I was preparing to rewrite my Master’s thesis, which had underwhelmed my advisor. He seemed particularly skeptical of my Theological background, so he told me to “spend a year reading everything Martin Luther wrote.” So I did.
In the process I read things like “The Smalcald Articles” and “The Three Walls of the Romanists” and even something called “To Several Nuns” which, to my great dissatisfaction, had no surprise ending and was in fact merely a letter written to several nuns. Among his works I also came across “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants” which is a title I know some struggling pastors want to preach against their own cranky congregations.
I read some of his more popular works like “The Bondage of the Will” and “A Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” which some know by its more snappy re-titling, “The 95 Theses.”
At some point I even had to read “To the Knights of the Teutonic Order, an Exhortation that They Lay Aside False Chastity and Take Upon Them the True Chastity of Wedlock.” The main problem I had with this work is that the title itself pretty much says it all. Luther could have just sent a note with the title alone or at most a small pamphlet instead of this 15,000-word volume.
Luther’s verbosity was matched only by his vigor, and, at times, even the vulgar. Remember, this is the fella who insulted people so frequently and with style that there is a Martin Luther Insult Generator on the internet with a seemingly endless supply of insults from the first Lutheran.
He called his enemies “blasphemous, abominable rascals and damned scum of Satan,” proving yet again that Luther wasn’t big on turning the other verbal cheek. In one retort he wrote, “Listen, you a–, you are a particularly crass a–, indeed, you are a filthy sow!” (Yes, I just censored Martin Luther, sorry! My website is PG!)
The Pope as Pious Prancer and other Lutherisms
Luther was never more heated than when speaking of the Pope whom he called a “a little pious prancer.” I read Luther’s “Against the Execrable Bull of the Antichrist” which as a title isn’t as bad as it sounds, when you realize a “bull” is just an edict of the Pope. But it’s actually worse than it sounds once you read the whole thing. I also read “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” which is quite subtle title and concept, compared with his more direct and unsubtle, “Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil.”
In our days of link-baiting inflammatory bloggers still no one quite holds a candle to Luther’s incendiary words.
All this to say that Luther was very, seriously, extremely anti-Pope. Of course in those days 500 years ago it was for very good reason. If you know anything about the Great Reformation you know why. The abuses and waywardness of the Roman Catholic Church pre-Vatican I were an extensive and embarrassing blight upon Church History.
In the process of all my Luther reading I learned how horrible the Pope and Catholicism were. I agreed with some of what Luther said and didn’t with some of the other things (if you agree with everything Luther said you haven’t really read the guy). I am a Wesleyan, who broke off from the Methodists, who broke off from the Anglicans, who broke off from the Catholics. So I think that means I’m at least thrice removed from Roman Catholicism and not even sure I qualify as a red-headed step child. More of a red-headed great grandnephew by marriage that looks completely different.
So, what do I think of the Pope coming to America?
I think it’s a good idea for the Pope to come to America now and say the things he says. I like a great deal of the things he is saying so far. Other points he’s making I don’t think are as important as he apparently does. But I haven’t heard anything I disagree with greatly. Do I wish he would say some things I care more about? Sure. But he’s not the leader of my particular brand of Christians. I don’t expect him to sing off my song-sheet. Dr Jo Anne Lyon is the one I’m looking for to “speak for me and my people,” not Pope Francis.
At the same time I have tweeted out and posted some of his good quotes as I think our society is listening to this man right now. In the midst of the insult-trading of our politicians and the orchestrated “reality” television somehow the words of Pope Francis are getting through. That matters. The fact that many of those words are filled with hope and wisdom, referring to Scripture and elevating Christ, well, I can’t complain about that at all.
Do I put much hope in the Pope’s visit? No. I don’t put much hope in the Pope in general. But he is the leader of more than a billion world-wide believers, so I think it makes sense to pay attention and echo the good things he says where it aligns with Scripture.
You might ask some questions about doctrine.
“But what about Catholic doctrine? It’s so very off base and we shouldn’t encourage people to follow the Pope.” Well, I don’t encourage people to follow him, I want people to follow Jesus. For there is only one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity–the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). It is not “the man Pope Francis.” I don’t have hope in the Pope, I have hope in Jesus.
But what about doctrine? Is there deep cause for concern with Catholic doctrine? Well, a few years ago several people I really respect gathered together to ask just such a question. Drs Chris Bounds, Ken Schenck, Keith Drury, Abson Joseph, Steve Lennox, & David Vardaman gathered regularly to look through the Catholic Catechism and compare it with Wesleyan doctrine (my own denomination.) They also got some contributions from Drs Amanda Drury, Dave Ward, Larisa Joseph, John Drury, & Russ Gunsalus as well. I think it’s a fascinating nerdy read, myself. Take a look if the have the time and interest here: Wesleyan notes on the Catholic Catechism.
Or don’t. Instead, just know that we disagree on a lot of things. But we don’t believe that Catholicism is evil. Catholics believe in the same Jesus Christ we do. The problem with Catholicism, I believe, is that they believe too much. They add too many things to the gospel. That was in fact the primary problem Luther and the other reformers had with Rome–and they went so far as to strip the faith down to its most bare essentials and start over. At the risk of over-simplifying, the Reformation was about over-simplifying.
So, now that Pope Francis comes to America and he brings a simple message of grace and love and he speaks about people in need and strives to simplify things, I’m glad. Catholics still believe a lot of stuff they should let go of. But I believe they can be saved. I believe they are saving souls at times when all the other stuff doesn’t get in the way. They are serving those in need. They are proclaiming scripture. These are good things.
In the end I’m just glad people are talking about God these days in places like Congress, the White House, and Manhattan. That’s a good thing. I hope it make people think twice about tossing the religion baby out with the bathwater of their own guilt.