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Saturday, October 11, 2003

The Catholic Luther (?)

The conventional [Protestant] portrayal of Luther is of a man wrestling with "the inauthenticity of all human works," driven incessantly by the question: how can I get a gracious God? -- rediscovering the Gospel of Christ and bringing about the "the sixteenth-century Protestant/Catholic schism . . . as the logical, inevitable, and necessary public outcome of his theological development." So says David Yeago, who seeks to challenge this dominant perception in "The Catholic Luther", First Things 61 (March 1996): 37-41. 1

According to Yeago what troubled Luther's conscience in his early years was not that of assurance of forgiveness or certitude of salvation, but rather the threat of idolatry manifested in our sinful nature which is radically corrupted (incurvatus in se, "curved in on self") and corrupting the gifts of God, seeking everything for our own sake. He goes on to examine what he describes as a distinctly Catholic turn toward sacramental theology post 1518:

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.

Yeago contends that "there are no historical grounds for believing that the schism was the necessary outcome of Luther's theology of grace"; the Protestant/Catholic schism of the 16th century was not the logical, inevitable outcome of Luther's theological development but rather the result of a number of interrelated factors:

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.

It is a very fascinating article, one that I encountered some time ago and thought might be of interest to certain members of St. Blog's Parish in light of all the blogging on the recent film. Perhaps those with a Lutheran background would be interested in critiquing Yeago's position?

  1. Published in the anthology The Catholicity of the Reformation, edited by Carl R. Bratten & Robert W. Jenson. Reviewed in First Things by Leonard R. Klein.


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