With great profit and pleasure I’m currently reading Alec Ryrie’s new book Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World. Among the many texts appearing in this year of the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, Ryrie’s stands out for its verve, clarity, and historical sweep. In some ways, it is an answer to Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, though it lacks the intellectual depth and thoroughness of Gregory’s magisterial study.
What has so far intrigued me most of all in Ryrie’s book is his portrait of the undisputed father of the Reformation, Martin Luther. I will confess to a certain fascination with Luther. I have been reading his books, speeches, and sermons for many years, and for about ten years, when I was professor of theology at Mundelein Seminary, I taught a graduate level course in the Christian theology of the sixteenth century, which included, naturally, lots of Luther. Cantankerous, pious, very funny, shockingly anti-Semitic, deeply insightful, and utterly exasperating, Luther was one of the most beguiling personalities of his time. And say what you want about his writings (I disagree with lots and lots of his ideas), they crackle with life and intensity, even in Latin! Though I’ve read and thought and talked about the founder of Protestantism for a long time, Ryrie has prompted me to squint at him in a fresh way.
It is obvious to everyone, Ryrie argues, that Luther was a fighter, taking on not only fellow intellectuals, but the curia, the Pope, and the Emperor himself. And it is equally clear that he bequeathed this feistiness to his followers over these past five centuries: Zwingli, Calvin, Wilberforce, Lloyd Garrison, Billy Sunday, Karl Barth, etc. There is always something protesting about Protestantism. But to see this dimension alone is to miss the heart of the matter. For at the core of Luther’s life and theology was an overwhelming experience of grace. After years of trying in vain to please God through heroic moral and spiritual effort, Luther realized that, despite his unworthiness, he was loved by a God who had died to save him. In the famous Turmerlebnis (Tower Experience) in the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, Luther felt justified through the sheer mercy of God.
Though many others before him had sensed this amazing grace, Luther’s passion, in Ryrie’s words, “had a reckless extravagance that set it apart and which has echoed down Protestant history.” It is easy enough to see this ecstatic element in any number of prominent Protestant figures, from John Wesley to Friedrich Schleiermacher to John Newton. Luther was an ecstatic, and the religious movement he launched was “a love affair.”
This is why I say Ryrie has caused me to look at Luther in a new light.
One of the standard matrices for understanding religion is the distinction between the mystical and the prophetic, or between the experiential and the rational. On the standard reading, Luther would fall clearly on the latter side of this divide. He is, it would seem, the theologian of the word par excellence. And indeed, we can find throughout his writings many critiques of priestcraft, sacramentalism, and what he called Schwarmerei or pious enthusiasm. Nevertheless, if Ryrie is right, this is to get only part, indeed a small part, of the story. 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!”
I think here of a distant spiritual descendent of Martin Luther, the Nobel laureate Bob Dylan. After his conversion to evangelical Christianity, Dylan wrote a lovely song called Saving Grace, which includes the lines, “I look around this old world/ And all that I’m finding/ Is the saving grace that’s over me.” Mind you, this is the same Dylan who, just a few years earlier, had sung of “guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children” and who had pulled the masks off of “masters of war” and who had complained of “Desolation Row.” But now—and this is the mark of the ecstatic—all that he sees is saving grace. In a more Catholic expression of the same experience, Georges Bernanos’s country priest could cry, “Toute est grace!” (Everything is grace!).
Beautiful? Poetically expressive? Spiritually evocative? Yes! But does it stand up to strict rational scrutiny? Of course not. What Ryrie’s characterization of Luther has helped me to see is how the great Solas of the Reformation can be both celebrated and legitimately criticized. Was Luther right to express his ecstatic experience of the divine love in just this distinctive way? And was, say, the Council of Trent right in offering a sharp theological corrective to Luther’s manner of formulating the relationship between faith and works and between the Bible and reason? I realize that it might annoy both my Catholic and Protestant friends even to pose the issue this way, but would answering “yes” to both those question perhaps show a way forward in the ecumenical conversation?
Full story at OC Catholic.
as protestantism of the lutheran kinds is dying out, it seems that ecumenical outreach might look to other forms of growing protestantism to dialogue with.
I fully concur with one caveat. The newer forms of Protestantism tend to harbor anti-Catholic sentiments that keep reappearing in their ministry. As such, Protestants of this variety are less open to ecumenical discussion and are more open to frontal debates [much like the type that Karl Keating used to engage in].
Therefore, in my opinion, the most effective form of dialogue with such Christians is evangelism. Vatican II and the new evangelization have given us awesome tools in this regard.
Bishop Barron fancies this disaster of a man as a lovable quirky uncle. Shame on him for minimizing the damage Luther did to the Church! Luther led many souls away from belief in the Real Presence, reception of Holy Communion, misinterpreted Sacred Scripture, married a former nun, and divided The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church into some 40,000 Protestant denominations. Gee, that Luther isn’t such a fun guy after all, is he?!
“I realize that it might annoy both my Catholic and Protestant friends even to pose the issue this way, but would answering “yes” to both those question perhaps show a way forward in the ecumenical conversation?”
Kristin, I wholeheartedly agree with your well written post! Also, this has nothing to do with Bishop Barron’s keen awareness that he has “annoyed” Catholics or Protestants. Bishop Barron always demonstrates a desire to be loved first by both sides instead of sticking like glue to the Fullness of Truth. As shocking as it may sound, there ARE pastoral ways to communicate the Fullness of Truth to everyone without first seeking to appease men. Bishop Barron’s celebratory fun words will now entrench Protestants to remain…
as “protesting” Protestants!
lthe doctrine of the infallibility of ecumenical councils (trent was one) says that such councils speak infallibly on issues of faith and morals.. questioning the council of T’s ‘sharp theological corrective. of luther’s discussion of the relationship of faith and morals is outside the bounaries of catholic teaching
With revisionist history, perhaps even satan’s reputation can be redeemed. The prelates of
the Church have a very strange fascination with Martin Luther. Try as
the might though, nothing changes the fact he broke away from the
Catholic Church and his actions lead to the division of Christendom.
Europe has not been the same since.
A commonsensical and factual comment that they can’t get around.
Cf. Did Blessed Anna Katharina Emmerick foresee the Lutheranization of the Catholic Church in Our Time? – https://wp.me/p2Na5H-VY
In his fascinating (if not always friendly to the Church) book “A World Lit Only By Fire” – author William Manchester shows us a side of Luther that most prefer to avoid – his discussion of fights with satan using excrement as a weapon on both sides.
“again and again, in recalling satan’s attacks on him, Luther uses the crude verb ‘beschiessen’, which describes what happens when someone soils you with ‘scheiss'” (P-139)
Houda Thunk It – but Manchester’s scholarship is solid, if also more than a little soiled. Ahem
And now we hold hands during the Our Father and add (embolize) “for Your’s are the Power and the Glory”. The antidote to Lutheranism is to pray the Apostle’s Creed daily. I say cut them loose, concentrate on the timeless Mass of Trent and prepare to cultivate the small remnant of the true Catholic Church. Curiously, the greatest comeback of the Latin Mass is taking place right here in California in the worst possible circumstances regarding Church authorities. California is the present day equivalent of the Irish Monasteries during the Middle Ages.
There are approximately 800 million protestants in the world today. Add that to the number of protestants who have lived and died in the last 500 years, and that’s how many people, so far throughout history, Luther has personally caused to be deprived of the Eucharist throughout their entire lives (not to mention the Sacrament of Penance). Now what kind of nutso Catholic defends that?
One thing the Catholic Church does not deny (by strict counsel) is that salvation cannot be attained by faith alone, or grace alone. Even though they rightfully object to Luther adding the word “alone” to that critical passage, I do not see where that idea is strongly disagreed with.
Again, in the Church’s wisdom (Spirit endowed?) the Church does not proclaim or rule of any particular soul that is in hell. They adhere to God alone to judge. And similarly does not the Church only say those assured to be in heaven are canonized saints and blood martyrs of the Church? In other words, the absolute dogma on the existence of purgatory — is this not what really separates Catholicism from Protestantism, in some ways, more than…
(cont.) anything? The Protestants not fearing any possibility of purification of their souls before heaven, they do not fear sin as we Catholics do. suffice it to say, I really appreciate Fr. Barron’s point of what Luther discovered, i.e the joy of saving grace for the wretched sinner. I think that is true and will save no telling how many of us from the fires of hell.
Yet the thought of saving grace is still of incalculable reason for gratitude.
Still, I remain steadfast, the Catholic teaching on salvation and mercy, sin and punishment is of wiser and even more charitable of teachings. Purgatory is God’s immeasurable gift to mankind. Where justice and mercy are made perfect. Where all in purgatory gratefully…
(cont.) their just punishments to be made pure and holy. “Nothing defiled shall enter the kingdom.” I doubt St. John was referring to the condemned.
It seems so few Catholics, not to mention all others, do not think of the righteous punishments that come with a multitude of sins. The seven deadly sins alone, I dare say most of us carry some guilt. Protestantism would do well to read their Bibles where one could cite more than 25 passages that speak of purgatory if one has a discernible and honest spirit. It makes perfect sense. Jesus saved us from hell, but charity, humility and forgiveness of all others lightens our time being purified.
Sometimes I think our dead Catholic ancestors pray for us, too, and we have that connection (the Communion of saints.). When my grandparents died I automatically prayed for them since it seemed they were not perfectly “clean” when they died and had issues. My aunt told me since we were Methodists we did not have to pray for them, but I did it anyway in my own words. It seemed as natural as breathing.
Anne T., you must have been blessed with a heart for spiritual things as a young child. And yes, we should always pray for the dead, “until we see them again”.
Anne T. : You do well to pray for your beloved dead especially the non-Catholics for they have no one praying for them. Cf. Why the Catholic Church is true: the Books of Maccabees – https://wp.me/p2Na5H-9r