The ecumenical understanding of the Reformation has been dominated by a re-assessment of Martin Luther. In large part the concentration on Luther has been prompted by Roman Catholic historians who, far more than their Protestant counterparts, have identified the origins of the Reformation with Luther’s religious crisis and subsequent career. While Catholic historians like Alexandre Ganoczy, Kilian McDonnell and Jacques Pollet have made substantial contributions to the study of Calvin and Zwingli, the principal energies of Catholic historians engaged in the study of Protestant origins have traditionally been devoted to an evaluation of Martin Luther.

Until the end of the 19th century, Catholic historiography was dominated by the essentially negative portrayal of Luther drawn by the Catholic polemicist Johannes Cochlaeus in his famous book Commentary on the Acts and Writings of Martin Luther (1549). Since medieval Catholic theology taught that heresy* is more a matter of will than intellect, more a defect of character than a failure of understanding, Cochlaeus attempted to account for Luther’s heresy by identifying the defects of his character that prompted his apostasy from Rome. As Cochlaeus saw matters, Luther was a proud and self-centred man, driven by his appetites and utterly lacking in religious seriousness.

The attack on Luther’s character was not altogether abandoned by Catholic historians in the early 20th century, as the writings of Jacques Maritain and G.K. Chesterton demonstrate. Nevertheless, the traditional picture of Luther’s religious development was modified by the work of two Catholic scholars, Heinrich Denifle and Hartmann Grisar. In 1904 Denifle, a medieval historian then an archivist in the Vatican library, published a two-volume study of Luther’s early theology entitled Luther and Lutheranism in Its First Development . Luther had claimed that he had been taught to regard the righteousness of God described in Rom. 1:16-17 as the punishing righteousness with which God justly punishes sinners. As Luther later recounted it, his theological breakthrough occurred when he realized that the righteousness of God in this passage refers, not to God’s punishing righteousness (iustitia activa) , but to the righteousness with which God makes sinners just (iustitia passiva) .

Denifle examined a wide range of medieval commentaries on Rom. 1 and concluded that Luther’s claim about the medieval exegetical tradition could not be sustained. Even though Luther alleged that all of his teachers identified the righteousness of God in 1:16-17 with God’s punishing activity, Denifle could not find a single Catholic commentator who did so. Without exception they identified the iustitia Dei with God’s reconciling gift to the sinner. It seemed therefore to Denifle that Luther’s critique of Catholic theology rested in large measure on his ignorance of the very tradition he presumed to criticize.

Although Denifle had introduced the question of theological causes for the Reformation, he was not inclined to press his point in such a way as to mitigate the traditional Catholic attack on Luther’s character. On the contrary, Denifle was only too happy to catalogue what he regarded as Luther’s besetting sins: pride, spiritual negligence, intemperance and unchastity. He was even willing to accept the scurrilous rumour that Luther, like Francis I, was a victim of syphilis. “Luther,” Denifle cried, “there is nothing divine in you!”

Unlike Denifle, the Jesuit historian Hartmann Grisar was less interested in Luther’s theological development than in his psychological profile. Grisar argued that Luther was psychologically unbalanced, haunted by an abnormal hatred of good works. The doctrine of justification* by faith alone, codified in the confessional books of the Reformation churches, originated out of Luther’s compelling inner need to offer a theological rationalization for his uncontrolled lechery, drunkenness and gluttony. What Cochlaeus and earlier Catholic critics had attributed to flaws in Luther’s character, Grisar was inclined to attribute to abnormalities in his psychological composition.

A new era in the ecumenical re-evaluation of the Reformation was inaugurated by the publication in 1939-40 of the two-volume study The Reformation in Germany by the Roman Catholic historian Joseph Lortz. Lortz broke decisively with the older Catholic tradition of scholarship that blamed the Reformation on flaws in Luther’s character. He accepted the view, advocated by Luther himself, that, as an Augustinian friar, Luther had been a morally upright and decent man who had followed in scrupulous detail the rules and regulations of his order. Lortz was even willing to defend, against Catholic critics like Denifle, the unpopular proposition that Luther was a profoundly Christian theologian, whose theology of the cross and doctrine of assurance touched on deep themes in the gospel. From Lortz’s perspective the tragedy of the Reformation could not be traced to moral grounds, as traditional Catholic historiography had argued, but to theological causes.

Lortz regarded the theology of Aquinas as the finest flowering of the medieval Catholic tradition. Unfortunately for 16th-century Europe, Luther was not trained at Cologne in the authentically Catholic theology of Aquinas, but at Erfurt in the “fundamentally uncatholic” theology of William Ockham. Luther studied the commentaries and writings of Gabriel Biel and Pierre d’Ailly, disciples of Ockham, whose theology, Lortz believed, reflected the unclarity and confusion that marked the later middle ages. Luther correctly perceived many of the problems inherent in Ockhamistic theology and made a genuinely Catholic protest against its distortions of the Catholic theological tradition. However, because Luther was not schooled in the theology of Aquinas, he went to what Lortz regarded as unwarranted extremes in his theological critique of Ockhamism and so lapsed into heresy. Nevertheless, even as a heretic, he was not guilty of moral turpitude, as Cochlaeus had argued, but only of theological subjectivity. From Lortz’s perspective, the schism* in the Western church might have been avoided if only Luther had studied the balanced, Augustinian theology of Aquinas.

A new note in the Catholic re-appraisal of Luther was sounded by Otto Pesch in his massive study of the doctrine of justification in the theology of Aquinas and Luther. Unlike Lortz, who bemoaned the absence of the stabilizing impact of the theology of Aquinas on Luther, Pesch argued that Luther and Thomas held very similar understandings of grace.* They differed not so much in what they said as how they said it. Thomas wrote sapiential theology that described in an objective and detached way the unfolding of the creative and redemptive acts of God, whose being conditions, but is unconditioned by, the things he made. Luther wrote existential theology from the perspective of an engaged believer who stands in the presence of a living God of grace and judgment, who has called the believer by name. In Pesch’s opinion, differences in theological style and method have led historians to over-estimate the differences between Luther and Thomas and to misunderstand and misjudge their substantial agreements. To recover an understanding of the theological agreements between Luther and Thomas, often hidden beneath the real, but far less significant, disagreements in style, would itself represent an important ecumenical step forward for Protestants and Roman Catholics.

Protestant historians, with some notable exceptions, have made fewer contributions to the study of Catholic reform in the 16th century than Catholic historians have to the study of Protestant origins. While Protestant historians have engaged in their own wide-ranging re-assessment of the major Protestant reformers, their principal contribution to the ecumenical re-assessment of the Reformation has centred in their re-evaluation of the theological and religious situation in the Western church on the eve of the Reformation. No longer content with a confessionally biased description of religious life in the later middle ages, Protestant historians from Reinhold Seeberg and Adolf Martin Ritter to Bernd Moeller and Heiko Oberman have attempted to reconstruct a more accurate picture of the milieu in which the Reformation was born. Especially important in this re-assessment has been the study of late medieval scholastic and mystical theology from Ockham and Thomas Bradwardine to Biel and John of Paltz.

Over the last three decades an approach to the Reformation has developed that is neither Protestant nor Catholic, though supported by a wide spectrum of Protestant, Catholic and secular historians. This newer approach regards the Reformation, not as a single unified movement to which a second unified movement, the Counter-Reformation, reacted, but as a complex series of interdependent religious, social and political movements. On this reading, Luther’s reformation was one of many reformations occurring before 1600 and may even have been the most important. But the 16th century was marked by multiple religious reformations – Lutheran, Reformed, Erasmian, Anabaptist, Catholic, Erastian, anti-Trinitarian, Chiliastic, Epicurean – that interacted with each other in an intricate pattern of dependence and independence. The principal task of Reformation historians is to understand and explain the originality, individuality and interdependence of these multiple movements of religious reform. The older view that equated the beginnings of the Reformation with Luther’s religious experience has now been replaced by a view that situates Luther within the context of his own age, a period impatient with the status quo and stirred by new longings and aspirations. Only within this broader context, Reformation historians now feel, can the achievements and limitations of Luther’s Reformation be properly assessed.

Scholarly re-assessments of the Reformation have begun to reach the level of the official ecclesiastical leadership, apparent, for example, in the speeches of Pope John Paul II during his visits to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1980 and 1987. The 1990 report of the Reformed-Roman Catholic* international dialogue commission sought to re-read the history of the 16th century with a view to “the reconciliation of memories”.


n F. Büsser, Das katholische Zwinglibild , Zurich, Zwingli, 1968 n B. Cottret, Calvin: A Biography , Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans, 2000 n A. Ganoczy, Le jeune Calvin. Genèse et évolution de sa vocation réformatrice (ET The Young Calvin , Philadelphia, Westminster, 1987) n K.G. Hagen, “Changes in the Understanding of Luther: The Development of the Young Luther”, Theological Studies , 29, 1968 n H.J. Hillerbrand ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation , New York, Oxford UP, 1996 n C. Lindberg, The European Reformations , Oxford, Blackwell, 1996 n H.A. Oberman, Luther: Mensch zwischen Gott und Teufel (ET Luther: Man between God and the Devil , New Haven CT, Yale UP, 1989) n S.E. Ozment ed., Reformation Europe: A Guide to Research , St Louis MO, Center for Reformation Research, 1982 n O.H. Pesch, “Twenty Years of Catholic Luther Research”, Lutheran World , 13, 1966 n D.C. Steinmetz, Calvin in Context , New York, Oxford UP, 1995 n D.C. Steinmetz, Luther in Context , Bloomington IN, Indiana UP, 1986 n G. Tavard, “Reassessing the Reformation”, OC , 19, 1983 n G. Wainwright, Is the Reformation Over? Catholics and Protestants at the Turn of the Millennia , Milwaukee WI , Marquette UP, 2000.

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)

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