Ecumenical skeptics today often argue that presumed doctrinal convergence between Protestants and Roman Catholics only papers over an underlying—and fundamental—disagreement. Typically, Martin Luther is called on as the prime witness to this contention: did not the Reformation schism begin with his theological “breakthrough,” his principled repudiation of the “catholic” form of Christianity as a whole; careful examination of what Luther actually wrote and said, however, suggests very different conclusions that may surprise Protestants and Roman Catholics alike.
In what might be called the standard Protestant reading, the young Luther was a man haunted by a question for which traditional Catholicism could provide no answer How can I get a gracious God? This question arose from Luther’s deep religious or existential insight into the inauthenticity of all human works before God—an inauthenticity systematically denied by the sacramental rituals, dogmatic faith, and mystical aspiration of traditional Christianity.
Some scholars believe that Luther found his distinctive answer to this question very early and that his development as a theologian was mostly a matter of bringing his discovery to dear enough expression that it finally provoked its inevitable conflict. Since the Second World War, however, most scholars have come to believe that Luther found the answer only in 1518, after the indulgence controversy was already underway. Luther’s struggle with the question How can I get a gracious God? already strikes at the roots of traditional Christianity, and his persistence in asking it was enough to cause his early difficulties with the Church authorities. But it is only in 1518—when he met with the papal legate Cajetan and refused to recant—that the handwriting was on the wall; Luther could no longer live in the house of Catholic tradition.
The scholars who see something decisive happening to Luther’s thought in 1518 seem to me to have the best of it. But in either account, Luther’s “Reformation Breakthrough” is implicitly construed as a refounding of Christianity, on a par in important respects with Pentecost. Most interpreters of Luther would not feel comfortable saying this in so many words, but it is clearly implied by the story they tell. Luther is, for example, said to have “rediscovered the gospel,” which surely implies that the gospel somehow got lost. And what is the revelation of the gospel if not the founding of Christianity and of the Church?
The Protestant reading of Luther’s story implies further that Luther has no significant relation to the preceding Christian tradition: Luther’s breakthrough came about in an a historical, unmediated encounter with the naked Pauline kerygma. Luther is read as saying something radically incompatible with anything said in the Church since the death of Paul (except perhaps for a few glimmers in Augustine). The Catholic tradition figures in the story only as what Luther had to overcome to rediscover the gospel. Those concerned with Luther thus have little reason for concern with tradition, which—as “scholasticism,” “mysticism,” or “traditional dogma”—serves mostly as a foil for Luther’s “discovery.”
A final implication of this way of reading Luther is the most important and the most troubling: the sixteenth-century Protestant/Catholic schism is construed as the logical, inevitable, and necessary public outcome of Luther’s theological development. If even Luther’s question was impossible for traditional Christianity to assimilate, much less his answer, obviously his new faith demanded a new church. No ecumenical courtesy can change the fact that, on this reading of Luther, the two parties to the schism were, in effect, practicing different religions. This way of telling Luther’s story is quite conservative in its effects, even though it presents Luther as a radical, for it makes the present division of the Church seem normal and inevitable to us.
The reading of Luther that I propose tells quite a different story. While something important for Luther’s theological development did occur in 1518, it was not a “Reformation turn” away from the catholic tradition. On the contrary, it is better described as a “catholic turn” that anchored Luther’s work much more solidly within the framework of catholic Christianity. Luther’s theology was deeply shaped by his scholastic, monastic, and patristic predecessors; he was creative, but his creativity lay especially in his fresh grasp of traditional problems and in his innovative use of traditional resources to address those problems.
Of course, if all this is so, we are no longer able to suppose that the Reformers discovered a radically new version of Christianity for which the old Church could not make room. On the reading I propose, the Reformation schism was brought about instead by contingent human choices in a confused historical context defined less by clear and principled theological argument (though that of course was present) than by a peculiar and distinctively sixteenth-century combination of overheated and ever-escalating polemics, cold-blooded Realpolitik, and fervid apocalyptic dreaming.
If one looks carefully at what Luther actually wrote before 1518 (as distinguished from his reminiscences twenty or twenty-five years later), one discovers that the celebrated question “How can I get a gracious God?” is conspicuously absent. That is to say, the driving issue in Luther’s early theology was not, on the face of it, the problem of the assurance of forgiveness or the certitude of salvation.
There was, to be sure, a pastoral problem of the “troubled conscience” in the late medieval Church, brought about—to oversimplify—by the convergence of certain unresolved issues in Augustine’s theology of grace with certain developments in the canon law of penance. But the “troubled conscience” was never a simple and uniform spiritual malaise, and it took different forms in different pastoral and theological contexts. The young Luther did almost certainly suffer from a “troubled conscience” in some form, but it evidently did not cause his theological work to be dominated by the question, “How can I get a gracious God?”
The driving question in Luther’s early theology is, in fact, “Where can I find the real God?” All the evidence in the texts suggests that it was the threat of idolatry, not a craving for assurance of forgiveness, that troubled Luther’s conscience. And this question did not, as some of Luther’s interpreters have been eager to believe, burst the framework of traditional Christianity; both the question and Luther’s eventual answer locate him within the catholic tradition.
At its heart, Luther’s early theology is marked by a strong emphasis on what the scholastics called uncreated grace, grace as the presence of the uncreated God, and on the transformation of the human heart by God in the utter transcendence of His Godhead. Much of Luther’s criticism focused on the way in which contemporary theology naturalized grace, playing down its radically transformative and inevitably disruptive impact. In this, Luther was not breaking with catholic tradition, but self-consciously retrieving the tradition, bringing to bear the deepest insights of Augustine and the great monastic teachers on a scholasticism out of touch with its own roots.
The effect of such radically transformative grace, according to the Augustinian tradition and the young Luther, is that the heart loves God above all things for His own sake; in Augustine’s terms, we come to enjoy God and use created things for God’s sake, rather than attempting to “use” God for the sake of created enjoyments.
Augustinian theologies of this sort regularly yield a potentially tormenting existential problem concerning the authenticity of spiritual experience. I have, perhaps, undergone a profound experience of conversion and transformation; but can I be sure that it is really the very presence of God’s Holy Spirit that I have experienced? And even if I have genuinely experienced God’s grace, the moment I begin to regard grace as something I can use, I have turned from God and substituted an idol of my own making. The problem of the “pure love of God” and the problem of identifying and turning to the real God turn out to be the same problem.
Luther was intensely aware of the traditional Augustinian dialectics of this problem, and works them out with great care in the Lectures on Romans (1515–1516). Best known is his depiction of the sinner as incurvatus in se, “curved in on self”: Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, is so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.
Luther’s first strategy for addressing this problem of idolatrous self-seeking, first developed in the Lectures on Romans, uses what might be called a strategy of contrariety. It is a very specific, very simple, and quite perversely brilliant theological move. How can we tell that we are really clinging to God and not to an idol of our own? Luther answers that the gracious presence of the true God is so excruciatingly painful and distastefully unpalatable to our nature that we can have no imaginable self-interested motivation for enduring it.
Therefore the excellent God, after He has justified and given His spiritual gifts, lest that ungodly nature rush upon them to enjoy them (for they are very lovely and powerfully incite to enjoyment), immediately brings tribulation, exercises, and examines, lest the person perish eternally by such ignorance. For thus a person learns to love and worship God purely, when one worships God not for the sake of His grace and gifts, but for Himself alone.
The problem is that we do not want to come into God’s presence for God’s sake, but for the sake of all the good things He can do for us: we want to use God. And Luther answers: If it is really God, then He will crucify and torture you as He did Christ, your pattern, and thus leave you no reason to cling to Him except for His own sweet sake.
It has sometimes been assumed that this theology, and the piety of humble submission to spiritual suffering that accompanies it, must have been so tormenting that it only added fuel to Luther’s spiritual agony and his quest for a gracious God. But there is little warrant for this in the texts. On the contrary, Luther seems to have found it comforting. Even though it forbids the undialectical confidence in God’s mercy that Luther later came to teach, it nonetheless allows the sinner yearning for God under the cross a sort of paradoxical assurance, a sense of being at least in the appropriate place before God, which sustains the heart and enables it to endure to the end. In a sort of “trusting despair,” fiducial desperatio, the sinner afflicted by grace discerns in his afflictions the saving hand of God, whose redemptive love secures itself from abuse by hiding under its apparent opposite. There is no real evidence that Luther regarded this consolation as inadequate; the impetus to reshape his thought in a new configuration came from the theological tradition, not the anxious yearnings of a troubled conscience.
This early “theology of the cross” is the background for Luther’s attack on indulgence sales in 1517. It is quite crucial to realize that Luther did not initially criticize indulgences for being legalistic or worry that they would lead believers to rely on their own works for salvation. On the contrary, his pastoral worry about the sale of indulgences was that simple people were being misled into confusing the external remission of penalties with the crucifying inner grace that drives out self-seeking.
And so let us diligently take care lest indulgences . . . become for us a cause of security and indolence and loss of interior grace. But let us take action carefully in order that the sickness of our nature may be perfectly healed and we thirst to come to God out of love for Him and hatred of this life and disgust with ourselves; that is, let us assiduously seek His healing grace.
It is between the fall of 1517 and the fall of 1518, in the midst of the great controversy in which Luther soon found himself embroiled, that most scholars now locate a crucial turn in his thinking. By the end of 1518, the theme of humble endurance of God’s crucifying grace has receded into the background, not repudiated but no longer the focal point. The new center of Luther’s theology of grace became the heart’s confident assurance of the promised mercy of God in Christ, what he will later describe simply as “the faith which grasps Christ,” tides apprehensive Christi.
We can get a more concrete sense of Luther’s new position from the memorandum he presented to Cardinal Cajetan during their October meetings in Augsburg. Cajetan had challenged Luther’s insistence that those who come to the sacrament of penance are to believe confidently that they receive God’s grace and forgiveness thereby; Luther’s main defense appeals to Christ’s words in Matthew 16:19:
It is necessary, under peril of eternal damnation and the sin of unbelief, to believe these words of Christ: Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed also in heaven. Therefore if you come forward to the sacrament of penance and do not believe firmly that you are absolved in heaven, you come forward to judgment and damnation, because you do not believe that Christ has spoken what is true: Whatever you loose, etc., and so by your doubt you make Christ a liar, which is a horrible sin . . . . But when you believe the word of Christ, you honor his word and by this work you are righteous, etc.
The most important thing that happened to Luther in 1518 was that he rethought his theology of grace in the context of the theology of the sacraments. This is indeed new; Luther seems to have paid no serious attention to sacramental theology until he got embroiled in the indulgence controversy. But in that controversy, his emphasis on the inner purification of the heart by grace was bound to raise questions about the role of the sacraments. It is only after he had begun to be disturbed by the indulgence sales that we find him for the first time considering sacramental issues in earnest in his lectures.
The problem in sacramental theology that proved crucial for Luther was that of the relation among the outward sacramental action, the grace of God, and the faith required of the participant in the sacrament. The story of Luther’s struggles with this question, from the summer of 1517 to the summer of 1518, is very complicated. In the spring of 1518 alone, Luther published three different and mutually exclusive solutions to the problem, including one that is indistinguishable from the position later associated with Zwingli.
What finally emerged in the summer of 1518 from this frantic rethinking—recall that Luther was trying to work through the theological issue while at the same time explaining to the world why he shouldn’t be burned at the stake for heresy—seems to have been shaped primarily by reflection on texts such as Matthew 16:19: “Whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven.” To the question of the sacraments Luther finally responds that the concrete, external, public sacramental act in the Church is the act of Jesus Christ. When we come to the sacrament, we come to Jesus Christ: his word, his act, his authority.
The new focus on the sacraments is what gives Luther’s theology after 1518 a very different shape from his early thought, even though he continued to be concerned with many of the same issues. Where the critical point in his earlier theology of grace is God’s crucifying contradiction of sinful human nature, here the point on which everything hinges is the authority of Christ the Savior, exercised concretely in the sacramental signs of the Church.
Faith is now sharply defined by this sacramental situation: faith is openness to and acknowledgment of Christ’s authority in its concrete sacramental exercise. There is no other prerequisite than faith for the fruitful reception of the sacrament, because the sacrament is itself the public act in which Christ bestows his grace on the ungodly. The public sacramental life of the Church is now seen as the locus of assurance, of certitude, the place where an entirely undialectical salvific communication takes place.
The insight that sacramental theology was the hinge for the “sum” in Luther’s thinking in 1518 is widely acknowledged in the scholarly literature. But this turn is described quite wrongly if we take it as a “Reformation turn” away from the catholic tradition. On the contrary, I would argue that this was a turn toward the very heart of the catholic tradition.
The net effect of Luther’s new focus on the authority of Christ in the sacramental sign is to subordinate the old strategy of contrariety to a new strategy of particularity, well summarized in a line from one of Luther’s later sermons: “We have a definite Lord, one we can grasp.” From 1518 on, it is the particularity and concreteness of God’s presence that now foreclose idolatry; the true God, who by definition cannot be used, is the God who makes Himself available as He chooses, in the flesh born of Mary and the Church’s sacramental practice, not in our religious speculation and self-interest.
In this new configuration, faith is no longer ineluctably involved in a never-ending dialectic of trust and despair; it is instead an altogether non-dialectical confidence in the unambiguous authority of the saving Christ concretely present in his Church. In Luther’s early theology of the cross, God hides His saving presence in the torment He visits on His elect; in the mature theology, the gracious hiddenness of God is primarily a matter of His lowliness, His kenosis in the incarnate Son, in His chosen signs, and in His saints. The tribulations of the faithful are no longer identical with the grace that saves them (although they drive them to seek that grace and are the veil under which it is hidden from the proud and mighty of this world). The saving presence of God is not dialectical or ambiguous in the least.
The real question with which I am confronted when I approach the sacrament of penance is whether I believe that Christ speaks the truth when he says that whatever the Church shall loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. If I believe, then I am called to put all my trust in his authority to save—and that means that I confess that Christ is the true God. If the one who authorizes the absolution of my sins is the true God, then indeed I may have an entirely undialectical assurance of salvation; this answer to the pastoral problem of the troubled conscience was a deeply important practical by-product of Luther’s new appreciation of the sacraments. But that assurance of faith is first and foremost true worship, the acknowledgment of God in His Godhead, obedience and submission of the heart. Anxiety about my unworthiness and presumption on my merits are alike failures to acknowledge the authority of God in His concrete saving presence.
Luther’s early theology was “mystical” in the sense that it was a theology focused on the transformation of human persons by union with God. Looking at Luther’s development up to 1518, we might not be convinced that his mysticism was evolving in a catholic direction: theologies concerned with inner transformation and the purifying presence of God have, after all, been known to come unmoored from the catholic tradition. Similarly, one might be concerned that Luther’s comparative lack of interest in the sacraments, innocent enough in his early lectures on the Psalms, is growing somewhat ominous when he finds it possible to expound Romans without mentioning baptism. Likewise, had Luther continued to develop his Christology along the lines of the theology of the cross, the outcome might well have been the subversion of his undoubted Christocentricity by a kind of Unitarianism of the Holy Spirit, for which Christ would finally be only the archetype in which the Spirit’s transforming grace is displayed.
In all these respects, the “turn” initiated in 1518 was a run towards the core of the catholic tradition, a reaffirmation of its dogmatic and sacramental heart. For Luther after 1518, Christ is central not as pattern but as person; we are saved by the faith which acknowledges his authority, competence, and willingness to rescue those who call on him. The gospel proclaimed and sacramentally enacted in the Church is a word that calls us to put all our trust in Jesus the Son of Mary; thus who Jesus Christ is and where he gets the authority to promise such astounding things become the central theological questions. Or, as Luther put it in his lectures on Psalm 2 from the beginning of the 1530s, what is constitutive of the gospel is the identity of the one to whom it points:
This is to be a new doctrine. The old doctrine is this: Believe in God . . . . The law urges us to our works; that is the highest thing in Moses. But here no law is proposed, there is no exaction but a casting down; what is set before us is not our works but the Son of God. It offers us an object, which we ourselves are not, but rather: “My son.” The definite doctrine which this King and teacher Christ is to urge and exercise is this: not to teach the law or our works, but Christ, the Son of God, that one may look to him . . . . Therefore the chief doctrine, and the sum of all that surpasses Moses, is not to hear the law, what I should do, but to hear who that one is.
The Christological dogma, and with it the doctrine of the Trinity, are for just this reason much more clearly constitutive for Luther’s theology of grace after 1518 than in the Lectures on Romans or the Heidelberg Disputation. Indeed, Luther can quite straightforwardly identify the doctrine of justification with the Christological dogma of the ancient Church, as he does in his Sermons on John 6:
You have heard already that he calls himself “the Son of Man.” In this way he wants to show that he has our true flesh and blood, which he took to himself from the Virgin Mary, in which eternal life is to be found. This is the article of justification: the Holy Spirit wills that one under no circumstances learn, know, imagine, hear, or accept another God besides this God, whose flesh and blood we imprint and grasp in our hearts if we want to be saved . . . . In his flesh and blood you will find God; that is where He has located Himself, there you will meet Him, where the Son of Man is.
And the same holds true of catholic sacramentalism. After 1518, Luther is quite clear that it is in and through the public performance of the sacramental signs in the visible Church that grace is bestowed on those who believe. His mystical theology of uncreated grace, the purifying encounter with God in His very Godhead, is henceforth anchored to the preaching and ritual of the Church as the concrete locus of God’s certain, undialectical presence. Indeed, it becomes an explicit theological axiom for Luther that inward and spiritual grace is given only in and through the public, bodily, sacramental practice of the Church.
Luther’s impatient arguments for the reform of sacramental practice and theology, and his frequent vilification of received usages and opinions, should not therefore be allowed to obscure what might be called his “deep catholic” commitment to the sacramentality of grace, with its unmistakable Patristic resonances. For Luther and the Fathers alike, the worship of the ekklesia is the mystical epiphany of God’s philanthropia in Christ. It is no accident at all that Luther’s major work of 1519 was a series of sermons describing the way in which Christian existence is founded and formed by the sacraments.
This reading of Luther’s development suggests that the Western schism, far from being the appropriate historical outcome of principled theological disagreement, was instead a tragic chapter of accidents. There are no historical grounds for believing that the schism was the necessary outcome of Luther’s theology of grace. On the contrary, on the one occasion when Luther’s theological proposals received a halfway careful hearing from a representative of the Roman Church, at his meetings with Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg in 1518, the conclusion reached was that his doctrine of justifying faith was not obviously heretical or in clear opposition to the tradition of the Church. While Cajetan only understood Luther’s views imperfectly, and regarded them as temerarious and mistaken, he was ready to recommend that they receive further discussion and consideration before a final judgment was reached.
Schism was the contingent outcome of the badly managed causa Lutheri, the ecclesiastical examination of Luther’s orthodoxy in 1518–1519, and the controversy over teaching authority with which it became entangled. On Luther’s side, the final break with the Church authorities came in the wake of Leo X’s bull of November 1518; in that document, as Luther saw it, Leo arrogated to himself the power of defining Church teaching without accountability to Scripture, the Fathers, or the ancient canons. This led Luther eventually to conclude that the Roman Church was irrevocably committed to the claim that the authority of the pope stood even above Holy Scripture and it was in this context that he came, over the next several years, to believe that the papacy was the prophesied Antichrist of the last days, a conviction he then held to his dying day with a literalistic fervor that his modern interpreters have rarely been willing to take as seriously as he did.
When Luther became convinced that the papacy was Antichrist, all the energy of his theological vision was harnessed to the forces already working to dissolve the Church’s unity; this more than anything else made schism inevitable. There is blame enough to go around for this tragic and pointless outcome. The theological obtuseness of the Roman court theologians (Cajetan partly excepted), the inability or unwillingness of the Roman authorities to appropriate their own best ecclesiological traditions, and the unlovely influence of financial politics on the handling of the doctrinal issues all played a considerable role, as did Luther’s impatience and anger, his inability to take stupid and inappropriate papal teaching at all calmly (perhaps because his own early view of the papal office was unrealistically high), as well as his tendency to dramatize his own situation in apocalyptic terms. The tragedy is compounded, moreover, on the reading that I have proposed, by the irony of the fact that in material theological terms the Luther of 1519 arguably did greater justice to the core convictions of the catholic tradition than did the Luther of 1517.
David S. Yeago is Michael C. Peeler Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?