“If the world lasts for a long time, it will again be necessary, on account of the many interpretations which are now given to the Scriptures, to receive the decrees of councils, and take refuge in them, in order to preserve the unity of faith.” Epis. ad. Zwingli (ap. Balmes, p. 423)” – Martin Luther
It is an odd occurrence when Catholic apologists cite Martin Luther. I’ve found citations to editions of Luther’s writings that have been out of print for hundreds of years, or citations from his writings that have never been translated into English. The quote above is a perfect example. One is left wondering if the current batch of Catholic apologists are fluent in Latin and German and have access to the rarest of books in the Luther corpus. So far, none has admitted either.
For instance, commenting on this very citation, a footnote from Catholic apologist Steve Ray says, “In a letter to Heinrich Zwingli, Martin Luther conceded that reformers would again have to take refuge in the Church councils in order to preserve the unity of faith on account of the many interpretations that were given to the Scriptures (see Epis. ad. Zwingli)” [Source: Crossing the Tiber: Evangelical Protestants Discover the Historical Church, p. 45]. He’s also cited this quote in a few articles available on-line (documented here).
I strongly doubt Steve Ray actually read “Epis. ad. Zwingli” and translated it from Latin into English. This citation is a reference back to European Civilization: Protestantism and Catholicity Compared By Jaime Luciano Balmes, published during the 1800’s. On page 423, Balmes cites the quote from Luther, stating “Luther writing to Zwinglius…”. This quote though does not come from a letter. By consulting the current edition of Luther’s Works, the quote is from That These Words Of Christ, “This Is My Body,” etc., Still Stand Firm Against The Fanatics (1527) [LW 37]. Steve Ray said the quote is from a letter written to Zwingli, but this quote is from this treatise directed toward Zwingli.
If one simply reads the quote as it stands, it appears to be saying that Luther believed Church councils and creeds are necessary in order to “preserve the unity of faith” because sola scriptura is some sort of blueprint for anarchy. Well, creeds are indeed useful. Even during Luther’s lifetime, statements of faith were produced from Luther and his immediate circle. So what is going on here? How can Luther hold to sola scriptura, but yet say the Church needs to have the Christian faith “decreed by a council”? Didn’t Luther say “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason- I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other- my conscience is captive to the Word of God“?
What’s going on here is what typically happens when Catholic apologists cite Luther without actually reading Luther. After speaking about the controversies and divisions surrounding the Lord’s Supper, Luther says,
“If the world lasts much longer, men will, as the ancients did, once more turn to human schemes on account of this dissension, and again issue laws and regulations to keep the people in the unity of the faith. Their success will be the same as it was in the past ” [LW 37:16].
Granted, this citation does not at first appear identical to the one popularly used by Catholics. However, “on account of this dissension” in the preceding paragraph is explained to be differing interpretations given to the Scriptures. “Human schemes ” issuing “laws and regulations” keeping people “in the unity of the faith” does sound a lot like receiving “the decrees of councils, and take refuge in them, in order to preserve the unity of faith” as stated above.
Note the last sentence: “Their success will be the same as it was in the past.” Their success will be, according to Luther, failure, because “human schemes ” “laws and regulations ” are not the work of the Holy Spirit, but of men. The text goes on to say, “In short, the devil is too clever and too mighty for us” because “If we wish to stand upon the councils and counsels of men, we lose the Scriptures altogether and remain in the devil’s possession body and soul.” So rather than proving Luther wanted to “take refuge in the Church councils in order to preserve the unity of faith ” as Steve Ray claims, Luther said the exact opposite in this text.
I’ve been accused by self-proclaimed Catholic apologist “professionals” as nitpicking Catholic apologetic writings when it comes to Luther. It’s one thing to not provide enough information as to give clarity to an issue, it’s quite another to cite a source that is saying the exact opposite of which one is claiming. Well, perhaps Steve Ray can produce a letter of Luther’s to Zwingli saying that a Church council will be needed in the future to settle the issues between them. Then again, I doubt very much Mr. Ray actually cares if he’s cited Luther accurately. Catholics frequently cite Luther as a polemical tool in their writings, while most in the Protestant world realize what Luther said, or didn’t say, really isn’t all that important.
The back cover of Crossing The Tiber claims the book is “thoroughly documented with over 400 footnotes.” Footnotes are supposed to provide documentation for claims being made. I look up the material put in footnotes simply to prove that the methods employed by some in Catholic apologetics are the same methods used when they made their dramatic swim across the Tiber. They began with a desire to swim, and then sought out facts to justify that swim. When they cite Luther, they cite him as he needs to be cited in order to make the swim a success.