Protestant Perspective: What Hath Wittenberg to Do With Rome?

by Mark Hertenstein


That title may indeed be strange and its answer, no doubt, will strike some as self-evident. It is strange insofar as a small town in Saxony has absolutely nothing to do with the capital of Italy, the former center of the Roman Empire. It is apparently self-evident to those who spot the theological point here – the historical center of the Reformation is tied to Rome only insofar as it vehemently opposed Rome, being the home of Martin Luther. Luther and Lutheranism have very little to do with Rome on the surface, other than some ecumenical exchanges.

I say it is only apparently self-evident. When I look at the trend of the most recent papacies, I see a slow and quiet movement toward the Reform that Luther sought and about which he so passionately wrote.


Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI hails from Germany. He, better than any pope, knows of the impact and legitimate concerns of Martin Luther. However, he had a somewhat difficult position not all that uncommon on a couple of fronts. His more conservative disposition lent itself to a high caution of giving Luther too much credit or using Luther too much. His era of Luther scholarship also interpreted Luther in ways that are now beginning to show age and be shown to be incorrect. Thus when Benedict says in Spe Salvi that Catholicism holds that faith is an objective reality in the believer and that Luther denied that it was objective (something that has been shown not to be the case), he has really attacked Luther with Luther’s own theological formula in ipsa fide Christus adest (“in faith itself Christ is present”)! Beyond this unwitting use of Luther, Benedict focused much of his papacy on the issue of faith and the personal reception of Christ in faith. I don’t know if Benedict picked this up from the German mind in which he was formed, his own reading of Luther, or something else. But I do know that his shift toward the experience of faith is one that is distinctly Lutheran.


Now we have the very down to earth Pope Francis, the first pope from the New World. His disposition is one of listening and placing himself among the regular believers, the servant of the servants of God. He continues to emphasize the personal faith and relationship with Christ that was so emphasized by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.


But it comes with a new twist. Many were surprised and excited when, on the issue of gay lobbies and gays in general who are earnestly trying to live a Christian life, Pope Francis said, “Who am I to judge?” When asked in the now famous interview for Jesuit magazines “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?”, he replied, “A sinner.” That says everything, but it is employing a subtle shift in the way in which the priesthood is looked at in a way that is distinctly Lutheran.


Luther most clearly laid out his position of the priesthood of all believers in the Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. Here Luther declared that since all are sinners redeemed in the same baptism and since it is obvious that ordination confers a spiritual office the same as the secular offices of kings (they are the same in that they are each established through God’s mandate, the difference is what they govern), but not a separate and greater grace, all are priests, all are the same in the eyes of God; the difference is in office, in what vocation within the scheme of divine mandates one is called to fulfill. Not unlike this position of Luther, Pope Francis has been keen to emphasize that in God’s eyes he is not different from the lowest of the low. Not unlike Luther, Pope Francis has been keen to emphasize that even the pope is subject in the same way to God as everyone else, that the only thing different is his office, one of spiritual priesthood. He probably won’t credit Luther and can’t credit Luther, but Luther is his spiritual forbear on this count.


What is really happening in the Church is probably frightening to some who style themselves as “progressive” or “traditional” – Luther is beginning to win. The one who once was considered dangerous because he dared to challenge the power and authority of the papacy may soon, ironically, rule theologically from the Chair of St. Peter. And we should welcome this, on all sides, for the sake of Church unity and for the sake of the truth of Luther’s teaching, a truth long ignored by Protestants and condemned by Catholics, a truth that is finally being recognized by Protestant and Catholic alike as the truth.


The Rhine flowed into the Tiber at Vatican II. Now it looks like the Elbe is emptying into the Tiber. It is not the “Spirit of Vatican II” that is driving the Church now, but the spirit of Reformation, the spirit of Martin Luther.


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