Being Lutheran in a World with Popes
Lutherans, like Evangelicals, don’t have a place for a pope in their ecclesiastical structure, but for somewhat different reasons. Evangelicals throw out the papacy with all things regarded as “too Catholic”. Whereas Lutherans deny any papal authority in the church precisely because it’s not catholic enough. We want an authority that has belonged to the whole church from the beginning and comes from Christ himself, not one which gradually accreted power across the centuries through political maneuvering. We want what the apostles confessed, the highest repository of which we find in the Scriptures. The pope’s doctrine is not one the apostles would recognize, and so neither can we recognize it. They wouldn’t recognize it because they wouldn’t recognize the Christ which is preached, and it is the preaching of Christ that is the determining factor of what counts as apostolic. As Luther said, “Whatever does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching” (LW 35:396). If this holds for St. Peter and St. Paul, it certainly holds for new popes.
Now to the ears of some, this view of the papacy comes across as just wholesale intolerance, but before anyone rushes to express their own intolerance, they should at least know what the pope requires a person to believe about him. Philipp Melanchthon’s “Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope” sums it up well:
1. The Roman Pontiff claims for himself [in the first place] that by divine right he is [supreme] above all bishops and pastors [in all Christendom].
2. Secondly, he adds also that by divine right he has both swords, i.e., the authority also of bestowing kingdoms [enthroning and deposing kings, regulating secular dominions etc.].
3. And thirdly, he says that to believe this is necessary for salvation. And for these reasons the Roman bishop calls himself [and boasts that he is] the vicar of Christ on earth.
See Pope Boniface VIII’s papal bull, Unam Sanctam, for a Roman Catholic source of these claims.
Roman Catholic doctrine leaves no room for you to have some sort of spiritual esteem for the pope while making no submission to his spiritual authority. Read the Decrees of the Council of Trent concerning those of us who confess the Solas of the Reformation. According to Trent, we’re under the judgment of God. Hell awaits us.
So you really have only two options here: the Pope is either the Father of the Church, in which case you must submit to him, or he’s a false prophet, and you “ought to desert and execrate the Pope with his adherents as the kingdom of Antichrist; just as Christ has commanded, Matt. 7:15: Beware of false prophets” (TPPP 41).
Yet, with the recent attention on choosing a new pope, I’ve met not a few Lutherans who are trying to take a middle position on the pope as a spiritual Father to the Church. This just manifests that they don’t get Roman Catholic doctrine or the doctrine of the historic Christian church taught from the Book of Concord. The way of salvation taught and practiced by the papacy is fundamentally opposed to what the Scriptures teach. This is precisely what the Lutheran confessions declare.
The doctrine of repentance has been utterly corrupted by the Pope and his adherents. For they teach that sins are remitted because of the worth of our works. Then they bid us doubt whether the remission takes place. They nowhere teach that sins are remitted freely for Christ’s sake, and that by this faith we obtain remission of sins (TPPP 44).
The praise of Jesus Christ, the truth of the Word of God, and the salvation of those for whom Christ died are too important for us to keep silent on the spiritual damage done under the papacy. “They have…obscured the benefit [and merit] of Christ” (TPPP 45).
Yet despite nearly 500 years of Lutheran teaching on the papacy, it still exists. Year by year, the Basilica, built with the dollars of millions of people who were told by pope after pope that they could buy God’s favor with cash, is still open for business. And, as far as we know, it isn’t going to close anytime soon.
The fact is that we have to live in this world with popes and today we have to live with Pope Francis I, and in some respects I’m glad to do this — I give thanks to God for this. If I must have a pope, I want one who has the humility to care for destitute people, stand up for the unborn, and oppose the political power of the homosexual lobbyists. In Francis I we appear to have just this kind of pope. Thanks be to God. In this way, I think of him as I would any political leader (and he is a political leader). He has zero spiritual authority over me, yet he has tremendous influence in the world, and I want him to use that influence for the moral good of the world. I would rather live in a world with a civil righteousness than a world with no civil righteousness, and by all indications, Pope Francis will be a force for civil righteousness.
So with respect to the left-hand kingdom, I am thankful for Pope Francis I. With respect to the right-hand kingdom, it wasn’t possible for me to be thankful with anyone the conclave would choose.
Now perhaps believing yourself to be a stalwart Lutheran you wish to only point out what you don’t like and won’t give thanks to God for what is good. If this is your attitude toward the appointment of the new pope, consider Luther’s own words to Pope Leo X.
[M]ost excellent Leo, I beg you to give me a hearing after I have vindicated myself by this letter, and believe me when I say that I have never thought ill of you personally, that I am the kind of a person who would wish you all good things eternally, and that I have no quarrel with any man concerning his morals but only concerning the word of truth. In all other matters I will yield to any man whatsoever; but I have neither the power nor the will to deny the Word of God. If any man has a different opinion concerning me, he does not think straight or understand what I have actually said (LW 31:335-336).
If all you have to say about Pope Francis is bad, you’re not steadfastly Lutheran, you’re just an ungrateful one. Give thanks for what is good, oppose what is evil. That’s the way good Lutherans do it.
And if you are more delighted with the Pope as a force for moral good in this world than you are troubled by the false doctrine which condemns people to hell, then you have your priorities out of order. Christ’s righteousness is infinitely more valuable than civil righteousness, for it is the only thing that can save any of us from God’s judgment.
The merits of Christ are all we need before God, and when we are tempted by the Pope with anything other than Christ alone we should say with Luther what he said to the Devil. ‘But if [Christ] is not enough for you, you Devil, I have also shit and pissed; wipe your mouth on that and take a hearty bite’ (Luther quoted in Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil , p. 107).
But Christ’s righteousness is not enough in the life before our neighbor. Yes, Pope Francis will be a danger in the church, but he will be a force for good in the world. Make sure you have a place for both of these truths in how you think and talk about him in the coming days.