Surprise: The Reformation Happened!

The Atlantic has discovered the Reformation, albeit nearly five centuries too late.

Writer Joshua Green reports that the denomination in which presidential candidate Michele Bachmann was a member, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), believes that Martin Luther was right about the Catholic papacy. Imagine that. Lutherans who believe ideas espoused by Luther. Shocking, isn’t it? Perhaps next week the Atlantic will inform its readers that the pope is Catholic, that Methodists are enamored of John Wesley, or that the Great Schism put a damper on Catholic-Orthodox relations.

The headline of Green’s article is “Michele Bachmann’s Church Says the Pope Is the Antichrist,” though Bachmann and her family had stopped attending that Lutheran church two years ago. Green, it seems, has a problem in understanding the simplest nuances of church membership, how churches differ widely between denominations, and that one can stay on the membership rolls of one church while attending another church for years.

So unsurprisingly, he writes that Martin Luther, “broke with the Catholic Church,” when in fact he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. (Luther was, to employ a popular neologism, unfriended). Thus, by Green’s own logic, if he were employed by the Atlantic in 1521, he could have written this headline, “Martin Luther’s Church Says Martin Luther Not Member of Martin Luther’s Church.”

Martin Luther, former Catholic

Given popular culture’s understanding and depiction of “Antichrist,” shaped by several motion pictures (such as “The Omen”) as well as dispensationalist eschatology found in Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and the bestselling Left Behind novel series, the passage from the WELS doctrinal statement sounds a bit alarming.

 The WELS doctrinal statement reads (quoted in the Atlantic blog post): “Since Scripture teaches that the Antichrist would be revealed and gives the marks by which the Antichrist is to be recognized, and since this prophecy has been clearly fulfilled in the history and development of the Roman Papacy, it is Scripture which reveals that the Papacy is the Antichrist.”

Consequently, to lament serious religious disagreement among the citizenry – and to describe it in such a crude and uncharitable fashion, as does Mr. Green – is an implicit offense against the very constitutional freedoms that make such disagreements possible

That, I suspect, was the reason why Mr. Green went with “the story.” It provided him an opportunity to smear Congresswoman Bachmann and drive a wedge between two constituencies whose votes she has a strong chance to attract: conservative Evangelicals and observant Catholics. Understanding what Luther and his fellow Reformers (including John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, and John Knox) truly meant by “Antichrist,” and how they employed it as a term of art, was the least of Mr. Green’s concerns.

If Mr. Green had cared about doing his homework, he would have known where to look. Granted, it would have involved real effort, more time than it takes to get a couple of money quotes from a few sources accessible on his iPad’s contact list. One resource he would have found illuminating is the book Building Unity: Ecumenical Dialogue with Roman Catholic Participating in the United States, edited by Jeffrey Gros and Joseph Burgess, and published by a Catholic press.

Michele Bachmann, former Lutheran

Here’s a relevant passage from the reflections of the Lutheran participants (note omitted):

In considering the historic Lutheran position on the papacy, we have become very much aware that the early Reformers did not reject what we have called the “Petrine function,” but rather the concrete historical papacy as it confronted them in their day. In calling the pope the “antichrist,” the early Lutherans stood in a tradition that reached back into the eleventh century. Not only dissidents and heretics but even saints had called the bishop of Rome the “antichrist” when they wished to castigate his abuse of power.

There are, of course, many other important theological issues involved with the contemporary Lutherans who continue to affirm Luther’s judgment of the papacy. In order to appreciate and understand these issues – even if one winds up not finding them compelling – WELS  has published a nine-page account of the doctrine on its website that includes sizeable quotations from Luther himself.

Of course, as a Catholic I think that Luther was deeply mistaken. But I also understand that if you take theology seriously, as something with real cognitive content, then it will by its very nature exclude certain beliefs while entailing others. Thus, the Catholic Church affirms that Protestant denominations, like the Lutherans, are not real churches. That judgment inexorably follows from the Catholic belief in apostolic succession.

Not surprisingly, Baptists do not accept infant baptisms as legitimate, Judaism believes that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is unbiblical, Eastern Orthodoxy forbids its people from receiving the Eucharist at churches in communion with Rome, Muslims deny that Jesus is the Son of God, and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, “believes that the popish sacrifice of the mass is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of His elect.”

It is not clear what Mr. Green expects to find when he investigates the churches, synagogues, or mosques of political figures. In a nation of serious believers who are citizens of a government committed to religious freedom and other basic liberties, why does it surprise Mr. Green to find that differing religious points of view should arise and that the advocates of those views would issue doctrinal statements that are at points critical in nature?

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).