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Martin Luther And Church Fathers

Martin Luther is a church father who is highly regarded by Lutheran Christians as well as by individuals in other Christian denominations. He has received such a special standing in our eyes because of the Lord’s blessed use of Luther in bringing important truths of God’s Word to the light of day. For example, there are the three ‘solas’–Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fidei. Sola Scriptura = SCRIPTURE ALONE is the source of Christian doctrine. Sola Gratia = it is by GRACE ALONE that we are saved and not by the works and deeds of mankind. Sola Fidei = it is by FAITH ALONE that we receive God’s free gift of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ.

Looking back to our Lutheran heritage in more recent times, we could single out a number of church fathers of special note like C.F.W. Walther, August Pieper, and Wilhelm Koren. And with our church body celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, there are founding church fathers of our synod (cf. recent articles in the Spokesman) for whom we are thankful to God for their contributions to the Lord’s Church.

As we think of Martin Luther at Reformation time and other church fathers at different occasions, what place should they and their writings hold in our faith-life? If Martin Luther were alive today, he would be among the first to say that we should not elevate him and his writings or those of any church father to such a high degree that we rely upon them for our faith-life instead of looking primarily to Holy Scripture.

Since man is not infallible and therefore is subject to error, the church prior to the Reformation period had lost sight of the pure Gospel message because it looked to and relied upon the faulty teachings of certain church fathers.

The mind and heart of Martin Luther came to behold the glorious light of the saving Gospel of Christ not through the teachings of man but rather through the divine words and teachings found in the Bible.

When Luther debated the Catholic champion John Eck in Leipzig, Germany (1519) concerning teachings in the church, there was a striking difference in the two men’s basis for their religious arguments. On the one hand, John Eck placed the teachings of the church fathers in the first position of importance, while he put the Bible in a secondary position. Martin Luther, on the other hand, did the exact opposite. He placed the Scriptures in the first position of importance. And he accepted the teachings of the church fathers insofar as they were in agreement with Scripture.

The writings of the church fathers can be spiritually edifying and beneficial to us so long as these writings are faithful and subservient to Holy Scripture. Luther for one did not want people to regard his writings as some kind of a Lutheran Koran. He said to those who were given the task of putting his writings in print: “I had hoped that people would henceforth pay more attention to the Holy Scriptures themselves and let my books go now that they have served their purpose and led men’s hearts into and up to the Scriptures, which was my reason for writing my books.”

This writer remembers one of our synod’s church fathers speaking of how we can benefit from the sanctified writings of the church fathers as he spoke of “standing on the shoulders of the church fathers.” But then this same church father would agree with Luther’s advice of reading the churchmen’s writings with spiritual discernment. Luther said: “I do think that all of us need to be admonished to read the writings of the fathers with judgment, and with a very careful and critical one indeed, following the rule of the Holy Spirit: ‘Prove all things’ (1 Thess. 5:21), and again: ‘Try the spirits’ (1 Jn. 4:1).”

God be praised and thanked for faithful church fathers who have been a rich blessing to His Church. May their writings serve to lead us into Scripture so that our Christian faith and life are founded solely upon the Word of God.

–Pastor Mark Gullerud