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Catholic or Protestant?


Portrait of Martin Luther

Monday, January 18, is the day we remember Martin King in the USA. It is appropriate, therefore, to remember also the historical figure for whom he was named. This is significant because he was never, in his public ministry, spoken of as Martin King he used his father’s name and they both used that of the great German Reformer – Martin Luther.

The question at the head of this article raises the matter of just exactly what was it that made Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk different from the rest of the Church of his day. Different enough so that he was eventually driven out of the Church because of his protest against her abuses. It was not the protest against abuse in itself. There had been many who were concerned about the way the clergy of the time were failing to lead the people in godliness.

Martin Luther, however, argued that the problem could be traced back to a lack of proper authority. While the teaching of the bible was reinterpreted by the self-same clergy there could be no real reform since interpretation was, in the mind of many, a matter of opinion. Let us be clear of what this means in today’s terms. The Church of Martin Luther’s day had no trouble affirming the infallibility of Scripture and its inerrancy. They believed very firmly that the authors of the various books were governed by God so that what they wrote was the very word of God. Where the problem came was in the area of the ordinary person’s ability to understand that word. If one teacher differed in his interpretation from another, the difference could be put down to a matter of opinion. And, as everyone knew, any particular Scripture could mean almost anything.

Martin and the other Reformers argued that not only was the word of God clear and thus able to be understood by the ordinary person, if they used the same principles they used to read and understand any piece of writing. Then they set about translating it into the common tongue so it could be read by everyone. The final straw as far as the Catholics were concerned, however, came with the claim that the Scripture were all that a man needed in order to be saved from the wrath of God against sin. This last step, it was claimed, made the priesthood and the whole Catholic church redundant and, in a sense, that was true. What was more significant was that it gave the ordinary man the ability to review what his priest said and see if it was, in fact, what God said.

That did not mean there was justification for setting aside the teaching of the church completely but it did mean that there was a standard by which the conflicting voices of opinion could be tested. That the Scriptures are clear implies that others will have reached the same conclusions about what it teaches as we do when we read. That they are all we need means that when a man disagrees with the clear, contextual, teaching of Scripture his opinion is not necessarily correct. Suddenly, throughout Europe there were many who wanted to read and discover for themselves what it was that God had to say. The Reformation was born.

It was not a coincidence that Martin Luther King challenged the wisdom of his age. It was common to argue that Africans were intended to be perpetual slaves to the descendants of Shem and Japheth. Even great commentators made this error in interpretation. As a preacher, Martin Luther King studied his Bible and discovered that it did not support such an interpretation. Jesus had come in order that all men should be free. There would no longer be distinctions of race in the house of God – not even those which God had instituted in the Old Testament. His dream of shared meals around a common table was based on that teaching of the Bible. As a result great progress has been made towards recognizing the unity of the family of God under his word.

It is both Protestant and Catholic, Roman Catholic, to recognize that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. But it is the Protestant who places tradition under the authority of Scripture – who claims Scripture is our clear and sufficient guide to salvation. That is because the Protestant argues the Holy Spirit speaks clearly enough to us in the Bible so that we may be saved from condemnation if we but read it carefully, paying attention to what it says.

Portrait of Martin Luther: “Lucas Cranach d.Ä. (Werkst.) – Porträt des Martin Luther (Lutherhaus Wittenberg)” by Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder – The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 308462. Licensed as in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


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