Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Catholic Priest Reconsiders Luther

Daniel Olivier, a French Catholic Priest, wrote a book reconsidering the Catholic approach to Martin Luther in the late 1970s. His thesis in Luther’s Faith: The Cause of the Gospel of the Church, is that Martin Luther preached the Christian gospel in the 16th century and that it was wrong for the Roman Catholic Church to condemn it. Olivier writes, “Luther appears to me as one of the great theologians of the faith.” Olivier recognizes the unfaithful climate that arose in the Church during the late Middle Ages. He shows that Martin Luther was simply reacting to this climate of salvation by works when he promoted his doctrine of justification by faith. Olivier contends that at the Council of Trent the gospel was condemned, and this was harmful to the Church. The council convened too late and no one was there to defend Lutheran ideas. If a council had convened earlier and invited Luther, the Church could have re-gained the gospel. Instead, the Council sided with scholasticism. Olivier writes, “The Tridentine doctrine of faith is that of scholasticism, which Luther had rejected.” Olivier writes concerning the attitude of Roman Catholics since the Council of Trent:

"The Roman attitude has always been to condemn as a whole without any desire to listen. The proper response is to begin listening, to recognize, from the point of view of the Catholic faith, what Luther brought to Christianity when he first appeared in the life of the church."

Further, Olivier recognizes progress made with Vatican II as movement in a positive direction for Roman Catholicism. But it is clear that he desires to see more progress.

Olivier aims to do two things in his book: 1) He wants all Roman Catholics to embrace the gospel. 2) He seeks for the aim of reuniting visible Christendom, and sees the Augsburg Confession of 1530 as a means to do so. Concerning the Augsburg Confession, he writes, “The Augsburg Confession is the conscientious balance sheet of 10 years of Church reform, in the name of the Gospel.” Doctrines he sees in Protestantism that should be embraced by Roman Catholicism are: 1) The gospel of justification by faith. 2) The authority of the Scriptures. 3) The priesthood of all believers. While this is so, he spends most of his book expounding upon Luther’s doctrine of justification which he believes to be at the heart of the Christian gospel. In order to do this, Olivier uses texts drawn from Luther’s early, middle, and mature years. Olivier’s purpose is to let Luther speak for himself.

In chapters 1 and 2 Olivier shows that faith has been better understood as a result of Luther. By putting faith at the forefront, Olivier upholds the centrality of the work of Christ in apprehending the believer’s personal salvation. Olivier speaks out against medieval superstition and sees Luther’s doctrine of faith resulting in true piety. Olivier describes Luther’s gospel as:

"The Gospel is the good news and preaching the text first of all elucidates the good news of the gift of Christ….But good news is good news only if it is announced….Christ is truly imparted to the reader who welcomes in faith the promise which Luther draws from Scripture."

In chapter 3 Olivier discusses how Luther became a Reformer. He refutes the idea that Luther was ill, mad, or misunderstood Roman Catholic dogma. Rather, he shows that the Catholic climate was truly corrupt, and Luther was one who genuinely desired to be saved. Luther’s concern was with personal salvation, not the authority of the church. By focusing on this concern of Luther, Olivier strategically focuses on the gospel, rather than Luther’s polemics against Rome. However, at the end of the chapter Olivier does discuss briefly Luther’s view of the Pope. He shows that Luther held the papal office to be of human origin, and identifies the Pope as the Antichrist. Although, Olivier contends that the reader should not focus on this aspect of Luther’s teaching.

In chapters 4 and 5, Olivier expounds on Luther’s view of justification. He shows that grace is unconditional and not based on anything within man. Faith receives the promise and the man is forgiven of his sins. While he becomes righteous through Christ, he still sins. Olivier shows that Luther’s doctrine of simultaneously righteous and sinner was Pauline. He writes, “[Luther] challenged Catholicism to be faithful to St. Paul.” Further, Olivier shows that at the heart of Luther’s gospel was the certainty of salvation. And this certainty comes by the preaching of the gospel. Having a Mass without the preaching of the gospel in the language the people could understand was futile at best.

Olivier’s aim and goal is a noble one. By focusing on the gospel, Olivier focuses on what is most necessary to Christianity. By recognizing that the church can err and is always in need of reform, Olivier is able to look critically at the Council of Trent and the decisions of the Pope. Olivier has a strategic approach in focusing on the gospel. If the gospel is embraced by the Pope, then it is possible that Lutherans will remove from him the title of Anti-Christ. The very reason that Lutherans call the Pope the Anti-Christ is because he does not allow the gospel to be preached in the church. Unfortunately, the anathematization of the gospel at the Council of Trent still has not been lifted.

However, there are two short comings with Olivier’s approach in his book. They are his understanding of the doctrine of justification and the nature of the papacy. First, Olivier does not clearly discuss the difference between Luther’s doctrine of justification and Augustine’s. This is why, 21 years later in 1999, liberal Lutherans and Catholics could sign the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ). The language in Olivier’s book and the JDDJ is ambiguous enough for an Augustinian and a liberal Lutheran to sign. For Lutherans and Catholics to truly be united on justification, they have to answer the questions: Is justification a process that occurs inside of man? Or is it a declaration made by God and a continuous standing we have before Him?

Olivier does not renounce the Papacy as a divinely instituted office. He actually renounces Protestants who are against the Papal office. However, observing his method, one can see that he rejects the infallibility of the Pope. And he advocates the equality of Bishops rather then a Papal monarchy. The reality is, visible unity between Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox will never occur without the Roman Catholic Church renouncing the divine institution of the Papacy. Eastern Orthodox and Protestants may be willing to recognize the chair in Rome as a place of primacy since Peter and Paul labored there. However, they will never allow for the idea that the Papal office was instituted by Christ in Matthew 16:16-19.

Olivier has a fresh outlook on the relationship between Rome and Luther. However, I do not believe this book will result in visible unity between Catholics and Lutherans of the International Lutheran Council (the main reasons are described above). However, the great contribution of this book is that it may cause Catholics to embrace the gospel of justification by grace through faith, and make it central to their church’s preaching and teaching. In the meantime visible unity will not be achieved until the church reigns triumphantly in heaven with her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I've just recently come across your blog and find it fascinating! I'm discerning a vocation with the Augustinians, and St. Augustine played a significant role in my conversion back to the faith.

This post was extraordinary, thank you. I have a question: what is meant by "the anathematization of the gospel at the Council of Trent still has not been lifted."? Of course then gospel is read at every Mass, and is preached on at every Mass, so I'm assuming there is just something about the statement I don't understand (not being very familiar with Trent doesn't help. All I know is that was the council which affirmed priestly celibacy).

Also, do Lutherans still refer to the Pope as the Anti-Christ?

Wed Jun 13, 01:47:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Augustine said...

Hi Michael,

Welcome to my blog and thanks for engaging in discussion!

To answer your first question, the gospel in Daniel Olivier's estimation (and in mine) was anathematized at the Council of Trent. By "gospel" Olivier and I mean the "good news" that even while a person was a sinner, God declares them righteous by grace through faith alone and not by works. That is, a person is reconciled to God not by faith and works or by anything he "does" but by free grace. This position, the Council of Trent anathematized (from the Greek meaning "cursed").

Session VI, Canon XII of the Council of Trent says:

"If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ's sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema."

Notice that in the above canon, Trent curses those who believe that trust/confidence in the work of Christ alone brings the forgiveness of sins. It condemns those who believe that a person is justified by faith alone and not by works.

Considering no Popes or councils since the Council of Trent have changed this position, classical Lutherans today still officially believe that the Papal office is anti-Christian. By cursing the gospel of justification by faith alone, it was cursing the doctrine of Paul and accepted terminology within the Catholic Church of previous generations. There were Catholic fathers who believed a person was justified by faith alone. Olivier and I believe that this was the wrong thing to do.

And this issue should be taken very seriously since Paul opened his letter to the Galatians stating:

"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:6-8).

He then goes onto describe the true gospel in the letter to the Galatians. So the question before us today is: What is the gospel according to Paul in the book of Galatians? Did the Council of Trent reject the very gospel he defended in that letter?

Thu Jun 14, 04:31:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Pastor Pete said...

Ah, thank you very much for including all this! First of all, as an LCMS Lutheran, I greatly appreciate that you emphasize the fact that we don't consider the Pope himself as the Antichrist, but rather the office. It's an important difference, and I thank you for sharing it! Second, as a Seminary student, I also want to thank you for posting this article! Excellent information in a more concise manner than Olivier, and it certainly helps when I am trying to write a paper on the book! ^_^

I do have one question, though: how does the Catholic church define the term "faith" nowadays? I've heard different things, and I'd like an answer from someone in the Catholic faith who's more knowledgeable, such as yourself.

Tue Feb 14, 02:12:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Pastor Pete said...

Um, better question: are you an LCMS Lutheran yourself? Lols

Tue Feb 14, 08:43:00 PM EST  
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