An Argument Against An Infallible Papacy, Luther Style

Recently Concordia Publishing House released Luther’s Works Volume 69. It’s a new English translation of Luther’s writing not previously available in English. While the volume is primarily a verse by verse commentary of John 17-20, interspersed are some interesting apologetic arguments against Romanism. (A word of caution: if you follow the above link to Concordia Publishing and fill out the form to receive the new volume of Luther’s Works, it may arrive at your door in a few days, without paying for it first. The invoice arrived a day before the book showed up at my front door. Only fill out the form if you plan on buying the book).

One such argument concerns the papacy and infallibility. Without anything explicit establishing either Biblically, Roman Catholics read much into such texts like Matthew 16. Without anything explicit, the argument is typically one of inference. For instance, Catholic Answers states, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). Here Peter was singled out for the authority that provides for the forgiveness of sins and the making of disciplinary rules.” ” It was Simon, weak as he was, who was chosen to become the rock and thus the first link in the chain of the papacy.” Of course, Luther dealt with similar arguments. The following is his response from Luther’s Works, Volume 69, pp. 178- 181. Luther is commenting on John 18:13, concerning Annas and Caiaphas, the Jewish high priests.

But I want to come now to theology and doctrine. We should learn here that no one should place his trust in men, even if he is in an estate ordained by God. But if we are not to believe nor to put our trust in Annas and Caiaphas, how are we to believe or trust the devil, the pope in Rome, the monks in monasteries, or the godless bishops? God so thoroughly forbids putting trust in any man that one should not even trust in those who are in the highest, best, and most secure estates. For no estate on earth has been so gloriously confirmed as was the estate of Annas and Caiaphas. If Annas and Caiaphas became scoundrels in their order and estate, even though it was the most exalted on earth, then you should learn from this not to esteem any man on the basis of his estate or see. The papal jurists exalted their pope and said, “Non est praesumendum, quod tantae altitudinis apex possit errare“- “It is not to be presumed that the pope in such a lofty station can err.” Against this claim I set the following: Annas and Caiaphas occupy a loftier position and sit on a greater throne than do the pope and the emperor. Yet they not only err but also are scoundrels and knaves-the worst scoundrels and knaves ever to have lived on earth, for they crucified the Son of God. We know this from the wicked things they did to Christ, so that we hold them in scorn whenever we speak their names. But we should recognize that they were the most exalted people according to Gods ordinance, and their estate was the holiest and highest that ever was. Therefore, I should not hesitate to pull off [anyone else’s] mask and say, “I must not put my trust here, even if it is what the pope or a cardinal or the emperor says,for even the most exalted of men can err and go astray.”

But if you now say, “Whom, then, are we to trust and believe?” read the First Commandment: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God”[Exod. 20:5]. There it is clearly written whom you are to trust: namely, the Lord God alone. So now if the pope says something, I am not obligated to hold to it unless,to be sure, he brings God’s Word. For God says that we are to fear and trust Him only, even if He speaks to us through a donkey [cf. Num. 22:28-30]. For this reason you should say: “Dear pope, you are high, holy, learned. But that you cannot err on that account-that I don’t believe.” If, indeed, they say, “Do you think the councils can err?” answer them this: “Haven’t you read about two men, Annas and Caiaphas by name, who were scoundrels? Now if such eminent people, in such a high, holy estate, ordained and instituted by God, have fallen away even to the point of crucifying God’s Son, it follows that other men can also fall and err.” Annas and Caiaphas were much more learned and wise, and the obedience due them was much greater than that due the pope. This is evident in that though everyone else among the Jews heard Christ’s preaching and saw His miracles, no one dared acknowledge or follow Him publicly [John 12:42]; and when Christ was taken captive, no one dared to make himself known, so great were the respect and obedience accorded the high priest by the whole people.

So note well John’s words: “Caiaphas was high priest for the year.” And yet that same high priest may be such a scoundrel and knave that he crucifies the Son of God. The office of high priest was, indeed, the highest office and the most glorious title, and yet the worst scoundrels held this office and title. Now, since the high priests have done such things, we should not henceforth believe any man unless he brings with him God’s clear, pure Word. St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4[:2], “Nothing is more requisite of stewards than that they be found faithful.” You should pay close attention to whether such a one is faithful, for all kinds of shortcomings in a preacher or bishop can be tolerated, but unfaithfulness cannot and should not be tolerated in them…. Is it possible for the pope not to err when these two, Annas and Caiaphas, who were instituted in office by God much more gloriously than any pope, not only erred but lapsed so shamefully that they condemned the Son of God to death?

This was the glory of the high priests: that the people had been commanded to accept everything they said [Deut. 17:12].133 The pope does not possess such a glory. Now, if you conclude from this as follows: “The high priest’s judgment must be accepted; Annas and Caiaphas are the high priests of the people, and they judge and decide that Christ must be slain; therefore, one must accept this judgment of the high priests”-then you have been deceived already! Therefore, the Holy Spirit put this here to teach the contrary-that Annas and Caiaphas were high priests at the time, and yet Christ was condemned to death by their judgment?so that no one would put his confidence in any human being, no matter how high and holy he may be.

Bishops, cardinals, and the entire papal clergy rest on this foundation: “The Christian Church cannot err; therefore, the pope likewise cannot err since he is the head of the Church.” But you, forearm yourself against this and say: “Pope this, pope that! If Caiaphas could err, so also can the pope.” And he proves this with his deeds as well. For the pope denies Christ and kills Him, just as those high priests denied Christ and sentenced Him to death. We would not have expected to read that the high priests Annas and Caiaphas crucified Christ. Rather, it should say, “Barabbas crucified Christ.” But the evangelist says ‘that Christ was led bound, first to Annas, and then to Caiaphas, who was the high priest for the year, in order to indicate this extraordinary and astonishing fact: that the highest and holiest of people on earth are often God’s worst enemies. For this reason we should not put our trust in any human being, even if he occupies a high office and a position of great glory.