By T. J. Lang
All thoughtful, serious and faithful Christians hope that someday all of the followers of Christ will be unified in practice and in doctrine, just as Christ and the Apostles desired. There are ongoing efforts between the Catholic Church and various other Christian communions that would appear to offer some hope. After all, there has been significant progress on some fronts, such as with the Anglican Communion. With others, not so much.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther set the tone for the conflict between the Catholic Church and Protestants. Much of what he taught continues to be a barrier to Christian unity to this day.
"Luther hated the pope as antichrist and Catholics as agents of Satan," Lutheran college president and professor Mark U. Edwards, Jr. wrote in Luther's Last Battles.
What would cause this professor to make such a shocking and disturbing comment? Edwards has written four books on Luther and knows his subject very well. In Luther's Last Battles, he expands on the above comment:
At the heart of Luther's Against the Papacy at Rome, Founded by the Devil lies his intense conviction that he was attacking the antichrist itself. ... It was his goal in this treatise to depict in the most vivid colors possible the true horrifying nature of the papacy. The pope was not and could not be the head of the Christian church, the vicar of Christ. "Rather [he] is the head of the accursed church of the very worst rascals on earth; vicar of the devil; and enemy of God; and opponent of Christ; and a destroyer of the church of Christ; a teacher of all lies, blasphemy, and idolatries; an arch-chief-thief and church-robber of the keys [and] all the goods of both church and the secular lords, a brothel-keeper above all brothel–keepers and all lewdness, including that which is not to be named; an antichrist; a man of sin and child of perdition; a true werewolf." Luther would avail himself of every means of driving this conclusion home: logic, historical analysis, exegesis of Scripture and verbal abuse.
Clearly, Luther's hatred for the Catholic Church and for the Pope went further than just the simple "Antichrist" and "agents of Satan" accusations. As important as these comments are, what is even more essential is that we understand how Luther's hateful and outrageous sentiments eventually became embedded into Protestant theology and especially into doctrinally binding Lutheran confessional documents.
Luther first suggested that the Pope was the antichrist in late 1518, more than two years before the Church finally excommunicated him. Nineteen years later, Luther's chief lieutenant, Philip Melanchthon, who was actually a much better theologian than Luther himself, penned The Power and Primacy of the Pope. In this tract, which is now a formal statement of Lutheran doctrine and is binding on all Confessional Lutherans, Melanchthon formalized Luther's hatred for the Pope and the astonishing charge that the Pope was the actual Antichrist. The most relevant sections of this document are as follows:
Roman pontiffs, with their adherents, defend [and practice] godless doctrines and godless services. And the marks [all the vices] of Antichrist plainly agree with the kingdom of the Pope and his adherents.
The Bishop of Rome had the primacy by divine right, yet since he defends godless services and doctrine conflicting with the Gospel, obedience is not due him; yea, it is necessary to resist him as Antichrist.
But those who agree with the Pope, and defend his doctrine and [false] services, defile themselves with idolatry and blasphemous opinions, become guilty of the blood of the godly, whom the Pope [and his adherents] persecutes.
According to this tract, the Pope is the Antichrist, and Catholic laypeople also bear the marks of Antichrist. The Antichrist accusation does not apply to the office of the papacy but to "him," the person of the Pope. It isn't just the Pope who is condemned, but also faithful Catholics, who are "guilty of the blood of the godly." Apparently, though, all you have to do to be considered an "adherent" is to "agree with the Pope."
Melanchthon's Power and Primacy of the Pope was assembled with other Lutheran confessional documents into the Formula of Concord of 1580. The Formula, by inclusion of this document, formalized and dogmatized the Lutheran belief that the Bishop of Rome is the actual Antichrist. Of course many Lutherans, to their credit, do not believe such gibberish. In fact, the official teaching that the Pope is the Antichrist is not well publicized within Confessional Lutheranism, and for good reason. It is, however, the official position of Confessional Lutheranism and as such is a tremendous obstacle for corporate-level ecumenical efforts.
When people join the Confessional Lutheran Communions, like The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod in the United States, they are required to profess that they believe everything stated in the Formula, including those extremely anti-Catholic pronouncements. The same thing applies to those being ordained into the ministry.
According to LCMS doctrinal requirements: "Drawn from God's Word, the Lutheran Confessions are a true and binding exposition of Holy Scripture and serve as authoritative texts for all pastors, congregations and other rostered church workers of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod."
While the Formula of Concord is now 437 years old, it was reconfirmed in 1932 by the LCMS and was even further clarified in the Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod 1932:
Of the Antichrist — As to the Antichrist we teach that the prophecies of the Holy Scriptures concerning the Antichrist, 2 Thess. 2:3-12; 1 John 2:18, have been fulfilled in the Pope of Rome and his dominion. ... [W]e subscribe to the statement of our Confessions that the Pope is "the very Antichrist."
Here we learn that the Pope is "the very Antichrist." The Bishop of Rome is not described here as being "like" an Antichrist, or being "anti to Christ," or being one of those people who are behaving in a manner that is "against Christ." Rather he is "the very Antichrist," meaning that the Bishop of Rome is the actual one and only individual being that is depicted in Scripture as the Antichrist. Following Luther's habit, this modern day pronouncement is 'proven' by quoting the relevant Scripture, which of course they believe verifies their assessment of the Pope. What is important about this 1932 doctrinal statement is that it shows that this modern day Confessional Lutheran communion has not in any way turned its back on the outrageous 500-year-old declaration Luther made about the Bishop of Rome.
As it stands, the Formula of Concord with its offensive and anti-Catholic language is a huge impediment to productive dialogue between the Confessional Lutheran communions and the Catholic Church. Furthermore, since the Formula is considered to be binding and unchangeable, even if the Confessional Lutheran communions wanted to alter it so that it would be less offensive to Catholics, they can't. If they were to change even a small part of it, it would be to admit that it really wasn't doctrinally reliable after all, which would throw the whole doctrinal foundation of Lutheranism into doubt.
Furthermore, the Formula isn't the "property" of any of the various Confessional Lutheran bodies that hold to it. Since it is a document common to several communions, none of them have the authority to change it. In some cases, these communions aren't even in fellowship with each other, so it would be extremely difficult for them to cooperate on changing the Formula. They are "stuck" with their confessions as they are and they will sink or swim with them.
We Catholics might hope that the anti-Catholic views of Confessional Lutheranism have changed since they promulgated their 1932 statement. However, in 1973, the LCMS published A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principals in which they failed to retract the offensive anti-Catholic statements and also reiterated that their confessions are binding in Article II:
We reaffirm our acceptance of the Scriptures as the inspired and inerrant Word of God, and our unconditional subscription to "all the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as a true and unadulterated statement and exposition of the Word of God."
We might also hope that the LCMS has softened their position about the Bishop of Rome since 1973. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In 2002, Daniel Preus, then the First Vice President of the LCMS, wrote an article criticizing the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification which was a collaboration between the more liberal Lutheran factions and the Catholic Church. In addition to the issue of salvation and justification, Preus focused on another doctrinal matter that stands between Confessional Lutheran and Catholic unification — the Mass, saying, "The doctrine of justification was at the heart of Luther's conflict with the papacy, and eventually the mass had to become central to this conflict."
Every radical teaching of Martin Luther sprang from his need to protect his most unprecedented and destructive doctrine: Salvation by Faith Alone. Catholic priests offer up the Holy Eucharist as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father. To Luther though, this denied "the efficacy of Christ's atoning work" on the cross. Anything which challenges Salvation by Faith Alone was, to Luther, evil and must be opposed as the work of Satan.
In this article, Preus continuously quotes Martin Luther as the gold standard for Lutheran doctrine:
When Luther began to assail the mass as a sacrifice, he attacked the same false soteriology that he had first condemned the indulgence controversy a few years earlier. For Luther, the same principal was involved with both battles. ... According to Luther it is the nature of the antichrist to rage against the gospel, and his raging is more than evident in his perversion of the sacrament. Even those moderately acquainted with Luther's views know that he considered the pope to be the antichrist. To no small extent, this identification is due to the Roman doctrine of the mass.
There is no indication in the text that Preus would differ with Luther's assessment regarding the Pope as the Antichrist. In fact, he points out 'his raging,' referring to the Antichrist, indicating again, the person of the Pope as being "the antichrist." He then goes on to reiterate Luther's opinions about Catholic priests:
They are "godless priests" and the "devils priesthood." Never did Luther refer to them as priests of Christ, much less as pastors. ... The title "priest" is not an appropriate one to describe him who holds the pastoral office and should be used only in reference to a Christian.
In summing up the official position of this Confessional Lutheran communion, Preus states that "we have no consensus now on the doctrine of justification, nor will there ever be consensus as long as the Roman mass remains a sacrifice.”
Given the impediments to ecumenical progress contained in the Formula of Concord and the current position of Confessional Lutheranism, it would seem that the only way to achieve unity is to convince Lutherans individually that the Church is exactly what it claims to be, and to hopefully welcome them into the Church that Christ established for all men, one soul at a time.