Should Any Catholic Praise Luther?

We praise someone who fundamentally deserves praise. No one is without fault, and no one without some merit. But only those are worthy of praise who fundamentally deserve praise, whose pith and marrow is good.

Now, Luther certainly saw some things in the Church as evil that were evil. No one can say that his vision was totally corrupted. But was his vision fundamentally worthy of praise? We must, of course, distinguish contemporary Lutherans from Luther. Here, we are interested in the founder, in the foundation he laid.

What should be the matter upon which we judge this case? Luther’s own texts, of course.

So, in this post, we will cite Luther at length in one of his key contributions. Granted, this key contribution he did not continue explicitly to lay out. However, he never retracted it. In another post, we can lay out the theses he continued explicitly to hold.

In reading the below, ask yourself these questions: Could a saint utter the words below? Could a holy man write the following? Could a true lover of God, one in the state of grace, write the following?

First Thesis of Luther. For Luther, Divine Foreknowledge means that there is No Contingency, and that means that there is No Freedom. This thesis he lays down, so he asserts, to protect God’s foreknowledge so as to protect his promise so as to protect our confidence in salvation by faith alone. Indeed, here we see the connection between this foundation and the explicit teaching of his that endures and which will be treated in a future post. The connection: If future events are contingent, God’s promise is not as trustworthy as we need it to be. Hence, future events are not contingent.

For Luther, there is either grace or freedom (Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will, from Luther’s Works vol. 33, p. 126; hereafter, LW 33:126). There is either freedom or Christ (LW 33:279).

(Regarding Pharaoh), Luther writes: “If there had been any flexibility or freedom of choice in Pharaoh, which could have turned either way, God would not have been able so certainly to predict his hardening. Since, however, the Giver of the promise is one who can neither be mistaken nor tell a lie, it was necessarily and most certainly bound to come about that Pharaoh should be hardened; which would not be the case unless the hardening were entirely beyond the capacity of man and within the power of God alone” (LW 33:183).

Again,

If God foreknew that Judas would be a traitor, Judas necessarily became a traitor, and it was not in the power of Judas or ay creature to do differently or to change his will, though he did what he did willingly and not under compulsion, but that act of will was a work of God, which he set in motion by his omnipotence, like everything else” (LW 33:185).

 

Again,

It is not in our power to change, much less to resist, his will, which wants us hardened and by which we are forced to be hardened, whether we like it or not” (LW 33:187).

Again,

“I admit that the question is difficult, and indeed impossible, if you wish to maintain at the same time both God’s foreknowledge and man’s freedom. What could be more difficult, nay more impossible, than to insist that contradictories or contraries are not opposed, or to find a number that was at the same time both ten and nine?…. Paul is thus putting a check on the ungodly, who are offended by this very plain speaking when they gather from it that the divine will is fulfilled by necessity on our part, and that very definitely nothing of freedom or free choice remains for them, but everything depends on the will of God alone…. Not that any injustice is done to us, since God owes us nothing, has received nothing from us, and has promised us nothing but what suits his will and pleasure” (LW 33:188).

Again,

“God’s foreknowledge and omnipotence are diametrically opposed to our free choice” (LW 33:189).

Again,

“Here, then, is something fundamentally necessary and salutary for a Christian, to know that God foreknows nothing contingently, but that he foresees and purposes and does all things by his immutable, eternal, and infallible will. Here is a thunderbolt by which free choice is completely prostrated and shattered…” (Bondage [LW 33:37]).

Luther presents as his evidence that God is unchanging. So, he concludes, is God’s will. So far, so good. But from these he deduces that therefore, nothing is contingent. Again,

“From this it follows irrefutably that everything we do, everything that happens, even if it seems to us to happen mutably and contingently, happens in fact nonetheless necessarily and immutably, if you have regard to the will of God” (Bondage [LW 33:37f]).

What have real saints said about this thesis? Well, St. Thomas More labelled Luther’s thesis on absolute determination to be:

“THE VERY WORST AND MOST HARMFUL HERESY THAT EVER WAS THOUGHT UP; AND, ON TOP OF THAT, THE MOST INSANE.”

AMEN to St. Thomas More. How can we contradict St. Thomas More here? Should we, out of human respect and errant versions of ecumenism, lose our theological heads, not in service of martyrdom, but rather in praise of such execrable doctrine? 

Let us continue the citations.

For Luther, the thesis of absolute determinism is necessary in order to Protect Faith’s Certainty. No faith is possible unless one already “knows” that because God wills all things, nothing is contingent (LW 33:42).

“For if you doubt or disdain to know that God foreknows all things, not contingently, but necessarily and immutably, how can you believe his promises and place a sure trust and reliance on them? For when he promises anything, you ought to be certain that he knows and is able and willing to perform what he promises; otherwise, you will regard him as neither truthful nor faithful, and that is impiety and a denial of the Most High God. But how will you be certain and sure unless you know that he knows and wills and will do what he promises, certainly, infallibly, immutably, and necessarily?” (Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, LW 33:42)

Now, this reason for humility is utterly false, since it contradicts Catholic Dogma. But St. Bernard said that giving false reasons for humility is in fact pride. Hence, Luther also takes one of the steps of pride in contending that this thesis Benefits Humility.

Luther recognizes that the notion of absolute determinism seems to make God utterly evil and perverse. Instead, then, of rejecting it as blasphemous and fideistic, he embraces it as lifting up Faith and Revelation, since it is so contrary to all reason:

“This is the highest degree of faith, to believe him merciful when he saves so few and damns so many, and to believe him righteous when by his own will he makes us necessarily damnable, so that he seems, according to Erasmus, to delight in the torments of the wretched and to be worthy of hatred rather than of love” (LW 33:62f).

Luther’s own words are the evidence. This is the testimony of his own mouth. Let the honest and decent reader judge the case.

Before the bar of every rational and decent person, does Luther not convict himself of utter inhumanity?

Before the bar of all that is reasonable in moral exhortation – from parental to educational to civil and criminal, does he not convict himself of a crime against all law? Is he, therefore, anarchical?

Before the bar of Catholic Dogma, supreme criterion on earth of what we know is and is not part of and/or in harmony with the Deposit of Faith, does he not convict himself of heresy?

Before the God whom we ought to honor, to whom we ought to ascribe only what is good and true and fitting, does he not convict himself of great blasphemies, greater even than the Gnostics who first attempted to ruin the Church? For the Gnostics distinguished two gods, one good and one evil. Does not Luther add to the evil by subtracting from the number of Gods, folding that Evil, which all right reason and right faith and common decency vomit out as execrable, into the one God?

Indeed, DOES NOT ALL OF MODERN THOUGHT — which, incidentally, is not entirely corrupt, though it is by and large no friend of Christ — REJECT SUCH VILE THOUGHT? If we, then, accept what is good and decent in Modernity – as it rebels against fideism and voluntaristic notions of God and absurd notions of justification and divine predetermination and the destruction of all legitimate autonomy of man – must we not therefore reject this foundational thesis of Luther? Finally, does this predetermination to evil harmonize with the errant notion of a mercy shorn of justice, so popular these days?

10 thoughts on “Should Any Catholic Praise Luther?

  1. God’s assurance is a moral assurance that His grace will be sufficient to convert, empower, and sustain our path into Heaven. It is not an absolute assurance.

    No soul can face God on their day of judgement and, looking back on their life, NOT say,”Lord, you could have helped me more.” For Judas, he was given immense grace as an Apostle and yet he still fell by free will. For those who sin, He gives grace for repentance.

    We need not face our journey on Earth with a paralyzing fear of uncertainty. Rather, we should be bold in our confidence that Christ’s power is sufficient for us to do His will. We should trust that He will not abandon us.

    Luther’s diabolical error sprang from his scrupulous conscience. How tragic that he resorted to deformed theology to calm his deformed conscience. The fruits of his labor are the proliferation of presumption and easy-believism.

    1. Spot on. A tyrannical reading of the Law, a scrupulous conscience, yielded despair. But the theological presumption he saw as a solution was the undoing of all law. A complete and unmitigated tragedy.

  2. Oops, I meant no soul CAN say God’s grace was insufficient to get them to Heaven. Please correct that :-))

  3. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson said Luther was haunted by a psychological collision with his formidable father, whom he had to defy to become a monk, and that he later transposed that conflict on to the fear of God’s judgment.

  4. I am an honest and decent reader, I hope. As would be Jared Wicks, Peter Kreeft, and Joseph Ratzinger, I argue, all three noted modern theologians — not modernists — who find good things in Luther. And Pascal and Bernard were essentially Calvinists my our day’s standards. Now, of course Luther was not Catholic, and I too find it odd modern Rome wants to praise him. But I find it equally odd that you are so eager to point to what you find his most scandalous words. I’d be more scandalized by contemporary Rome’s embrace of quasi-universalism, an about face of earlier doctrine. Luther probably had more in common with traditional Catholicism than over half of today’s Catholic universities’ theology staff!

    1. I was invited to Concordia Seminary, of the Missouri Synod of true believing Lutherans. I felt more at home there than I would at a modern Jesuit university. Why? They believe in hell. They believe people go there. I told them this. They laughed hysterically. After all, Catholic modernists deny all these things.

      The problem is, just about every good thing that Luther has to say is either already so deeply skewed by an anterior problem or else subserves yet another problem, that it is most unwise to point to him as a good role model, as some in Rome have been doing for a good number of years. You can take out the good, as in the old game “Operation.” But my point here is to raise this issue of him as a role model. Already the caveats are noted at the beginning. I follow Thomas More’s lead here in the non-academic setting. I think that a good number of modern, well-meaning conciliating readings are simply off the mark. In the academic arena, however, I have engaged the premised promise of his dilemmas. I would point to my article “Sola Salus” in the Italian journal Fides Catholica. A more entry level take is Chapter 10, Part 2, of my book on justification, “Engrafted into Christ.”

      Interestingly, in a popular piece for something like “This Rock” (I believe it is linked in my publication page), I bent over backwards to point out all the good stuff in Luther. Then I registered the critique. The result? I got tons of emails saying they didn’t realize that Luther basically stated the truth. But that was the opposite of what a careful reading would have justified. The fact is, it misled a good number of people. In an academic setting, there can be a certain manner of proceeding. In a different setting, a different manner of proceeding.

      I am told that Sigrid Undset, in order to account for her ‘scandalous’ conversion to Catholicism from Lutheranism, would simply translate Luther’s words in order to explain herself.

      The points indicated in this piece are not taken as isolated fragments. They are the pith of the tome against Erasmus. This pith also forms the logical structure of Luther’s account of hope. As an earlier comment rightly indicates: There is no limit to our hope. Luther saw that. But his interpretation regards the pre-determination of the outcome regardless of human cooperation. Catholic prayers run, by contrast: “ut digni efficiamur” and “ut mereamur”.

      1. I know little about Luther other than that he is said to have started the Reformation which led to terrible bloodshed amongst other things. I am astonished that some in the Church want to honour him and I am grateful to this blog for telling me why I should not honour him so I disagree with Joe M. Actually I am not that astonished as I try hard not to be astonished by many things that occur in the Church but I still think every one of them should be nailed and refuted.

  5. Luther strikes me as fairly typical of people who genuinely find some fault in the Church but become so engrossed in opposing the fault that they begin to distance themselves from the genuine good of the Church and end up in heresy (and generally get married if they are a priest!). I remember Chesterton saying something on the lines of a heresy being the exaggeration of a virtue to such an extent that one ignores the other virtues. Luther certainly was virtuous in opposing certain abuses in the Church but he ended up rejecting much of the teaching. One can frequently see the same happening to people to-day – they become ’eminent Catholic theologians’ in the eyes of the world, the moment they dissent, despite most of the faithful never having previously heard of them. Charles Curran springs to mind.

    1. I agree with the spirit of your point. I like to point out that the truth is not the synthesis of two errors; nor is virtue the synthesis of two vices. Rather, truth rises above the dialectical tension of extreme errors, both of which are below. Similarly, virtue is above the opposition of vices. We must rise from the muck of either side. Whoever lacks one virtue lacks all virtues. Thus, I can in no wise say Luther was virtuous. Rather, he saw things as evil that were evil. Indeed, the popes of the day were an abomination. But this is not necessarily virtuously to see them as evil, to have the proper estimation of the error and the moderated hatred of it.

      But your point is well taken. I might turn it another way. The temptation in our day is twofold. Some are modernists. In fact, the vast majority. But opposite this, some of us can be tempted to despair that Christ has left his true Church. All the abounding confusion, especially from the episcopacy, can tempt us to despair. We must stay true to his Church. In God’s will is our peace. And presently, he is permitting things very difficult to understand. Rather than run away, we must stay at the foot of the Cross. And yes, Chesteron’s wise medicine must be taken: Retain the wide vision, the big picture. Keep your mental health.

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