“In Mortal Men Not Put Our Trust, for They Are All Deceivers”

by Robert J. Christman

As 2017, the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation approaches, we are mindful again of the issues that divided Christianity half a millennium ago.  As spiritual descendants of Martin Luther, when we ponder the key point of division of the Reformation era, our minds generally seize upon the doctrine of justification. We recall Luther’s rediscovery of the Gospel message—that salvation is a free gift of God obtained, not by feeble human works or efforts to keep the Law, but by faith in Christ and His work on our behalf. This doctrine of justification, Luther would assert, is “the first and chief article”[1] and the “ruler and judge over all other Christian doctrines.”[2] The remainder of Luther’s Reformation might be considered simply an effort to allow this article to “rule and judge,” for he spent his life applying it to all other doctrines, ecclesiastical laws, and church traditions without compromise and without regard for the consequences.  But from the perspective of his opponents, the argument can be made that the central issue of the Reformation was not most immediately the doctrine of justification, but rather the rejection of the institutional church’s authority, and in particular the authority of the papacy, in favor of complete reliance on the Scriptures as Luther and his followers interpreted them.

This stark divergence may be observed already in the discrepancy between Luther’s objectives in the Ninety-Five Theses and the response of his opponents. For Luther, the theses were by no means an attempt to annihilate ecclesiastical or papal authority, nor simply an effort to embarrass overzealous indulgence preachers. Rather they were intended to stress the necessity of true repentance as a precursor to forgiveness and to clarify the limited value of indulgences—a point made unambiguously in thesis forty nine: “Christians are to be taught that papal indulgences are useful only if they do not put their trust in them, but very harmful if they lose their fear of God because of them.”[3] This was no assault on papal authority, but a challenge to see whether the church would recognize the limits of indulgences’ efficacy. Faith alone, not indulgences, was the means of salvation. But in the coming months, all who responded to the ninety-five theses construed them as a frontal attack on papal power, a phenomenon best exemplified by the curial theologian, Sylvester Prierias, who, by the very title of his answer to the theses, Dialogue concerning the Power of the Pope against the Presumptuous Positions of Martin Luther, demonstrates what he saw as their essential issue. So vigorously did Prierias assert the papacy’s supreme power to make dogmatic decisions that even in the sixteenth century his argument was conspicuous, for none of the earlier debates surrounding the widely contested doctrine of indulgences had focused on the issue of papal authority.

As a result of the conflict’s turn toward questions of authority, Luther would spend the next three years questioning the limits of papal power, before rejecting that institution’s claim that it was the divinely instituted spiritual head of the church, denying its position as the church’s humanly ordained pinnacle, and finally dismissing it altogether by insisting that the position of the pope was unnecessary because the church needed no symbolic head: Christ played that role. In all this Luther argued on the basis of theology.  He maintained that the Scriptures held no justification for a divinely instituted human head of the church, thereby rejecting the papacy’s interpretation of Matthew 16:16-18. By assuming that role, the popes had usurped Christ’s lordship. Moreover, the papacy stood at the pinnacle of a visible hierarchy that insisted on human cooperation in the process of salvation, and that had instituted a variety of unbiblical concepts, laws, and practices to facilitate and encourage this belief, while at the same time failing to execute properly the obligations of preaching the Word and administering the sacraments. Reliance for salvation on something other than Christ was, for Luther, tantamount to idolatry, evidence that the pope had been sent by the devil into the heart of the church.  Thus Luther came to the conclusion that the papacy was the antichrist, and his response was a rigorous, unrelenting, and lifelong anti-papalism so virulent that even in his own day friend and foe alike criticized him for it.

If Luther’s assessment sounded harsh to his sixteenth-century colleagues’ ears, how much more jarring does it sound in the twenty-first century, a point in history when secular society is patently pluralistic, and in the church ecumenism is the watchword of the day? All the more so when, as a person, the current pope has many laudable character traits, and as the leader of a large organization, has worked intensively toward improving the morality and responsiveness of its members. As a result, when evangelicals do criticize the Roman Catholic Church today, they often do so either on the grounds of so-called “social issues” (abortion, same-sex marriage, birth control, and the like), or excoriate the hierarchy for the deplorable behavior of some of the clergy. At the other end of the spectrum, some evangelical hardliners simply apply the term antichrist to the papacy like an old mantra, often without a clear understanding of what Luther meant by it in his own day. In light of all this, it bears asking, just what should the proper evangelical stance be toward the Catholic church of today?

To offer one answer to this question is the purpose of this essay. Its method will be to provide a context for a deeper understanding of Luther’s rejection of the papacy by exploring an incident from the early Reformation that highlights both the Roman Church’s focus on the issue of its authority, and the degree to which it had used that authority to establish laws and traditions, the keeping of which it required for salvation.[4] But five hundred years is a long time and it is the duty of a Christian to be constantly reassessing himself and others. Therefore this essay will end by briefly addressing the questions, to what degree is the Roman church today the same church as it was in Luther’s time, and do these same issues still divide us?

The sixteenth-century event that reveals the authoritarian nature of the Roman Church and the degree to which it had interposed itself between God’s grace and the penitent sinner is the first clash of the Reformation that resulted in bloodshed, the burning of Heinrich Voes and Johann van den Esschen and the events leading up to their execution. These two young Augustinian friars from the cloister in nearby Antwerp were executed in Brussels in 1523, an event made famous by a variety of published eyewitness accounts and by Luther’s first musical composition of the Reformation, a ballad about it entitled “A New Song.” We begin with two quotations that originate in this event.

Now mark their heresy! ‘We must
In God be firm believers;
In mortal men not put our trust,
For they are all deceivers.’”

“[They embraced] once more the holy Catholic church, adding ‘Roman’ of their own accord
to this phrase.
[And] they entreated the bystanders [to remain] in the faith of their parents, their predecessors, and of the prelates of the church, convinced that our lord, the pope, was the true successor to Peter.[6]

Although both statements refer to Voes and van den Esschen, and attribute certain words to them, it is unlikely that either statement was actually spoken by the men, at least not in so many words. The first comes from Luther’s ballad. In one sentence Luther puts into their mouths what, from the perspective of the Inquisition, was these men’s “greatest fault” or “heresy,” namely to trust God rather than men. This reworking of Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men,” is clearly a scriptural notion, one that comes across to our ears as uncontroversial. What Christian would argue with it? In the context of the early Reformation, however, it alludes to the doctrine of justification by faith alone (we must trust God alone) and that doctrine’s application to all words, promises, laws, and commands of men (those making them are deceivers). Luther boils down the church’s problem with the Augustinians’ preaching to this one point.

The second quotation comes from a letter of the chief Inquisitor and author of the men’s demise, Frans van der Hulst, composed the same day that the men were executed. Writing to a fellow cleric, van der Hulst passes along the breaking news that at the very last moment before their deaths, as the fire burned around them, the men had allegedly recanted. The words that he attributes to Voes and van den Esschen are supposed to be their last-second change of heart, a return to the authority of the Roman church, and more specifically, to the notion of papal primacy.[7] And this recantation, which saved their souls from eternal damnation, if not their bodies from death, was quickly attributed to the saintly intervention of the Virgin Mary. It is interesting to note that both Luther and van der Hulst seem to agree that the cause of the men’s death was their rejection of the Roman Church’s authority.

But if in the words attributed to Voes and van den Esschen we see the issue boiled down to its essence, a broader explanation of the way in which the Reformation challenged the church’s authority can be seen in the official recantation of Jacob Probst, prior of the Augustinian cloister in Antwerp from which Voes and van den Esschen came, an event that occurred one and a half years prior to their execution. Unlike them, Probst was unable to summon the courage to die for his faith. But as with van der Hulst’s attempt to put words into the mouths of these two victims, so Probst’s public recantation was an example of his enemies putting words into his mouth, for it was written by the inquisitors and he was forced to read it. Thus his revocation may be seen primarily as an articulation of the fears and concerns of the Roman church regarding the burgeoning Reformation. Knowing this helps elucidate the connections between Luther’s doctrine of justification and the issue of authority, and the church’s overwhelming focus on the latter, while at the same time demonstrating the variety of requirements the church had imposed upon the faithful.

As is already clear, Voes and van den Esschen were not the first Augustinians of Antwerp to have come into conflict with the inquisition in the Low Countries; rather that was Jacob Probst (c. 1486–1562). A native of Ypres in modern-day Belgium, Probst began his career as an Augustinian in the Haarlem cloister (also in the Low Countries), then served as prior in Antwerp from 1518–1522. Regarding him, Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote in a letter to Luther dated May 30, 1519,

There is a man in Antwerp, prior of the monastery there, a genuine Christian, who is most devoted to you and was once your pupil, or so he says. He is almost the only one among them all who preaches Christ; the others as a rule preach the inventions of men or their
own advantage.[8]

This description could not have come as a surprise to Luther, as Probst had come from Haarlem to Wittenberg in 1505, receiving his master’s degree there in 1509.  What is more, it is possible that he was the “Jacob” who was prior in Wittenberg from 1515–1518, where he would have been on hand to experience Luther’s “breakthrough,” before returning to Antwerp.[9]  Even Probst’s enemy, the papal nuncio Jerome Aleander, connected him closely to the Reformer, referring to him in a letter to the pope’s Vice-Chancellor (Guilio de Medici, cousin of Pope Leo X and future pope Clement VII) as “the man who only preaches Luther’s doctrines.”[10] And Probst’s connections to Luther and his teachings were undoubtedly strengthened when Antwerp’s prior spent May to September, 1521 back in Wittenberg. It was during this period that Luther, who was in the Wartburg, wrote to Melanchthon asking him to extend his greetings to a number of individuals, but not “the fat little Flemish guy” (das fette Flemmichen) because, indicated Luther, he would write to him directly.[11] This off-handed comment provides some insight into the close and congenial nature of their relationship.

Upon his return to Antwerp in late 1521, things quickly turned dire for Probst. Under the assurance of a “friendly conversation,” he was taken prisoner by Emperor Charles V’s newly established secular inquisition at the beginning of December. Interrogated frequently and under constant threat of the stake, on February 9, 1522 he recanted to a packed St. Gudula’s church in Brussels. Freed, but prohibited from returning to Antwerp, he went back to the Augustinian cloister in his hometown of Ypres where he began again to preach Luther’s ideas. Shortly thereafter he was summoned a second time by the inquisition, but escaped, arriving in Wittenberg in August, 1522. Despite his recantation, Probst remained friends with Luther, who even named him godfather to one of his daughters.[12] And in 1524, Probst was called to the city of Bremen in Germany were he would eventually become the superintendent of the Lutheran Church there, a post he would hold until his death in 1562.[13]

Probst’s Message

Before getting to his recantation, it is informative to consider just what Probst preached in Antwerp that garnered the interest of the inquisition. The historical record has left little information on this issue, but there are hints, and they suggest that his doctrine and preaching closely mirrored that of Luther—the precise point made by Erasmus. After he escaped from his second round of captivity and made his way to Wittenberg, Probst published a work entitled “The Story of Both His Captivities for the Sake of the Word of God,” essentially an account of his interactions with the inquisition.[14]  Attached to the document was something he called “A letter in which the aforementioned brother Jacob Probst exhorts all those who heard his sermons, particularly those in Antwerp.” In it he expressed shame for his failure to die for the Word, but also rehearsed once more to his audience the key points of his message, before ending with the assertion: “My godless recantation is mine; the words you heard from me are God’s.”[15]

It is in the recounting of his message that we get some sense of what he had preached in Antwerp. First, insists Probst, salvation comes to sinners through Christ alone, not via good works or anything the human being does.  Thus we can assume that for Probst, Luther’s great rediscovery of the Gospel was the main point. Second, he reminds his followers that they should handle one another with love, just as Christ had done with them, so that their fellow believers benefit from their prayers, words, and works. Third, they should not be deceived into believing that the following things contribute to their salvation: food and drink, clothes, shaving, cells, cords/girdle, fast days, little prayers, rosaries and the like, which he refers to as the “lies of the mendicants” and the devil’s tricks. “Wearing a girdle does not make you a Christian,” writes Probst, “you can put a girdle on a pig.  Also you are not a Christian because you don’t eat fish on a certain day, for the Jew and the Turk can do likewise.”[16] And fourth, he warns them not to be obedient to the bulls of the bishops and popes, but to follow Christ who is their true leader and savior.  In this brief overview, we see Luther’s doctrine of justification articulated, and then applied to Christian life and ecclesiology.  It acts as ruler and judge over all other doctrines.

The Response of the Church

It is the recantation itself that demonstrates just what the church hierarchy feared in Probst’s preaching and what the Inquisition wanted the people to hear in response to it. By this I mean that recantations of the period were hardly designed for the personal edification of the individual recanting, but rather for the instruction of the crowd, a lesson in orthodoxy and heresy. They are practically a sermon and in some cases the recanter was not only required to state his orthodox beliefs, but to provide proofs for them. What is more, having a crowd on hand was important, so important, claims Probst, that the inquisitors ensured a packed church with promises of money to anyone who attended.[17]  And in order to achieve maximum distribution of these ideas, Probst was made to read his recantation in both Latin and Flemish, after which the inquisition quickly had it printed in both languages.[18] Moreover, asserted Probst, the inquisitors had composed the recantation according to their own desires, with the result that he, Probst was shocked when he heard it, insisting that he had never preached those things, nor had they had ever entered his mind.[19] As a result, when the ceremony began, Probst started to speak extemporaneously, causing the inquisitors to quickly stop him, “and put the revocation [that I was to read] in [my] hand, as if [I] were a child.”[20]

Thus on February 9, 1522, in the presence of a capacity crowd that included Jerome Aleander (the papal legate), representatives of the imperial government and of various other ecclesiastical foundations, and representatives of the local secular government, Probst recanted, following a protocol that had been established by tradition. First, he listed those assertions he had made that he now deemed heretical; then he went back and described his current, orthodox beliefs on each matter. And it is in the recounting of his “current beliefs” that we are provided insight into the degree that the Roman Church had imposed itself on Christianity.[21]

1. “Having made my revocation, it is expedient that  I now clearly declare, in so far as I am able, my faith and my beliefs concerning those things which I have preached, taught, and believed, concerning which I will now speak: I assert and pronounce my faith concerning the sacraments of the church, that I believe those things that the holy Roman Mother Church holds and believes, namely the seven sacraments: baptism, penance, the Eucharist, confirmation, ordination, marriage, and extreme unction to be instituted by Christ. But in anything else I have taught or preached, I have erred in faith reducing the number of sacraments established by Christ.” The issue here is, of course, the doctrine of the sacraments; but equally so, it is the question of who defines them.  Without any reference to Scripture, Probst is required to admit that the Holy Mother Church does.

2. “I regard it as a heresy to say that laity are priests, and I believe those men are priests who go through ordination by a bishop according to the rites of the church; it is not sufficient to be a priest just by offering yourself to God.  But when I proclaimed otherwise, I erred, denigrating the priestly dignity, bringing confusion into the statutes of Christianity.” Here a rite established by the church is given primacy and the separation of clergy and laity, the foundation of the church’s hierarchical structure, is confirmed.  Rejected is the Petrine articulation (I Peter 2:5-9) of the “priesthood of all believers.”

3. “Concerning indulgences, moreover, I believe they ought to be understood in those ways which the church allows, by which the sins of men are absolved from the debt of penalty in purgatory, and I assert that the pope is able to assume for himself the authority of divine tradition, and therefore I have erroneously said (in the past) that indulgences are nothing, and that they are not efficacious.  Indeed, everything that is written in letters of indulgence is efficacious and surely has an impact, and ought to reflect consolation to the soul and the conscience.” In this article, without reference to Scripture, church tradition and papal authority are asserted as justification for the doctrine of indulgences.

4. “Concerning the merits of the saints I believe firmly that they can be applied to others, as can be proven by many passages of Holy Scripture. But whatever I have said and preached otherwise, I was mistaken. Indeed, on account of the merits of the saints we obtain from God those things that can be applied to us, so that on account of their merits, our debt of penalty is removed. . . .
I no longer believe that all works of the saints are sins, requiring remission. But I believe and assert that their works were meritorious toward eternal life, that they are all free from blame. But when I preached otherwise, I erred, by denigrating the works of the saints and by insulting them.” Here Scripture is mentioned for the first time, but to support the notion that the merits of the saints are transferable – itself based upon the belief that good works are necessary for salvation.

5. “Concerning the treasury of the church, I believe it to be the treasury of merits of Christ and the saints, which can be applied to the faithful as I said before. But whenever I have spoken otherwise, I have erred, diminishing the treasury of the church.” A church doctrine articulated in one contested papal bull (Unigenitus) that there exists a treasury filled with the merits accrued by works of supererogation of Christ and the saints is asserted without reference to Scripture. Like its predecessor it hinges upon the notion of works righteousness.

6. “Concerning the apostolic condemnation by which Luther and his dogmas were damned, I believe and assert it to be the legitimate law of God, consonant with the holy councils and the sacred doctors, just as I have said repeatedly in my recantation. But when I have preached or said the opposite, I erred impiously, and I rashly damaged the holy apostolic faith.” In this article, legal decisions of the church are made spiritually binding, a reflection of divine law, without reference to Scripture.

7. “Concerning the freedom of the will, I believe and assert that it actively engages and works freely to do good works. But when I spoke and preached otherwise, I erred, withdrawing freedom from free will against the holy Scriptures and the doctrines of the sacred doctors.”  This article and the next directly address the issue of justification. Here the freedom of the will is asserted, the antecedent to the doctrine that sinners participate in their own salvation. As justification for this doctrine, the scriptures are mentioned.

8. “Concerning the works of free will, I believe that not all of them are sins, but some are meritorious to eternal life. But whenever I have spoken and preached otherwise, I erred impiously and scandalously in faith and morals. Nor do I believe that everything a man does before being justified by grace is a sin. Rather, he is able to push himself toward grace without sin, and to do many works which are not imputed as blame. But whenever I have preached and taught otherwise, I have erred rashly . . .” In this article the church’s doctrine of justification is again addressed, as a result of its stance on free will. Justification requires good works for salvation, works fully within the capacity of the sinner. As a result, Christ’s work on the cross recedes into the background, as does faith.

9. “Concerning the observance of fasts and the abstention from meat at certain times, I hold and believe them to be reasonably enjoined on the faithful of Christ, and to assist with the observation of the divine law, the mortification of the flesh, and the elevation of the mind toward God. And Christians are to be held to this type of observance established by the church and [are to be considered] in mortal delinquency for transgressing it, unless for the sake of some legitimate reason they are excused. Nor ought this type of work be eliminated.  And I believe that a person is able, by his own vows to oblige himself to be abstinent. But whenever I have preached otherwise, I have erred against the law of God and of his church, inciting rebellion against the means of mortifying the flesh and enticing souls in the direction of those things that impede them from being elevated toward God.” Simply put, church traditions and statutes are given authority equal with the Scripture, and made into conditions for justification. Transgression of these statutes earns the lawbreaker mortal punishment.

10. “I believe prelates are able to oblige their subordinates so that if they transgress any precept, they are mortally delinquent, nor does any ignorance or passion excuse them, even if they did not cause scandal or ignominy. But wherever I have spoken and preached otherwise, I have erred in faith and morals, drawing the subordinate away from the debt of obedience and subjection to the prelates, seditiously destroying the positive laws.” The clergy assert the authority to judge and to coerce according to the laws and traditions of the church, and to hold their parishioners mortally accountable for them.

11. “I believe the canon, Omnis utriusque sexus, in which it is ordered that at least once a year, confession ought to be made, to be most reasonable and wholesome, . . . .[22]
But wherever I have preached otherwise, I have erred rashly and brought injury to the holy council, drawing men away from the necessity of the sacrament of confession.” In this article it is made clear that a church council may establish a rite; once established, that rite retains the power of divine authority.

12. “I believe the apostle Peter was established by Christ as first among the apostles, and I assert that whoever is his successor is the head of the church under Christ by divine authority.” This article establishes the papacy’s claims of primacy by divine authority.

13. “In addition, I declare that not all bishops are equals, particularly with regard to external issues. But wherever I have preached otherwise, I have erred, diminishing the principle of apostolic superiority, withdrawing the authority from his successors, and altogether perverting the ordered hierarchy.” The article verifies as doctrinally legitimate the notion that there is a hierarchy within the priestly estate, and that the pope sits at its apex above all bishops.

14. “Other articles that I believed, that I did not openly preach, I refrain from declaring, for the revocation of them appears to be sufficient.”

15. “So that the cause of my errors and perverse sermons might be made known to all, all should know that it is on account of my too great affection for Luther.  For with his perverse dogmas, I appear to have enmeshed the people in errors that I have preached and believed, about which I have spoken. And I damn all errors and heresies, particularly the Lutheran ones, and I embrace the Catholic faith, which the Holy Roman Church holds and preaches. And I submit myself in faith to all things that it teaches. This I promise. And I now declare, just as I have promised and declared, to adhere to it and to cast Luther with all his dogmas far away from me.” The recantation ends with a formulaic condemnation of Luther as originator of his heresies, and confirms the notion that the Roman church is the receptacle and guardian of truth.


Three aspects of these articles are particularly noteworthy. First, the church proclaims its doctrine of justification: the human being has free will to do good works and these works are meritorious toward salvation. Second, the degree to which the Roman church hierarchy had assumed for itself the authority to define doctrine becomes clear. References to the Scriptures are few and far between; references to the Roman Church’s right to articulate doctrine and binding laws abound.  In this way, the statements reflect and amplify the church’s response to Luther’s ninety-five theses by doing little to address the scriptural veracity of disputed doctrines, but merely insisting on the Church’s right to define them and the faithful’s moral obligation to believe them. The vast majority of Probst’s “errors” hinge on the issue of the church authority: laymen may not assume the role of the priests; the pope, backed by scripture and tradition, has the authority to define doctrine, institute and regulate church practice and custom, and assign binding punishments on pain of eternal damnation.

And the third point illustrated here is the degree to which the church has established a wide variety of laws and instituted obligations, all binding on pain of mortal sin. Not only do these requirements place new commitments on the believer, but they accentuate the role of good works, and minimize the work of Christ in justification. Thus the freedom of the Christian is choked and stifled. Gone is direct access to the Word of God. Christ and his work of salvation recede, and even God Himself is diminished.  Interposed between them is the church hierarchy, church authority, and church traditions. Suddenly Luther’s assertion of Voes’s and van den Esschen’s chief heresy in the eyes of the church does not seem nearly so innocuous, “In God we must be firm believers, in mortal men not put our trust, for they are all deceivers.” This statement was an assertion of the necessity of faith alone for salvation and a critique of the entire ecclesiastical system, which it—faith—threatened to disregard and go straight to God! Likewise it becomes clear that the words attributed to Voes and van den Esschen in their final moments by van der Hulst were not meant to be personal recognitions of error. They were a programmatic statement for popular consumption: “[Voes and van den Esschen] embraced once more the holy Catholic church, adding of their own accord “Roman” to this phrase. [And] they entreated the bystanders . . . [to remain] in the faith of their parents, their predecessors, and of the prelates of the church, convinced that our lord, the pope, was the true successor to Peter, etc.”[23] In this one statement, the authority of the Roman church, the traditions of the church (which is what is meant by the faith of parents, predecessors, and prelates), and the primacy of the pope were confirmed. A more condensed and overt declaration of ecclesiastical and papal authority is difficult to imagine.

It is apparent, then, that when Luther referred to the papacy, the apex of the Roman church, as the antichrist, the assertions found in Probst’s recantation are precisely what he had in mind. He was not thinking of some popular notion of a demonic entity, born from the unholy union of a run-away monk and nun, invading the church. Rather he was convinced that by insisting that something other than the work of Christ justifies the sinner, by defending its own authority, decisions, laws, rites, and traditions as holding equal weight with Scriptures, by insisting that adherence to them was an article of faith, the papacy had assumed the role of Christ. For Luther, this was antichrist.

Where Does That Leave Us Today?

But almost five hundred years have passed since Probst recanted in St. Gudula’s church in Brussels, and with the passage of time, changes have occurred. One sign of progress may be seen in the Catholic Church’s and Lutheran World Federation’s 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which makes significant strides toward a common understanding of justification.[24] In it, the Catholic and Lutheran authors begin by quoting the two citations at the top of this article—that the reformers of the sixteenth century had asserted that the doctrine of justification was “the first and chief article” and the “ruler and judge over all other Christian doctrines.”[25] They further jointly proclaim regarding justification, “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit.” Moreover they can insist that faith is not a human work, but “is God’s gift through the Holy Spirit who works through word and sacrament in the community of believers.”  With regard to the question of the will, they agree that “the freedom individuals possess in relationship to persons and things of this world is no freedom in relation to salvation, for as sinners they stand under God’s judgment and are incapable of turning by themselves to God to seek deliverance, of meriting their justification before God, or of attaining salvation by their own abilities.  Justification takes place solely by God’s grace.” Finally with regard to good works they concur that “whatever in the justified [person] precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it” and that “persons are justified by faith in the gospel ‘apart from works prescribed by the law’ (Rom. 3:28).” These are stunning statements that would have been inconceivable in the context of the Reformation era. What is more, they demonstrate an amazing degree of unity regarding what has been referred to as “the first and chief article.” As Christians, we should applaud and thank God for this demonstration of unity in Christ’s bride.

But essential differences remain and the key to them is the failure (and perhaps unwillingness) of the Roman Church to let this doctrine of justification be “ruler and judge over all other Christian doctrines.” For Luther, justification by faith alone through grace was the lodestar for questions of “ecclesiology, ecclesiastical authority, church unity, ministry, the sacraments, and the relation between justification and social ethics”—the list of issues articulated by the authors of the Joint Declaration that still separate Catholics and Lutherans. Put in more concrete terms, Luther was willing to measure every doctrine against his (and our) understanding of justification.  Although Catholics “do not deny the special function of the message of justification,” state the authors of the Joint Declaration, they also “see themselves as bound by several criteria” by which is meant that other factors also act as sources of and yardsticks for measuring doctrine. In other words, despite their joint understanding of justification, the Catholic Church has yet to allow it to “rule over all other doctrines.”

It seems likely that while belief in many of the articles that Probst was forced to articulate in Brussels would no longer be required by the Catholic Church, some of the criteria to which Catholics are bound, such as papal primacy and infallibility in matters of faith and morals, are still in force. To the degree that such doctrines exalt the status of some over others in the church, and introduce authorities other than Scripture alone, the Catholic Church continues to usurp the lordship of Christ, and put conditions on salvation. It is only when the doctrine of justification is allowed to be “ruler and judge over all other Christian doctrines” regardless of the consequences for the institutional church that Christ will fully reign there. Until then, the Catholic Church will require some institutional allegiance of its members—and therefore continue to deny Christians what it denied Voes and van den Esschen, namely to “In God be firm believers; in mortal men not put [their] trusts, for they are all deceivers.”


[1]. Luther states further, “On this article stands all we teach and practice against the pope, the devil, and the world. Therefore we must be quite certain and have no doubt about it.  Otherwise everything is lost . . .” The Smalcald Articles II:1, in The Book of Concord:  The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, eds. (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2000), 301.


[2]. The full quotation is as follows: “The article of justification is the master and prince, lord, ruler, and judge over all other Christian doctrines. It preserves and governs all church doctrine and elevates our consciences before the face of God.” Weimar Edition of Martin Luther’s Works (WA), 39: 1, 205.


[3]. Martin Luther, “Ninety-five Theses,” in Luther’s Works, Harold J. Grimm, ed., 55 vols. (Philadelphia:  Muhlenberg Press, 1957), v. 31:17-34, here at 29-30.


[4]. Such directives are precisely those that Luther claimed in his famous speech at Worms “vexed and flayed the consciences of the faithful.”


[5]. Martin Luther, “A New Song I Now Fain Would Tell,” in A New Song (n.p, n.p.), nr. 1.


[6]. Frans Van der Hulst to Jan Pascha, July 1, 1523 in Corpus Documentorum Inquisitionis Haereticae Pravitatis Neerlandicae, ed. Paul Fredericq, 5 vols. (The Hague, 1889-1902), here at 4: doc. 144.


[7]. The claim that the two men recanted was rejected as a lie by eyewitnesses to the execution. It is to this assertion that Luther would respond in “A New Song,” v. 11 when he wrote: “These saints of God, e’en after death, they slandered and asserted, the youths had with their latest breath, confessed and been converted, their heresy renouncing.”


[8]. Erasmus to Martin Luther, 30 May 1519, in Desiderius Erasmus, Opus epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterodami denuo recognitum et auctum, vol. 3 (1517-1519), eds. P. S. Allen and H. M. Allen (Oxford: 1934), 607.


[9]. Jos Vercruysse, “’Was Haben die Sachsen und die Flamen gemeinsam?’: Wittenberg von außen gesehen,” in Wittenberg als Bildungszentrum, 1502-2002 (Lutherstadt Wittenberg: Drei Kastanien Verlag, 2002), 13.


[10]. Jerome Aleander to Guilio de Medici, 2 September 1521, in Theodor Brieger, ed. Aleander und Luther 1521. Die vervollständigten Aleander-Depeschen nebst Untersuchungen über den Wormser Reichstag (Gotha:  Friedrich Andreas Perthes, 1884), 262-263.


[11]. WABr 2: 349.


[12]. On Luther’s continuing friendship with Probst see, Ortwin Rudloff, “Bonae Literae et Lutherus: Texte und Untersuchungen zu den Anfängen der Theologie des Bremer Reformators Jakob Probst,” in Hospitium Ecclesiae: Forschungen zur Bremischen Kirchengeschichte 14 (1985), 11-239, here at 198-204.


[13]. Many of the territories that accepted the Reformation used the term “superintendent” instead of “bishop”.


[14]. Jacob Probst, Fratris Jacobi Praepositi historia utriusque captivitatis, in Ortwin Rudloff, “Bonae Literae,” 42-59.


[15]. Jacob Probst, Epistola ad Auditores Suos, Et Praecipue Antuuerpienses, Exhortatoria, in Ortwin Rudloff, “Bonae Literae,” 60-66, here at 60.


[16]. Probst, Epistola ad Auditores Suos, 64.


[17]. Probst, Fratris Jacobi Praepositi historia utriusque captivitatis, 54.


[18]. Anathematizatio et revocation fratris Iacobi Praepositi was published in Latin and Flemish in Antwerp, Cologne, and Leipzig.


[19]. Probst, Fratris Jacobi Praepositi historia utriusque captivitatis, 54.


[20]. Probst, Fratris Jacobi Praepositi historia utriusque captivitatis, 55.


[21]. The following is taken from Anathematizatio et revocation fratris Iacobi Praepositi in Ortwin Rudloff, “Bonae Literae,” 27-37, here at 33-35.   The responses found in italics after each article are my own.


[22]. This a reference to Canon 21 of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which requires every Christian who has reached the age of discretion to confess his or her sins at least once a year to his or her own priest.


[23]. See note 6.


[24]. This document may be found at:  http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_31101999_cath-luth-joint-declaration_en.html.  The following quotations are taken from this online version.


[25]. See note 2.


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