I just looked at the thread on whether Luther was unjustly excommunicated, and noticed that as often happens the discussion was a bit vague. Claims were made about “what Luther taught” without specific citations. So here are the teachings of Luther condemned in the papal bull *Exsurge Domine, *which was essentially a shot across the bow warning Luther he’d be excommunicated if he didn’t recant (he didn’t, and so he was). And if you wonder why the Pope was so longsuffering with one obnoxious friar, bear in mind that Luther had a very powerful protector (Elector Frederick of Saxony), and was already gaining a wide reputation–apart from any genuine concerns with justice and mercy that he may have had, the Pope had to tread carefully and prepare the ground thoroughly.
Anyway, here are the condemned teachings, with my comments on whether I think they should have been condemned or not. I welcome feedback from both Protestants and Catholics. (But remember that these are summaries of Luther’s teachings as understood by the Papal curia.)
- It is a heretical opinion, but a common one, that the sacraments of the New Law give pardoning grace to those who do not set up an obstacle.
Luther is rejecting standard medieval (and ongoing Catholic) sacramental teaching here by calling this view heretical. To me the question is “what is the obstacle”? I understand Luther’s concern–that this language makes it sound as if grace just works automatically apart from faith–but given that a lack of faith is certainly seen as an obstacle in Catholic theology, I think Luther was overreacting. Maybe the formulation he’s criticizing is less than ideal, but it’s not heretical. And so one can’t blame the Pope for condemning Luther’s condemnation, although one can wish that both sides had been more willing to engage in dialogue here!
- To deny that in a child after baptism sin remains is to treat with contempt both Paul and Christ.
Again, this is a matter of definition. I can see arguments on both sides, but on the whole I come down on the Catholic side here. Sin “properly so called,” to quote Wesley, is a deliberate act of the will. One can legitimately say that sin remains in the believer if one defines one’s terms carefully. I suspect that Luther is thinking of Romans 7 and similar passages–“when I would do good, evil is present with me.” But the Catholic position also expresses something found in Scripture–that baptism genuinely washes sin away. So again, Luther’s outright condemnation of the traditional view is unwarranted.
- The inflammable sources of sin, even if there be no actual sin, delay a soul departing from the body from entrance into heaven.
This brings us to the question of the nature of Purgatory. (And yes, in the period of his theology from which this material was taken, Luther did believe in Purgatory, but he had an innovative theory about it.) Is it a judicial punishment? If so, then this brings us back to whether the “tinder of sin” that remains in baptized believers is itself sin in a strict sense. But I don’t think the view of Purgatory as a judicial punishment is defensible. And if Purgatory is the purgation of whatever lingering attachment to sin we may have (even if it isn’t culpable), then Luther’s view makes sense.
- To one on the point of death imperfect charity necessarily brings with it great fear, which in itself alone is enough to produce the punishment of purgatory, and impedes entrance into the kingdom.
Here I think Luther is on even sounder ground. If charity is what unites us to God, then imperfect charity is going to hinder our perfect union with God, and I think he shows both theological and psychological insight in saying that this happens through fear. (And yes, I know that Luther’s later theology was rather different. We are dealing here with the views condemned by the Pope in 1520.)
- That there are three parts to penance: contrition, confession, and satisfaction, has no foundation in Sacred Scripture nor in the ancient sacred Christian doctors.
Here Luther is once again making sweeping statements that can’t be defended. I think his main problem is the concept of satisfaction, and I would say that it does indeed need to be nuanced carefully. But the three-part structure developed over time based indeed on Scripture and the Fathers and shouldn’t simply be thrown out.