Luther: 500 Years After

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By Russell Shaw, The Catholic Thing, Oct. 7, 2017

Russell ShawAnyone familiar with Martin Luther is aware that his religious ideas often reflect his inner turmoil – the agonized awareness that he was a sinner, the consuming fear that he was damned, a pressing need for reassurance that he was saved by faith in the salvific action of Christ.

Out of this tangle came Luther’s distinctive view of faith as a “reflexive” or “apprehensive” entity – the believer’s reaching out to salvation in Christ, seizing it (or Him), and directing it (or Him) back upon himself in order to possess the assurance of salvation and a place among the elect.

This circular trajectory is traced by Paul Hacker in his book Faith in LutherHacker was a controversial German Catholic religious scholar, a convert from Lutheranism, who died in 1979. Faith in Luther first appeared in 1966, with a preface by a then-youngish theologian, a star at the recently concluded Vatican Council II, Joseph Ratzinger, now better known as Pope Benedict XVI.

The Ratzinger preface is included in the new edition, along with an informative foreword by Reinhard Hutter, another former Lutheran, who now teaches at the Catholic University of America.

The republication is a timely contribution as the fifth centennial observance of Luther’s posting of the famous 95 theses, supposed to have occurred on October 31, 1517, draws to a close. Historians say that event may or may not have happened, but the theses certainly were real, as were the break with Rome and the fracturing of European Christendom that followed.

As is the lasting significance of Luther’s thinking about faith. The subtitle of Hacker’s book – Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion – points to why that is so:

Luther’s “temptations” were the outcome of the deadly stress produced by the first effort of a man-oriented trend to assert itself within the uncontested framework of a decidedly theocentric and Christocentric religion. Since Luther’s time the same trend has forced faith to withdraw to the position of a “religionless Christianity.” Anthropocentrism has reached its last stage before coinciding with professed atheism. This situation causes a new kind of interior convulsion, and this is the contemporary form of faith’s essential experience of temptation.

The whole nightmare of “tempted faith” vanishes once the reflexivity of faith is renounced. But for many, it seems arduous to get rid of an inveterate evil.

If true, this constitutes stern criticism of Luther. But is it true? To answer that, it’s necessary to take a close look at Luther’s ideas about faith. With their emergence, Hacker writes, “the potential reformer became the first Protestant.”

Here Hacker relies heavily on Luther’s immensely popular Small Catechism. Summing it up, he writes that for Luther “the act of reflexive faith is directed to the Divine Person of Christ, but it is intended to recoil on the believer’s ego in order to evoke in him a consciousness of his own relation with God, a consciousness of consolation and salvation.”

As Luther put it in a sermon of 1519: “Nobody can possibly know that he is in God’s grace and that God is propitious to him except through faith. If he believes it, he is blessed; if not, he is condemned.” This is what Luther meant by calling such faith “apprehensive” (fides apprehensiva) – it grasps salvation, indeed grasps Christ Himself.

Hacker finds this concept of faith pervasive in Luther’s religious thinking. As such, it strongly influences his view of the sacraments. For example, although he eventually rejected Penance as a true sacrament, he paradoxically took an appreciative view of auricular confession (“it pleases me wonderfully”), since the forgiveness spoken by the minister brought “a unique remedy for afflicted consciences. . . .We give peace to ourselves in the mercy of God, who speaks to us through our brother.”

Of the two sacraments that Luther recognized – baptism and the Eucharist (“the Lord’s Supper”) – his treatment of the latter is particularly interesting from the standpoint of reflexive faith.

The Mass is essentially for Luther “a promise of remission of sins,” and that’s why he insists emphatically on the Real Presence. For if the meaning of the Mass is Christ’s promise to pardon sins, then, in Hacker’s words, “the bodily presence of the one promising at the time of the proclamation of his promise surely guarantees the validity of the promise and the actuality of its accomplishment.”

The effects of Luther’s thinking, of course, didn’t end with him. On the contrary, Hacker says, “The new concept of faith inescapably initiated a development in which religion became at first man-oriented and eventually man-centered.” Here was “the seed of anthropocentrism in religion and of idealism in philosophy.”

No Catholic of even minimal sensitivity can fail to appreciate the dramatic improvement in Lutheran-Catholic relations since Vatican II, especially the joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed in Augsburg in 1999.

Two years ago a dialogue group representing the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops concluded that the number of “church-dividing issues” remaining between them is not large. But the remaining issues are of no little importance, since they include the authority of the pope, abortion, same-sex marriage, and ministry (ELCA accepts women as ministers along with gays and lesbians in same-sex unions).

If Paul Hacker is correct, add faith to that list, and put it first. In his foreword, Reinhard Hutter calls the book “an urgent invitation for future bilateral ecumenical dialogues to tackle explicitly the questions, What is faith? What is saving faith? What does saving faith presuppose and entail?”

Leaving these questions unexamined, he warns, would mean that “the partners in the ecumenical dialogue would most likely talk past each other on many other theological topics.” As then-Father Joseph Ratzinger put it in 1966, an ecumenism based on “a surrender of truth would be the equivalent of burying the faith. . . .[Hacker] has the right, therefore, to expect his work to be evaluated by the single norm he has in mind: the quest of the truth of the Gospel, whether it is pleasant or not, whether it coincides with one’s ideas or makes them questionable.”


Russell Shaw is the author of Papal Primacy in the Third Millennium (2000). His most recent book is American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (2013).

Luther as an Augustinian Monk by Lucas Cranach the Elder (workshop), c. 1550 [German National Museum, Nuremberg]