Luther's The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

I just had the opportunity to read Luther’s The Babylonian Captivity of the Church and thought I’d post some comments on it. What follows is a brief review of Part 1 of that work:

Undoubtedly, Martin Luther stands as one of the great towers that looms over the horizons of Church history—especially from a Protestant perspective. Luther is known best, perhaps, for boldly and courageously drafting and nailing his 95 Theses to the doors of the Catholic Church. Yet, a simple perusing of any number of his writings reveals that it was customary for him to speak with such an air of boldness. So it goes in his indictment of the Roman teachings concerning the Eucharist titled The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.

In part one (the focus here), Luther launches an all-out assault against three particular practices of the Roman Church of his time: 1) the Denial of the cup to the laity, 2) the Doctrine of Transubstantiation, and 3) the act of turning the Lord’s Supper into a work. Systematically, Luther addresses and works through each of these issues as he seeks to debunk them. Moreover, he is not reticent about taking on the Roman Church at all and is quite bold with the labels that he applies to them: “the kingdom of Babylon,” “the power of Nimrod,” “The Grand Hunting of the Bishop of Rome,” “messengers of satan,” “tyrants” and “idolaters.” Ironically, while Luther is not at all shy about making such comments on the Roman Church as a whole, throughout the work he repeatedly announces—and almost with a flair of humility at times—that he will abstain from mentioning the names of specific opponents. Later, though, he mentions that that he would rather not waste ink or writing their names down.

The first few pages of The Babylonian Captivity consist of Luther charging the Roman “tyrants” of being Scripture-twisters. Indeed, he argues that if a Roman scholar so chooses, he “can prove anything he pleases from any passage of Scripture he pleases.” Luther makes such comments in reference to passages such as Mt. 26, Mk. 14, Lk. 22, Jn. 6 and 1 Cor. 11—all passages with Eucharistic significance whose words and meanings have been changed by high Church authorities. While he is rather tough on others in this essay, the reformer, at points, is also quite critical of himself. At one point, in reference to a number of his previous works that approved of indulgences, he even goes as far as saying, “Would that I could prevail upon the booksellers and persuade all who have read them to burn the whole of my booklets…” While Luther’s genuineness is not to be doubted here, there is little room to doubt that this was also a powerful rhetorical device that from the outset contrasted his willingness to repent with the Roman officials who refused to.

In his discussion concerning the denial of the cup to the laity, Luther charges the ecclesiastical authorities with lording the gift of the Supper over the common believer. One of his chief arguments is that the body and blood of Christ were given for “all,” not an elite few. He illustrates that the “popish flatterers” have wholly changed 1 Cor. 11.23 to defend their practices. The passage, he argues, says, “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you,” not, “what I permitted to you.” In other words, the Roman Church was using the passage to argue that “permission” to partake of the Supper must come through them. All Luther could call this was “godlessness and despotism.”

When he moves on to his second point, the Doctrine of Transubstantiation, Luther waxes simple. Unlike his “sophist” opponents who have shrouded their teaching in “the pseudo philosophy of Aristotle” so that the commoner might not understand it, he endeavors to keep the Doctrine of the Eucharist easy-to-understand. To be sure, he is apt to engage in the philosophical debates about “substances” and “accidents.” In fact, he has such a good grasp of the concepts that he is able to make light of the “babble” and “metaphysical trivialities” throughout, for instance, when he comments: “If a ‘transubstantiation’ must be assumed in order that Christ’s body may not be identified with the bread, why not also a ‘transaccidentation,’ in order that the body of Christ may not be identified with the accidents?”

Luther’s considers the third topic, the act of turning the Lord’s Supper into a righteous work, the most heinous and “wicked abuse of all.” For most modern readers, this portion of Luther’s work would probably sound the most familiar, as it has to do with “works righteousness.” The sum of his argument is that “mass” is the “divine promise or testament of God” and therefore, a gift that humanity should freely receive. However, the ecclesiastical leaders, instead of receiving it freely, have suggested that it is an event whereby a special few are able to make sacrifice back to God—which, is to say that they have greater precedence before the Divine than all others. In Luther’s eyes, this is precisely where the Supper had become so corrupt because, “When we ought to be grateful for the benefits received, we come arrogantly to give that which we ought to take.” To put it succinctly: Luther saw communion strictly as a gift from God to humanity and for humanity to try to give the gift back to God so as to try to earn His merit, was nothing short of invoking His “wrath” so that it might “[rage] against us.”

Despite Luther's harshness at times, this is an intersting work to read and provides some good insight into his life and the context of the early years of the Reformation.

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