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Lutherans, Catholics hear 500-year-old story

By Ramon Gonzalez
Western Catholic Reporter

03/09/2016

EDMONTON (CCN) — One main reason for the 500-year-old split between Lutherans and Roman Catholics is “a lack of clear communication between family members,” says a Lutheran scholar.

Rev. Gordon Jensen, a professor of theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, compared the split to a failing marriage where couples don’t communicate carefully and allow things to become a complete mess.

“That’s what happened in the 16th century (between Lutherans and Catholics). If we only had communicated clearly 500 years ago, maybe we wouldn’t be working so hard today trying to patch things up.”

During Lent, Lutherans and Catholics are meeting at Edmonton’s Providence Renewal Centre every Wednesday at 7 p.m. for fellowship and dialogue.

A report of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity called From Conflict to Communion is the basis for this lenten dialogue.

The final presentation — Catholics and Lutherans Today — will take place March 15 and will be animated by Dr. Bob McKeon and Rev. Ingrid Doerschel.

In 2017, Lutherans and Catholics will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation together and the lenten series is one means of preparation.

On Feb. 17, Jensen gave the first of five talks — Reformation 500: What is There to Celebrate?

“Too often we look at the Reformation by beginning with the events of Oct. 31, 1517, when Martin Luther posted some topics for debate on the church doors in Wittenberg,” he said. In fact, the church had been reforming itself for centuries in an effort to better proclaim the Gospel.

According to Jensen, at the time of Luther, religious orders were seeking reform, especially moral reform. Monastic movements kept thinking “if we just tighten up the morality in our church things will improve.”

To bring about reform, the Augustinians and Dominicans, two of the most prominent orders, decided to hold “reform preaching” on Sunday afternoons.

“What a surprise that one of these reform preachers brought more reform than they had planned!” Jensen said. “This reform preacher’s name was Martin Luther — an Augustinian monk who was teaching in Wittenberg.”

Luther always considered himself a devout Catholic. “So it’s a historical mistake to talk about the Reformation as a Lutheran thing, as if the Lutherans were a separate, independent entity or a church rebelling against the Roman Catholic Church,” Jensen said.

The Augustinian superior assigned Luther to preach at the Sunday afternoon reform services. When attacked, Luther always said he was only doing what his superiors had ordered him to do.

Jensen thinks this puts a different spin on the reform movement. “If Luther had stuck to that preaching and tried to improve the morality in Wittenberg, we probably wouldn’t have heard of him.

“Nor we would have heard of him if it wasn’t for a Dominican monk who came to nearby Wittenberg to preach and to sell letters of indulgence” to raise funds for an archbishop’s office.

The Dominican would have made a good marketer today. One slogan he used to sell indulgencies was: “When the coin in the coffer clings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Luther reacted to the Dominican’s preaching, “not because at this time he disagreed with indulgences or even because he disagreed with purgatory, but because he had a pastoral concern for those who were spending hard-earned money buying indulgences.

“He thought something was wrong when a person could buy time off in purgatory or even purchase salvation if one bought enough indulgences,” Jansen explained.

Luther’s response was to write 95 theses, or items for discussions.

“That’s important to remember because Luther was not planning to spread these 95 theses all over the countryside,” Jensen said. “He actually mailed them to his bishop to get permission to have a discussion on them.”

However, a printer translated Luther’s theses from Latin to German, and soon large numbers of people were reading them.

Also, as a district official in the Augustinian order, Luther had the right to set up such theses and call a debate on them.

Luther’s proposals touched a raw nerve, and church officials responded quickly. “What really bothered the church was that Luther had raised questions about authority in the church, suggesting that Scripture has authority over the church and not vice versa.”

This issue fuelled the fire. “Yet what was really troubling for Luther wasn’t so much the authority issue but that salvation seemed to be for sale.”

In response, Luther articulated what became the cornerstone of the Lutheran Reformation — that one is justified or made right in the eyes of God by faith alone apart from works.

“Right from the start the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics were talking past each other,” Jensen said. “Roman Catholics saw authority as the big issue and the Lutherans were saying ‘No, it is all about justification.’ ”

Things escalated and in 1518 Luther was called to Augsburg and asked to recant. “Luther escaped that night from Augsburg and went back to Wittenberg because he didn’t want to be dragged to Rome for disciplinary action.”

In January 1521, the Catholic Church declared Luther a heretic. Four months later the Holy Roman Empire declared him a traitor. “It was a very common practice; if you were against the church, you were against the state as well. It’s amazing he lived 25 years after that.”

Lutherans tried to work within the Catholic Church, but by the late 1530s his followers realized that if they were to survive, they had to establish their own church structures.

The Council of Trent gave reformers hope when in 1545 it clarified the doctrine of justification, saying one can be justified by faith and “works” and prohibited the purchase of indulgences. Even though the council set clear boundaries for dissent, it never condemned the Lutherans.

“That’s important to remind us how important language is and how dangerous it can be and how carefully we need to use language, especially in the midst of a family feud,” Jensen said.

Yet, Lutherans and Catholics were still trying to get together. In 1542 they reached a tentative agreement, which in the end failed because the parties couldn’t agree on matters such as transubstantiation or the limits of papal authority. At that point, any possibility of reconciliation ended.

Lutherans and Catholics even went to war against each other. The first war broke out in 1547 and the Lutheran parties were quickly defeated. Hostilities broke out again in 1618 and lasted 30 years. It was settled by the Treaty of Westphalia, which mandated that the religion of the ruler will be the religion of the people.

“So if you lived in a territory that had a Roman Catholic ruler you had to be a Roman Catholic; otherwise, you had to move to a territory where there was a Lutheran ruler and vice versa.”

After 500 years of not treating each other well or not talking to each other, “a thaw started in 1962 when the windows of the Roman Catholic Church were thrown open by the Second Vatican Council.

“For the first time in centuries, non-Roman Catholic churches were being recognized to a certain degree as ecclesial communities,” Jensen said.

Soon, Catholics and Lutherans began holding official dialogues. “What they first discovered is they agreed on probably 90 per cent of the things; not a surprise at all.”

One of the most surprising things happened almost 20 years ago when the two churches signed the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine on Justification.

“It was signed 482 years to the day after Luther had posted the 95 theses for debate,” Jensen said. “One of the very things that had split the family for hundreds of years was now agreed to.”

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