A ‘Witness to the Gospel’
A new Vatican document in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation has officially recognized Martin Luther as a “witness to the gospel,” reversing a centuries-old tradition.
“And so after centuries of mutual condemnations and vilification, in 2017 Lutheran and Catholic Christians will for the first time commemorate together the beginning of the Reformation,” states the new text from the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.
While welcomed by many, the Vatican’s new attitude toward Luther has met with expected resistance. The real sticking point has not been Luther’s well-known animosity toward the papacy and the clergy (he said that popes and bishops are not bridegrooms of the Church, but of “brothel-keepers and devil’s daughters in hell”), but his hostility toward the Jews.
With Luther’s rabid anti-Semitism, in fact, it is difficult to see how the Vatican can ask Catholics to venerate him unconditionally as a “true witness” to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Luther expected the end of the world to be imminent, and believed that the pope would unite with Jews and Muslims (Turks) against true Christians in an unholy coalition among the enemies of God.
In his On the Jews and their Lies, Luther stated:
Let their houses also be shattered and destroyed… Let their prayer books and Talmuds be taken from them, and their whole Bible too; let their rabbis be forbidden, on pain of death, to teach henceforth any more. Let the streets and highways be closed against them. Let them be forbidden to practice usury, and let all their money, and all their treasures of silver and gold be taken from them and put away in safety. And if all this be not enough, let them be driven like mad dogs out of the land.Luther, in fact, warned his followers to “be on your guard against the Jews, knowing that wherever they have their synagogues, nothing is found but a den of devils in which sheer self-glory, conceit, lies, blasphemy, and defaming of God and men are practiced most maliciously.”
“In sum,” he wrote, the Jews “are the Devil’s children, damned to hell.”
The new Vatican document, says that both traditions, the Catholic and the Lutheran, “approach this anniversary in an ecumenical age, with the achievements of fifty years of dialogue behind them, and with new understandings of their own history and theology.”
In this new stage of their relationship, “Catholics are now able to hear Luther’s challenge for the Church of today,” it reads.
The real challenge may be for Christians to successfully separate Luther the Jew-baiter and pope-hater from Luther the “true witness” to the gospel of Jesus.
[Most Protestants who have confronted these issues separated out these two Luthers long ago. There is no doubt that Luther was an irascible fellow, particularly in later life. One can speak of an Early Luther and a Late Luther. Moreover, one has to be cognizant of the rhetorical style deployed widely by most educated rhetoricians of the time. It is usually quite different from more formal writings on systematic theology and in personal correspondence. But, separate out these personal failings, Luther's commentaries on Romans and Galatians, and his clear proclamation of the essential doctrine of Justification by Faith remain watersheds which preserved the very essence of the Gospel. As one sage observed, God can strike some very straight blows using crooked sticks. Ed.]