Any one familiar with Luther’s 95 Theses, and who are aware of the history of the times, would agree that the Catholic Church needed substantial reformation. Its power over the secular world and its greedy financial appetite were inexcusable. And these outcomes were the fruit of a substantial loss of the holiness that should be one of the marks of the Church. As Lord Acton, commenting on the Renaissance popes, famously said: “All power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
But, at the quincentenary of Luther’s famous protest (Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum 31 October 1517), we should be aware that, at the heart of the Lutheran Reformation, there was a clear theology. We may, or may not, agree with it but we should not dismiss it. In our vocation to understand the truth we may find new insights in those with whom we disagree. And that goes both ways.
Luther put the highest value on the grace of Christ. He held that the human race was irrevocably damaged through Original Sin and so could do nothing to help itself. But if it believed and accepted with certainty the grace of Christ as the sole source of goodness and redemption, the bounty of undeserved grace would bring us to Paradise. We are not holy, nor can we ever be holy while we are in our corrupted bodies: Christ’s grace is all. From this foundational principle a number of doctrines emerge.
It might be logically supposed that we have no responsibility for our bad actions and so are freed from the obligation of leading a good life. If our certainty of redemption is all that is required then our morality is not required. But the conclusion is more subtle than that: it is not our morality which we choose but Christ’s morality working itself out through us. We do not say: ‘That’s a good man’, but we say ‘That’s a fallen man, through whom Christ is expressing his goodness.’ There is no such thing as human good works, nor can there be a human freedom of will to choose them.
The seven sacraments, which Catholics describe as ‘outward signs of inward grace’, must be severely pruned. Baptism, as the ritual sign of the presence of Christ’s redemptive promise, and the Eucharist as a sign helping us to realise redemption more fully continue. They are reminders. The remainder have no place.
The whole edifice of Purgatory, together with Indulgences, penances and the rest are wiped off the book. As soon as we die, leaving the corrupted body behind, we are taken into Christ’s redemption. The evil is left behind.
And it must follow that the whole teaching Church with its authorities and its theologians interpreting and developing doctrine must be ignored: the teachers themselves are corrupted by sin, and their proclaimed truths and rules are of no value. The only source of truth which God has given us is Scripture: the phrase sola scriptura and sola fides are born.
This is a very brief account of Luther’s theology, and I would value comments, disagreements, reactions and fuller explanations. I am in debt to Richard Rex, Professor of Reformation History at Cambridge. See his article in the Tablet (14 October). Needless to say that he has no responsibility for the views I express here. His book, The Making of Martin Luther, is now published by Princeton Lutheran Press.