Luther’s Catholic Reformation

Photograph from the dedication of The International Lutheran Center at the Old Latin School on Sunday, May 3, 2015, in Wittenberg, Germany. The building is the culmination of the joint effort by the LCMS, the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK), and the International Lutheran Society of Wittenberg (ILSW), to establish a distinctly Lutheran presence in the very cradle of the Reformation. LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford

Photograph from the dedication of The International Lutheran Center at the Old Latin School on Sunday, May 3, 2015, in Wittenberg, Germany. LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford

by Alan Ludwig

Some years ago I brought a non-Christian relative of mine to a Lutheran service. Afterwards he commented, “You Lutherans are more catholic than the Catholics!” At the time, I found this amusing. After all, my relative knew nothing about doctrine and judged only by what he saw and heard in the liturgy. Once I had attended seminary and learned better what the issues between the Reformers and the church of Rome were, I came to view my relative’s unenlightened comment as eerily on target.

As we rejoice once again this year in the great Reformation solas—by grace alone, by faith alone, Scripture alone—it is good for us to remember that with these, Luther and his associates simply returned us to the catholicity, or universality, of the Christian faith as the church had taught and practiced it from ancient times.

Catholic Doctrine

Nowadays Luther is sometimes portrayed as a firebrand, a revolutionary, who sought to turn the church on her head with all kinds of new teachings. Nothing could be further from the truth. When the Lutherans presented the Augsburg Confession before Emperor Charles V in 1530, they carefully showed that each article of faith and practice was true first of all to Holy Scripture, and then also to the teaching of the church fathers and the councils and even the canon law of the Church of Rome. They boldly claim, “This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers” (AC XXI Conclusion 1). The underlying thesis of the Augsburg Confession is that the faith as confessed by Luther and his followers is nothing new, but the true catholic faith, and that their churches represent the true catholic or universal church. In fact, it is actually the Church of Rome that has departed from the ancient faith and practice of the catholic church (see AC XXIII 13, XXVIII 72 and other places).

Catholic Practice

For the Reformers, catholicity did not end with doctrine. The early Lutherans were also diligent to keep the traditional practices and ceremonies of the church, as long as these did not conflict with the Gospel of grace. They claimed not to have invented any new worship forms at all. Any changes that they had made for the Gospel’s sake had a prior history in the church (AC XXIV 35–41). They even claimed to have a more respectable public liturgy than did the church of Rome (Apology of the Augsburg Confession XV 39).

In short, the Reformers sought not to be innovators, but rather to follow only the catholic (universal) faith and practice of the Christian Church. All of this served one end: to glorify The Triune God and the gift of salvation He gives in Jesus Christ, by grace, through faith, dispensed to us in the Word and Sacraments. May we imbibe the evangelical and catholic spirit of our forefathers!

The Rev. Dr. Alan Ludwig is a Theological Educator serving with the LCMS Office of International Mission in Novosibirsk, Russia.

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5 Responses to Luther’s Catholic Reformation

  1. Tara September 12, 2016 at 9:47 am #

    Thank you for this article. I have been pondering with the catholic church for 11yrs now about joining as I wanted the authentic worship of the disciples whom followed Jesus. My family was Lutheran but not Lcms in 1971 so they joined a different church and so I grew up in a church of Christ. As I got older and was an organist for other churches and mostly Methodist during high school I longed for a church that seemed to worship and actually teach the gospel not just go to church to sing music. In 2003 I joined the LCMS church and have been an organist there since day one. I have been to several catholic masses and actually my ex husband and I divorced partly over the fact I wanted to join the catholic church. Through all of that I stayed lutheran and I have met and married a man with the same Lutheran faith and even still had pondered joining the catholic church but this article reaffirms my faith that I am worshiping with the apostles and getting the gospel. And that we do indeed have the eucharist present during our Divine service as I had been misled in my understanding by catholic church to believe. I know this is long, but this article has helped to settle some major questions I had over our worship. So thank you again. I am proud to be a member of the LCMS. As it stands firm with God’s teaching.

  2. Jason Nota September 12, 2016 at 7:54 pm #

    I was born and raise Catholic but left the church at the age of 18. I had become Charismatic, Wesleyan, Baptist, Nondenominational; you name it I was. I feel as if I had come back home again when I discovered the LCMS. The Lutheran Church is everything the Catholic Church could have been.

  3. Jeanne Schewe September 13, 2016 at 12:56 pm #

    I am a Slovak Lutheran, born & baptized in the Slovak Lutheran Church founded in Uniontown, Pa. in 1894.
    There are not many Slovak Lutherans since the Counter Reformation, 100 years+, destroyed, annihilated, etc., over 800 Luther Churches in what had been East Hungary, now Slovakia. My ancestors survived this destruction and remained, by God’s grace, faithful Slovak Lutherans. The names of Slovak Pastors, Jaroslav Pelikan & Jaroslav Vajda, are forever embedded in Lutheran music & Lutheran doctrine. “Go My Children with My Blessings”, “Where Shepherds Lately Knelt, sainted Jaroslav Vajda! I am proud of this heritage and hope whenever Lutherans sing these hymns they will remember the gifts of these two Pastors to the Missouri Synod. Thank you!

  4. Philip James Secker September 20, 2016 at 7:20 pm #

    The only names we use of our Church in The Book of Concord, which contains our official teachings and practices, are the terms “Evangelical” and “Catholic.” No church has an exclusive claim to the use of the word “Catholic,” so we can use it with or without a capital C.

  5. Carl Vehse October 6, 2016 at 9:01 am #

    Just so there is no confusion, when Lutherans talk about “catholicity” of the Christian faith, they refer to what is in the Lutheran Confessions. Lutherans also refer to the “holy catholic Church” as the “invisible Church.”

    One should avoid using “catholicity” as a congruent term describing visible church organizations, because visible churches also contain hypocrites, who are not part of “eine heilige christliche Kirche“, “sanctum ecclesiam catholicam“, “the holy Christian or catholic Church.”

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