David B Hunsicker

Ecclesia en Exodus Blog

Thoughts on Christianity and the Church after Christendom.

Refo500, Part 5: The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

Fortress, 2016.

Fortress, 2016.

The Annotated Luther series thematically arrange Luther's writings. The first volume, from which I treated the "Ninety-Five Theses" and "The Freedom of a Christian", focused on Luther's early writings and the formation of his basic theological program. Volume two, represented here by blog posts on "The Bondage of the Will" and "The Smalcald Articles", focuses on the themes of "Word and Faith."

Now, we are moving into the third volume, devoted to Luther's ecclesiology, and over the next two  months, I will focus on two of Luther's most popular writings addressing themes related to church organization and administration of the sacraments. The first, "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church" is an early document (1520), published just a month before "The Freedom of a Christian." Next month, we will look at Luther's mature thoughts on the matter in "On the Councils and the Church" (1539).

Comparing the church to Israel, Luther intends to suggest that the true church is being held captive by Rome. In particular, the church is held captive by a constellation of sacramental doctrines and practices that prevent it from proclaiming the gospel. "Babylonian Captivity" is a thematic treatment of Luther's main concerns with Roman Catholic sacramentology.

Early on, Luther expresses his main concern:

To begin with, I must deny that there are seven sacraments, and for the present maintain that there are but three: baptism, penance, and the bread. All three have been subjected to a miserable captivity by the Roman curia, and the church has been robbed of all her liberty. Yet, if I were to speak according to the usage of the Scriptures, I should have only one single sacrament, but with three sacramental signs, of which I shall treat more fully at the proper time (Annotated Luther, Vol. 3, 21).

Some brief observations:

  1. Luther says there are three sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist, and Penance. We will see later that Luther will enfold penance into baptism and, thereby, reduce the number to two.
  2. Luther teases that according to scripture, there is really only one sacrament: Christ incarnate. This is the sort of thing that Barth will pick up and run with later.
  3. The remainder of the treatise is organized along these lines: first, an explication of the manner in which these sacraments are held captive by Rome; second, a demonstration that the remaining "sacraments" of Rome (confirmation, ordination, marriage, extreme unction) are not really sacraments and are used to further stifle Christian freedom.


The Lord's Supper

There are, according to Luther, three captivities pertaining to the Roman church's eucharistic practices. The first and most egregious is the administration of the Mass in one kind; that is, the administration of only the bread and not the wine to the laity. Why should the bread and wine be necessary for the priests but only the bread sufficient for the laity? Do the priests not know that they are servants to the laity? If anything, it should be the cup that is for everyone and the bread only for some. After all, Christ's blood was poured out for the sins of many. Luther encourages the administration of the sacrament in both kinds but admonishes individual Christians to endure their captivity. It is better to know that you are being deprived of your right than it is to take hold of it by force.

A second way in which the Eucharist is held captive by Rome regards the doctrine of transubstantiation, the claim that the substance of the bread and the wine really become the body and the blood of Christ while the accidents (appearance) of the bread and wine remain. For Luther, the captivity is not in the explanation itself—although Luther abhors the Aristotelian metaphysics that grounds the explanation's power. Instead, the captivity lies in the fact it is decreed that this explanation must be held by the faithful. For Luther, it is enough to believe that Christ is really present with the bread and the wine (later dubbed "consubstantiation" by some). This is preferable because it does not strain the imagination so much, and therefore cause a stumbling block.  Transubstantiation itself is not dismissed by Luther. He allows that one may understand this to be what occurs there (although he disagrees!). What he protests is the notion that one must assent to this explanation; for Luther, the church should allow some freedom with regards to various theological descriptions of the "how" so long as the "what" of the sacrament is consistent.

The third, and most significant, way that the church holds the Eucharist captive regards the treatment of the Eucharist as a sacrifice. Herein, we arrive at the heart of Luther's definition of a sacrament. A sacrament is a sign that is given by God in order to signify a promise that he makes.

At the last supper, Jesus—like anyone who is about to die—leaves behind a testament, indicating how his possessions should be distributed after his death. This is, in effect, the naming of heirs and a promise of a future gift, or bequest. In this case, the future heirs are "you" (the disciples) and "the many" and the gift promised is "the forgiveness of sins." The Eucharist ("the good gift") is just that, a gift promised and it can only be received by faith, i.e. the belief on the part of the recipient that it really has been promised to them as heirs. The bread and the wine are signs of the promise offered (forgiveness of sins) in much the same way that God offered signs of his promises to Israel (the rainbow, circumcision, the fleece, the promised land).

This, then, is the basic definition and practice for sacraments: a sacrament is a sign that refers to a promise from God. It is to be given as a remembrance of the promise and it is to be received in faith, as one believes God's promise. Such faith stirs up love for the gift-giver, hope for the world, and works of service to one's neighbor.

Roman Catholic theology (Peter Lombard is in mind here) tends to focus on the sign to the exclusion of the promise. This cuts out Luther's basic concern that the sign is meant to evoke a response of faith in the promise. Focus on the sign instead leads to a preoccupation with performing the sign itself. This, Luther believes, causes the Eucharist to be transformed into something we give to God instead of something that God gives to us.

It is true that the Mass is accompanied by prayer. The Eucharist is a sign of God's gift to us and the prayers are the work (liturgy) that we give to God. But God's work and human work must not be confused. The chief problem with the Roman Catholic administration of Eucharist lies in its treatment of the sacrament as a sacrifice that is offered to God. In so doing, it takes something God does for us and perverts it into something we do for God. Luther writes,

Therefore these two things—Mass and prayer, sacrament and work, testament and sacrifice—must not be confused; for the one comes from God to us through the ministration of the priest and demands our faith, the other proceeds from our faith to God through the priest and demands his hearing. The former descends, the latter ascends. The former, therefore, does not necessarily require a worthy and godly minister, but the latter does indeed require such an one" (Annotated Luther, Vol. 3, 59).



Following the pattern for sacrament established above (Promise and Sign), Luther defines baptism. The promise attached to baptism is the promise of Mark 16:16: "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved". Salvation belongs to the believer; this is the promise. Baptism is not what makes salvation possible; instead, it is a sign for the one who is saved by faith.

The sign of baptism signifies the death of the old sinful nature and the new life of the believer. What the believer believes then, is not that their sin has been completely washed away, but that God promises that it will be so in the resurrection. The whole of the Christian life is a backward look at one's baptism. Repentance is returning to the promise of God as a way of reminding oneself that sin has no future. In this regard, baptism is remembered in the Christian life in much the same way that the Passover and the exodus is remembered in the Jewish faith. The sign of God's promises are remembered as a way of living with faith in God's continued faithfulness to his promise.

For Luther, the way in which the Roman church has held baptism in captivity is by means of penance. In a quote attributed to St. Jerome, it is taught that penance is the "second plank." The story goes something like this: baptism is the ship that is steering us towards salvation. When we are baptized we are pulled out of the waters of sin and into the boat of salvation. However, when we sin again after baptism, it is as if the ship wrecks itself and we are thrown back into the sea of sin. There, floating among the debris is a sturdy and reliable plank that we can grab hold of so as not to succumb to the sea of sin. That plank is called penance. Penance, in this narrative, becomes the means by which the baptized Christian continues to pursue salvation and turn away from sin. For Luther, this narrative is problematic because it suggests that God's salvation is not enjoined to the promise of baptism but, instead, to the enactment of penance. It confuses the Christian into believing that salvation has more to do with our action than it does with God's action for us.


Other Sacraments

Luther denies that there are any other sacraments. Whereas he began by admitting penance as a third sacrament alongside of baptism and Eucharist, he now clarifies that penance is merely part of baptism. Baptism is the sacrament of life. It is the only sacrament we need for living and all other practices and rituals gain their meaning from baptism. Penance is merely that backward looking return to our baptisms and to the confidence we have in the promises that God attaches to baptism. Regarding penance itself, what God wants from is is contrition. So, contrition itself becomes the means of satisfaction, foreclosing on the notion of merit. For with absolution comes satisfaction.

Confirmation and extreme unction are practices that have their origin in the early church's epistles; however, they are not practices that Jesus commanded, and therefore, they are not sacraments.

Ordination is a practice that the church uses to discern and to appoint those whom God has gifted to proclaim the word and administer the sacraments; however, ordination does not actually change the person ordained in the manner that the Roman Catholic church teaches. The priest is not changed to be more like Christ. There is no ontological distinction between the clergy and the laity in this regard; any distinction is merely vocational in nature. Baptism is the place where an ontological change occurs, making us all priests.

Finally, marriage is not a sacrament either. This is, perhaps, the closest thing to a sacrament because Paul calls it a mystery (sacramentum); however, this is not actually what Paul means. What Paul calls a mystery is not marriage, but it is the thing which marriage symbolizes: the relationship between Christ and the church. On this reading, then, the sacrament is the relationship between Christ and the church, while marriage between a man and a woman is merely an allegorical representation of this mystery. There are no particular promises of God attached to this sign and, therefore, it cannot be a sacrament.