Luther the Apologist

October 17, 2016

by William Edgar & Scott Oliphint

Luther is best known as the man who sparked the Protestant Reformation. Dissatisfied with the corruption of the church that he witnessed as a pastor, he determined to challenge many of its practices, initially, by nailing Ninety-Five Theses to the castle church door of the University of Wittenberg. The castle church door was the standard location for announcements and for disputations such as this to be posted. Luther also sent the theses to the archbishop, who, together with his councillors, reviewed them. The councillors concluded that elements of Luther’s theses were in direct opposition to church teaching and thus were heretical. Their report, together with Luther’s theses, was then sent to the pope. Following this conciliar judgment, a series of debates, disputations, and councils ensued in which Luther’s challenges to the church were taken up. Facing some of the most formidable theologians of his time, Luther was ordered to recant his views and to submit himself to the authority of the church.

While debates are ongoing as to the exact time of Luther’s “conversion,” there is little doubt that his definitive break with Rome took place over the course of the year 1520, in which the work excerpted below was written. During that year, Luther wrote three works that move definitively toward a Reformation of the church. The first is an appeal to the emperor (also meant to stir the laity) to do away with the authority of the pope, masses for the dead, and other Romanist teachings. The second work, addressed primarily for the clergy, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, is Luther’s exposition and denial of the efficacy of the Romanist sacramental system, particularly focused on the Romanist view of the sacrament of communion. Luther denies transubstantiation and argues for communion in “both kinds,” that is, partaking of both bread and wine (in the Romanist system, only the priest partakes of the wine).

Concerning Christian Liberty

Luther’s third work, Concerning Christian Liberty (or On Christian Freedom), written in the fall of 1520, is the one we have included here. It extols one of Luther’s central theological themes—justification by grace through faith, and not by works. Though, as we have said, these three works mark Luther as a Reformer, it will become clear below that Luther does not envision himself, at this point, as anything but a priest of the church. He is in no way hostile toward Pope Leo X, to whom this work is addressed, and he seeks to argue as one whose allegiance is still within the Romanist church. Note, for example:

Wherefore, most excellent Leo, I beseech you to accept my vindication, made in this letter, and to persuade yourself that I have never thought any evil concerning your person; further, that I am one who desires that eternal blessing may fall to your lot, and that I have no dispute with any man concerning morals, but only concerning the word of truth. In all other things I will yield to any one, but I neither can nor will forsake and deny the word. He who thinks otherwise of me, or has taken in my words in another sense, does not think rightly, and has not taken in the truth.

The context for Concerning Christian Liberty includes the fact that, in June of the same year, Luther was already censured by the pope as heretical. His books were ordered burned and he was given sixty days to recant his views. Though he appeals to Pope Leo in this work, it is clear that the relationship between him and the pope is all but broken. Luther has not recanted his views, and instead of burning his works, he later (in December) burns the papal bull that declares him a heretic. Clearly, Luther’s goal in all of his writings to this point was to reform the church, not to conform to what he saw to be unbiblical teachings propagated within it.

As Luther explains to the pope, he is not interested in attacking the pope’s person. He is, however, concerned with the deep and abiding corruption that seems to persist in the church over which this pope is the head. Luther, in other words, distinguishes between the person of the pope and the church, which is itself, according to Luther, corrupt.

Your see, however, which is called the Court of Rome, and which neither you nor any man can deny to be more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom, and quite, as I believe, of a lost, desperate, and hopeless impiety, this I have verily abominated, and have felt indignant that the people of Christ should be cheated under your name and the pretext of the Church of Rome; and so I have resisted, and will resist, as long as the spirit of faith shall live in me. Not that I am striving after impossibilities, or hoping that by my labours alone, against the furious opposition of so many flatterers, any good can be done in that most disordered Babylon; but that I feel myself a debtor to my brethren, and am bound to take thought for them, that fewer of them may be ruined, or that their ruin may be less complete, by the plagues of Rome. For many years now, nothing else has overflowed from Rome into the world—as you are not ignorant—than the laying waste of goods, of bodies, and of souls, and the worst examples of all the worst things. These things are clearer than the light to all men; and the Church of Rome, formerly the most holy of all Churches, has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death, and hell; so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness.

Clearly Luther sees himself as a reformer at this point, and he is convinced that the church needs significant reform.

Is it not true that there is nothing under the vast heavens more corrupt, more pestilential, more hateful, than the Court of Rome? She incomparably surpasses the impiety of the Turks, so that in very truth she, who was formerly the gate of heaven, is now a sort of open mouth of hell, and such a mouth as, under the urgent wrath of God, cannot be blocked up; one course alone being left to us wretched men: to call back and save some few, if we can, from that Roman gulf.

Included in Luther’s introductory letter to Pope Leo is his assessment of some of the discussions and debates that preceded the writing of this work. John Eck, an able and astute Romanist theologian, had studied and critiqued Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in some detail. By the summer of 1519, Eck and Luther were engaged in an official debate, the Leipzig Disputation, wherein they discussed such matters as penance, purgatory, and papal authority. So, according to Luther:

While I was making some advance in these studies, Satan opened his eyes and goaded on his servant John Eccius, that notorious adversary of Christ, by the unchecked lust for fame, to drag me unexpectedly into the arena, trying to catch me in one little word concerning the primacy of the Church of Rome, which had fallen from me in passing. That boastful Thraso, foaming and gnashing his teeth . . .

Learning from Luther 
Luther’s Concerning Christian Liberty is an apologetic work. There are two important aspects about this apologetic that should not escape our attention. First, it is a theological apologetic. Luther is not engaging discussions such as the existence of God or the possibility of miracles. Rather, he is attempting to purify, to reform, that which calls itself the church of Jesus Christ. Second, we should note that there is, always and everywhere, a need for apologetics within the church. While much of apologetics deals with rank unbelief, that unbelief, even if in nascent form and shrouded in Christian terminology, can take its place within the church itself (since elements of unbelief remain within every Christian) to such an extent that the urgent need of the hour is to expunge such teaching from Christ’s church.

Luther was a pastor-theologian, concerned to stand on the authority of Scripture alone in order that his sheep might grasp the centrality of grace in the gospel of Christ. This work is a defense of that grace-soaked gospel against all attempts to mix with it the vinegar of the Christian’s own sin-tainted efforts.

This piece is adapted from William Edgar & K. Scott Oliphint, Christian Apologetics Past & Present (Vol. 2: from 1500): A Primary Source Reader (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 19–23. Used with permission of the publisher.

William Edgar

Dr. Edgar (DThéol, Université de Genève) is professor of apologetics at WTS.

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