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Martin Luther

Martin Luther

Witness to Jesus Christ

By the Co-Chairmen

    In their effort to find ways to community in faith and to understand and surmount existing differences at their roots, the Roman Catholic/Lutheran Joint Commission studied frequently the Reformation and the person and work of Martin Luther. On the occasion of the 450th anniversary of the Confessio Augustana, the Commission affirmed the fact that we are "all under one Christ" and are able to join together in common witness to basic doctrinal truths.

    The 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther provided the occasion to reflect on him and what he sought to do, and to publish a joint statement which should assist in reconciliation and understanding. Its purpose is to emphasize some central concerns of Luther and to bring out his ecumenical significance., to draw attention to the new understanding resulting from Lutheran and Catholic studies and in this way to help overcome a picture of Luther which in former times was often distorted.

Kloster Kirchberg, 6th May 1983

Hans L. Martensen
Bishop of Copenhagen
George A. Lindbeck
Professor, Yale University


I. From conflict to reconciliation

  1. This year our churches celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther. Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic, cannot disregard the person and the message of this man. Standing on the threshold of modern times, he has had, and still has a crucial influence on the history of the church, of society and of thought.

  2. For centuries opinions about Luther were diametrically opposed to one another. Catholics saw him as the personification of heresy and blamed him as the fundamental cause of schism between the Western churches. Already in the 16th century the Protestants began to glorify Luther as a religious hero and not infrequently also as a national hero. Above all, however, Luther was often regarded as the founder of a new church.

  3. The judgment of Luther was closely connected with each church's view of the other: they accused one another of abandoning the true faith and the true church.

  4. In the churches of the Reformation and in theology, the rediscovery of Luther began in the early days of this century. Soon afterwards, intensive study of the person of Luther and his work started on the Catholic side. This study has made notable scholarly contributions to Reformation and Luther research and, together with the growing ecumenical understanding, has paved the way toward a more positive Catholic attitude to Luther. We see on both sides a lessening of outdated, polemically colored images of Luther. He is beginning to be honored in common as a witness to the gospel, a teacher in the faith and a herald of spiritual renewal.

  5. The recent celebrations of the 450th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession (1980) have made an essential contribution to this perspective. This confession of faith is inconceivable without the person and theology of Luther. Furthermore, the insight that the Augsburg Confession reflects "a full accord on fundamental and central truths" (Pope John Paul II, Nov 17th, 1980) between Catholics and Lutherans facilitates the common affirmation of fundamental perceptions of Luther.

  6. Luther's call for church reform, a call to repentance, is still relevant for us. He summons us to listen anew to the gospel, to recognize our own unfaithfulness to the gospel and to witness credibly to it. This cannot happen today without attention to the other church and to its witness and without the surrender of polemical stereotypes and the search for reconciliation.

    II. Witness to the Gospel

  7. In criticizing various aspects of the theological tradition and church life of his time, Luther considered himself a witness to the gospel — an "unworthy evangelist of our Lord Jesus Christ." He appealed to the biblical apostolic testimony which, as a "doctor of Holy Scripture," he was committed to interpret and proclaim. He took his stand consciously on the confession of the early church to the triune God and to Christ's person and work, and saw in this confession an authoritative expression of the biblical message. In his striving for reformation, which brought him external persecution and inner tribulation, he found assurance and comfort in his call by the church to study and teach the Scriptures. In this conviction he felt himself supported by the Lord of the church himself.

  8. Knowing his responsibility as a teacher and pastor, and at the same time personally experiencing the anguished need for faith, he was led by his intense study of the Scriptures to a renewed discovery of God's mercy in the midst of the fears and uncertainties of his time. According to his own testimony, this "Reformation discovery" consisted in recognizing that God's righteousness is, in the light of Romans 1:17, a bestowal of righteousness, not a demand that condemns the sinner. "He who through faith is righteous shall live," i.e., he lives by the mercy granted by God through Christ. In this discovery, confirmed for Luther by the church father Augustine, the message of the Bible became a joyful message, that is, "gospel." It opened for him, as he said, "the gate of paradise."

  9. In his writings, as in his preaching and teaching, Luther became a witness to this liberating message. As the "doctrine of the justification of the sinner through faith alone," it was the central point of his theological thinking and of his exegesis of Scripture. Those whose consciences suffered under the dominion of the law and human ordinances, and who were tormented by their failures and by concern for eternal salvation could gain assurance through faith in the gospel of the liberating promise of God's grace.

  10. Historical research has shown that the beginnings of an agreement on this fundamental concern of Luther's were already apparent in the theological discussions at the time of the Reformation. But this agreement was not effectively accepted by either side, and was obscured and nullified by later polemics.

  11. In our time, Luther research and biblical studies on both sides have again opened the way for a mutual understanding of the central concerns of the Lutheran Reformation. Awareness of the historical conditionedness of all forms of expression and thought has contributed to the widespread recognition among Catholics that Luther's ideas, particularly on justification, are a legitimate form of Christian theology. Thus in summarizing what had already been jointly affirmed by Catholic and Lutheran theologians in 1972 ("The Gospel and the Church"), the Catholic Lutheran statement on the Augsburg Confession says that: "A broad consensus emerges in the doctrine of justification, which was decisively important for the Reformation: it is solely by grace and by faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit in us that we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit who renews our hearts and equips us for and calls us to good works" ("All Under One Christ," 1980).

  12. As witness to the gospel, Luther proclaimed the biblical message of God's judgment and grace, of the scandal and the power of the cross, of the lostness of human beings and of God's act of salvation. As an "unworthy evangelist of our Lord Jesus Christ," Luther points beyond his own person in order to confront us all the more inescapably with the promise and the claim of the gospel he confessed.

    III. Conflict and the Schism in the church

  13. Luther's interpretation and preaching of justification by faith alone came into conflict with the prevailing forms of piety which obscured God's gift of righteousness. Luther believed that his protests were in conformity with the teaching of the church and, indeed, even defended that teaching. Any thought of dividing the church was far from his mind and was strongly rejected by him. But there was no understanding for his concerns among the ecclesiastical and theological authorities either in Germany or in Rome. The years following the famous "95 Theses" of 1517 were marked by increasing polemics. As the disputes intensified, Luther's primarily religious concerns were increasingly intertwined with questions of church authority and were also submerged by questions of political power. It was not Luther's understanding of the gospel considered by itself which brought about conflict and schism in the church, but rather the ecclesial and political concomitants of the Reformation movement.

  14. When Luther was threatened with excommunication and summoned to revoke what for him were essential theological convictions, he saw in this the refusal of the secular and church authorities to discuss his theological reasoning. The conflict turned more and more on the question of final authority in matters of faith. Luther appealed to Scripture in this dispute, and came to doubt that all doctrinal decisions of the popes and councils were binding in conscience. Yet his emphasis on the "sola scriptura" and on the clarity of Scripture included acceptance of the creeds of the early church and respect for traditions which were in accordance with Scripture. He maintained throughout all conflicts his trust in God's promise to keep his church in the truth.

  15. As the hostility of the church authorities increased, so did Luther's polemical attitude. The Pope was rejected as "Antichrist," the mass condemned as idolatry. In turn, Luther and his followers were categorized as heretics and sometimes even accused of apostasy. The hope that agreement could be reached at the Diet in Augsburg in 1530 was not fulfilled. Luther considered the rejection he met with as a sign of the approaching apocalypse. He could see no way back from the attitude of reciprocal condemnation.

  16. Luther was claimed by a great variety of groups and tendencies in church and society in pursuit of their special interests (anticlerical, revolutionary or enthusiast). He himself fought against these pressures, but his image suffered from distortions which still persist to this day.

  17. These historical events cannot be reversed or undone. We can, however, seek to remove their negative consequences by investigating their origins and admitting culpable failures. Ultimately, however, they will only be healed when the positive aims of the Reformation become the joint concern of Lutherans and Roman Catholics.

    IV. Reception of Reformation concerns

  18. The Lutheran churches have tried over the centuries to conserve Luther's theological and spiritual insights. Not all his writings, however, have influenced the Lutheran churches to the same degree. There has often been a tendency to give more importance to his polemical works than to his pastoral and theological writings. Those writings which were given the status of confessional documents are of special ecclesial significance. Among these, his two catechisms occupy a special position in the life of the churches. Together with the Confessio Augustana, they form an appropriate basis for an ecumenical dialogue.

  19. Nevertheless, Luther's heritage has suffered various losses and distortions in the course of history.
    —The Bible was increasingly isolated from its church context, and its authority was legalistically misunderstood because of the doctrine of verbal inspiration;
    —Luther's high estimate of sacramental life was largely lost during the Enlightenment and in pietism; —Luther's concept of human beings as persons before God was misinterpreted as individualism; —The message of justification was at times displaced by moralism;
    —His reservations about the role of political authorities in church leadership were silenced for long periods of time, and
    —His doctrine of the twofold nature of God's rule (the doctrine of "the Two Kingdoms") was misused to legitimate the church's denial of responsibility for social and political life.

  20. Together with their gratitude for Luther's contributions, Lutheran churches are in our day aware of his limitations in person and work and of certain negative effects of his actions. They cannot approve his polemical excesses; they are aghast at the anti-Jewish writings of his old age; they see that his apocalyptic outlook led him to judgments which they cannot approve, e.g., on the papacy, the Anabaptist movement and the Peasants' War. In addition, certain structural weaknesses in Lutheran churches have become obvious, especially in the way in which their administration was taken over by princes or the state-which Luther himself wanted to think of as simply an emergency arrangement.

  21. A defensive attitude toward Luther and his thinking was in some respect determinative for the Roman Catholic Church and its development since the Reformation. Fear of the distribution of editions of the Bible unauthorized by the church, a centralizing over-emphasis on the papacy and a onesidedness in sacramental theology and practice were deliberately developed features of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. On the other hand, some of Luther's concerns are taken into account in such Tridentine reforming efforts as for example, the renewal of preaching, the intensification of religious instruction and the emphasis on the Augustinian doctrine of grace.

  22. There has developed in our century — first of all in German-speaking areas-an intensive Catholic re-evaluation of Luther the man and of his Reformation concerns. It is widely recognized that he was justified in attempting to reform the theology and the abuses in the church of his time and that his fundamental belief — justification given to us by Christ without any merit of our own — does not in any way contradict genuine Catholic tradition, such as is found, for example, in St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

  23. This new attitude to Luther is reflected in what Cardinal Willebrands said at the Lutheran World Federation's Fifth Assembly: "Who ... would still deny that Martin Luther was a deeply religious person who with honesty and dedication sought for the message of the gospel? Who would deny that in spite of the fact that he fought against the Roman Catholic Church and the Apostolic See — and for the sake of truth one must not remain silent about this — he retained a considerable part of the old Catholic faith? Indeed, is it not true that the Second Vatican Council has even implemented requests that were first expressed by Martin Luther, among others, and as a result of which many aspects of Christian faith and life now find better expression than they did before? To be able to say this in spite of all the differences is a reason for great joy and much hope."

  24. Among the insights of the Second Vatican Council which reflect elements of Luther's concerns may be numbered:
    —An emphasis on the decisive importance of Holy Scripture for the life and teaching of the church (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation);
    —The description of the church as "the people of God" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, chapter II); —The affirmation of the need for continued renewal of the church in its historical existence (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 8; Decree on Ecumenism, 6);
    —The stress on the confession of faith in the cross of Jesus Christ and of its importance for the life of the individual Christian and of the church as a whole (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 8; Decree on Ecumenism, 4; Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 37);
    —The understanding of church ministries as service (Decree on the Bishops' Pastoral Office in the Church, 16; Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests);
    —The emphasis on the priesthood of all believers (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 10 and 11; Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, 2-4);
    —Commitment to the right of the individual to liberty in religious matters (Declaration on Religious Freedom).

  25. There are also other requests of Luther's that can be regarded as fulfilled in the light of contemporary Catholic theology and church practice: the use of the vernacular in the liturgy; the possibility of communion in both kinds, and the renewal of the theology and celebration of the eucharist.

    V. Luther's legacy and our common task

  26. It is possible for us today to learn from Luther together. "In this we could all learn from him that God must always remain the Lord, and that our most important human answer must always remain absolute confidence in God and our adoration of him" (Cardinal Willebrands).
    —As a theologian, preacher, pastor, hymn-writer and man of prayer, Luther has with extraordinary spiritual force witnessed anew to the biblical message of God's gift of liberating righteousness and made it shine forth.
    —Luther directs us to the priority of God's Word in the life, teaching and service of the church.
    —He calls us to a faith which is absolute trust in the God who in the life, death and resurrection of his son has shown himself to be gracious to us.
    —He teaches us to understand grace as a personal relationship of God to human beings which is unconditional and frees from fear of God's wrath and for service of one another.
    —He testifies that God's forgiveness is the only basis and hope for human life.
    —He calls the churches to constant renewal by the word of God.
    —He teaches us that unity in essentials allows for differences in customs, order and theology.
    —He shows us as a theologian how knowledge of God's mercy reveals itself only in prayer and meditation. It is the Holy Spirit who persuades us of the truth of the gospel and keeps and strengthens us in that truth in spite of all temptations.
    —He exhorts us to remember that reconciliation and Christian community can only exist where not only "the rule of faith" is followed, but also the "rule of love" "which always thinks well of everyone, is not suspicious, believes the best about its neighbors and calls anyone who is baptized a saint" (Martin Luther).

  27. Trust and reverent humility before the mystery of God's mercy are expressed in Luther's last confession which, as his spiritual and theological last will and testament, can serve as a guide in our common search for unifying truth: "We are beggars. This is true."

Kloster Kirchberg (Württemberg)

May 6th, 1983

(Information Service 52 (1983/III) 84-88 and Facing Unity. Models, Forms and Phases of Catholic-Lutheran Church Fellowship Geneva: Lutheran World Federation, 1985, pp. 72-80. ISBN 2-88190-000-3)



This document was signed by all members of the joint commission:


      The Rt. Rev. H. L. Martensen (chairman)
      The Rt. Rev. Dr. P. W. Scheele
      Prof. Dr. J. Hoffmann
      The Rev. Dr. J. F. Hotchkin
      The Rev. Chr. Mhagama
      Prof. Dr. St. Napiorkowski
      Prof. Dr. V. Pfnür


      Prof. Dr. G.A. Lindbeck (chairman)
      The Rt. Rev. D. H. Dietzfelbinger (unable to attend)
      The Rev. Dr. K. Hafenscher
      Drs. P. Nasution
      The Rev. I. K. Nsibu
      Prof. Dr. L. Thunberg
      Prof. Dr. Bertoldo Weber


      Prof. Dr. H. Legrand OP (Roman Catholic)
      Prof. Dr. H. Meyer (Lutheran)
      Prof. Dr. H. Schütte (Roman Catholic)
      Prof. Dr. Vilmos Vajta (Lutheran)


      P. Dr. P. Duprey PA (Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity)
      The. Rev. Dr. Günther Gassmann (Lutheran World Federation)
      Msgr. Dr. A. Klein (Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity)
      The Rev. Dr. C. H. Mau, Jr. (Lutheran World Federation)



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