Archive Ecclesiastical Polity Peter Escalante Reformed Irenicism Steven Wedgeworth

Was Luther “Catholic”?

The question in our title really ought to yield only the obvious answers. If by “Catholic,” one means, holding the catholic faith of Biblical Christianity, then yes, of course; in fact, Martin Luther rediscovered the shape of that catholic faith. If we mean however Roman Catholic, then a two-part answer is inevitable: “Yes, of course, in his early religious life, Martin Luther, living in Saxony and not being a member of a schismatic or sectarian community, was a member of the Roman Catholic Church, but once he began the Protestant Reformation, an event which has hardly gone under reported over the years, he broke away from the Roman Catholic church and became an ‘Evangelical’ or what would later be known as a ‘Lutheran.’” Indeed, the obviousness is so painful, that one would wonder why the question was ever asked in the first place. Surely an introductory Western Civilization class would cover such basics. Ah, but of course, the term “Catholic” is often used in various ways (sometimes equivocal), and the real question concerns the so-called lowercase “catholic,” an adjective that is almost never adequately defined.

The more typical sense of “catholic” or “catholicity” that one encounters in these sorts of conversations is an informal one which describes a set of things, most of them having to do with forms of ecclesiastical tradition, namely liturgy and the sacraments. The most essential component of what is called “high church” theology, however, centers on the role of the visible and institutional church– defined as a political union whose core is the corporation of the ordained ministerium– in one’s salvation, as it is regarded in this view as a sort of mediator of grace. This then determines the way in which the sacraments are understood to function, as well as the nature of clerical ordination and the validity of other (and sometimes rival) churches. While most of these “catholic” proponents espouse a catholicity which approximates ecumenism, this nearly always means only those church traditions deemed “historic,” namely Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, with the occasional nod of the head to other groups which retained or restored episcopal church polity. The Roman and Constantinopolitan federations are able to maintain variants of this position with consistency; the so-called “high church Protestants”, however, cannot, and invariably they can be found to have abandoned basic elements of evangelical religion in favor of the unreformed authoritarianisms.


Our initial concern is with that latter group, and specifically with Lutherans: self-professed “Evangelical Catholics” or “high church Lutherans.” The leading names in North America are Robert Jenson, Carl Braaten, and David Yeago, though many of the more conservative-minded and liturgically-oriented Lutherans approximate the position. It is by now an old argument. It began in the 19th century, somewhat alongside the Mercersburg Theology of the German Reformed in America and the Anglo-Catholicism of Newman and Pusey. Among the Lutherans, Vilmar and Stahl departed from basic principles of evangelical ecclesiology by defining the church as a visible political body with a divine constitution and de jure divino governance, and even the great Hengestenberg was more than a little enthralled by this Romantic reaction. But it has really come into its own among contemporary academic theologians, whose ecclesiological cause is no longer even accidentally tied to a standing Christian political order. It is very probable that most of the Lutherans affiliated with Pro Ecclesia and First Things would also consider themselves “catholic” in this sense. Their tenets and program can be found laid out with what clarity they are capable of in The Catholicity of the Reformation edited by Braaten and Jenson, and an accessible introduction is available online in David Yeago’s essay “The Catholic Luther.” Often these Lutherans will even decline the appellation “Protestant,” arguing that they are qualitatively different in theological essence from contemporary Protestantism, typically drawing a line of demarcation which places Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, some “high-church” Anglicans, and Lutherans on the one side, and Presbyterians, the Reformed in general, Baptists, Methodists, and both mainline and evangelical churches on the other. One of their chief arguments is Martin Luther never intended to break from the earlier medieval and “catholic” tradition of the “church”- usually defining neither term with any rigor- and that there is, at least in principle, a fundamental continuity between themselves and older “historic” Christianity defined as the visible and institutional church whose temporal form is of divine constitution.

A few quotes will illustrate this “catholic” Lutheranism. First we can cite Dr. Yeago, who writes:

The reading of Luther that I propose tells quite a different story. While something important for Luther’s theological development did occur in 1518, it was not a “Reformation turn” away from the catholic tradition. On the contrary, it is better described as a “catholic turn” that anchored Luther’s work much more solidly within the framework of catholic Christianity. Luther’s theology was deeply shaped by his scholastic, monastic, and patristic predecessors; he was creative, but his creativity lay especially in his fresh grasp of traditional problems and in his innovative use of traditional resources to address those problems.

Of course, if all this is so, we are no longer able to suppose that the Reformers discovered a radically new version of Christianity for which the old Church could not make room. On the reading I propose, the Reformation schism was brought about instead by contingent human choices in a confused historical context defined less by clear and principled theological argument (though that of course was present) than by a peculiar and distinctively sixteenth-century combination of overheated and ever-escalating polemics, cold-blooded Realpolitik, and fervid apocalyptic dreaming.

There is not, actually, one simple thesis stated here, but rather a combination of theological, historical, and socio-political theses. Still, the gist is that Luther was, despite the received understanding of him, actually in fundamental continuity with the preceding “catholic” theology, and the Reformation was actually a product, not of theology, but of unfortunate human temperament and worldly allegiances. Dr. Yeago goes on to admit that the relationship between Luther and the Roman Catholic Church did eventually become irreparably strained, but he views this as theologically unnecessary, particularly if we limit ourselves to the early Luther.

Drs. Braaten and Jenson express their own understanding of evangelical catholicism in stating: “The Reformers did not set out to create a new church. They aimed to reform a church that lived in continuity with the church the Creed calls “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” 1 This quote is both true and false, of course, depending on the meaning of the terms. If the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” church which the Reformers aimed for continuity with is understood as the true church, the one which professed the true gospel no matter when or where it manifested itself, then yes, the Reformers claimed to be sons of that house. However, if this quote means the successive institutional church with its clerical hierarchy, then it is another matter altogether. That this latter usage is intended can be seen by a second quote which makes a quite incredible claim:

As a principle, justification should permeate “every single assertion of the theological system.” But precisely as a principle it cannot stand alone; it cannot by itself provide the basis and content of the Christian faith. What is needed is “the Catholic substance”; this is the concrete embodiment of Christ, mediated by the living institutional and sacramental realities of the church in history. 2

We will return to this quote below, as it is indeed telling for the high church Lutherans’ theology. It would be one thing, of course, for this simply to be the theological outlook of the authors. They are free to argue the case. But its context certainly suggests that this was the outlook of, at least some part of, the Protestant Reformation. And that is where the controversy really arises.

The Catholicity of the Reformation has also been reviewed in First Things here, and its outlook is summarized as “not accept[ing] the breach of the sixteenth century as permanent or, more important, as good,” but rather finding its “value and integrity… in its continuity with catholic tradition.” As quoted above, Drs. Braaten and Jenson even go so far as to say that Luther’s famous principle of justification by faith alone must (somehow) be subordinated to an ecclesiology which sees the institutional church as a mediator between the individual and Christ. Thus, it is clear that the “catholicism” that these Lutherans have in mind is not only a broad-minded ecumenical spirit, but also a specific sort of ecclesiology, one which they argue was present, at least originally, in the theology of Martin Luther, and one which basically accords with Rome and differs from it only by way of a sharp criticism which nevertheless remains loyal to the Roman idea.

James Kittelson’s Rebuttal

Modern theological publishing, like most publishing now, works on the principle of celebrity and sensationalist marketing. This means that many learned and rigorous scholars, given their relative quiet and their painstaking care, are often at a disadvantage in the forum dominated by theological publishing houses. Such a one was Dr James Matthew Kittelson, historian and author of three very fine works in the field of Reformation history, who spent the last years of his career at Luther Seminary and died in 2003. Only self-defined confessional Lutherans are likely to have heard of him.

Dr. Kittelson cried foul on the high-church Lutheran movement, and refuted them to devastating effect, in a little-known essay entitled “Leading the Least of These Astray: ‘Evangelical Catholic’ Ecclesiology and Luther” which was published in Caritas Et Reformatio: Essays on Church and Society in Honor of Carter Lindberg. This collection has, unfortunately already passed out of regular publication (though it is available electronically). Because we believe Dr. Kittelson’s essay to be decisive, and because of its present obscurity, we would like to summarize it here, laying out his main points and providing some choice quotes.

The Proper Hermeneutic: Soul Care

Dr. Kittelson begins by explaining the various revisionist accounts of Luther and how they offer stipulated hermeneutics for interpreting certain stages of his work, all supposing that Luther was driven by primarily theological or ecclesiastical motives. Contrary to this, however, Dr. Kittelson asserts that Luther’s motive was always one: pastoral, the cure of souls. This single hermeneutic can make sense of each stage of Luther’s thought, since, though they are variegated in specific theological content, they are nonetheless always united by the practical desire of the cura animarum. Dr. Kittelson writes:

…the care of souls, beginning with his own, was Luther’s chief concern and the chief task of the churches that grew from the movement he began. All else consisted of relative details in service to or as an outgrowth of this one, overriding imperative. (Caritas Et Reformatio, 246. All of the following parenthetical page citations will be from this book.)3

This fits with the more or less traditional account of Luther, that of a persistent longing for salvation and the knowledge of the God who can provide it. “Like any useful hermeneutic,” Dr. Kittelson adds, “the cura animarum both arises from and helps explain the sources” (247). This drive is itself what took Luther into the academic arena. “His personal search for assurance naturally and initially played itself out in this setting [the University]; it also provided the reason for his being there in the first place” (247).

The fact that this hermeneutic casts Luther as following a pastoral and spiritual pursuit also allows for his thought to change over time. Far from obstructing a controlling unity in Luther’s thought, development is itself a product of the single question:

Luther’s theological development was of critical importance, to be sure. It gave him an ever more consistent and precise public voice. Nonetheless, the relentless investigation of one theme after another from these early lectures runs the danger of focusing on the trees and missing the forest. A far deeper reality emerges when these much-beloved texts are read with the proper hermeneutic: Luther’s development as a theologian, a Christian, and a public figure of world historical proportions was bound together in a pastoral search, de cura animarum. In perfect consistency with this overriding quest, his new theological orientation emerged from the confines of his study and classroom to a wider audience only at the Heidelberg Disputation, and it did so, at least in part, because his superior ordered him to ignore the Indulgence Controversy and treat the broader issues that were at stake in it.” (248)

The Reformation Turn

That a thinker be read in historical context is a commonplace of all scholarship, and one of Dr. Kittelson’s points of critique against the catholic Lutherans is that they attempt to extract certain statements and expressions of Luther’s from their context, as if they can exist on their own. Most historians identify 1519 as Luther’s “Reformation turn,” and his “Three Treatises” were each published in 1520. Thus it is not without good reason that Dr. Yeago chooses 1518 as the year in which the “sacramental” Luther (which is, remember, “the Catholic Luther”) can be found. This early Luther is Dr. Yeago’s preferred Luther, the one who best exalts “the Church” and “the catholic tradition.”

The major problem with making 1518 a sort of “breakthrough” year, is that Luther himself marked his major rebirth as occurring a year later, when he came to his landmark understanding of “the righteousness of God.” Dr. Kittelson explains:

It was only then, after relating the change in his understanding of iustitia dei, that he broke forth with an exultant confession that is much beloved by those of Pentecostal or Pietist persuasions: “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” (248)

And so, if a “catholic” or “sacramental” Luther existed as any sort of paradigmatic theological stage, it was very short-lived. But if Dr. Kittelson’s hermeneutic is correct, that Luther was motivated from the very beginning by the cura animarum, then these various emphases are not changes in Luther’s overall outlook on religion but rather various (and mostly consistent) answers to the same question. Dr. Kittelson’s hermeneutic is thus a simpler and more productive explanation, yielding more cogent historical and theological explanations of Luther’s various expressions.

Against Yeago

Dr. Kittelson critiques Dr. Yeago’s essay on the grounds that Dr Yeago deals very selectively with Luther’s work, omitting key turning points in Luther’s progression as well as the most important works by Luther, and ultimately misses the pastoral forest for the theological trees. Questions like “How can I get a gracious God?” and “Where can I find the real God?” are not really rival ones representing contrasting (or competing) theological and ecclesiological paradigms, but are rather complementary questions working towards the shared goal of the cure of souls.

Dr. Kittelson points out that Dr. Yeago’s “catholic Luther” is actually just the “young” Luther. “Yeago adopts… a reading of Luther according to which Luther’s development came full course in 1518.” This “deviates from modern scholarship, which has settled on 1519 and following… [and it allows] him to ignore what Oswald Bayer terms ‘the Reformation turn’ in Luther’s theology” (251). As such, Dr. Yeago’s catholic Luther is really only a product of a selective timeline. The Luther after 1519 still emphasized the sacraments, of course, but not as forms of institutional mediation, but rather as flashpoints for the word. Indeed, the sacraments as forms of the word, and faith alone as their effective means of reception, is the foundation of Luther’s sacramental thought even in his earlier years. Dr. Kittelson explains:

Above all, Luther’s own description of his thinking on the matter, or at least the portion Yeago chooses to quote, fails utterly to establish the idea of a newly found “sacramentalism” in Luther. Instead Luther posted the question of coming to the sacrament (penance in this case, not the Mass or the sacraments in general) without believing that the forgiveness declared was genuine and effective. He answered simply, “but when you believe the word of Christ, you honor his word and by this work you are righteous, etc.” Almost as if to give up and confess that his argument is historically bankrupt, of Yeago’s concluding five direct quotations from the sources, only one even contains the word “sacrament.” It is from 1525 and in it Luther treated the outward and inward ways God dealt with human beings. It reads, “Outwardly he deals with us through the oral word of the gospel and through bodily signs, such as baptism and the sacrament.” Once again the Word comes first and Sacrament second, as but a glance at  On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520) or The Great Confession (1528) make apparent, but Yeago neither took them into account nor admits to having consulted them. Finally, ellipses take the place of the following remark that Luther imbedded amid the passage that Yeago did in fact quote: that the sacrament of confession and penance becomes effective “[t]hrough no disposition you would offer, through no works of preparation for the sacrament, but through faith alone.” Yeago’s picture, therefore, is not only misleading on its own evidence, but also consists of a species of argument by omission. (251-252)

This combination of selectively choosing essential dates in Luther’s development along with selective quotes from those dates and even omitting passages from within those quotes causes Dr. Kittelson to accuse Dr. Yeago of essentially fabricating his catholic Luther:

Yeago’s hermeneutic for understanding the young Luther is, therefore, the church catholic as he finds it in the objective reality of its sacraments. Without additional evidence, direct or indirect, he then presses this hermeneutic on a small portion of Luther rather in the manner of applying a cookie cutter to fresh dough. If possible, his procedure is even more misleading than this metaphor suggests. At least a cookie cutter is designed to be pressed on cookie dough. Yeago’s hermeneutic does not derive from his sources even in this weakest of senses. (251)

In short, Dr. Yeago’s Luther is an idiosyncratic and, in fact, largely imaginary Luther. He is certainly not a Luther which can be substantiated from the historical sources.

Against Jenson and Braaten

Dr. Kittelson next turns his attention to Robert Jenson and Carl Braaten, particularly their introductory essay in The Catholicity of the Reformation where they lay out their historical understanding of evangelical catholicism. Dr. Kittelson will also interact with George Lindbeck, who, though not as personally close to Drs. Jenson and Braaten as they are to one another, approximates their thought when it comes to his account of Martin Luther’s understanding of the visible and institutional church. Dr. Kittelson summarizes their position as, “substitut[ing] for a hermeneutic of the care of souls a hermeneutic of catholic historical apostolicity in what is at base an institutional sense” (252). He adds, “Their version of Luther and early Lutheranism gathers… around the understanding that the reformer’s ‘aim was to return to the Scriptures and ancient church tradition, to increase rather than decrease the church’s catholicity” (252-253).

These Lutherans commit the same sorts of errors as did Dr. Yeago, however, and, as Dr. Kittelson demonstrates, they choose selectively from Luther’s timeline without noting what he himself had to say about various portions of his work. Further, they also deal selectively within the quotes they offer, omitting key phrases and qualifications, and it is these omissions, argues Dr. Kittelson, which cause them to badly misunderstand the very quotes they employ.

To begin with, a major point of departure for Drs. Jenson and Braaten is the fact that Luther supposedly admitted that Rome was, or was at least a part of, the true church. But as Dr. Kittelson shows, Luther only made this admission as a concession, based upon his own principles of the invisibility of the church and the nature of the Word. Dr. Kittelson explains, “Wherever (even Rome!) Word and Sacrament were present, there was the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” (253), and “Word and Sacrament created and sustained the church, and nothing was necessary or allowable in addition to them” (253). Rome’s status as a true church was based then on Luther’s very “Lutheran” ecclesiology and not any institutional or clerical understanding. Dr. Kittelson concludes, “Thus, even Rome was holy and a genuine church but solely to the extent that it had Word and Sacrament” (254).  And for Luther, this means the Roman federation is composed of true churches, that is, synaxes of believers gathered around the word, insofar as it is rightly proclaimed. Luther’s definition of “church” is not at all that of the high-church Lutherans, so when Luther says “true church” he means something very, very different.

As we noted towards the beginning of this essay, Drs. Jenson and Braaten take their “high church” theology so far as to state that the principle of justification by faith must itself be subordinated to an ecclesiology which mediates “the concrete embodiment of Christ.” This causes Dr. Kittelson to exclaim that “they are not ‘Lutherans’” with regard to the doctrine of justification “in any but the most nominal sense of the term” (254). He explains:

Hence, the writer’s final exhortation, the point to which they had been driving from the outset—namely, that the ‘principle [of justification] cannot stand alone; it cannot by itself provide the basis and content of the Christian faith… What is needed… is the concrete embodiment of Christ, mediated by the living and sacramental realities of the church in history’—has no support from Luther, whether in 1530, 1535, or 1545. Jenson’s and Braaten’s reading of the text is at best a misleading and more likely a materially untrue caricature of them, one created out of whole cloth and without support from Luther. (254)

This is spirited criticism, to be sure, but Dr. Kittelson backs it up with both citations from the primary sources and self-conscious interaction with and explanation of the methodology. Finally, there is one doctrine which can make or break the institutional “catholic” claim: the nature of ministerial ordination.

Ordination as Achilles Heel

Discussions of ecclesiology always eventually come down to the question of ministerial ordination and ecclesiastical authority. After all, in order to have continuity with the “historic church,” that church must be properly identified. At this point, Dr. Kittelson interacts with the claims of George Lindbeck and compares them with the writings of both Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. Dr. Kittelson introduces the topic by explaining, “George Lindbeck, in his role as chair of the Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue and author of its report in 1982, thus wrote that for Lutherans ‘in principle a sacramental understanding of the ministry is not rejected’” (255). In order to substantiate this claim, Dr. Lindbeck quoted a selection from Melanchthon’s Apology to the Augsburg Confession which says, “but if ordination is understood with reference to the ministry of the Word, we have no objection to calling ordination a sacrament” (256). Thus it may be possible to re-establish a sort of apostolic succession of ministers in order for the high church Lutherans to demonstrate their continuity with the “historic” church.

This historical source also turns out to be an imposter, however, as Dr. Kittelson shows that Dr. Lindbeck stripped it of its immediate context and in so doing missed its actual meaning. Dr. Kittelson supplies the necessary context. Melanchton’s quote actually begins with the explanation that his “opponents do not consider the priesthood as a ministry of the Word and of the sacraments ministered to others” (255-256). Thus the continuation of the quote, the portion cited by Dr. Lindbeck, allows for ordination to be called a sacrament if it is understood “with reference to the ministry of the Word.” However, this does not support Dr. Lindbeck’s reading because Melanchthon goes on to say much more. Dr. Kittelson explains:

What Lindbeck does not quote appears on the next page, where Melanchthon introduced the possibility that on the same grounds marriage was a sacrament and then added, “Finally, if everything that has the command of God and some promise attached to it,” then civil government, prayer, the giving of alms, and even daily trials “could also be listed here.”

In sum, Melanchthon reduced the idea that clergy were ordained in the medieval and present Roman Catholic (to say nothing of Braaten’s) understanding of the word to an absurdity. As might be expected, he was never more the eloquent rhetorician in his use of the reductio ad absurdum, indeed, so expert at his craft that both Braaten and Lindbeck missed it. In this case, they were hoisted by their own petard, namely their penchant for argument by omission. They simply did not read or report the entire relevant portion of the text by which they made sacramental ordination acceptable to early Lutherans. (256)

As it turns out, Martin Luther actually “banned ordination of clergy from the list of sacraments in On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520) and with it the distinction between clergy and the baptized in the famous Address to the Christian Nobility two months earlier” (256). To make matters even worse for the high church Lutherans, “Three years later, he endorsed a version of congregationalism in That a Christian Community or Gathering Has the Right to Judge All Doctrine and to Call and Dismiss all Teachers, as Proven by the Scriptures” (256). Luther actually argued that “To ordain should be termed and exist as ‘to call’ and ‘to command’ to the office of preacher the power of which Christ and his church have and must have…” (256). Thus the “power” initially rests in the Church, that is the body of the faithful, and is thus exercised by the preacher as he is called or commanded to that office. This ecclesiastical structure is the exact opposite of that of the high churchmen.

The reason that Dr. Kittelson terms this the “Achilles heel” is that without sacramental ordination, there can be no institutional church as mediator between Christ and the people. In Luther’s understanding, the people hold the primary position of union with Christ, and they delegate a specific function to their ministers. Thus the whole quest for “high church Lutheranism” becomes, “…an ideology in search of a history that it will not find in Luther or his early followers” (257).

Luther and the Two Kingdoms

While Dr. Kittelson’s essay is decisive in its own right, some of our work at TCI can also be called upon to give the lie to the supposedly “catholic” Luther. As we noted in a recent essay on Martin Luther’s 3 Services, Luther was quite happy to identify aspects of the liturgy as adiaphorous. For his own part, he prioritized prayer, the reading of the Scriptures, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and works of charity over all else, suggesting that all other aspects of the Mass could eventually be eliminated. For this older Luther, the sacraments and the liturgy were not mediators of grace but rather tools for evangelism, and instead of seeing a “catholic” Luther, what we actually get is a Puritan Luther. But that won’t sell nearly as well in today’s theological marketplace.

Still, it seems the obvious theological articulation from Luther to disprove the “catholic” reading is his doctrine of the “two kingdoms.” As a corollary of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the two kingdoms would certainly fit within Luther’s quest for the cure of souls. And the two kingdoms doctrine definitely rebukes any notion that the visible church mediates between Jesus Christ and the individual believer. It hinges entirely on the direct relation of the believer to God in Christ as sole mediator in the spiritual realm, and makes the temporal realm that of indirect mediation, so that the magistrate has a higher profile in it, as such, than does the minister: hence “Magisterial Reformation.” As William J. Wright explains, “The two groups of people [the two kingdoms] did not refer to the visible church versus nonbelievers. Luther was distinguishing the invisible church from the world here.”4 Dr. W. J. Torrance Kirby puts it in this way:

It has been observed by numerous Luther scholars that the key to understanding the reformer’s views on the doctrine of the Church, the relationship between the Church and the secular political order, and the theory of government, etc., is contained in the complex of doctrines referred to as the Zwei-Reiche– and Zwei-Regimente-Lehre. Luther’s so-called “Two Kingdoms” doctrine developed directly out of his reformulation of the doctrine of grace according to the principle of justification by faith alone.5

Dr. Kirby goes on to explain that, “For Luther, God was primarily in the world through his presence in the inner man by faith. The relation of the individual to the world was thus wholly secondary to this interior union of God and the soul.”6 and also:

For both Calvin and Luther, and for the magisterial Reformers generally, the Church is simultaneously supernatural and natural, invisible and visible, divine and human… The two aspects of the Church, like the two natures in the person of Christ, must never be confused, but remain wholly distinct, and yet, at the same time, unified and inseparable. Thus the Church in its external, visible aspect comes to be distinguished radically from the supernatural, invisible character of the true body of Christ.7

This sort of ecclesiology is what causes Jonathan Trigg to say that, for Luther, the boundaries of the church can never actually be drawn: “Not only is it impossible to completely detach the true church from the false; a boundary cannot confidently be drawn because ultimately such a boundary would pass within the individual Christian, and not between a discrete pure church and the rest of the world outside.”8 In fact, “the mere act of drawing such a line constitutes the confidence in the flesh which Luther condemns.”9 Such a conviction is impossible to reconcile with the contrasting longing for an historical and institutional church. And this “two kingdoms” doctrine was not only a product of the later “Lutheran” Luther, but was, in fact, present in his earliest stages. Dr. Wright points out that “The first clear use of the two-kingdoms concept may be found in Luther’s early commentaries on the psalms, which were written during the years 1513 to 1515.”10 He also adds Luther’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, written between 1516 and 157. Dr. Wright states, “All of the essential elements of Luther’s Christian worldview, or his view of the nature of reality, may be found in this early source.”11


The modern high-church position associated with the “catholic Lutherans” has also captured the fancy of Protestant writers of other schools, with the language of “catholic” and “high church” appearing in a wide variety of theological topics. It sets up a fantasy community which has no real existence, but is imagined to have all sorts of wonderful qualities and to which our allegiance is owed as if to Christ Himself. By creating a fantasy double of the actual corpus christianorum, it deludes those who believe in it away from the concert of Christian vocation and thus destroys any possibility of Christian reformation of the commonwealth.

But we have seen the claims of the catholic Lutherans, already a minority viewpoint, exposed as significant errors in scholarship. We have also seen an alternative explanation for Luther’s theology and ecclesiology, one that is more or less comprehensive and makes sense of his constant interest in the cure of souls. It is safe to say that the Protestant Luther is the only Luther capable of being supported from the historical sources. But since the obvious conclusion is so obvious, we must ask why the drive to find the catholic Luther has become so popular as of late. What lies behind this drive, and is there a better way to supply some of its desires?

The “high church” idea has become fashionable of late as a way to distance oneself from what Nathan Hatch called “The Democratization of American Christianity.” If one doesn’t want to be an “Evangelical” in the modern socio-political sense of the term, then they tend to become fascinated with its supposed opposite, what they consider “high church.” This intellectual and emotional yearning spans the entire spectrum of Christianity, with both self-professed traditionalists and progressivists embracing the idiom. Of course, as we’ve pointed out before, there’s not much maturity or intelligence in this version of the position. It’s mainly a matter of aesthetics and affectation, and it’s not even unique to Christianity. And so we have to get beyond the mere affection for externals, those clichéd smells and bells.

What matters isn’t taste; what matters is principle. “High church,” properly speaking, does not simply mean the presence of sacraments, liturgy, and a big tradition, though those are often its rhetorical ornament. Instead, the idea most basically means that the institution, which can only mean a ministerial corporation, mediates the relation of the individual members to God. There’s nothing at all incoherent therefore in speaking about a “high church” Church of Christ (Campbellism) or even “high-church Mormonism” in this sense, and those traditions, though typically not considered “catholic,” do in fact  claim to be the authoritative, politically organized historic apostolic church and in an exclusive way. Indeed, the Presbyterians and Congregationalist Puritans were historically much more “high church” than the Lutherans, even with their bare-bones liturgies. This was because, in disagreement with Calvin himself, they often considered discipline and polity to be part of the esse of the church. Luther, and Lutheranism for that matter, has never qualified as high church in this way, and it only bears an accidental resemblance (in the matter of ceremony) to high-church Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholics. But for Lutherans to be truly “high church” in the ecclesiological sense, they have to in some way stop being Lutherans.

This distinction also shows us something else important. You can have all the ceremonies, liturgy, and “tradition” you want, so long as you distinguish between the spiritual and temporal kingdoms, carefully retaining the truth that the soul is directly united to Christ by faith alone, that the only infallible authority for Christian life is the Word of God, and retain a space for the adiaphora, matters on which faithful Christians are allowed to differ. Given that distinction, you could have robes, stoles, sacraments, liturgical calendars, daily prayer hours, and even chant, and yet still be wholly Protestant and Evangelical. You can have a “high” view of churches as temples of the Word and schools of Christ, a high view of seminary colleges, a high view of every Christian institution whatever, so long as you never set any of those up as political mediators between God and man. In other words, you can still be like Luther. The essential matter is that the gospel must always be first in order of priority. The Word of God, His good will for creation and to save sinners through the finished work of Jesus Christ, is the essence of both the faith and the church.

  1. The Catholicity of the Reformation (Eerdmans, 1996) vii
  2. ibid x
  3. ”Leading the Least of These Astray” in Caritas Et Reformatio: Essays on Church and Society in Honor of Carter Lindberg ed. David M. Whitford (Concordia Publishing House, 2002) 246
  4. William Wright, Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010) 135
  5. Richard Hooker’s Doctrine of the Royal Supremacy (E.J. Brill, 1990) 41
  6. ibid 61-62
  7. ibid 66. We would also recommend the very helpful summary of the “two kingdoms” doctrine in the Reformers’ though provided by our friend and associate Brad Littlejohn here.
  8. Baptism in the Theology of Martin Luther (Brill, 2001) 51
  9. ibid
  10. Wright, 115
  11. ibid 116

By Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante

Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante are the founders and editors of The Calvinist International.

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