Volume Thirty-Two — Article 4 Volume 32 | Home

Is Luther's Doctrine of Justification Compatible with Orthodox Catholic Theology?


In recent years Roman Catholic authors have been writing about Luther —and his theology—in a way entirely unlike the derogatory polemics which issued from Catholicism for four centuries. No longer is it assumed by Catholic authors that Luther was an agent of the devil, generating wave after wave of fresh heresy. Nowadays Luther is treated with respect, even admiration, and an attempt is being made from the Catholic side to discover those elements in his theology which might be harmonized with traditional Catholicism. Of course, in the zeal to patch up old controversies there is always the dangerous possibility that differences will be harmonized too readily while overlooking (or blindly ignoring) vital issues.

A case in point Is Luther's doctrine of justification. A number of Catholic scholars have lately been attempting to call a truce in this area. The message is being broadcast—by more than one pen—that Luther's idea of justification by faith is really a very Catholic doctrine. Although It was misunderstood by certain unthinking theologians of Luther's own day, It is actually (we are told) fully compatible with what genuine Catholicism has always taught. Even Thomas Aquinas and the Council of Trent were saying the same thing as Luther—though perhaps with different vocabulary. So goes the argument.

It is my purpose to make a close examination of this theory. First, the details of this theory—as set forth by its proponents—will be summarized. The issue is whether Luther was really at variance with orthodox Catholic belief, or whether he was merely protesting a decadent, un-Catholic theology being taught by some theologians of his day.

Second, the arguments used to support this claim will be examined. Luther himself will be invited to speak to the issue, together with orthodox Roman Catholic theologians who have been involved with the doctrine of justification both in Luther's day and ours. Is it possible, after four centuries of painful separation, that we may discover Luther's revolt arose from an unfortunate misunderstanding? This is a serious question which Luther himself must answer. What Luther has to say on this point will probably come as disquieting news for those Catholics who—heady with ecumenism—claim to see no conflict between Luther's doctrine of justification and the traditional theology of their church.

Back to the archive list