The Catholic Luther at YDS

By Christine Helmer 

Christine Helmer ’97 Ph.D. is the author of The Trinity and Martin Luther, which was revised in a second edition with Lexham Press (2017). Her new book, How Luther Became the Reformer (Westminster John Knox 2019), recounts the story of how early twentieth-century German Luther scholars constructed the modern “Here I stand” image of Luther.

The Luther festivities of 2017-18 are well over. It was a busy time with events sponsored by academic centers, religious institutions, museums, and other organizations accelerating as the year progressed. Talks and publications by innumerable speakers, writers, and bloggers proliferated. Even prestigious secular publications such as the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books took note of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and the numerous biographies of Luther and reformation histories published to mark the occasion. What had been the prerogative of a few lonely scholars became popular, at least for a time.

Now that the excitement has subsided, it is time for sober reflection. What exactly was celebrated so enthusiastically? What topics should Luther scholars be interested in today, now that Luther is no longer hot news?

Any reflection of where we have come and where we are going in the study of Luther must attend to a distinctive Yale legacy, one that was unfortunately occluded by the triumphant celebration of the Reformer’s modern Protestant identity. Two theologians at Yale, George A. Lindbeck and Marilyn McCord Adams, contributed to a conversation—a quiet international conversation—on the Catholic Luther, whose theological and liturgical aim was to reform late medieval Catholicism. Both Lindbeck and McCord Adams held the Pitkin Professorship in Historical Theology at Yale Divinity School. In their respective theological areas—Lindbeck in ecumenical theology, McCord Adams in philosophical theology—they promoted teaching and research on the Luther who they saw as firmly rooted in the Catholic world. Their legacy—McCord Adams died on March 22, 2017, Lindbeck on January 8, 2018—in the world of Luther scholarship hinges on their insistence that Luther was not the first Protestant but, rather, a late medieval Augustinian friar and ordained Catholic priest whose theological reforms can be understood only in relation to his medieval philosophical and theological commitments.


RELATED CONTENT: Read the Fall 2017 issue of Reflections, “Reformation: Writing the Next Chapter.”


George Lindbeck recognized early on that the Luther dramatized by popular biographies was a construction of the Protestant imaginary. Luther’s audacity in standing up to pope and emperor, and his Reformation breakthrough that had become the symbol for history’s transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world, did not accurately represent the historical Luther. As a medieval theologian, Lindbeck knew that Luther had much more in common with Pierre d’Ailly than with George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Luther’s education had been at the University of Erfurt, known for its promotion of a “new way” of thinking about universals. There Luther had learned how the fourteenth-century Franciscan William Ockham countered scholastic philosophy with his understanding of universals as mental concepts. As a young friar, Luther had studied the fifteenth-century Gabriel Biel’s canon of the Mass, the required text for any aspiring priest. Biel had formulated a motto that would provoke Luther’s ire. “Facere in quod se est”—to do what is within one’s power—was Biel’s prescription for souls on the path to their eventual justification by God.

In his lectures on the history of Christian thought, Lindbeck explained the complexities of the late medieval Catholic penitential system. Personal sorrow for sin was to be met with pastoral comfort. But absolution required acts of charity prescribed by the confessor for the sufficient demonstration of contrition. The sinner was comforted by the gospel that doing the good that was within one’s power could be counted as meritorious by God.

Lindbeck taught that Luther had wrestled for a decade with Ockham, Lombard, and Augustine. He explained that Luther arrived at his understanding of Christ as agent of salvation through struggles with the biblical, theological, and philosophical dimensions of the Catholic sacrament of penance. Luther transformed the sacrament, not by eliminating it but by insisting on its christological focus. Christ forgives, not the church. Yet Christ speaks through the church’s words. When the priest pronounces the words, “I forgive you,” forgiveness of sin is communicated and created as a reality. Lindbeck showed that Luther’s understanding of Christ’s gift of grace was a retrieval of Catholic doctrine in a new conceptual context. As much as Luther’s insistence on the external word of grace was a product of his biblical interpretation, it was also informed by a nominalist philosophical preoccupation with language, concepts, and logic. Luther’s reformation of church teaching was decisively late medieval and Catholic.

Lindbeck’s ecumenism

Lindbeck’s historical-theological commitments were complemented by his ecumenical work. As a junior professor at Yale, he was invited in 1962 to be a Protestant observer to Vatican II. This council called by Pope John XXIII was remarkable in many ways, one of them being the fact that it was the first time in the church’s history when Protestants were invited not just to observe, but to serve in various communication functions, as Lindbeck recounts in an interview in First Things with George Weigel in 19941. Lindbeck recognized the momentousness of the occasion, and its possibilities for reconceptualizing the theological differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. He knew that the Catholic Luther was an important part of this ecumenical task. Heiko Oberman’s book from 1963, The Harvest of Medieval Theology, and Otto Hermann Pesch’s 1967 comparative work on Luther and Aquinas on the doctrine of justification paved the way for Lindbeck’s ecumenical proposal. Ecumenism requires careful historical scholarship on Catholic theologians, like Thomas Aquinas and Hans Urs on Balthasar, two theologians Lindbeck taught at Yale. It requires considering Luther’s contributions as reforms of the Catholic Church, not as the creation of modern freedoms, as nineteenth- and twentieth-century German Lutherans proclaimed. Lindbeck’s contribution to ecumenical theology in particular, to theological method in general, has the Catholic Luther embedded in its rhetoric. His book from 1984, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, contains reflections on the “verbum externum” (external word), the “grammar of the Holy Spirit,” and the “fides ex auditu” (faith by hearing), all phrases from Luther’s work that reveal Lindbeck’s appropriation of the Catholic Reformer as conceptual aid in formulating his ecumenical program.

Lindbeck freed his Protestant students, specifically his Lutheran students, to consider Luther as a Catholic theologian. Part of this work required demystifying the German legacy concerning Luther as modern Protestant. Lindbeck’s doctoral student David S. Yeago wrote a stunning exposé in Pro Ecclesia of how the law/gospel dialectic commonly attributed as central to Luther’s reformation theology was, in fact, the product of a twentieth-century German Lutheran theologian, Werner Elert.2 Elert coincidentally had drafted the Ansbach Memorandum in 1934 aligning Lutheran interests with the German state and its fascist Führer. Yeago argued that Elert amplified the law/gospel dialectic from a hermeneutical tool in Luther’s own biblical work to an ontology of human existence. A recovery of the Catholic Luther and his exegetical strategies required diminishing the ontological force of the law/gospel dialectic that Elert had assigned to Luther. The Catholic Luther would not only rescue Lutheran theology from its surrender to a modern German Protestant worldview but would open new possibilities for careful study of Luther’s biblical interpretation, and its appropriation of medieval hermeneutics, such as allegory and Luther’s combative positioning vis-à-vis rabbinic exegesis. On this point the Catholic Luther is like the modern Protestant Luther in violent anti-Jewish polemic.

Once the Catholic Luther was stripped of his German Protestant worldview, more work was needed to study just how deeply Luther was intellectually formed by his late medieval education. He studied with Bartholomaeus Arnoldi Usingen and Jodocus Trutfetter, two professors at the University of Erfurt who conveyed the philosophy of the “modern way” (via moderna) to Luther and his peers. How Luther posed his theological dilemmas and why he experienced spiritual and intellectual torment are questions that must be considered within the nominalist framework. Luther’s insistence on the certainty of faith, the external word as cause of justification, and the distinction between theology and philosophy all presuppose his commitments to a type of philosophical thinking mediated from the Franciscans to the Augustinians in Erfurt.

The nominalist Luther

The work of initiating the scholarly study of the nominalist Luther was taken up by Marilyn McCord Adams, Lindbeck’s successor at Yale Divinity School. Before coming to Yale in 1993, McCord Adams had published (in 1989) the momentous two-volume study of William Ockham’s theology and philosophy. She arrived at Yale as a medieval philosopher with a passion for rigorous thinking. Her intellectual convictions were initially met by Yale’s Protestant community with some reservations. Was it not a uniquely Protestant postliberal commitment to assert theological truth on the basis of the Bible and the hermeneutical rule for correct interpretation, the regula fidei (rule of faith)? Lindbeck’s theological program was admittedly metaphysically thin, oriented to language and its grammar. This posed no problems for Protestant theologians, who had complemented the linguistic turn in philosophy with attention to the biblical canon and its overarching story of creation, fall, and redemption. But McCord Adams’s insistence on metaphysics as necessary philosophical tool for making sense of Trinity and Christology ruffled some Yale feathers. Was it not Luther himself, and the early Barth, who prohibited metaphysical speculation in theology?

McCord Adams brought a new philosophical perspective to YDS, one that would have serious implications for the Catholic Luther. The conceptual question concerned the relation between philosophy and theology. Luther was famous for having polemicized sharply against Aristotle and the intrusion of philosophical reason into theological content. Yet when McCord Adams placed Luther in continuity with Ockham, the Catholic Luther emerged. Luther, like Ockham, distinguished between philosophical and theological questions. Philosophy’s purview was natural reason and Aristotelian physics; theology’s was the doctrinal mysteries of the triune essence, the hypostatic union in Christ, and the identity between bread and body in the Eucharist. Luther followed Ockham in introducing a new metaphysic and a theory of supposition into christological discussion. He followed the Venerable Inceptor in criticizing Duns Scotus on the formal relations in the Trinity. Luther took up Ockham’s razor and used logic to formulate syllogisms that would prove how the three persons of the Trinity are each the same as the divine essence but not in isolation from each other. From Ockham’s perspective, Luther’s polemic against philosophy could be read as part of an emerging late medieval distinction between philosophy and theology. Or more precisely, theology relied on metaphysics, logic, and semantics, but reconfigured these tools in order to illuminate the truth of Catholic doctrine. Ultimately doctrine’s truth was, as Ockham insisted and Luther agreed, to be taken up by the faith of the church and the saints. Simple faith, rather than speculative philosophy, was left when Luther wielded Ockham’s razor. But even simple faith in the hands of a theologian required the tailoring of philosophical tools to better understand.


RELATED CONTENT: Read this web feature on the Divinity School’s observance of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.


The Yale legacy of the Catholic Luther had a remarkable ecumenical outcome. Lindbeck’s understanding of Luther as Catholic theologian and the ecumenical theology he proposed in his Nature of Doctrine were important inspiration to the ecumenical dialogues between Lutherans and Roman Catholics in the 1990s. These dialogues resulted in the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999. This watershed document eliminated the mutual anathemas that had identified the positions of both church bodies vis-à-vis the other and articulated agreement that justification was a central doctrine to both churches, although in different ways. The Joint Declaration became the paradigm for other ecumenical dialogues, for example the Anglican-Lutheran dialogue. The Catholic Luther at Yale had become productive for inspiring the Catholic church’s work in aspiring towards the unity confessed in the third article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the holy catholic and apostolic church.”

The influence of Lindbeck and McCord Adams on the study of the Catholic Luther in America is enormous. They opened new scholarly avenues for thinking about Luther in relation to his immediate predecessors, theologians such as Robert Holcot and Pierre d’Ailly, as well as to prominent theologians of the Middle Ages, such as Augustine and Peter Lombard, and even to other theologians less frequently mentioned, like Johannes Hus and Giles of Rome. This research program requires the intellectual rigor and depth in medieval philosophy that both Lindbeck and McCord Adams embodied in their own scholarship. It is also a generative line of reflection. The Catholic Luther might just be an important key for discovering how the Middle Ages was much more continuous with the early modern period than is usually assumed; how the confessional divide between Catholicism and Protestantism has for too long been overwhelmed by the dominant image of Luther the Protestant reformer; and how the concept of modernity itself—so closely allied with the image of Luther as “herald of freedom”—can be called into question.

Online at: (accessed March 10, 2019).

“Gnosticism, Antinomianism, and Reformation Theology: Reflections on the Costs of a Construal,” Pro Ecclesia 2.1 (Winter 1993): 37-49.

April 3, 2019