The Protestant Revolt? I have to say I’ve never seen the Reformation referred to as a ‘Revolt’ in modern scholarly literature, certainly not the Lutheran Reformation, which was marked by its conservatism (the best defences of the conservative nature of the Lutheran Reformation is Charles Porterfield Krauth's 'The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology' (1871), available in reprint through Concordia Publishing House). I suspect what we have here is an attempt by a zealous Roman Catholic editor to revive the tone of the anti-Luther Roman polemics of a previous era (imagine that, polemics on the internet!). Given that Wiki is probably the most consulted reference work on this or any topic today (especially by lazy students and bloggers!) the sympathetic reader will understand my consternation at this grievous misrepresentation.
It was the leading 20th century Roman Catholic historian on Luther and the Reformation, Joseph Lortz, who largely overcame the completely negative (and slanderous) view of Luther that had pertained under the papacy since the Reformation. While critical in his overall judgment of Luther, Lortz acknowledged that Luther was a devout Christian and that many of his concerns were valid even from a Roman Catholic viewpoint. Lortz also pointed out how many of Luther’s major exegetical and theological insights were consistent with the medieval tradition. We’ll come back to Lortz in a moment; before we do, here are some modern Roman Catholic appraisals of Luther:
‘The Roman Catholic Church today accepts that there was the need of reform most obvious in the exaggerated practice of indulgences [which] by the Middle Ages ... had been vulgarized to include remission of punishment in purgatory and even remission of sins themselves.’ Michael Glazier and Monika K. Hellwig, eds. The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2004), p. 506.
‘We have much to learn from Luther beginning with the importance he attached to the word of God…In the light of Christ the Catholic will no longer wish to regard Luther as an apostate monk who broke faith with his Church. He will recognize the many lights in his character....the holy defiance with which, as God's warrior, he faced abuse and simony; the heroism with which he risked his life for Christ's cause; and not least the natural simplicity and child-like quality of his whole manner of life and personal piety.’ Cardinal Walter Kasper
‘It is widely recognized that Luther was justified in attempting to reform the theology and abuses in the Church of his time and that his fundamental belief - justification given to us by Christ without any merit on our part - does not in any way contradict genuine Catholic tradition, such as is found for example, in St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.’ Karl Adam
‘Today many Catholic scholars think Luther was right in his central doctrine of justification by faith and the [sixteenth century Catholic] church was blind to the point he was making...Both Lutherans and Catholics agree that good works by Christian believers are the result of their faith and the working of divine grace in them, not their personal contributions to their own salvation. Christ is the only Savior. One does not save oneself... Luther's doctrine of justification by faith needs to be recognized and endorsed as an expression of the perennial Catholic tradition.’ George Tavard
‘Although the Reformation ended up causing a tragic split in Western Christendom, such a development was neither intended nor desired by Luther. His emphasis on justification by faith alone, the total dependence of each human being on the grace of God in order to attain salvation, and the central role of the Bible in Christian belief and practice, all had a transforming impact on Protestant -- and ultimately on Catholic -- orthodoxy and orthopraxy.’ Rev. Robert Scully, SJ, assistant professor of history at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York
‘Oddly enough, Luther was a Roman Catholic when the Reformation began and he had every intention of staying one. He wanted to reform the church to which he belonged….Luther insisted upon the importance of Scripture and its central place in Christian life, a point not recognized by the Council of Trent but accepted by Vatican II…Luther encouraged Bible reading by the laity, as did Vatican II. He also insisted that Protestant clergy be educated, and the Council of Trent recognized the importance of this by establishing the seminary system in 1563, only after educated Western Europeans noticed how well-trained the Protestants were.’ Joseph F. Kelly, professor of religious studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.
But it’s not quite Roman bouquets all round for Luther; the present Pope is on the record as saying - when he was Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and thus responsible for disciplining erring theologians - that Luther’s ecclesiology in particular would be cause for investigation by his office today. Bear in mind that Luther’s ecclesiology is intimately related to the doctrines of justification and scripture and we realise that, despite the advances made in the 20th century towards a more sympathetic understanding of Luther and the Reformation on the part of Roman Catholic scholars, officially Luther is still very much ‘outside the camp’. Which is where he is likely to remain, given the problematic state of world Lutheranism and the shift of Rome’s ecumenical focus towards dialogue with the Eastern churches. As this shift is consolidated, I expect we'll see a decreased openness on the part of Rome to Luther's evangelical critique and a consequent winding back of some of the better reforms of Vatican II, which could arguably be traced to an attentive listening to Luther's voice. Personally, I've never been overly optimistic about the possibilities of ecumenical rapprochement with Rome, but for anyone who considered that at least some of what happened in Rome during and after Vatican II was the result of the impact of the Gospel via Luther, this is not a happy development. But it is not all bad - I expect it will also strengthen the witness of confessional Lutheranism and disabuse some on the ecumenical wing of Lutheranism of the notion that Rome can fundamentally change.
Before concluding this reflection, I can’t avoid addressing the oft-repeated claim that Luther destroyed the unity of the Western church, which is still heaped with opprobrium upon Lutheran heads today. That charge is based on two assumptions: 1) a historical assumption that the church was unified prior to the Reformation, and 2) a theological assumption that the church’s unity can in fact be broken. We’ll leave the latter assumption for another post, but here’s one point of objection to the first assumption from the above-mentioned Roman Catholic scholar Joseph Lortz, who wrote this about the state of the church in the centuries prior to Luther:
‘The real significance of the Western Schism [i.e. a period of c. 40 years in the late 14th and early 15th centuries when there were two rival claimants to the papal throne - MH) rests in the fact that for decades there was an almost universal uncertainty about where the true pope and the true Church were to be found. For several decades, both popes had excommunicated each other and his followers; thus all Christendom found itself under sentence of excommunication by at least one of the contenders. Both popes referred to their rival claimant as the Antichrist, and to the Masses celebrated by them as idolatry. It seemed impossible to do anything about this scandalous situation, despite sharp protests from all sides, and despite the radical impossibility of having two valid popes at the same time. Time and time again, the petty selfishness of the contenders blocked any solution.
The split caused by the Western Schism was far from being merely the concern of theologians; no area of public or private life remained untouched; even the economic sphere was affected, mainly because of disputes in regard to the possession of benefices. Provinces of the Church, religious orders, universities, even individual monasteries and parish houses were divided. For decades, all experienced this profound division in all sectors of daily life. Good people on both sides, even saints, were not only unable to bring about unity, but in their allegiance to one or the other of the contenders they themselves were in sharp opposition. We find, for example, St. Catherine of Siena on the Roman side and St. Vincent Ferrer on that of Avignon. Furthermore, the settlement of the Schism at the Council of Constance did not really solve the problem. The triumph of the Conciliar Theory at Constance, and even more at Basel, extended the life span of the Schism from 1378 to 1448, when it finally came to an end in the person of the Antipope Felix V. The confusion and uncertainty about the valid pope and the true Church is manifest in the amazing twists in the allegiance of Nicolaus of Cusa and Aeneas Silvio dei Piccolomini, later to become Pius II, both of whom had begun by defending the Conciliar Theory in its most radical form.
This was an experience shared by the entire West — one which would leave its imprint in Western consciousness for a long time to come. The memory of this experience was still fresh a century later. It is not too difficult to see the effects of the Western Schism in preparing the way for the doctrines of the Reformation. When Luther asserted that the pope of Rome was not the true successor of Saint Peter and that the Church could do without the Papacy, in his mind and in their essence these were new doctrines, but the distinctive element in them was not new and thus they struck a sympathetic resonance in the minds of many. Long before the Reformation itself, the unity of the Christian Church in the West had been severely undermined.’
Joseph Lortz, The Reformation, A Problem for Today (The Newman Press, Maryland, 1964) pp. 35-37.
The Eastern schism of 1054 surely also had a deep effect on the psyche of Western Christendom. It's noteworthy that the Lutheran confessors make several references to the practices of the 'Greek Church' to bolster their own criticisms of the Roman Mass.