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Speaking of Martin Luther…


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Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 06/20/17

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…which is something a few people are doing on social media right now, it’s worth reading in full just what Bishop Robert Barron has to say on the subject right here. Snip:

At bottom, Luther was a mystic of grace, someone who had fallen completely in love—which helps enormously to explain what makes his theological ideas both so fascinating and so frustrating. People in love do and say extravagant things. So overwhelmed are they by the experience of the beloved that they are given to words such as “only” and “never” and “forever.” If you doubt me, read any of the great romantic poets, or for that matter, listen to a teenager speak about his first crush. After a lifetime of scrupulosity and interior struggle, Luther sensed the breakthrough of the divine grace through the mediation of the Bible. Hence, are we surprised that he would express his ecstasy in exaggerated, over the top language: “By grace alone! By faith alone! By the Scriptures alone!”

You’ll want to read it all. 

In many ways, the good bishop is continuing the reassessment of Luther that began decades ago, and that was underscored in 1983, when St. John Paul marked Luther’s 500th birthday with a letter, reprinted below in full, translated by UPI .Among other things, he extolled Luther’s “great impact on history” and spoke of his “profound piety” and “burning passion”:

To my venerated brother, Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, president of the Secretariate for Christian Unity. Nov. 10, 1983 is the 500th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther of Eisleben. On this occasion numerous Christians, especially of the Lutheran-Evangelical confession, recall that theologian who, at the threshold of modern times contributed in a substantial way to the radical change of ecclesiastical and secular reality of the West.
Our world still today bears the experience of his great impact on history.
For the Catholic Church through the centuries the name of Martin Luther is tied to the memory of a sad period and, in particular, to the experience of the origin of deep ecclesiastical divisions. For this reason the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther must be for us an occasion to meditate, in truth and in Christian charity, on that pregnant event of history that was the epoch of the Reformation. Because it is time that distances us from historical events and makes them often better understood and evoked. Therefore, well known personalities and institutions of Lutheran Christianity indicated that the year dedicated to Luther could be marked by a genuine ecumenical spirit and that discussion on Luther may be propitious to Christian unity. I receive with satisfaction this intention and extend to you a fraternal invitation to arrive together at a deeper and more complete image of the historical events and a critical reflexion on the manifold heritage of Luther. In fact, scientific research by evangelical and Catholic scholars, the results of which have already reached notable points of convergence, has led to the outlining of a more complete and more differentiated picture of Luther’s personality, of the complex web of historical reality in society, in politics and in the church of the first half of the 16th century. Consequently Luther’s profound piety that, with burning passion, was driven by questioning on eternal salvation, is clearly delineated. Similarly it becomes clear that the break in ecclesiastical unity is not reduced to a simple lack of comprehension by authorities of the Catholic Church nor to only the simple comprehension of true catholicism by Luther, even if both had their role. The decisions taken indeed had very deep roots. In the dispute on the interpretational line and on the reception of Christian faith, which have in themselves a potential of ecclesiastical division, cannot be explained only by historical reasons. Therefore, a double force is necessary, both in confronting Martin Luther and in the search for reestablishment of unity. In the first place it is important to continue accurate historical work, It is a question of, through an investigation without taking sides, motivated only by the search for truth, arriving at a just image of the Reformer, of the entire epoch of the Reformation and of the people who were involved in it. Guilt, where it exists, must be recognized, on whichever side it is found where polemics have clouded the view, the direction of this view must be corrected and independently by one side or the other. Furthermore, we must not let ourselves be led by the intention of erecting a judgment on history, but the intention must be only that of better understanding the events and of becoming bearers of the truth. Only offering ourselves, without reservation, to a purification through the truth, can we find a common interpretation of the past and gain at the same time a new point of departure for the dialogue of today. And it is precisely this second thing that is dominant. The clarification of history that turns to the past and its lasting significance must go on equal footing with the dialogue of faith that, at present, we undertake to search for unity. This dialogue finds its solid base, in conformity with the written Evangelical-Lutheran confessional in that which unites us even after the separation and that is to say: in the word of the Scriptures, in the confession of faith, in the councils of the ancient church. I therefore trust, Cardinal, that on these bases and in this spirit, the Secretariat for Unity, with your guidance, leads forward this dialogue initiated with great seriousness in Germany even before the Second Vatican Council, and does it in fidelity to the free faith, which allows penitence and docility to learn by listening. In humble contemplation of the mystery of divine providence and in listening devotely to what the spirit of God teaches us today in the memory of events of the Reformation, the church has to extend the confines of its love to go to meet in unity all those who, through baptism, bear the name of Jesus Christ. I accompany with my special prayers and blessings, the work of your secretariat and all the ecumenical forces for the great cause of unity of all Christians.

Not long after writing that, the pope visited a Lutheran church in Rome, to underscore efforts at ecumenism, and offered further reflections:

We see ourselves profoundly united in the solidarity of all Christians of Advent, in the midst of all the divisions clearly persisting in teaching and life. We ardently desire unity, and we strive to pursue this unity without letting ourselves become discouraged by the difficulties which may be encountered along the path (cf. Decree on Ecumenism, no. 6). Finally, during this five hundredth anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther, we seem to see rise in the distance like the dawn the advent of a restoration of our unity and of our community. This unity is the fruit of the renewal, of the daily conversion and penance of all Christians in the light of the eternal Word of God. It is also the best preparation for the advent of God in our world.

For his part, John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI, spoke approvingly about Martin Luther during a general audience in 2008.

A report from Zenit:

Benedict XVI says Martin Luther’s doctrine on justification is correct, if faith “is not opposed to charity.” The Pope said this today during the general audience dedicated to another reflection on St. Paul. This time, the Holy Father considered the Apostle’s teaching on justification. …Luther’s expression “by faith alone” is true “if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love.”

Benedict also added in 2011:

 The question: what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God? – this burning question of Martin Luther must once more, doubtless in a new form, become our question too. In my view, this is the first summons we should attend to in our encounter with Martin Luther.   Another important point: God, the one God, creator of heaven and earth, is no mere philosophical hypothesis regarding the origins of the universe. This God has a face, and he has spoken to us. He became one of us in the man Jesus Christ – who is both true God and true man. Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric: “What promotes Christ’s cause” was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture.
The simple fact remains that the Catholic Church has been reassessing Luther for some time, often favorably, with an eye toward ultimate unity with our separated Lutheran siblings. Bishop Barron’s thoughts are only the latest. They certainly won’t be the last. (For more on the Church’s evolving attitudes toward Martin Luther, check out “The Reprieve of Martin Luther,”written by Seventh Day Adventist scholar Arnold Wallenkampf. He offers more historical context.)
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