The Teaching Authority of Dr. Martin Luther, Professor of Theology

(Copied from a closed thread, where it was off-topic anyway):

'd like your comments on the situation regarding church teaching authority in 1520. I think I’ve read that there was a great deal of confusion about where the true center of church teaching was - some held it was with the universities, especially Paris, and some with the Pope. But papal authority had been severely weakened since the time of the two popes and there was what could be charitably described as a disinterest in teaching authority on the part of the papacy. Luther was actually a professor of theology, charged with defending the teaching of the Church, and I think his understanding was that he was simply doing his job in this regard. The CAF “myth” is that Church teaching was unified and solid when actually there were many theories going around, most of which had not been officially ruled on, and there was a lot of bad teaching (bad in a sense that both Catholics and Protestants would agree is bad) that had not been cleaned up by the Church. Luther saw himself as cleaning it up, in line with his official duties.

I think Alistair McGrath put that forth in his unspellable book on justification. But don’t blame him for whatever “helpful” comments I added. And “myth” here is not meant disparagingly.

He had no teaching authority apart from that given to him by the Church, official Church teaching was well established on quite a number of topics, the existence of some who disagree with it is entirely irrelevant, and once a teaching is promulgated by the authority established by Christ then he was bound to submit to it (as are all followers of Christ).

Were there abuses? Certainly. Was the Church slow in cleaning house? Absolutely. Did Luther have the authority to cause schism? Absolutely not.

Priests of the Catholic Church have never had Magisterial teaching authority. In fact, before St. Dominic founded the Order of Preachers, priests and deacons were not allowed to preach at all! It is only bishops with the fullness of Holy Orders, the successors to the Apostles, who have teaching authority in the Church.

What do you think were Luther’s official duties then? Whatever these official duties were…they were given to him by the Church…by his superior in the Augustinian order or his bishop.

From Rom 11…18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.

Luther cut himself off from his roots that could have made his reforms come to fruition.

And have you heard of Catherine of Sienna? She was a reformer prior to Luther. She reformed the Church without the need to cause a split in the Church. So why did Luther see a need to split the church, when a reformer prior to him did not split the Church?

Luther saw himself quite sublimely, but what’s the issue or question here??

I’m, sorry, I thought I was clear. Perhaps if I say a few more words, given a few further thoughts stimulated by the above.

Bishops consult theologians when they make major decisions, I expect, and I expect they hover in the background at Councils. What was Luther’s recognized teaching authority in his day and age? As a result of various reforms internal to the Catholic Church, perhaps the emphatically episcopal authority has been instituted.

I’m not focusing here on the content of his teaching, or its results. I am looking at his position.

Aquinas was another non-episcopal teacher in the Church. There have been other non-episcopal teachers, perhaps Catherine of Sienna was one? Was her teaching accepted only when it got episcopal approval? Or Francis of Assissi. But for this thread let’s look at what Luther could legitimately have done regarding teaching things, in his day, not through the lens of today’s Church.

Yes, though you miss out the major contender–Councils. I suppose in a way universities were the equivalent on the “ordinary” level, in between Councils (universities were represented at Councils, along with bishops and religious orders). That’s why Luther could make the case for his own teaching authority. But in fact no one thought that a single theology professor could just go rogue and make up his own orthodoxy, which is exactly what Luther did.

You’re absolutely right that there was confusion, and that’s why Luther can’t really be said to be defying the Church until Leipzig. But he made a definite decision to do so at that point. He was against the Pope, against the Councils, against the universities. Sure, you can make the case that because authority was so confused it’s understandable that he’d reject all of them. But that is relevant if we’re talking culpability, not if we’re discussing whether or not he actually made a choice to go against the consensus of the Church, which he indubitably did.

The CAF “myth” is that Church teaching was unified and solid when actually there were many theories going around

Yes, but Luther rejected all of them (thinking of justification specifically), and rejected any authority that might possibly hold *his *novel theories to account.


You’re right to point out that 16th century Church wasn’t nearly as centralized as it is today, with many areas arguing for traditional “Gallican liberties” and such. However, despite the several sources of teaching authority in the late medieval/early modern Western Church, the thing is they were all held to the standard of Catholicity. What one theologian argued could only be held to be true when it did not conflict with the corpus of Catholic teaching inherited from preceding centuries. Thus whenever someone appeared teaching something novel, he was immediately subject to scrutiny of his peers in the other faculties and chapters throughout Europe. Sometimes the criticism that would result in condemnation could be slow in coming, such as in a post Reformation case like Jansenism, which wasn’t finally condemned until roughly 70 years after Jansenius’s death. Luther, however immediately attracted attention to himself, thus speeding up the machinery which decided these things.

The difference between the authority of the doctors of the Sorbonne for instance, vs the bishops, was that the bishops alone have the ability to finally and irrevocably define dogma, when acting in concert in an ecumenical council. Theologians can speculate and argue, but ultimately theological faculties are purely consultative bodies.

When was this defined? Can you show that this was explicitly in force in Luther’s time?

I think what you are saying is that a professor, such as Luther, was analogous to a professor today. A professor of econ, for example, might develop a theory as to the proper regulatory regime for the buggy whip industry, and this would be passed around his fellow profs for peer review and humming and hawing. But regardless of whether the other profs approved of the theory, some economic minister, analogous to the bishop, might attempt to implement the theory.

By the way, I am not looking for an “Out” for Luther. I think he based what he did not on his standing in the Church but on other things. The present question is what was his standing in the Church.

My suspicion here is that he regarded the locus of that consensus to be in the Scriptures rather than in the institutionalized Church and he felt he was in a position where he had to not only choose but proclaim his loyalty. As a teacher, the source of his authority was what was given him by the Church, but what he taught was that the only valid source for his authority was the Scriptures, they being the “consensus of the Church” - that consensus being unobtainable elsewhere, due to said confusion. Speculation. Comments?

But what Eck showed him in 1519 was that on some of the points he was arguing there wasn’t confusion. And the major universities condemned him. Sure, Luther would say that the Scriptures were the authority that mattered–but your use of the word “consensus” doesn’t make any sense. It was Luther’s interpretation that mattered to Luther–that’s not “consensus” by any reasonable definition. This is particularly true given Luther’s frank admission that not all of Scripture supported his positions–he had to select certain books as the ones through which the others should be read, and again he went against the historic consensus in doing so (by demoting the Synoptic Gospels relative to John and the letters of Paul).


Still can’t blame Luther for doing what he did (Remember we didn’t have popes like Blessed Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI…we had Borgia popes ). The Church was grossly neglecting its duties.

But that was what 500 years ago? Things have changed instead of bickering over “Luther was right” or “Luther the heretic should burn” arguments…I think we should try and get Lutherans back into the Church peacefully. You know bringing Christianity back under One Church? :thumbsup:

This is exactly what I’m saying. As for “proving” that this was in case, it’s not really something that was ever legislated. Just that according to canon law, only the Church gathered in council has the authority to define dogma. As far as theologians were invited to participate in these councils they did influence these decisions, but a faculty in a university in itself had no authority to declare its theories orthodox. Granted, the fact that these people were members of the faculty assumed that anything that they said would be orthodox, but this was not always the case, and where their views came into conflict with other theologians and the bishops’ they were condemned.

I mentioned the case of Cornelius Jansen, who was himself not only a theologian but also the Bishop of Ypres, who formulated a model of Justification not dissimilar from that of Luther and Calvin. His writings weren’t published until after his death in 1640, so he never experienced censure. However, as his ideas spread, gaining popularity especially in France, Belgium, and among the Catholics in the Netherlands, they attracted the (often negative) attention of other theologians in the major universities as well as the bishops in the territories in which the “Jansenist” theology was spreading.

Proponents of Jansenius’s views of course pointed to his role as a theologian and even as a bishop to give legitimacy to his ideas. I think this is what you’re getting at with regard to Luther, saying that he himself would have believed his position as a professor of theology granted him the authority to propound doctrine (though as you say, ultimately he based his authority on his biblical studies rather than any title he personally held). However, the consensus of the Church, as measured by the bishops and the universities, was overwhelmingly opposed to the Jansenist propositions.

Nevertheless, several key church leaders did lend their support to the movement, such as the Cardinal de Noailles in Louis XIV’s France who gave his imprimatur to various Jansenist publications. Finally the anti-Jansenists successfully made their case at the highest levels and in 1713 Pope Clement XI formally condemned the major Jansenist propositions. Cardinal de Noailles obediently withdrew his imprimatur from the Jansenist party in France, though only after much bank and forth and incurring the opposition of over a hundred French bishops. With their printing presses and teachings silenced, the Jansenists gradually fell into obscurity over the course of the 18th century.

I use this example as it demonstrates how complicated these matters could get, even over a century after Luther, when you’d expect controls to have been tightened by Trent. The moral is that yes, with the right credentials you could propagate your views fairly efficiently, provided the local bishop and the civil authority could be persuaded to look benevolently on you, and it would take major lobbying by your theological opponents to finally get the long arm of Rome involved.

Where Jansen differs from Luther of course, is that he himself was a pillar of Church authority in his own right, his instructions for posthumous publication of his ideas declaring “If, however, the Holy See wishes any change, I am an obedient son, and I submit to that Church in which I have lived to my dying hour. This is my last wish.” This spirit was largely imitated by his followers as well, most of whom conceded when Rome came down fully and finally against their doctrine.


I give thanks for popes such as Benedict XVI for their leadership in this regard, and I hope and pray that the leadership in the LCMS will become more open to the ecumenical dialogue, particularly with the momentum given to us by our allaince with the CC on the HHS mandate, and Hosanna -Tabor (ministerial exception) issues.


Edwin, would you mind breaking down, even generally, the areas in which you believe there was confusion. My only real point is that I do not believe there was any confusion concerning doctrine. No doubt about the abuses and sins of some of the clergy, which in themselves might cause confusion among the faithful, but do you believe there was confusion concerning doctrine? I know in St. Francis’ time, 300 year prior to the Reformation, Francis was told by Christ to “rebuild my Church”. It was not doctrinal issues with which Francis challenged the Church, but rather living the Gospel authentically. Bishops would weep when Francis preached. It was a matter of repentance; of putting flesh on the words of the Gospel. I may be way off here, but I believe the same issue was at hand in Luther’s time. The doctrinal issues came years later.

Anyway, I would appreciate your comments, thanks.

Specifically TruthStalker was talking about questions of authority. “Confusion” was his word, but I think it’s fair given the unresolved conflicts between pope and council and between pope and emperor, and the diverse authority structures within late medieval Christendom generally. In fact, I would say that even today there are issues about the relationship between primacy and collegiality, as well as between the Magisterium and the individual conscience, that have not been fully resolved and that cause some confusion. Of course, I don’t think every question can be nailed down neatly or should be–I think that modern Catholics have a much better framework for thinking about these issues than early sixteenth-century Catholics did.

For instance, the concept of apostolic succession of bishops wasn’t really stressed in the early sixteenth century. One Lutheran scholar and bishop has even claimed that the idea was invented in the 1530s–at least this interpretation was cited with confidence by another Lutheran at a conference I attended (I haven’t read the original work). That’s certainly wrong (to put it gently), but the opinion seems to be based on the fact that early Catholic opponents of Protestantism didn’t draw on the concept of apostolic succession. I’ve said critical things about Trent, but one of the great achievements of Trent was reaffirming the authority of bishops.

There were a lot of other points where doctrinal lines hadn’t been drawn as clearly as they later were, including issues related to penance and justification, which of course were the issues that Luther was concerned with.

I know in St. Francis’ time, 300 year prior to the Reformation, Francis was told by Christ to “rebuild my Church”. It was not doctrinal issues with which Francis challenged the Church, but rather living the Gospel authentically. Bishops would weep when Francis preached. It was a matter of repentance; of putting flesh on the words of the Gospel. I may be way off here, but I believe the same issue was at hand in Luther’s time. The doctrinal issues came years later.

No. As Luther himself said, that is what made him different from earlier reformers. He was concerned about doctrine from the beginning.


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