Martin Luther, by almost anyone’s estimation, was the single most influential figure of the Protestant Reformation. (Gutenberg, with his printing press, is a serious outlying contender.) If Luther was the single most influential figure of the Reformation, the single most influential idea of the Reformation was surely Luther’s understanding of justification.
Luther did not set out to start a new church, and most children of the Reformation today do not belong to the Lutheran Church. Yet Luther’s understanding of justification has shaped the churches of all the children of the Reformation, just as it shaped his own developing conception of the church. Luther’s ecclesiology, then–and the ecclesiologies of each branch of the Reformation–was a by-product of a deeper concern: the nature of the gospel itself.
This, of course, is how it should be; if we define the gospel based on our churches rather than defining our churches based on the gospel, our ecclesiology will inevitably go awry. But this historical observation also reminds us that Luther’s ecclesiology was a work in progress. He, like us, did not possess a fully-formed and clear conception of the true Church and its temporal manifestations at the moment of his new birth. So as we consider Luther’s ecclesiology, let’s consider him a fellow student–not a complete novice, to be sure, but not an all-wise master, either.
Here, then, are some quotes about Martin Luther and ecclesiology from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (For the introduction to this series, go here. For the ecclesiology of Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Menno Simons, or William Tyndale, stay tuned. And here is my concluding post in this series.)
From Timothy George:
Far from attempting to found a new sect, Luther always saw himself as a faithful and obedient servant of the church. Thus his deep chagrin that the first Protestants, in England and France no less than in Germany, were being called “Lutherans”: “The first thing I ask is that people should not make use of my name, and should not call themselves Lutherans but Christians.” (Kindle Locations 1142-1145)
Luther did not see himself as an agent of ecclesiastical revolution, a sixteenth-century Lenin or Robespierre out to shake the world and overturn kingdoms. That the papacy and empire were shaken, if not overthrown, by the words of a simple German monk was, he thought, merely a providential by-product of his prior vocation. “I have done nothing. I have let the Word act.” What Luther did do, what he was called to do, was to listen to the Word. “The nature of the Word is to be heard,” he remarked. (Kindle Locations 1158-1161)
Protestantism was born out of the struggle for the doctrine of justification by faith alone. For Luther this was not simply one doctrine among others but “the summary of all Christian doctrine,” “the article by which the church stands or falls.”(Kindle Locations 1292-1293)
The person who has… received the gift of faith Luther described as “at once righteous and a sinner” (simul iustus et peccator)… [As his theological understanding developed], Luther [used] simul iustus et peccator… in the sense of semper (always) iustus et peccator. The believer is not only both righteous and sinful at the same time but is also always or completely both righteous and sinful at the same time. What does this mean? …Luther expressed the paradox thus: “We are in truth and totally sinners, with regard to ourselves and our first birth. Contrariwise, in so far as Christ has been given for us, we are holy and just totally. Hence from different aspects we are said to be just and sinners at one and the same time.” …Luther’s doctrine of justification fell like a bombshell on the theological landscape of medieval Catholicism. It shattered the entire theology of merits and indeed the sacramental-penitential basis of the church itself. (Kindle Locations 1459-1476)
The principle of sola scriptura was intended to safeguard the authority of Scripture from that servile dependence upon the church that in fact made Scripture inferior to the church… The church, far from having priority over Scripture, is really the creation of Scripture, born in the womb of Scripture. “For who begets his own parent?” Luther asked. “Who first brings forth his own maker?” Although the church approved the particular books included in the canon…, it was thereby merely bearing witness to the authenticity of Scripture, just as John the Baptist had pointed to Christ. (Kindle Locations 1640-1647).
At the same time Luther did not simply throw out the preceding 1,500 years of church history. In his treatise against the Anabaptists (1528), he said, “We do not act as fanatically as the Schwärmer. We do not reject everything that is under the dominion of the Pope. For in that event we should also reject the Christian church. Much Christian good is to be found in the papacy and from there it descended to us.” Sola scriptura was not nuda scriptura.
(Kindle Locations 1651-1655)
“Now if anyone of the saintly fathers can show that his interpretation is based on Scripture, and if Scripture proves that this is the way it should be interpreted, then the interpretation is right. If this is not the case, I must not believe him.” Thus Luther argued for the coinherence of Scripture and tradition , Holy Writ and Holy Church, while never wavering in his commitment to the priority of the former. (Kindle Locations 1662-1666)
The last thing in the world Luther wanted to do was start a new church. He was not an innovator but a reformer. He never considered himself anything other than a true and faithful member of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church…. [Luther’s acts] provoked a schism in Western Christendom that has not yet been healed. Luther, however, was no mere iconoclast . He revolted against the church for the sake of the church, against a corrupt church for the sake of the “true , ancient church, one body and one communion of saints with the holy, universal, Christian church.” (Kindle Locations 1735-1743)
He said, echoing Cyprian, that outside the church there was no salvation. (Kindle Location 1747)
But what exactly is the church? Luther once responded impatiently to this question: “Why, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” We have in this answer a major thrust of Luther’s ecclesiology: the essentially spiritual , noninstitutional character of the church. Luther disliked the German word Kirche (which , like church in English, or curia in Latin, derives from the Greek kuriakon, the Lord’s house) because it had come to mean the building or the institution. He preferred Gemeine, “community,” or Versammlung, “assembly.” For him the true church was the people of God, the fellowship of believers, or, as the Apostles’ Creed has it, the communion of saints. (Kindle Locations 1756-1762)
Against the Roman conception of the church, Luther stressed the priority of the gospel. Luther insisted that the gospel was constitutive for the church, not the church for the gospel: “The true treasure of the church is the holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”(Kindle Locations 1782-1784)
Like Augustine, Wyclif, and Hus before him, Luther talked about the invisible church whose membership comprised the whole company of the predestined… Its invisibility derives from the fact that faith itself is invisible, “the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11: 1 KJV). If faith were a measurable quantity, we could identify the church by its outward characteristics. But because faith as the radical gift of God is not definable in external terms, the church, too, is not a physical assembly but “an assembly of hearts in one faith.” (Kindle Locations 1784-1790)
In addition to “invisible,” Luther also spoke of the church as “hidden.” This is a more complex concept and carries several connotations. It means first of all that the church, while manifest to God , is hidden from the world… The hiddenness of the church also extends to its holiness. Unlike the Anabaptists, Luther never espoused a pure church composed only of discernible saints. In this age the church is a corpus permixtum containing at once sinners and saints, hypocrites and devout believers, tares and wheat. The purity of the church is not subject to examination, nor does it depend on the moral qualifications of the members or the ministers. “Our holiness is in heaven, where Christ is; it is not in the world, before the eyes of men, like a commodity on the market.” (Kindle Locations 1791-1806)
It seemed to some that Luther’s emphasis on the hidden, invisible character of the church would undermine its tangible, historical reality. However, Luther intended neither to dissolve the church into a fairy castle in the clouds nor to reduce it to a loose-knit association of like-minded individuals. The gospel remained the sole, infallible mark of the church but the gospel in a particular sense, as it was manifested in the Word rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. Wherever these two “notes” are evident, the true church exists, even if it is composed only of children in the cradle. (Kindle Locations 1815-1819)
Luther did not invent preaching, but he did elevate it to a new status in Christian worship.(Kindle Locations 1824-1825)
Luther’s greatest contribution to Protestant ecclesiology was his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Yet no element in his teaching is more misunderstood. For some it means simply that no priests are in the church— the secularization of the clergy… More commonly people believe that the priesthood of all believers implies that every Christian is his or her own priest and hence possesses the “right of private judgment” in matters of faith and doctrine. Both of these are modern perversions of Luther’s original intention. The essence of his doctrine can be put in one sentence: Every Christian is someone else’s priest, and we are all priests to one another.
Luther broke decisively with the traditional division of the church into two classes, clergy and laity. Every Christian is a priest by virtue of his baptism… The priestly offices are the common property of all Christians, not the special prerogative of a select caste of holy men. Luther listed seven rights that belong to the whole church: to preach the Word of God, to baptize, to celebrate holy Communion, to bear “the keys,” to pray for others, to sacrifice, to judge doctrine. (Kindle Locations 1909-1920)
All of this means that no one can be a Christian alone. Just as we cannot give birth to ourselves, or baptize ourselves , so neither can we serve God alone. Here we touch on Luther’s other great definition of the church: communio sanctorum, a community of saints.(Kindle Locations 1926-1928)
How did Luther relate the priesthood of all believers to the office of the ministry? While all Christians have an equal share in the treasures of the church, including the sacraments, not everyone can be a preacher, teacher, or counselor…
Strictly speaking, Luther taught that every Christian is a minister and has the right to preach. This right may be freely exercised if one is in the midst of non-Christians, among the Turks, or stranded on a pagan island. However, in a Christian community one should not “draw attention to himself” by assuming this office on his own. Rather he should “let himself be called and chosen to preach and to teach in the place of and by the command of the others.” The call is issued through the congregation, and the minister remains accountable to the congregation. Luther went so far as to say: “What we give him today we can take away from him tomorrow.” (Kindle Locations 1935-1944)
The exigencies of the Reformation did not conform to Luther’s early Congregationalism. If the church were to be reformed, the governing authorities had to play a role. Luther referred to the prince as a Notbischof, an emergency bishop. Through the institution of the visitation, the territorial prince assumed a larger role in the affairs of the church. Eventually a network of state churches emerged in Germany. (Kindle Locations 1948-1951. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)
Timothy George goes on to survey Luther’s understanding of the state and its relationship to the church. It is here that I have some of my strongest disagreements with Luther. Time does not permit me to discuss Luther’s conception of church and state, but I do want to note one point: Luther taught a doctrine of two kingdoms–the spiritual government of the Church and the worldly government of the state. This may surprise some of us Anabaptists. We emphasize our “two-kingdom theology,” and rightly so. But I don’t think we always remember that Luther, too, had a two-kingdom theology (as did many other Reformers). In fact, it was a quite nuanced two-kingdom theology, well-versed both in historical and systematic theology, and based in part on biblical passages such as Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13–14. To repeat, I disagree strongly with important aspects of Luther’s understanding of the two kingdoms. But my point here is that I think we owe it to Luther and to ourselves to remember that we Anabaptists are not the only ones to have wrestled with such ideas.
Back to the quotes above. What do I like or dislike about Luther’s ecclesiology? First, some affirmations:
- I like his humility and his desire to be a servant of the Church.
- I think he was exactly right to stress the priority of the gospel in defining and creating the Church, and to insist that the Church was and is born in the womb of Scripture, not vice versa.
- I like his preference of assembly over church, and his understanding that the Church is essentially a communion of saints, not a building or even primarily an institution.
- I like his identification with the catholic Church across time and space.
- I like his rediscovery of the priesthood of all believers.
- I think he was right to say that there is no salvation outside the Church. (Of course, this statement hinges on your definition of the Church!)
What are some points where I might disagree with Luther’s conception of the Church? I’ll answer this question paragraph-style:
My biggest point of disagreement with Luther begins at my biggest point of agreement: I think he was exactly right to define the Church based on the gospel, but I don’t think his understanding of the gospel was perfect. Luther deserves great credit for helping to trigger a vast European discussion about the nature of the gospel, and I am eager to give him credit for this. His writings were very helpful to thousands of seeking souls, including many early Anabaptists such as Menno Simons. But this does not mean his understanding of the gospel was perfect in all respects.
For example, I think that Luther’s understanding of semper iustus et peccator (always or completely both righteous and sinful at the same time) weakened the biblical link between faith and works in ways damaged his ecclesiology. While faith may be invisible, as Luther insisted, it does not exist without visible manifestation. Luther based his conception of an invisible church on his understanding of invisible faith. While I agree with the concept of an invisible church in the sense of how the true Church extends across time and denominational lines without respect to either, I do not think that this true Church is invisible in the sense that it is impossible to recognize a member of this Church when you see one. Our human discernment on such matters will always be imperfect. Yet “by their fruits you shall know them” applies, I think, not only to false prophets but also to true Church members.
This leads me to also disagree somewhat with Luther on the concept of a corpus permixtum–a Church containing at once sinners and saints, hypocrites and devout believers, tares and wheat. After Jesus told the Parable of the Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30), he explained that the field that contained both wheat and weeds was “the world” (Matt. 13:38). This understanding of the parable matches Paul’s understanding of the church’s role in judging sinners (1 Cor. 5:12-13): “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.'” Thus, I think those Reformers were correct who added to Luther’s two “notes” of the church (right preaching and right sacraments) the mark of the proper exercise of church discipline. Luther was certainly right to root our holiness in Christ, but he was misleading to say that our holiness was “not in the world, before the eyes of men, like a commodity on the market.” Our holiness is not a commodity on the world’s market, for sure; we are not justified of damned based on the assessment of unregenerate observers. But the world around should indeed be able to “see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). (I will also add that I think some Anabaptists have fallen into the opposite ditch on the question of a pure church, but that is a topic for another post.)
I’ll end by repeating one of my favorite quotes from Luther, followed by one of my favorite statements of Jesus about the Church:
Luther: “Why, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd.”
Jesus: “There will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).
(Next up: the ecclesiology of Huldrych Zwingli.)
What did you learn reading these excerpts from Timothy George about Martin Luther’s ecclesiology? Where do you agree with Luther? Where do you disagree, and why? What do you think our churches today should learn as we ponder Luther’s example and influence? Share your insights in the comments below!
PS: If you are enjoying this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has so much more to say than what I am sharing here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)