Sunday, March 24, 2013
Roman Catholics Interested in Luther
HT to Pr Eric Brown
You can read the interview here...
In my reading of Luther I was quickly impressed by his conception of the penitential life as fundamental in Christian spirituality. Also, I had the good fortune to discover a text by Luther which sets forth an ingenious theology of indulgences, but which had been mistakenly dated in the Weimar Edition (in fact, it was from 1517 and sent in the packet to the Archbishop with the 95 Theses). That text became a key to my dissertation and I published it in English with commentary in Theological Studies at the time of the 1967 observance of the 450th anniversary of the Reformation’s outbreak.
I agree with Ernst Bizer and Oswald Bayer that Luther, in early 1518, came to feature a new aspect of the penitential life, namely, the powerful, clear, and certain-making word of sacramental absolution spoken to the penitent. I worked this out for a seminar at the Luther Research Congress in Erfurt in 1983 and brought it out the next year in Gregorianum, the journal of my university in Rome, under the title, Fides sacramenti—fides specialis (also in Luther’s Reform, an essay collection, published in Mainz in 1992).
From this shift of 1518, the penitential life continues to unfold in daily self-denial, but Luther has it firmly anchored in God’s gracious word which applies Christ’s saving grace in moments of clear, unambiguous communication. From 1519 on, it is no accident that Luther turned out engaging short pamphlets on the sacraments, in which the certain-making word resounds in its variant expressions. This had not been present in his works on penitential living and prayer down through 1517.
When I worked out in 1983–84 this momentous shift in Luther’s teaching, I added a series of considerations in favor of a nuanced or even positive Catholic assessment of Luther’s point. Luther did not feature aspects ascribed to him by critics like Cardinal Cajetan (1518) and Paul Hacker (The Ego in Faith, 1970). He appealed to Bernard of Clairvaux as holding something very similar—which gives us pause. We Catholics also take the sacraments very seriously and should recognize in Luther an ally against religiosities of subjective experience.
While surely not all or perhaps even many Lutherans agree with Jared Wicks (then, again, they often don't agree among themselves, either), the fact the Roman Catholics remain interested in Luther and contribute to the ongoing conversation about Luther is a good thing. To be sure, Lutherans and those not Lutheran need to be reminded that Luther is neither cult leader for us or deceased pope who rules from the grave. What bounds and binds us is nothing less and nothing more than the Book of Concord. That said, Luther is always an interesting character and provocative subject for conversation. I forget who once said that Luther is, after Jesus Christ, the single man with the greatest impact upon history. He did not always mean in a positive light but that hardly matters. To understand the world today requires an awareness if not appreciation for the monk who stepped reluctantly out of the shadows and into the world's spotlight.