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The Fossilization of Martin Luther

G.K. Chesterton acknowledged that there were Lutherans who were still strong and sincere Christians, but he argued that the original theology itself did not hold, only the form remained.

What is a fossil? I’ll come back and answer that question in a moment.

In the meantime, we move toward the completion of our commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. One great way to do this is to read the book There We Stood, Here We Stand (2001), edited by Tim Drake. It is a collection of testimonials by former Lutherans who converted to Catholicism.

All converts have to face questions. From others and from themselves. But a Lutheran becoming a Catholic is faced with the big questions that led to one of history’s turning points half a millennium ago, questions that they had assumed were already answered: What is the place of the Pope? Of the priest? Of Mary? What are the sacraments? What is apostolic authority? Is there a continuity to the Catholic Church that is not found elsewhere? One of the realizations encountered by these men and women was that they belonged to a denomination born of protest, a church that had turned its back on the Church. Then they faced an even more uncomfortable realization: that their own church had turned its back on itself. When, for instance, the leadership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) started setting policies in direct contradiction to what their church had always taught regarding sexual morality and the sanctity of human life, the questions they faced were: What do we do now? Where do we go? Do we break off once again from a corrupt church and “re-form” into a new-improved sect, or do we return to the first Church from whence all others churches have splintered?

One of the surprising things is that some of these Lutherans became Catholic not because of Catholics, but almost in spite of them. There are those in the Catholic Church who are not pleased to see conversions such as these because these converts take their new found faith and their new found church quite seriously. They really want a Church that speaks with authority against the fads and fashions of the world, rather than a Church that is only too anxious to have its own agenda set by those fads and fashions. While the Catholic Church represents a kind of unity not found among the literally thousands of Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church is not without its own problems of dissension and disagreement. But even the continuing controversies in the Catholic Church are a form of continuity not found in the protestant sects which not only cannot maintain the traditions, but cannot even maintain the arguments against the traditions. The point is Reform has not been able to maintain its Form. Or perhaps a better way of saying it is that the only thing it has retained is its form. It has lost its substance.

Which brings us to fossils. What is a fossil? Best to have that great scientist, G.K. Chesterton, explain:

A fossil is not a dead animal, or a decayed organism, or in essence even an antiquated object. The whole point of a fossil is that it is the form of an animal or organism, from which all its own animal or organic substance has entirely disappeared; but which has kept its shape, because it has been filled up by some totally different substance by some process of distillation or secretion, so that we might almost say, as in the medieval metaphysics, that its substance has vanished and only its accidents remain.

That’s really good. Did you see how he took two things from two completely different disciplines and put together a complete thought? Now let’s bring it back to Luther.

Lutheranism started out as one thing. It became something totally different. But it was still called Lutheranism. Even Luther himself started as one thing and became something else. He really did set out to reform the Catholic Church; he ended by rejecting it. He rejected the Authority of that body that was authorized by Christ himself and set up Martin Luther as the new authority. But that was not a universal authority recognized by others, and soon many of his own followers broke away from him. Before his death he was shocked and saddened by all the different splinter groups that had already formed in Germany. It was just the beginning. To his everlasting credit, Luther expressed misgivings over what he had done.

Chesterton acknowledged that there were Lutherans who were still strong and sincere Christians, but he argued that the original theology itself did not hold, only the form remained, and across the centuries other enthusiasms came in to fill the void left by decayed Lutheranism. Chesterton saw this first hand. He was writing in 1935. He watched the Nazis singing  “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” He saw the insane enthusiasm of a new “Race Religion” rush into the void in the Lutheran Church in Germany. It was not anything Luther would have recognized, but unfortunately it still had his name on it.

Chesterton concludes:

The main moral of this is so large and simple and striking, that it will soon be impossible to conceal it from the world. It is the simple fact that the moment men began to contradict the Church with their own private judgment, everything they did was incredibly ill-judged; that those who broke away from the Church’s basis almost immediately broke down on their own basis; that those who tried to stand apart  from Authority could not in fact stand at all… Protestantism could not stand in the staggering rush of the West; it could only maintain itself by ceasing to be itself, and announcing its readiness to turn into anything else.

About Dale Ahlquist 23 Articles

Dale Ahlquist is president of the American Chesterton Society, creator and host of the EWTN series “G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense,” and publisher of Gilbert Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.

20 Comments

  1. “The original theology didn’t not hold.” Well tell that to John Piper or Al Mohler or the booming Gospel Coalition, for starters. Chesterton was undeniably brilliant, but he also was undeniably in over his head when commenting in more than soundbites about Protestantism beyond the confines of the Anglicanism he knew.

    • Would you then argue that Piper and Mohler adhere closely to Luther’s key beliefs about free will, faith, grace, authority, and Scripture? Or is it the case that they, in fact, have as much or more in common with Catholic doctrine?

        • “But GKC was pretty flippant in his dismissal of ‘Calvinism’ (essentially Luther’s doctrine in “Bondage of the Will’) , and Mohler and Piper are definitely five point Calvinists.”

          Admittedly, there is a kind of rigor and clarity in full-blown Calvinism that demands some careful response.

          Fortunately, the number of genuine five point Calvinists left in this country could probably fit inside a couple Wal-Mart SuperCenters. In Europe, it would be even less. Mohler is probably one of the few even at his own seminary.

          • You’re quite wrong, actually. There is a big Calvinist revival, fueled by on-fire Christians. It might not fill up Rhode Island, but it would fill up the Mall of America. I am on Rome’s side, but have to observe that right now, they seem more biblical than the Pope. As for fossils, I wonder if GKC would consider J. Gresham Machan or Martin Llloyd-Jones fossils? Again, it’s not the disagreement, but the triumphalism.

      • A follow up. I agree with GKC’s observation on Luther (in his book on Aquinas): Luther *did* often embody the modern phenomenon of rhetoric based disproportionately on the strength of personality versus logic (a new book called ‘Brand Luther’ substantiates this much). My point is he was also wrong in dismissing Luther’s theology as foolishly ‘obsolete,’ when regardless of its merits, it has enjoyed continuing life. It does not help an argument to belittle the opposing dogma as one ‘everyone knows’ is foolish or has discarded, especially if many noble people have continued to advocate it.

      • In Lutheranism there is this massive book that summarizes Lutheran doctrine called the Book of Concord. It was put together in 1580 and millions of Lutherans around the world still adhere to every word of it. So whatever this article wishes to suggest about Lutheranism, it seems to be flawed by ignoring some easily researched facts.

      • I don’t think I am. I think others are missing the fact that Luther was a precursor of Calvinism, and that belief system is still strong and alive. Crossway Books, publisher of the ESV, for example, is a commercial advocate prospering based on sales that include strongly reformed literature.

  2. One understands the point of Chesterton (and Ahlquist) about Lutheranism yet I did find the first Chesterson citation a bit unclear since with Catholic philosophy (as in Aristotle and St. Thomas) the human person is the substance (unum per se) while the soul is the “form” of the body, that is, the “essence” of that substance. Here Chesterton seems to be saying that the form is the “shape” (of the body) which for Aristotle would be accidental (i.e. not substantial). Chesterton does not equivocate on “form” and “shape” by using these in the common dictionary sense (and he does acknowledge shape as accidental) but the transition to Aristotelian terms is not smooth and exact with his use of the term “form” which for Aristotle was equated with the essential (i.e. more substantial) principal. In using such terms it might be better to suggest that the soul of Lutheranism “has vanished” rather than its organic material.

  3. “Lutheranism started out as one thing. It became something totally different. But it was still called Lutheranism. Even Luther himself started as one thing and became something else. He really did set out to reform the Catholic Church; he ended by rejecting it. He rejected the Authority of that body that was authorized by Christ himself and set up Martin Luther as the new authority. But that was not a universal authority recognized by others, and soon many of his own followers broke away from him. Before his death he was shocked and saddened by all the different splinter groups that had already formed in Germany. It was just the beginning. To his everlasting credit, Luther expressed misgivings over what he had done.”

    Exactly the same can be said of Marcel Lefebvre – except for the last sentence. He went to his death, excommunicated from Holy Mother Church because of his own words and deeds, stubborn and obdurate and obstinate in his belief that he was right and that the Pope and the Church were wrong.

    • “…stubborn and obdurate and obstinate in his belief that he was right and that the Pope and the Church were wrong.”

      I cannot defend the consecrations of 1988. But Lefebvre was far from alone in sensing that a genuine rupture had taken place in the life of the Church in the 1960’s, even if the doctrine remained mostly (but only nominally) intact. And in some ways, he has been vindicated: For example, he insisted that the traditional Roman Rite could never be abrogated, never had been abrogated, and must be free for any Latin Rite priest to celebrate. Most prelates and canonists in the 70’s and 80’s disagreed with him, and John Paul II was unwilling to say otherwise. But Summorum Pontificum vindicated that stance, 16 years after his death.

      We can say, perhaps, that Lefebvre committed a schismatic act (as John Paul II put it). But I think we also have to concede that, unlike Luther, Lefebvre remained a Catholic to his dying day, be he excommunicated or no. His ultimate fate is left in God’s hands.

  4. In no stretch of the imagination could GK Chesterton be called a ‘great scientist’. Failing to get that right is scarcely a good beginning of a theologically critical article. Literary critic, freelance artist (and a dabbler in the occult as a boy). His wife appears to have steered him back to Anglicanism from where he embarked for Catholicism. Mixing metaphors, he rather seems to avhe agreed with Mrs Crooks (see chapter V ‘Nationalism & Notting Hill’ of his autobiography via project gutenberg): ‘”A man doesn’t want a cutlet! What’s the good of a cutlet? What a man wants is a good chump chop or a bit of the under-cut; and I’d see he got it.” ie Anglicanism he apparently eventually found a pale imitation of Catholicism and he wanted ‘meatier stuff’.

    • Huh. “a dabbler in the occult as a boy.” I assume that when you mention Augustine, you casually note he was a sexually active gnostic as a young man? Good grief.

        • I thought it was clear that Dale is only using a literary license here – not meant to be taken literally. After all, we are not talking about actual fossils here, but metaphorical ones.

  5. Perhaps the Inquisition carried out in the name of the Church and at the behest of its leaders and, amongst others, the practices adopted to pay for the new St Paul’s Cathedral e.g. ‘Sobald der Pfennig im Kasten klingt, die Selle aus dem Fegfeuer springt’ (and the immorality of a number of its priests and popes (among imperfect humanity they certainly figured as did Luther) would have rendered Catholicism in its activities if not in its doctrines almost unrecognisable to Christ. And in some instances surely reformation and change was recognised as very necessary. Just as the Wesleys originally hoped to remain within the Anglican Church, so too Luther believed initially reform could be effected from within. But ultimately this was not to be … but we await a greater union, one that is presaged by the ‘Joint Declaration on Justification’…

  6. Actually Lutheranism has changed so enormously since Luther’s day he probably wouldn’t be a Lutheran, certainly not an Evangelical Lutherans of America member. One red flaming difference: Ordination of Women and active homosexual clergy. Another is the Lutheran performance studies that has replaced Luther’s liturgy … Do a little study and you’ll find Lutheranism has become just one more pale lock in the gray periwig of liberal Protestantism.

    Lutheranism is shrinking at 2% a year worldwide, so soon they’ll be only a footnote to the history of the Holy Catholic Church. No amount of ecumenical diddling is going to change that.

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