OK, so maybe Charlene Spretnak was an odd person for the National Catholic Reporter to ask to do a review on Is the Reformation Over? An evangelical assessment of contemporary Roman Catholicism, by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom. She rightly points out that there are many aspects of the contemporary Catholic Church that the authors have failed to grasp or to which they have paid insufficient attention. Nevertheless, she is hardly one to throw stones, as her own outrageous assessment of Lutheranism demonstrates:
“Luther, however, shaped his new religion around his formative experiences. As a boy, he was routinely beaten severely by his father, and occasionally by his mother, so grew to believe, like most abused children, that he was an unlovable person. Later he joined an Augustinian order of friars because of St. Augustine’s emphasis on our sinful nature, our state of fallenness and possible redemption. Luther was known to spend hours in the confessional, only to emerge feeling that he was so bad and unworthy that he had failed to enter a state of grace because he suspected he had not been sufficiently sincere; he would say his penance and then go right back into the confessional. In short, the sacrament of confession (reconciliation) never worked for him, and he was known in the monastery for his gripping fear that he would never be worthy of salvation.
“Once Luther decided to make his break from the Catholic church, even Protestant biographers are somewhat embarrassed by the crude, vulgar language with which he described and addressed the pope and his envoys. Clearly, he was making a powerful, energizing strike against the “bad father.” Once that was accomplished, Luther returned to his original concern: his inherent unworthiness before the “good father,” or God. His new version of Christianity emphasized the “radical sinfulness” of humans, the inconsequential nature of the sacraments (except baptism and ordination, called by Protestants “ordinances”), the “radical sovereignty” of a distant God (no more co-unfolding with divine presence of the organisms in Creation, as St. Thomas Aquinas had perceived), and the reactive sweeping away of nearly everything except the Bible, the one touchstone needed for faith in God.”
Where does one start to critique such a caricature? Well, the job must be done…
- Spretnak drags out and embellishes a now outdated and discredited “psycho-analytic” explanation for the Lutheran reformation, viz. that Luther was driven by guilt arising from abuse by his father. Luther scholars—especially Catholics such as Joseph Lortz and Peter Manns—of the past century have situated him within the spiritual movements of his time, and come to appreciate the positive aspects his own personal mysticism, especially his “theology of the cross”. This historical contextualisation makes Spretnak’s amateurish explanations unnecessary.
- Luther did not “shape” a “new religion”. A new Christian movement emerged from his teaching and preaching. Her claim that Luther “decided to make his break from the Catholic church” (later in the review) is just as erroneous. He was excommunicated for teachings that did not concur with the Catholic faith. Lutherans today vehemently insist that he did not make a conscious decision to “break” from the mater ecclesia, rather, his goal was the reformation of the Church.
- Luther did have a radical understanding of the sinfulness of human beings, but he also knew the joy of forgiveness. He prized the sacrament of confession, and said he would run 100 miles for the comfort afforded by such a treasure. He insisted that this sacrament be retained by the Church.
- Lutheranism did not go about “jettisoning the entire sacramental orientation of Catholicism” (another claim made in the review). It retained the sacramental, incarnational approach to Christianity, especially the validity and saving grace of baptism (including infant baptism) and a vigorous defence of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Further, ordination was retained as a rite of the Church, and this alone gave an individual the right to preach or administer the sacraments.
- His “crude, vulgar language” is only an embarrassment to Puritans. Luther was a German who enjoyed his beer and a good laugh (even a bit of toilet humour). Yes, his language about his opponents could be very colourful, but his preaching about the grace of Christ and the virtues of the Blessed Virgin could be sublime.
- Luther did not preach “the radical sovereignty of distant God” (she is confusing Lutheranism with Calvinism). God’s indwelling in the believer through Christ in faith and the radical totality of the incarnation are central to Lutheran teaching. In particular the Lutherans taught (over against the Calvinists) that in Jesus “the finite was capable of the infinite” (finitum capax infinitum).
Luther erred, yes. That’s why he was excommunicated. His error lay most in rejecting the authority of the Church and refusing to submit to that authority. Spretnak is attacking a make-believe Luther for make-believe errors. There were Protestants who taught the things Spretnak claims Luther taught, but he wasn’t one of them.