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date: 19 August 2017

Martin Luther in Roman Catholic German-Language Theologies

Summary and Keywords

From the outset, Catholic interest in the life and work of Martin Luther stemmed from ecumenical inquiry as the 19th century ended. The Catholic research concerned with Luther that followed in the 20th century is one of the driving forces of the international ecumenical movement and arose as Catholic theologians made their first hesitant approaches to international ecumenical efforts surrounding the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948 in Amsterdam. At first restricted essentially to Germany and German-speaking regions, a specific methodology for approaching the Reformation developed which gradually began to determine ecumenical methodology in international Lutheran–Catholic dialogue. The methodology of differentiating consensus, ultimately developed and applied in today’s Lutheran–Catholic dialogue, frees the approach of dialogical theology when applied to each particular confessional theology to overcome the effect of inherent confessional distinctions and to prepare the way for mutual understanding of the message of justification in the gospel of Jesus Christ, without eliminating particular confessional aspects and emphases.

As a result, neither the theology of Martin Luther nor that of the Council of Trent proves to be an insurmountable impediment to dialogue. Surprisingly, the results of this research have not been restricted to theology and ecumenical dialogue; rather, they continue to be at least implicitly received by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church and the popes since the Second Vatican Council.

Today, Catholic doctrine can speak of Martin Luther as a witness to Jesus Christ, a teacher of theology, and a Catholic reformer, without the 16th-century condemnations having yet been revised. The reconsideration of Martin Luther by Catholic theologians demonstrates a capacity for reform and points the way to overcoming the contentious theological gestalt of Catholic theology altogether. In this respect, the shape of Catholic theology today shows the influence of Martin Luther’s Reformation.

Keywords: Martin Luther, Catholic Luther research, ecumenical dialogue, differentiating consensus, ecumenical hermeneutics, confessional Catholicity, doctrine of justification, Council of Trent, Second Vatican Council

In the eyes of Roman Catholics, Martin Luther has for centuries been seen as a heretic and a divisive force in the church. At no point since the conflict in 1521 has he been considered a Catholic. Not until the end of the 19th century did Catholic theologians begin their gingerly approach to the figure of Luther. It took careful historical investigation before their research gradually freed itself from its centuries-long, one-sided approach to his person and work. The resulting 20th-century research is due to the interest Catholic theologians have shown in the Reformation since the second half of the 19th century. This interest was based in part on Johann Adam Möhler’s Symbolik (1832) and Ignaz Franz Döllinger’s Die Reformation (1846–1848). Both church historians opened the way for theological investigation of the Reformers that was situated somewhere between polemics and irenicism. (Irenicism in Christian theology refers to attempts to unify Christian apologetical systems by using reason as an essential attribute.)

In the context of German Catholicism of the 19th century, the work of the Catholic historian Johannes Janssen stands out; his Geschichte des deutschen Volkes seit dem Ausgang des Mittelalters (1876–1994) was exemplary of the reappraisal of the Reformation. It coincided with the striving of the Catholic population in the now predominantly Protestant German empire after the collapse of the old German empire in 1806 to free themselves from the burden of a one-sided, anti-Roman Catholic slant on history; this was evidenced by the founding of research institutes to thoroughly examine pre- and post-Reformation sources. An exceptional contribution to 20th-century Luther research has been made by the initial efforts of individual Catholic theologians; their reevaluation has brought an ecclesiastical understanding of the work and person of Martin Luther.

Catholic Research Takes an Independent Direction

The pertinent works of Catholic Luther research were preceded by the founding of the series Reformationsgeschichtliche Studien und Texte at the beginning of the 20th century by Joseph Greving, a Catholic scholar and at that time Privatdozent in Bonn. This initiative resulted from an internal disagreement among Catholics about the term “Reformation.” Contrary to established Catholic colleagues, among them Ludwig Pastor, the influential historian of the papacy, Greving turned away from the term “religious division” (Glaubensspaltung); in his battle to rediscover Luther, whose image was lastingly characterized by Heinrich Denifle’s Luther und Luthertum in der ersten Entwicklung (1904) and Hartmann Grisar’s Luther (1911–1912), he expressed regret about the hardening of conflicting confessional positions. As Greving continued to champion the concept of Reformation, he was guided by a pre-ecumenical interest. Whereas “religious division,” and even more “schism,” presupposed taking several different directions, the term “Reformation” only involves the notion of the one church of Jesus Christ.1 Without undue exaggeration, one can say that Greving points here very early in an ecumenical direction. After the renewal of sharply polemical attacks on the work and person of Martin Luther at the end of the 19th century, for the first time Greving and the Würzburg church historian Sebastian Merkle indicated a new path.

The breakthrough for Catholic Luther research, however, came with the work of Joseph Lortz, a student of Sebastian Merkle. After meeting substantial intra-Catholic resistance, Lortz’s book Die Reformation in Deutschland (1939–1940) saw numerous printings and influenced the Catholic image of Luther as no other had, by developing the thesis of a Catholic Luther: “Luther overcame his own Catholicism, which was not at all Catholic.”2 The notion that Luther overcame his own non-Catholic Catholicism depended upon the assumption that Ockhamism carried within itself—as a negative foil of the developing Reformation—a distorted understanding of Catholicism which made Luther’s religious protest inevitable. “By overemphasizing the will, Ockhamism is the classical expression of what Luther called ‘works righteousness’ and which he claimed to be Catholic doctrine.”3 Concentration on the person of Luther brought with it the judgment that he was an earnestly religious person, conscientious about prayer. “He was not a politician, nor did he have a legal mind. And he was neither a mystic nor a systematic theologian. What remains is his conscience which is trapped in the absolutely binding norm of the Word and his prophetic, confessional nature: Luther as the preacher and confessor of his Gospel which is the God-man Jesus Christ seen on the cross, the revelation of the Father.”4 Lortz’s student Peter Manns later sought to protect his teacher’s work from misrepresentation and to see Luther as a father in the faith who clothed the truth of the faith in formulations that were unacceptable to the church (Martin Luther, 1982; Vater im Glauben, 1988). “For the sake of the truth, he became a heretic to a church that was incapable of understanding his pointed, situation-dependent statements due to its own analogous bias. It therefore fought him as a ‘heretic’ from its own point of view; indeed it had to fight him, as it were, in self-defense.”5 This focus on Luther’s person had another consequence: the more Luther was seen as an earnestly religious man, conscientious in prayer, the more the Reformer conversely stood out as the one who risked the unity of the church precisely by being this deeply religious individual. To relativize his individuality would turn Luther into Melanchthon. Peter Manns went public with this infamous thesis of the “Melanchthonization of Luther as life-threatening to ecumenism” in 1977,6 thereby questioning an “ecumenism at the expense of Martin Luther.”7 Thus began the quarrel between the Catholic theologians Vinzenz Pfnür und Otto Hermann Pesch over the basic orientation of recent Catholic Luther research. For Manns, “Melanchthonizing Luther” signaled the “introduction of trivializing and relativizing into Lutheran Christianity.”8 This led Manns to a sobering view which, seen from Lortz’s approach, provokes rejection: that the ecumenical efforts of our day, which are supported by recent Catholic Luther research, depend on the unifying impulse of the Lutheran confessional formulae and therefore tarnish the foundational principles of the Reformation as well as Luther’s own spiritual heritage. Here, the dispute arose from the contradiction between Luther’s religious personality, on one hand, and on the other, a concern for una sancta ecclesia perpetuo mansura sit (“the one, holy Church that will last eternally”).9. Did Luther, the headstrong Reformer, truly disrupt the unity of the Church? The most recent Catholic Luther research has promoted ecumenical understanding for good reason.

Through painstaking historical research, Adolf Herte, a church historian from Paderborn who was little noted by the public, could show beyond Lortz how Catholic writing on Luther during the past four centuries and into the recent past was influenced by the commentaries of Johannes Cochlaeus, a contemporary opponent of Luther and advisor to Duke George of Saxony. Cochlaeus considered Luther to be a monk who had fallen away, a destroyer of the unity of the church, a corrupter of morals, and a heretic (Herte, Das katholische Lutherbild im Bann der Lutherkommentare des Cochläus, 1943). Those were the judgments that had been previously formulated in 1520 by Pope Leo X in his ban Exsurge Domine and in the papal bull of excommunication Decet Romanum Pontificem of 1521. It was the merit of this first critical period of benevolent examination of Luther’s personality to free Catholic Luther research from the hold of such one-sided commentaries and biographies. It was supplemented by a sober historical analysis in Erwin Iserloh’s work, which showed that it was not the core concerns of the Reformation, such as the doctrine of justification, that led to the division of the church, but rather Luther’s subsequent critique of the church of his day.

Hermeneutic and Typological Luther Research

Beginning in the1960s, the young Catholic theologians Vinzenz Pfnür and Otto Hermann Pesch disagreed over the basic direction of Catholic Luther research. In his dispute with Peter Manns, Pesch abandoned the biographical-psychological approach of the Lortz school and made the case for a theological and systematic approach like that practiced in Albert Brandenburg’s study Gericht und Evangelium (1960). By means of a systematic controversial theology exemplified by a fictitious exchange between representatives of two confessions, Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther, Pesch’s Theologie der Rechtfertigung bei Martin Luther und Thomas von Aquin (1967) shows that a direct confrontation between the two forms of thought leads to the discovery of the previously hidden complementarity of their theologies. This discovery opened up the possibility for Luther research to approach the typologically fruitful peculiarities of Luther’s theology without prejudice. The outsider’s perspective on church history first employed—which worked with the comparison of non-Catholic Ockhamism and a Catholic perspective on Luther—changed into a theological-hermeneutic internal perspective that brings different confessional forms of thought into the conversation, rather than comparing different epochs. “Luther’s reformation theology is a … new form of language and understanding of faith in the gospel.”10 In contrast to the treatment by Thomas Aquinas, Luther‘s new and original “treatment of the message of the gospel” reveals the unmistakable and characteristic nature of his theology. Seen from this perspective, Luther is “one of Christianity’s important theologians,” writes Pesch in Hinführung zu Luther (1982, 2004). As our common teacher, Luther

not only once said back then what today hardly causes a stir even in the Catholic Church; he anticipated and expressed experiences with the faith and with faithful existence in ways that had not previously been the case in Church tradition but which are imposed upon us today from all directions. The average person, especially among Catholics, is unaware of these early formulations of our experience by Luther; hence his presence is often masked under another name. If one acknowledges this, then we cannot simultaneously demand of Luther that in no point should he have gone beyond tradition. If today we can think and feel as we do without breaking with church tradition, then we cannot fault Luther for thinking that way at least inchoately, even if the majority of his contemporaries were not able to comprehend it themselves.11

Luther’s Reformation theology appears to be more existential and rich in experience than traditional medieval theology could ever have expressed.

The typological-hermeneutic method of systematic Luther research has had an additional consequence: the Catholic church historian Vinzenz Pfnür expanded the scope of this research to include the question of the significance of the doctrine of justification as formulated in the Augsburg Confession expressly “in the context of what is proper to the Reformation.”12 In response to the charge that it fails to express unconditionally and impartially the concern of the Reformation—a reproach also brought by Manns—the Confessio Augustana (CA) should now be evaluated against the background of the formation of the evangelical Lutheran confession to gain a standard against which to judge the CA and its doctrine of justification. In this way, Luther’s concern for reform is situated within the more comprehensive historical formation of the Lutheran confession. The additional question regarding methodology arises: How is the particular opposing theological position to be understood and evaluated? Exactly how the rejected position was formulated is one of the most difficult tasks for historical research on the Reformation. This new hermeneutic approach has brought far-reaching insights: along with the positions rejected, the valid concerns inherent in every position that must be acknowledged are also coming into sharper focus. In addition, the limited point of view on either side regarding factual issues arises and must be taken into consideration. In this way, the sole fixation on the opposing position as the exclusive key to interpretation is overcome, and the scope of different methodological, hermeneutical, and factual analyses which once seemed mutually exclusive open up complementary perspectives upon closer examination. The opposing fronts that had been established yield to a methodical-hermeneutic clarification of the particular factual issues.

Ecumenical Implications

The conclusions drawn from this nuanced methodological perspective first became evident in 1980 in the joint study of the Augsburg Confession conducted by Lutheran and Catholic theologians.13 These studies fed directly into the ecumenical project regarding Catholic recognition of the Augsburg Confession (AC) that was begun in 1980 by Lutheran and Catholic theologians to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the AC. One lasting result was an agreement that the AC not only intended to testify to and preserve the Catholic faith, but is also an expression of Catholic faith. “This made us newly aware of the fact that the split in the churches in the 16th century did not go down to the roots.”14 That brings up the question whether this doctrinal document could not also be acknowledged by Catholics in its intent and form. The AC is not a document of division, but an expression of the catholicity and unity of faith. Exegetical and patristic studies, historical reviews, and research into the history of dogma undertaken together by Lutheran and Catholic theologians find common understanding in basic questions of the Christian faith and make a fundamental consensus appear possible between Lutherans and Catholics in pondering the AC and the associated question of justification.15

From the outset, Catholic study of Luther had ecumenical intentions. As Hubert Jedin, a church historian, pointed out in preparation for the Second Vatican Council, Joseph Greving formulated his inquiry with this already in mind. Soon after the Council was announced, Jedin posed the challenging question whether the Council of Trent constituted an impediment to Christian reunification. Even though the Council of Trent was not the cause of the division of the churches, it constituted a seal of approval on the existing division.16 The council itself did not condemn the Reformers but only their doctrines, since it did not wish to prevent them from coming to Trent. Its intention was to condemn their errors and thereby clearly delimit Catholic doctrine from that of the Reformers. To this end, the condemnatory canons of the decrees formed the backbone. The instructional chapters accompanying the decrees were not meant to alter their intention. The purpose of this innovation was to overcome any uncertainty in the instructional process. Of course, the effect this council had was to confessionalize Catholic doctrine. The post-Tridentine church became a Counter-Reformation institution which rejected the errors of the Reformation.17

Extensive studies by the German Ecumenical Working Group of Evangelical and Catholic theologians returned directly to the historical research of Catholic theologians to address pertinent theological condemnations of the 16th century. In the study Lehrverurteilungen – kirchentrennend?, Catholic researchers worked together with Protestant colleagues on overcoming the mutual condemnations of doctrine during the 16th century. They intended to establish firmly that the condemnations of doctrine formulated in the past no longer apply today to the partners in dialogue. Since the doctrinal statements underlying the condemnations are still in effect and bind the churches in their confessions, the churches cannot simply overlook condemnations once issued. Despite the ongoing validity of magisterial statements, however, broad agreement has been reached on many contentious matters of faith and doctrine. To overcome the tension between the doctrinal decisions of the past and today’s ecumenical agreement, a historical-critical inquiry needs to assess the relationship of these differences to each other. The outcome of this research, indicating that the condemnations of the 16th century no longer apply, does ultimately affect the ecumenical relationship of the churches. If, however, the earlier statements of condemnation lose their power to keep the churches separated, all conditions are still not met for full communion between the churches, yet pathways to negotiation open up. The critical-historical research has led to a nuanced overall judgment.18 It can be concluded that, in questions regarding justification, earlier opposition has been overcome. That makes room for a differentiated consensus.

The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church in Augsburg in 1999 refers to these earlier studies, which led them to conclude that consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification does exist between Lutherans and Catholics. This consensus is expressed in the leading statement: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”19 On the basis of this consensus, the particular confessional formulations and theological emphases can be joined together and testified together. Both the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church have approved this agreement, as have the World Methodist Council and the World Communion of Reformed Churches. Hence research by 20th-century Catholic theologians together with studies by Lutheran theologians of key questions in Martin Luther’s theology and Lutheran confessional documents have led to important ecumenical consensus. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification can be seen as just such an outstanding ecumenical document for our time.

In the context of the Commemoration of the Reformation during 2017, the report of the Lutheran–Roman Catholic Commission for Unity, “From Conflict to Communion,” invites attention for the first time to Luther in two new areas: a historical sketch of the Lutheran Reformation and the Catholic response to it, and major themes in Luther’s theology. What from a confessional perspective has often been presented in a fragmented and controversial way is here jointly narrated and theologically reflected. This exciting synthesis reveals an organic connection which captures the commonalities in faith in Jesus Christ without ignoring the different theological emphases or focuses. The Lutheran–Catholic differences are not downplayed; points of agreement are recognized but not exaggerated. Ecumenical theology has termed this a “differentiated consensus.”20 This means that the consensus arrived at in key questions of the Christian faith and confessional doctrine can support differences that are freed of their adversarial character and still allow for confessional differences and emphases.

Recent Research

During recent decades a number of younger Catholic researchers have explored different questions and areas. Their interests vary widely. Jared Wicks examines the disputes between Luther and Cajetan,21 Theo Bell investigates Luther’s Bernardian roots,22 and Franz Posset explores the Augustinian-Bernardian tradition in Luther’s work.23 Augustinus Sander pursues the question of Reformation Catholicism in the context of Luther’s ordination theology.24 Three important new research perspectives have emerged.

Existing studies now permit a closer examination of the Bernardian factor (Franz Posset) in Luther’s theology. We learn that Luther’s writing not only contains numerous quotations from Bernard, but he also handles this heritage in a way that expresses how he has profited from monastic theology as influenced by Bernard of Clairvaux and incorporated into his own theology. Luther is led by Bernard in a particular way to Holy Scripture, especially to Paul’s interpretation of justification by faith. In the eyes of Philipp Melanchthon, Bernard was not a mystic who focused on the interiority of religious life, but a biblical theologian who pointed the reformers to the correct interpretation of the Apostle Paul. “Luther did not invent a new theology, but discovered the old Bernardine theology of justification by grace alone through faith alone. This was the matrix of all of Luther’s later theology and reform efforts of popular piety.”25

Second, the Wittenberg renewal movement can be more precisely situated on the basis of ordination theology in the Lutheran realm in the 16th century. In this way, it can be shown that reform impulses possessed a “confessional Catholicity” and hence were in fact Catholic. Hence, it was not members of a Lutheran church separated from Rome who confessed their faith in 1530 to God, the emperor, and the empire, but Catholics of the Augsburg Confession, as Augustinus Sander wrote.26 Finally, a closer analysis of reform impulses and their reception by Catholic theology, in particular by the Magisterium, shows that Luther’s proposals for reform were not simply rejected by the Catholic Magisterium, as the canons of the Tridentine decree suggest, but over time were taken into account in a specific way, albeit implicitly. The joint Lutheran–Catholic report “From Conflict to Communion” makes this point. In many areas, especially in relation to the doctrine of justification, the understanding of the Eucharist, and the question of the ministry and of scripture, one can see more clearly how the Council of Trent and the Second Vatican Council examined Luther’s critical reform impulses without directly engaging with him. In the process, the councils did not react to the demands for reform in general, but in a specific manner that can be seen in further differentiation of church doctrine and doctrinal tradition. Hence today one could assume that confessional Catholicity, at least as it existed at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 and even later, was taken into account in the later decisions of the Council of Trent and the Second Vatican Council. Thus, one can speak of the implicit reception of theological insights of Luther by the Magisterium of the church.

A Fresh Look at Luther: Implicit Reception

These investigations over the course of more than a century bore fruit in two ways. Although Luther’s name is not found in the texts of the Second Vatican Council—and neither was his theology explicitly examined—it is indisputable that this council adopted and implicitly considered some central insights of his theology. The esteem and honor of Holy Scripture in the life of the church is the central concern of the Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei verbum. The Constitution on the church, Lumen gentium, emphasizes the priesthood of all believers as a fundamental calling of all people to Christian existence. The Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio, connects ecumenical concern with the demand for church renewal. The Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et spes, and the Declaration of Religious Freedom, Dignitatis humanae, highlight the significance of freedom and responsibility of humans before God and the world, including the recognition of religious freedom. Taken all together, these insights gained from important achievements of Luther’s theology led to the formation of a scriptural theology based on the Word of God. A theology of the Second Vatican Council—however developed in its particulars—proceeds from the sovereignty of the reality and truth of the Word of God in Jesus Christ. From this center, the individual themes of its theology are derived.

Together with the recognition of his desire to reform, this implicit engagement with Luther led to a new appreciation of his Catholicity, as is seen in the remarks of Cardinal Johannes Willebrands and Pope John Paul II. After the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Willebrands expressly emphasized the tendency, owed to Catholic Luther research, “to rediscover in Luther’s theological positions a genuinely Catholic heritage and to excise his obvious errors as heretical or to transform them so as to permit the whole Luther to be integrated into Roman Catholic continuity and Catholicity.”27 Catholics were able to recognize the “deep religiosity of Luther who burned with passion about the question of eternal salvation,”28 and they could see how the understanding of justification of sinners no longer can be seen as divisive. When visiting the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, Pope Benedict XVI mentioned Luther’s deep religiosity: “What drove him was the question of God, which was the mainspring of his life and entire work. ‘How can I find a merciful God?’ This question went right to his heart and stood behind all of his theological seeking and struggles. For Luther, theology was not an academic matter but a struggle with himself which in turn was a struggle for and with God.”29 The discovery by Catholic theology of both these central characteristics of his person and his theology led to a new ecumenical understanding of Luther as a “witness to the gospel,” as the Lutheran–Catholic Commission for Dialogue declared in a joint document.30 In this way, the person and theology of Martin Luther pose a spiritual and theological challenge for Catholic theology.

It is no small achievement by Catholic Luther research of the 20th century to have overcome the centuries-long defensive posture toward Luther and to have initiated a new encounter with the Catholic and Reformer Martin Luther, and to have freed him from the one-sided burden of responsibility for dividing western Christianity. Catholic Luther research, which was born of the discord over the basic, controversial theological attitude of Catholic theologians toward the Reformation and its premises and effects, prepared the ecumenical contribution of Catholic theology through its own internal struggle over its methods as it ultimately merged into ecumenical theology. Important statements of popes since the Second Vatican Council have essentially confirmed the findings of Catholic Luther research.

Impacts of Catholic Luther Research

New approaches to Martin Luther within Protestant churches in the 20th century provided further opportunities to Catholic theologians for a reevaluation of the Reformer. For Catholic theology, there was the additional possibility of joint ecumenical reflections about presuppositions, and the course and effects of the Reformation for which Luther, but not he alone, was central. These extensive historical studies of Luther’s person and theology led to systematic findings that challenge Catholic theology in its entirety through fundamental insights with far-reaching consequences. Six points may be distinguished.

First, “Luther’s original intention with his call for reform of the Church was for repentance and renewal that should start in the life of each individual person,”31 writes Pope John Paul II. That each Christian’s life should include daily repentance was the content of his first thesis on indulgences. With that, he reemphasized in a novel way the pastoral challenge to the Christian life in its entirety. To strive according to the gospel, to follow Jesus, to adopt His will, is a fundamental Christian challenge that Jesus himself posed to his followers. From the start, Luther‘s spiritual and theological concern for reform is recognizable in his basic orientation toward repentance and renewal. Ultimately, it can be seen in his teaching on justification. In the words of Reinhard Messner, “The final form of his doctrine of justification stemmed from his experience with the sacrament of penance—according to which the sinner, encouraged by the gospel (promissio) in the external Word (here, of absolution) whereby faith (fides) in the Word as true is justified (bringing the certainty of salvation) because he is led by the Holy Spirit to Christ and united with him.”32 In this context, Catholic theology of the 20th century also has come to a renewed understanding of penance. In its rediscovery of the reconciliation of the sinner with the church, the Second Vatican Council sought to encourage a renewal of the sacrament of reconciliation. In this connection, renewed reflections on indulgences seek to understand them as the process of reinsertion of the person into communion with God following the sacrament of reconciliation. However, the term “indulgence” still seems disreputable. Hence, Pope Francis has given the traditional indulgence of the church a new meaning by calling God’s mercy itself the “indulgence” which God gives the sinner.33 Accordingly, one cannot secure or buy an indulgence; one must accept it as a gift. “To live … the indulgence means then to entrust one’s self to the mercy of the Father in certainty that his forgiveness has an impact throughout the life of the believer.”34 God frees us “from all the consequences of sin.” In this form, the indulgence is no longer considered a pious deed, but an expression of God’s mercy which man can accept only as a gift. This presents the task of expressing the renewal of life connected with the matter of the indulgence in an appropriate manner.

Second, we must recall that in Luther’s time his concern to renew confession and repentance fell upon deaf ears among ecclesiastical and theological authorities in Germany and Rome. As was observed at the 450th anniversary celebration of Luther, “It was not Luther’s understanding of the Gospel and his spiritual concern for reform as such that led to division but the ecclesiastical and political effects of his fundamental concern on the understanding of church, the ministry, and the Magisterium.”35 If the central concern of the Reformation was renewal of the entire church on the basis of its biblical origins, today’s concern is to jointly reevaluate this concern in connection with a patient theological reappraisal of the dogmatic extremes and schisms on the path toward regaining church communion. That also includes the question of whether the ecclesiastical decisions concerning Luther himself are in need of revision, or of a memorial confession of guilt aimed at a “cleansing of the memory” by means of which events of the past that still influence and determine our present actions are newly remembered and appropriated. In preparation for the celebration of the Holy Year 2000, Pope John Paul II called for a new way of dealing with the past.36 Hearkening back to the dictum of Pope Paul VI that the pope is probably the greatest impediment on the path to Christian unity, he related the plea for forgiveness to the conviction that the fidelity of the Roman Catholic Church to its apostolic heritage and faith of the fathers in the office of the bishop of Rome represents a “stumbling block for most other Christians whose remembrance is marred by certain painful memories.”37 What happened in the past cannot be altered. How we treat the past and how we remember it, however, can change with the passage of time. “While the past itself is unchanging, the presence of the past in today’s world is mutable.”38 Therefore, Christians today have the duty to jointly retell the past. In this way, the effects of past actions can be reflected upon and undergo revision.

Third, to understand the Reformation, it is not enough to enumerate the signs of decadence that appeared during the late Middle Ages. Without a doubt, the church was in need of reform—but it was also capable of reform. Luther’s concerns for reform can be understood in this overall situation of the church of that time. He responded to the church’s need for reform, recognizing both its reform-worthiness and basic capacity to reform. When evaluating the Reformation, this allows for acknowledgment of the many and varied late medieval and early modern efforts to reform the church. Today “reformation” no longer simply refers to the historic division in the Western church, but to the insight that the church will always require renewal and reform. The Second Vatican Council placed new emphasis upon this need: during its earthly passage, the church is continuously called to reform. Catholicity includes fidelity to church reform.39 This has always been a legitimate concern of the church and continues to be so. The essence of reform is described by the Second Vatican Council, which accords this concern new importance with the need for cleansing, penance, and renewal.40 The council added a new sense to the Protestant principle Ecclesia semper reformanda by recognizing its origin in ancient Catholic tradition. Reformatio as the reestablishment of the original order and renovatio as renewal of the life of the church in the spirit of the gospel characterize the positions of the council with regard to its fidelity to the church’s vocation and the dynamic of its historical path.41 “Reform must include holding fast to the gospel and proclaiming it ever more authentically; in the 16th century, this contributed to destruction of the historic ties of the ecclesiastical community. But today, such reform should go hand in hand with the reminder that Christian communion is essential for their witness to the nations.”42

Fourth, Luther’s approach to reform is related to renewal of all theology in the spirit of Holy Scripture. He shared this approach with humanists such as Erasmus. His efforts for reform were indebted to his religious struggle for an understanding of God commensurate with his time. They emanated from his renewed understanding of the gospel as the proclamation of God’s mercy. Johann von Staupitz first stated the doctrine: in these words Luther expressed his agreement with the foundation of the Augustinian tradition.43 As we now know, this was based on the monastic theology of Bernard of Clairvaux. “While Luther held a largely critical opinion of scholastic theology, he lived, thought, and pursued theology for twenty years as an Augustinian hermit, hence in the tradition of monastic theology … Luther’s way of interpreting Holy Scripture as the locus of encounter between God and man shows clear parallels to Bernard’s manner of interpreting Holy Scripture.”44 A fundamental dictum of both Bernard and Luther is to understand monastic theology as scripture-based, which still awaits complete interpretation. Working out a profile of monastic theology in the nexus of and vis-à-vis Cistercian spirituality and medieval mysticism remains a desideratum for research.45

Fifth, Luther had repeatedly appealed to a future church council and pleaded for it to be convened. When the Council of Trent finally opened, it was too late to resolve the questions in dispute in a single ecclesial communion. Trent has largely remained a compromise. The council’s decisions, however, formed the basis for Catholic identity in the confessional age. The norms of the life of Catholicism were set from its center because internal efforts for reform were determined by its anti-Protestant orientation. The historical effect was that the condemnatory canons of Trent rather than its positive teaching influenced the church’s theology and practice, which were therefore unduly influenced by their antithetical opposition to the Reformation. In many ways, the Roman Catholic Church was thus determined by the Reformation, albeit in an effort to limit its impact. It was not until the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) that the reform measures and concerns begun at the Council of Trent were freed of their confessional character, and openness to Luther’s theological reform efforts was shown. The Second Vatican Council sought to answer questions raised by the Council of Trent by drawing upon the entire apostolic heritage of the church and seeking more balanced answers “in light of the new awareness of the common faith made possible by the ecumenical movement.”46 Accentuating the impetus from the two councils for renewal of the church remains an important task of an historical-critical hermeneutics of councils and dogma, which Catholic theology has already begun to address.47

Sixth, the Reformation aimed at the renewal of the entire church on the basis of the Bible. The division of the Western church in the 16th century cannot be seen as a success of the Wittenberg Reformation, insofar as the Augsburg Confession expressly claimed to confess the faith of the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” and the unity of the church. According to the Confession, the point is not to found a new church, but to renew the Christian faith in accordance with the early church and in conformity with Holy Scripture in the unity of the church.48 Today, it can be agreed that the ecclesiastical abuses specified in the Augsburg Confession have become largely obsolete as a result of changes that have occurred in the life and judgment of the churches.49 Churches today find themselves on the path to full ecclesiastical communion. Even though Eucharistic communion between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran churches has not yet been achieved, the current relationship between them is not only an expression of relaxed coexistence but also an indication of growing community between them.50

These insights and considerations sketch out a program for the reform of Catholic theology that has emerged from the retrospective engagement with Martin Luther and his theology. Thus far, Catholic theology can no longer be appropriately described without reference to the preconditions, the course, and the impact of the Reformation in the 16th century. The division of the Western Christian church is an effect of the reform movement of Wittenberg. If it can be shown that an intent to divide the church cannot necessarily be inferred from the preconditions and the course that the controversies of the Reformation took after 1517, then the possibility exists for restoring the unity and communion of faith. Of course, this cannot come about by indiscriminately separating the impact from the events. It remains the greatest challenge of ecumenical understanding that it must include in its accord the causes and reasons for division as well. That is the goal of the program of catholicity in reform.51 Its challenge to the process of ecumenical understanding consists in the view that faithfulness to catholicity includes reform of the church and of its proclamation of the gospel. With regard to the Roman Catholic Church, this challenge can be illustrated, for example, by showing whether and how the right to religious freedom can be integrated into the proclamation of the gospel.

Further Reading

Decot, Rolf. “Luthers Bedeutung für das gegenwärtige ökumenische Gespräch aus katholischer Sicht.” In Lutherforschung im 20. Jahrhundert: Rückblick—Bilanz—Ausblick. Edited by Rainer Vinke, 213–233. Mainz: von Zabern, 2004.Find this resource:

Decot, Rolf. “Katholische Lutherforschung.” In Die Entdeckung der Ökumene. Edited by Jörg Ernesti, 17–34. Paderborn and Frankfurt: Lembeck, 2008.Find this resource:

Jedin, Hubert. Die Erforschung der kirchlichen Reformationsgeschichte seit 1876. Münster, Germany: Achendorff, 1931.Find this resource:

Manns, Peter. “Zum Vorhaben einer katholischen Anerkennung der Confessio Augustana: Ökumene auf Kosten Martin Luthers?” Ökumenische Rundschau 26 (1977): 426–450.Find this resource:

Pesch, Otto Hermann. “‘Nun fühlte ich mich neugeboren’: Luthers Weg ur Reformation: Rückblick und ein Urteil aus katholischer Sicht.” In Luther in Erfurt und die katholische Theologie. Edited by Josef Freitag, 29–58. Leipzig: Benno, 2001.Find this resource:

Thönissen, Wolfgang, Josef Freitag, and Augustinus Sander, eds. Luther: Katholizität und Reform; WurzelnWegeWirkungen. Paderborn and Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2016.Find this resource:

Vercruysse, Joseph. “Luthers Reformation und ihre Bedeutung für die katholische Kirche.” Zeitschrift für Katholische Theologie 121 (1999): 25–44.Find this resource:

Vercruysse, Joseph. “Katholische Lutherforschung im 20. Jahrhundert.” In Lutherforschung im 20. Jahrhundert: RückblickBilanzAusblick. Edited by Rainer Vinke, 191–212. Mainz: von Zabern, 2004.Find this resource:

Walter, Peter. Reformationsgeschichtliche Studien und Texte: Vergangenheit und Zukunft einer wissenschaftlichen Reihe. Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 2008.Find this resource:


(1.) Hubert Jedin, Joseph Greving (1868–1919): Zur Erinnerung an die Begründung der “Reformationsgeschichtlichen Studien und Texte” im Jahre 1905 (Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 1954), 12.

(2.) Joseph Lortz, Die Reformation in Deutschland,vol. 1 (2d ed.; Freiburg i.Br.: Herder, 1948), 53.

(3.) Ibid., 175.

(4.) Ibid., 383.

(5.) Peter Manns, “Was macht Luther zum ‘Vater im Glauben’ für die eine Christenheit?” in Vater im Glauben: Studien zur Theologie Martin Luthers. Festgabe zum 65. Geburtstag am 10. März 1988, ed. Rolf Decot (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1988), 406.

(6.) Peter Manns, “Zum Vorhaben einer ‘katholischen Anerkennung der Confessio Augustana’: Ökumene auf Kosten Martin Luthers?” Ökumenische Rundschau 26 (1977): 426–450, here 430.

(7.) Ibid., 429.

(8.) Ibid., 441 f., with reference to a quotation of Joseph Lortz, Die Reformation in Deutschland, vol. 2, 53.

(9.) CA 7 (BSLK 61).

(10.) Otto H. Pesch, Hinführung zu Luther (Mainz: von Zabern, 1982), 44.

(11.) Ibid., 273.

(12.) Vinzenz Pfnür, Einig in der Rechtfertigungslehre? Die Rechtfertigungslehre der Confessio Augustana (1530) und die Stellungnahme der katholischen Kontroverstheologie zwischen 1530 und 1535 (Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 1970), 2.

(13.) Confessio Augustana. Bekenntnis des einen Glaubens. Gemeinsame Untersuchung lutherischer und katholischer Theologen, eds. Harding Meyer and Heinz Schütte (Paderborn and Frankfurt: Bonifatius/Lembeck, 1980).

(14.) Ibid., 333.

(15.) “Alle unter einem Christus. Stellungnahme der Gemeinsamen Römisch-katholischen/Evangelisch-lutherischen Kommission zum Augsburgischen Bekenntnis, 1980, no. 13–19,” in Dokumente wachsender Übereinstimmung: Sämtliche Berichte und Konsenstexte interkonfessioneller Gespräche auf Weltebene 1931–1982, eds. Harding Meyer et al. (Paderborn and Frankfurt: Bonifatius/Lembeck, 1983), 326.

(16.) Hubert Jedin, “Ist das Konzil von Trient ein Hindernis der Wiedervereinigung?” in Kirche des Glaubens, Kirche der Geschichte: Ausgewählte Aufsätze und Vorträge; vol. 2: Konzil und Kirchenreform, by Hubert Jedin (Freiburg: Herder, 1966), 540–552, here 541.

(17.) Ibid., 548f.

(18.) Karl Lehmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg, eds., Ökumenischer Arbeitskreis evangelischer und katholischer Theologen, Lehrverurteilungen—kirchentrennend? I. Rechtfertigung, Sakramente und Amt im Zeitalter der Reformation und heute (Freiburg and Göttingen, Germany: Herder/Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1986).

(19.) “Gemeinsame Erklärung zur Rechtfertigungslehre des Lutherischen Weltbundes und der Katholischen Kirche, no. 15,” in Dokumente wachsender Übereinstimmung: Sämtliche Berichte und Konsenstexte interkonfessioneller Gespräche auf Weltebene; vol. 3 1990–2001, eds. Harding Meyer et al. (Paderborn and Frankfurt: Bonifatius/Lembeck, 2003), 423.

(20.) Cf. Wolfgang Thönissen, “Funktionsweisen des ökumenischen Dialogs,” in Ökumene—überdacht: Reflexionen und Realitäten im Umbruch, eds. Th. Bremer and M. Wernbach (Freiburg: Herder, 2014), 89.

(21.) Jared Wicks, Cajetan und die Anfänge der Reformation (Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 1983).

(22.) Theo Bell, Divus Bernhardus: Bernhard von Clairvaux in Martin Luthers Schriften (Mainz: von Zabern, 1993).

(23.) Franz Posset, The Real Luther: A Friar at Erfurt and Wittenberg; Exploring Luthers’s Life with Melanchthon as Guide (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 2011).

(24.) Augustinus Sander, Ordinatio Apostolica: Studien zur Ordinationstheologie im Luthertum des 16. Jahrhunderts; vol. 1: Georg III. von Anhalt (1507–1553) (Innsbruck: Tyrolia, 2004).

(25.) Posset, Real Luther, 116.

(26.) Augustinus Sander, “Erstrittene Ordination: Georg III. von Anhalt (1507–1553): ein Beispiel für die Ordinationstheologie im Luthertum des 16. Jahrhunderts,” Catholica 60 (2006): 23–52, here 25–27.

(27.) Johannes G. M. Willebrands, “Martin Luther und die Reformation aus heutiger Sicht,” in his Mandatum Unitatis: Beiträge zur Ökumene (Paderborn: Bonifatius, 1989), 262–268, here 264.

(28.) Ibid., 266.

(29.) Apostolische Reise Seiner Heiligkeit Papst Benedikt XVI. nach Berlin, Erfurt und Freiburg, 22–25. September 2011. Predigten, Ansprachen und Grußworte, ed. Sekretariat der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz (Bonn, 2011), 71.

(30.) “Martin Luther—Zeuge Jesu Christi. Wort der Gemeinsamen Römisch-katholischen/Evangelisch-lutherischen Kommission anlässlich des 500. Geburtstages Martin Luthers, 1983,” in Dokumente wachsender Übereinstimmung. Sämtliche Berichte und Konsenstexte interkonfessioneller Gespräche auf Weltebene, vol. 2 1982–1990, eds. Harding Meyer et al. (Paderborn and Frankfurt: Bouifatius/Lembeck, 1992), 444–451.

(31.) John Paul II, “Predigt im Ökumenischen Gottesdienst im Hohen Dom zu Paderborn am Samstag, den 22. Juni 1996,” in Predigten und Ansprachen von Papst Johannes Paul II. bei seinem dritten Pastoralbesuch in Deutschland sowie Begrüßungsworte und Reden, die an den Heiligen Vater gerichtet wurden, 21. bis 23. Juni 1996, ed. Sekretariat der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz (Bonn, 1996), 30–34, here 32.

(32.) Reinhard Messner, Feiern der Umkehr und Versöhnung: Gottesdienst der Kirche. Handbuch der Liturgiewissenschaft. Teil 7/2 Sakramentliche Feiern I/2 (Regensburg: Pustet, 1992), 192.

(33.) Misericordiae vultus. Verkündigungsbulle von Papst Franziskus zum Außerordentlichen Jubiläum der Barmherzigkeit, 11. April 2015, ed. Sekretariat der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz (Bonn, 2015), no. 22.

(35.) “Wort zum 450. Todesjahr Martin Luthers aus der evangelischen und katholischen Kirche in Thüringen und Sachsen-Anhalt,” Ökumenische Rundschau 45 (1996): 218.

(36.) Internationale Theologische Kommission, “Erinnern und Versöhnen: Die Kirche und die Verfehlungen in ihrer Vergangenheit,” trans. and ed. Gerhard Ludwig Müller (Einsiedeln: Johannes, 2000).

(37.) Enzyklika UT UNUM SINT von Papst Johannes Paul II. über den Einsatz für die Ökumene, 25. Mai 1995, ed. Sekretariat der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz (Bonn, 1995), no. 88.

(38.) Vom Konflikt zur Gemeinschaft: Gemeinsames lutherisch-katholisches Reformationsgedenken im Jahr 2017. Bericht der Lutherisch/Römisch-katholischen Kommission für die Einheit (1st ed.; Leipzig and Paderborn: EVA/Bonifatius, 2013), no. 16.

(39.) UR 6. Unitatis redintegratio.

(40.) LG 8. Lumen gentium.

(41.) UR 6. Unitatis redintegratio.

(42.) “Die Apostolizität der Kirche: Studiendokument der Lutherisch/Römisch-katholischen Kommission für die Einheit, 2006, no. 134,” in Dokumente wachsender Übereinstimmung. Sämtliche Berichte und Konsenstexte interkonfessioneller Gespräche auf Weltebene, vol. 4 2001–2010, eds. J. Oeldemann et al. (Paderborn and Leipzig: Bouifatius/EVA, 2012), 573.

(43.) Also in a Table Talk from 1533: WA TR 1:245, 12, no. 526.

(44.) Vom Konflikt zur Gemeinschaft, no. 99.

(45.) For examples see W.G. Buchmüller, Isaak von Étoile: Monastische Theologie im Dialog mit dem Neo-Platonismus des 12. Jahrhunderts (Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 2016).

(46.) Die Apostolizität der Kirche, no. 235, 606.

(47.) An interpretation from an ecumenical perspective is found in Wolfgang Thönissen, Dogma und Symbol: Eine ökumenische Hermeneutik (Freiburg: Herder, 2008).

(48.) Alle unter einem Christus, no. 10, 325.

(49.) Ibid., no. 19, 326 f.

(50.) K. Koch, “Auf dem Weg zur Kirchengemeinschaft: Welche Chance hat eine gemeinsame Erklärung zu Kirche, Eucharistie und Amt?” Catholica 69 (2015): 77–94.

(51.) Wolfgang Thönissen Josef Freitag, and Augustinus Sander, eds., Luther: Katholizität und Reform. Wurzeln—Wege—Wirkungen (Paderborn and Leipzig: Bouifatius/EVA, 2016).