vatican stamp reformation luther melanchthon
Protestantism

Reformation 500: Vatican postage stamp commemorates Luther and Melanchthon

The Vatican has issued a postage stamp to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. At the foot of the cross, Martin Luther holds the Bible (the fons et origo of his doctrine), and Philipp Melanchthon, Luther’s disciple, holds the Augsburg Confession (the original 28 Articles of fundamental Protestant belief). Wittenberg may be seen in the background. Luther and Melanchthon are depicted offering their labours to the crucified Christ.

This is really quite extraordinary.

The Vatican City State usually issues stamps featuring popes (living or dead), Christian iconography, or to commemorate significant (or not so significant) anniversaries pertaining to Roman Catholicism (encyclicals, martyrdoms, apparitions of Fatima, etc.). This is the first time that ‘heretics’ have been celebrated. The Vatican explains:

Five hundred years have gone by since 31 October 1517 when Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar and theologian, put up his ninety-five theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg. Last year, on the occasion of his journey to Sweden for the Joint Catholic-Lutheran Commemoration of the Reformation, Pope Francis expressed his gratitude to God for the opportunity to remember such an important event “with a renewed spirit and in the recognition that Christian unity is a priority, because we realize that much more unites us than separates us.” vatican stamp reformation lutherA joint statement that was signed during the visit noted in the past “that Lutherans and Catholics have wounded the visible unity of the Church. Theological differences were accompanied by prejudice and conflicts, and religion was instrumentalized for political ends. Our common faith in Jesus Christ and our baptism demand of us a daily conversion, by which we cast off the historical disagreements and conflicts that impede the ministry of reconciliation.” “All of us are well aware”, Pope Francis affirmed on another occasion, “that the past cannot be changed. Yet today…it is possible to engage in a purification of memory”, without “resentment” that “distorts”. The postage stamp issued by the Philatelic Office for the occasion depicts in the foreground Jesus crucified and in the background a golden and timeless view of the city of Wittenberg. With a penitential disposition, kneeling respectively on the left and right of the cross, Martin Luther holds the Bible, source and destination of his doctrine, while Philipp Melanchthon, theologian and friend of Martin Luther, one of the main protagonists of the reform, holds in hand the Augsburg Confession (Confessio Augustana), the first official public presentation of the principles of protestantism written by him.

Setting aside the lower-case ‘P’ quibble for ‘Protestantism’, the Vatican explains that Luther and Melanchthon are portayed in a “penitential disposition”. The reformers would have had no problem with this, for they would have knelt daily at the feet of Christ to repent of their sins. But if this Vatican narrative is supposed to be some allusion to Luther and Melanchthon repenting of the biblical inspiration of Protestant fundamentals, it is a woefully misguided portrait.

Luther believed the Bible to be the sole source of authority: “Christ has opened the mind of those who are his, in order that they might understand the Scriptures,” he wrote. Passages may be literally historic or literally prophetic; there is the crudely literal or historical reading but also the life-giving spirit reading, and it is for the Holy Spirit to guide the believing ploughboy into all truth; not for any pope or ecclesial council to issue edicts of scriptural interpretation. Luther was a Joshua (6:1-20): the Pope of Rome had neither faith nor the Spirit. He was Anti-Christ.

Melanchthon developed the doctrine now known as ‘forensic justification’, which essentially posits that the declaration or pronouncement of righteousness is sufficient for salvation: the process of being made more righteous (through good works, for example) is continuing sanctification or regeneration, which is something quite different. At the point of repentance, the sinner is fully justified: the Roman Catholic Church erred in its understanding of salvation, and infects the minds of the faithful with impurities and abominations. Its teaching was Anti-Christ.

The Augsburg Confession was the theological cornerstone of what became known as Lutheranism. Thereafter it became the foundation of many other Protestant statements of faith and articles of doctrine (including the XXXIX Articles of the Church of England). The Luther-Melanchthon alliance moulded the direction of the entire Reformation (including the thinking of one Thomas Cranmer). Wittenberg was a sunbeam of divine truth, which lit the path to heaven’s door. It is quite remarkable that the Vatican should see fit to commemorate ‘heretics‘ and ‘ecclesial communities‘ in such a prominent and public manner.

God bless Pope Francis.