Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Olivier's Luther | Speaking Past Denominations


This writing of Daniel Olivier (a Roman Catholic) was first published in 1978, over 400 years after the dawn of the Reformation. Olivier had realized that the man who had caused the great schism in Christian history had been left on the way-side. He saw that the Roman Catholic Church tended to throw out the Theologian with the “heresy.” And, he encouraged instead to study the problems that had arisen rather than simply ignoring them.

He does not request a remedy to “a catastrophic decision within its [the Catholic Church’s] own past.” But, instead encourages an approach that may create a means to save the Church from remaining “lamentably divided.” He stresses that the only way for Christianity to become itself again is to work in dialog with other ecclesial communities. The Church needs to work passed its tainted view that every discussion with a Protestant is a discussion with a heretic, and instead needs to realize that Protestantism may have some sight into the Church’s own progression (an example is shared on page 19 of Roman Catholics adopting a mass similar to Luther’s 400 years after his change in practice).[1]

“What is presented in this book is the result of research stimulated by reflections like these… Protestants are not always those who appear to be so. It is one thing to protest one’s faith and another thing altogether to be more papist than the pope. My aim here is to put to rest once and for all the idea of the ‘protestantization’ of the Church.”[2] And, where better to begin than with the life of The Protestant himself, Martin Luther? “Luther is today for Catholic theology a witness to the common faith, for the past as well as for the future; he is our ‘common master,’ as Cardinal Willebrands said.”[3]


The first premise of Olivier’s case is the inseparability of Luther and the Reformation from the current understanding of faith. He also distinguishes the difference of Luther being “the man of the Reformation” rather than “the man of the schism.” It was not a rebellious revolt that the son of a miner had established, but a “disagreement about the higher interests of faith.” “Luther lived only for faith… nothing else in his life mattered.”

This led to the inevitable crisis that would cause a fundamental change needed in the papal Church. But, this crisis had become “miscarried; instead of being a renovation of the one Church, it ended in the Church’s division.”[4] It was too soon for the stubborn papists.

Olivier’s book continues with a discussion of Luther’s view of the Gospel, the “central belief which gives form and significance to everything else.”[5] It follows with the “Problem of Salvation,” a section explaining how Luther’s view needed to change in order to see the grace of the Gospel within the Church. Here, he discovered mercy and justification by faith in Jesus Christ. This did not mesh with a broken church.

Olivier’s end-goal is to “liberate” the Gospel within the Church. To do this, “The Church must find once more the dual form of discourse which is indispensable to her transmission of the message which is hers and which she alone can deliver… The Christ who is present in His Word must be liberated… The Church has no other ‘power’ than the Word of the Gospel.” “Luther lived only to plead within the Church for a new union with Christ.” Today, this union must go further than denominational walls. This is not to accept heresy, but to witness the body of Christ as a whole once again.[6]

[1] Olivier, 18.
[2] Ibid., 19.
[3] Ibid., 21.
[4] Ibid., 25-26, 33.
[5] Ibid., 39.
[6] Ibid., 167-168.

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