a noted Scripture scholar, who was at the council as an adviser to the bishops. In his course, “The Iter of Dei Verbum” (the journey of the Vatican II document on the word of God), Fr. Duncar led us through all the discussions that took place before the Document on Divine Revelation was finally approved. It was one of the first to be introduced at the council (in 1962) and one of the last to be approved (in 1965).
The relationship between the Church and Scripture was clearly taught in the Vatican II document. One cannot exist without the other. When Jesus left the apostles on Ascension Thursday, where was the word of God (the four Gospels) before it was written down? It had to be somewhere. It was in the minds and hearts of the apostles. It was only slowly written down.
The first Gospel written was St. Mark’s about the year 63, about 30 years after Jesus had died on the cross. Jesus promised the apostles that the Holy Spirit would teach them and remind them of everything He had said and done (John 16:5-15). The apostles were the supreme leaders of the Church, which, as St. Paul says in Eph. 5:25, Jesus offered up His life for, promising to be with it till the end of the age (Matt 28:20).
I would like to conclude this essay with a short quotation from the Vatican II Document on Divine Revelation which explains what I am saying so clearly (chapter 2, n. 9).
“Hence there exists a close connection and communication between Sacred Tradition (also called Apostolic Tradition) and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the Word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, while Sacred Tradition takes the Word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it, preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently, it is not from the Sacred Scriptures alone that the Church draws her certainty, about everything which has been revealed. Therefore, both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.”
Today, the number of Christian churches apart from the Catholic Church is almost uncountable. Some say there are 30,000 with new ones being added every day. This, of course, is because if everyone can interpret the meaning of the Word of God according to his own whims and desires, the increase of churches will never stop. Thousands upon thousands contradict each other, claiming the Holy Spirit’s authority.
Jesus came to establish the truth. Thus, Jesus, in His wisdom, knew what He was doing when He created His Church, through Peter as the first Pope who received from Jesus a special gift of fidelity to His true word.

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