The gospel “under the papacy”

One irony of becoming a Lutheran was that it greatly improved my opinion of the Roman Catholic Church. Previously, I had on occasion leaned (albeit reluctantly) towards the view expressed in this Credenda/Agenda article that the Roman Catholic Church (as a body) was apostate, having finally had its lampstand removed when it anathematised the gospel at the Council of Trent. That wasn’t to say that Roman Catholics couldn’t be saved, just that they were saved despite their church’s teaching rather than by it.

However, I now prefer Luther’s perspective on this issue, as set out in his 1527/8 letter “Concerning Rebaptism”, written in opposition to Anabaptists who rejected infant baptism as “papist”:

We on our part confess that there is much that is Christian and good under the papacy; indeed everything that is Christian and good is to be found there and has come to us from this source.

For instance we confess that in the papal church there are the true holy Scriptures, true baptism, the true sacrament of the altar, the true keys to the forgiveness of sins, the true office of the ministry, the true catechism in the form of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the articles of the creed.

Similarly the pope admits that we too, though condemned by him as heretics, and likewise all heretics, have the holy Scriptures, baptism, the keys, the catechism, etc.

In other words, it is not that a few Roman Catholics may be saved despite the complete absence of the gospel from their apostate church. On the contrary: notwithstanding the Tridentine anathemas, the gospel can still be found (can scarcely be avoided, indeed) in the Roman Catholic Church as it reads the Scriptures, baptises, celebrates the sacrament of the altar, prays the Lord’s Prayer, confesses the creeds etc. Plenty enough gospel there to save its members.

As Luther continues:

I content that in the papacy there is true Christianity, even the right kind of Christianity and many great and devoted saints. Shall I cease to make this pretence?

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15 Responses to The gospel “under the papacy”

  1. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Lutheran songs in a strange land

  2. Tom R says:

    Did you know there’s a US Catholic Bishop named George Lucas His diocese is Springfield, so maybe his mitre symbolises a three-eyed fish… Anyway,, this got me thinking “what if” …

    1. “Admiral Ackbar” would be renamed “Admiral Allahu Ackbar”, “Padmé” renamed “Ave Mari Padmé Hum La Ilaha Ill’Allah,” and Admiral Piett would be renamed “Admiral Piettà”.

    2. “Organa Solo” would be not only a dynasty but also the formal principle behind Humanæ Vitæ.

    3. Anakin sets out his views on democracy and governance. “Then they should be made to agree.” When Padmé asks “What if no one can make them agree?” Anakin explains “Then the Chancellor dismisses from office all Senators who vowed against his proposal. Bingo! Instant unanimity.”

    4. C3PO would tell R2D2: “You can’t go in there. It’s restricted to humans. Artificial forms of intelligence are intrinsically forbidden.”

    5. Careful theological distinction would be drawn between ordinary Force-ghosts and duly-canonized Force-saints.

    6. Governor Tarkin: “Charming. You don’t know how hard I found it to sign the order authorizing your life-annulment.” Leia: “I’m surprised you had the courage to take the responsibility yourself.” Tarkin: “I’ve ordered that you be declared a formal heretic and turned over to the custody of the secular power.” Leia: “But they’ll torture me, and then have me burned to death at the stake!” Tarkin: “Yes, but then the responsibility won’t be mine, will it? I mean, be reasonable…”

    7. Leia corrects Han Solo so that he stops calling her “Your Worshipfulness” and starts calling her “Your Venerationfulness” instead.

    8. Luke is now referred to as “the Lucan Authors”.

    9. Luke now understands that, when Obi-Wan says Vader was “a pupil of mine until he turned to evil,” the “until” (heos hou) doesn’t mean Vader ever actually ceased being Obi-Wan’s pupil.

    10. Palpatine orders Anakin/ Vader “Take a squad of troopers and purge the Temple. Leave nothing alive.” Anakin: “Isn’t that a bit extreme, my master?” Palpatine: “No. For it hath been profaned by the presence of Natalie Portman, Kenny Baker and Anthony Daniels — that is to say, by a Woman, a Dwarf, and an man which hath crushed testicles.” Anakin: “Aieee! Abomination! Abomination! It shall be cleansed forthwith!”

    11. Palpatine tells the Clone Troopers “Execute Order 66.” Anakin: “Wow, that sounds, like, really sinister and evil.” Palpatine: “And rightly so, my young apprentice. Indeed, it is the sum of the numerical values of the letters on the triple crown that is worn by the President of the World Federation of Seventh-Day Adventist Churches when pilgrims arrive at his palace and kneel before him to kiss his ring.”

    12. When Kenobi says “That’s no moon… that’s a space station,” Solo corrects him: “It is disappointing that you exhibit a simplistic dualism born of degraded late-mediaeval Nominalism. Whereas if only you possessed the fullness of the Oral Tradition, you would understand — that a moon can also be a space station, without in the least ceasing to be a space station.”

    13. When Lando asks “How can you alter one side of a bargain?”, Vader explains to him the concept of Mental Reservation.

    14. When Obi-Wan says “Millions of voices cried out in terror — and were suddenly silenced”, Luke corrects this vilification of the Empire: “In fact, recent scholarship by unbiased researchers has proven conclusively that (a) fewer than 300 or 400 people overall died in the destruction of Alderaan, (b) of those who died, at least 90 million were engaged in aggressive terrorism against the Empire, so killing them was an act of self-defence, (c) officially-sanctioned translations of the Death Star plans into Standard Droidspeak were circulating at least two or three centuries before Alderaan was allegedly destroyed — which proves that Alderaan was in fact destroyed by the Rebel Alliance, not by the Empire. That is, if it ever truly existed.”

    15. When Owen Lars says “I guess that makes me your brother”, Anakin would reply: “Ah. Well. Given that (a) I was a virgin birth and (b) you and I share neither a father nor a mother, maybe the term ‘cousin’ or ‘close male relative’ would be less likely to mislead the theologians of future centuries.”

    16. When Palpatine announces “If elected Chancellor, I promise to put an end to corruption”, Jar Jar would start running about shrieking “Oh nooooooo! Himsa gonna paste alla da priestermans!”

    17. When Palpatine says, “The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be… unnatural”, Anakin says “Hey, if it doesn’t involve pills or rubber, then who can object?”

    18. When Palpatine tells Anakin “I want you to be my ears and ears on the Council”, Anakin replies: “Can’t you just send along a gang of disgruntled Latin Mass barristers with notebooks?”

    19. Yoda’s word order would match that of normal English speakers.

  3. John H says:

    Um, er, thanks, Tom… 😉

    Actually, I always assumed that Yoda was more of a Scots Presbyterian, who nothing more than writing metrical psalms did like.

  4. Tom R says:

    Imagine a Yodan encyclical:

    “We are deeply aggrieved by the schisms among our flock. Therefore let the separated brethren re-approach our throne, in the fullest humility.”

    As opposed to:

    “By the schisms among our flock are we deeply aggrieved. Let therefore the separated brethren, in the fullest humility, our throne re-approach.”

    But then, if you want to speak the same late-mediaeval Latin as Jesus and His seventeen Apostles did, you have to adjust your brain to a very different grammatical structure.

  5. Pingback: The Gospel in the Catholic Church: Final Installment « One Truth

  6. Lito Cruz says:


    As a former RC kid myself, after becoming a Lutheran from Pentecostal Calvinism, I now have less emotional but I hope more level headed view of the Roman Church.

    Since I was born in a Latinized country, I do have my suspicions of them – I know how they work.

    But Luther gives credit where credit is due. In my discussions with modern day evangelicals – on water baptism of children, I would point that the RCC was not wrong in baptizing babies, what was wrong was that they obscured the Gospel to them. They acknowledge the work of Christ but at the back door they got works for righteousness in. Now the RC guys reading this would protest. The RCC has a way of talking on both sides of their lips.

    In logic, from a contradiction, you can prove anything.

  7. Tom R says:

    I managed to time that for the 30th anniversary of the premiere of “Star Wars: A New Hope” (as we all called it back in 1977). Presumably a Bishop George Lucas would have originally called “Phantom Menace” “Star Wars: An Old Hope”.

  8. Tom R says:

    2. Instead of “Darth Pelageius”, the name of Palpatine’s evil Sith Lord mentor would be “Darth Augustinius”.

  9. Tom R says:

    21. Vader would tell General Tagge, “I find your lack of faith and works disturbing.”

  10. Tom R says:

    22. When Moff Jerjerrod says “I assure you, Lord Vader. My men are working as fast as they can,” and Vader replies ominously, “Perhaps I can find new ways to motivate them”, it turns out the Dark Lord means nothing more sinister than inspiring them with the story of St Ergonostres, an historical figure who was reliably attested by thousands of eyewitnesses to have worked an ultra-supererogatory 25 or even 26 hours in each per day.

  11. ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments’

    When John H then quotes his new-found Catholic/Lutheran perspective to the effect that :

    “… there is much that is Christian and good under the papacy; indeed everything that is Christian and good is to be found there and has come to us from this source’,

    one is loathe to quote another truth.

    Recently, I read a professorial thesis to the effect that the Papacy wasn’t really ‘corrupt’ in the middle ages. The author ascribed much of his support to the notion that the Papacy didn’t really — contra Luther — promote the sale of indulgences. In much the same fashion as John H finds solace in his revisionism.

    Let me state it unequivocally, therefore, that as a teenage-schoolboy in the town in Southern Ireland in or about the late fifties, I sold indulgences on behalf of the local Catholic Church on a daily and weekly basis.

    As I remember it, there was a perforated silhouette through which, for the price of a penny, one stuck a pin, thereby paroning the pentient from the pains of purgatory for some 12 months or so. While my memory of the details are not quite clear, I do know that indulgences could be had for some seven or even fourteen years.

    I recall thinking how unfair it was on the loved-ones of the poor who could afford to get their loved ones out of the burning flames of purgatory, whereas the town’s more well-to-do could relieve themselves of such torments readily. I also remember quite clearly my feelings at the notion that while the RC Church could facilitate the release of people for money, it never made known how long people remained in purgatory (and, therefore, how much they ought to have paid to have them released). People, therefore, could be suspended in the confusion that however much they paid, they would never know how much more pain their loved-ones would be required to suffer. Needless to say, terms of imprisonment in purgatory were infinite…

    Of course the RC Church wasn’t really corrupt either in the midle ages or in the fifties; it’s just that they are really clever, when it comes to money!!

    Seamus Breathnach


  12. John H says:

    Seamus: thanks for your comment. Depressing to hear that the sale of indulgences was going on even as late as the 1950s. (And the theology of indulgences remains intact even today.)

    It’s worth bearing in mind that the statement you cite from my post about there being “much that is Christian and good under the papacy” comes from Luther himself, who certainly could not be accused of having a naive or Pollyanna-ish view of the Roman Catholic Church.

    Luther’s point was aimed at those who went to the other extreme and said that anything remotely associated with the Roman Catholic Church – infant baptism, the use of religious imagery etc – should be rejected on those grounds. My own point was aimed more at the common assumption among some reformed/evangelical Christians that it is almost impossible to be both a Roman Catholic and a true Christian. That’s not to diminish the errors, just to say that the errors don’t entirely obscure the more positive aspects.

  13. John: thank you for your comments, but I believe you have missed the point of my letter. I did not relate the facts about selling indulgences in twentieth-century Ireland just to support a Lutheran interpretation of the world, however correct Luther was with respect to this issue. My purpose was more or less to demonstrate that whatever is said, or however good the intentions are to reform, societies who together draw power from social arrangements such as religion — whatever that religion be — are apt to disregard all reason, all criticism, all talk, and act in their own interests.

    The Catholic Church couldn’t give a fig about Luther, Reform or Right Reason, no more than George Bush gives a fig about Islam or people who get in the way of his onslaught on the world. In Shakespeare we find an old phrase to the effect that ‘there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we may’ – or words to that effect. Of course there is no ‘divinity’ to shape our ends, but there are social and historical interests which are socially forged togeter such that individuals, whether they be holy men or of the George Bush and Dick Cheney type, merely interpret. The stubborn-ness of religion is the strength of its ‘faith’. In this sense ‘faith’ is fanatic, and yet it is scattered like snuff at a wake, as if fanaticism was a good thing. The Pope would sell indulgences in mainland Europe today, if the people tolerated it; that is, if the people could be brought to believe in its propriety. But they can’t: and that’s the strength of Europe — to have the knowledge that religious knowledge is merely to make idle repetitiion of dead history. But to run from the Popes to the reformers, like Luther, Wycliffe, Hus,etc. is merely to swap one bathing pool in the mediteraneal myth for another. This, indeed, is the myopia of religion, the inability to accept human and secular knowledge for old superstition.

    Darwinism is what Europeans epistemologically inherit, not how to put people in fear of some eternity in the minds of medieval man. To know where we come from is of itself to ‘come from’ such a place. By selling indulgences we get a glimpse at the medieval mind that cannot leave its rather rewarding superstitions behind. The same mindset can actually get up on a pulpit and pontificate about ‘materialism’.

    Seamus Breathnach

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  15. All these ‘our-religion-is-beter-than-your-religion’ has not only led to the most vicious wars, but now appears to be as idle as Christianity itself. No longer is there any question (worth asking, that is) about Christianity; whatever remaining concerns there are must folloow a crticial examination of Francesco Carotta’s work (Jesus was Caesar), Joseph Atwill comic interpretation of the New Testament (Caesar’s Messiah) and the Peso Family’s historical translation of the whole Roman production of Christianity.

    Anyone quoting ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ or the ‘Baby in the stable of Bethlehem’ is a fabricator and a disturber of the peace. If these authors have not done the world a service it badly needs, then I can’t imagine who has. At least it will stilll those insufferable army of zealots who invariably begin with ‘Jesus said’, as if Jesus got off the last bus and made his thoughts the private property of the richest religions in the world and their messianic and dangerous armies.

    Isn’t it great? Jesus never said a blessed thing…… Jesus is who aint, who never was, and, thankfully, who never will be….!

    Seamus Breathnach

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