Martin Luther and the Sacraments: A Response to Roland Millare’s “Honest Assessment”

The latest issue of Antiphon (17:2, 168-190) carries an article by Roland Millare titled “The Nominalist Justification for Luther’s Sacramental Theology.” Millare clearly intends the article as one part of “the obligation for an honest assessment of the philosophical presuppositions (or lack thereof) that undergird varying theologies,” an obligation he sees as necessary for “authentic ecumenism” (189). While I very much doubt that agreement in philosophical presuppositions is possible among Christians or necessary for Christian unity, I join Millare in a desire for honest appraisals of “varying theologies” and for authentic ecumenism. But for those very purposes I profoundly wish that his presentation of Martin Luther’s thought on the sacraments had itself been more accurate.

Millare begins his article by clearly (if not very sympathetically) sketching the characteristics of late-medieval nominalism, the so-called via moderna, especially as these relate to causation. After then briefly considering how he regards this nominalist understanding of causality to be operative in Luther’s important work On the Bondage of the Will (1525), he proceeds to discuss Luther on the sacraments, largely drawing upon Luther’s polemical tract, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), with some reference to the more pastoral “sermons” or treatises on the sacraments of 1519. Millare’s argument is that Luther’s nominalism makes it impossible for him to trust that the sacraments are effective in themselves but that they “receive their efficacy only from the subjective faith” of the believer (176). Indeed, Millare asserts that for Luther the only real sacrament is “the believer’s act of faith in Christ” (168). The sacraments are merely outward—and largely unnecessary—signs of that much more important faith. Millare says that Luther, “given his nominalist formation,” cannot “embrace an understanding of the sacraments as efficacious signs,” since “efficacy is attributed solely to God” (184). It follows that Millare thinks Luther either ignores or undermines the secondary or “instrumental causality” of the minister of the sacraments, important since the sacraments occur as human ritual events. Furthermore, Millare implies that, given his nominalism, Luther would not agree that “if the minister is wicked in any way . . . the sacrament can still effect grace for the benefit of the recipient” (187). Millare then concludes his article with an appeal to return to Thomist metaphysical realism as the only reliable foundation for Catholic theology and with a suggestion that such Catholic theologians as Schillebeeckx and Chauvet have themselves been too influenced by both nominalism and Luther.

I am grateful that Millare points out several themes of Luther that are rightly alive in current Roman Catholic theological and liturgical thought and practice: the importance of the faithful coming to the sacraments in faith (Millare says “the importance of one’s subjective disposition”); the universal priesthood of all the faithful; the primacy of baptism and eucharist; and the understanding of Christ himself as the primary or root sacrament (187-188). I could add yet other themes from Luther that have been alive in the documents of Vatican II and the reforms that have followed: the life long significance of baptism; the ethical significance of communion; the use of the vernacular in the celebration of the sacraments; the need for preaching and teaching their meaning; and active participation in their celebration. Still, Millare’s awareness of the first of these themes matters a great deal to ecumenical awareness.

But by making Luther’s conception of the sacraments and of sacramental efficacy entirely subjective, Millare could not be more wrong. He would have come closer to an “honest assessment” by also reading Luther’s Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528), his Large Catechism (1529), his Smalcald Articles (1537), and his essay On the Councils and the Church (1539), as well as by more carefully studying his 1519 treatises. Using those sources among others, let me make these replies:

1. Luther was no philosopher. He was also not a systematic theologian. He was an Augustinian friar, then a preacher, a university professor of biblical studies and a pastor, and all of that shows in his work. Lutherans have long known that Luther said a lot of things and they do not all form a consistent whole. If Lutherans want a systematic theology from the early Reformation, they turn to Philip Melanchthon and especially and fundamentally to his Augsburg Confession and its Apology. And Lutherans—who ought really to be called “Catholic Christians of the Augsburg Confession”—do not necessarily agree with everything Luther said or wrote. Nonetheless, Luther’s vigorous sacramental theology—his sense of God acting in the word and the sacraments to ground the church, to give us life, to enable our faith, and to turn us toward the needs of our neighbors—is one of the treasures of Catholic Christianity, one that should not be so meagerly reported as it is in this article.

2. To say that Luther was formed in the midst of nominalist teaching is simply to say that he was educated and taught at the beginning of the sixteenth century, at the very outset of the modern era. He was indeed enrolled at the University of Erfurt in the via Guihelmi, the way of William of Occam. He was educated in his times—times that, like our own, were no longer marked by an easy assent to the “universals.”  For us, too, believing in the reality of “universals” is harder (and considerably less necessary) than believing in God. But in his own teaching Luther was always resisting the philosophers—all of them—arguing that the scriptures were sufficient, when seen as speaking Christ—“driving Christ,” as he would say—to speak of God’s grace and, thus, of God’s action in the sacraments. The very text of Luther’s last sermon, from which Millare himself quotes in a footnote (n. 64, 184-185), includes a lament against philosophy and reason in order to assert “that the true body and the true blood [of Christ] is in the Lord’s supper and that Baptism is not merely water , but the water of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  This is no subjectivism. Perhaps the lament against reason was indeed a mark of some nominalists. Luther was a man of his times. But, in a way that can be helpful to us in a time that still has no agreed upon universals, Luther used the scripture to preach the gracious, objective and reliable action of God, inviting people to trust that action with their lives. To do this he did not need the philosophers and often saw us as betrayed by them.

3. The Smalcald Articles clearly makes assertions that Millare denies are in Luther: “We maintain that the bread and wine in the Supper are the true body and blood of Christ and that they are not only offered to and received by upright Christians but also by evil ones” (Article 3:6). “Baptism is nothing other than God’s Word in the water, commanded by God’s institution . . . We . . . disagree with Scotus and the Franciscans who teach that baptism washes away sin through the assistance of the divine will, that is, that this washing takes place only through God’s will and not at all through the Word and the water” (Article 3:5). And “the keys [the absolution of sins] are an office and authority given to the church by Christ to bind and loose sins . . . confession, or absolution, should by no means be allowed to fall into disuse in the church . . .” (Article 3:7-8). The Large Catechism says the same. And the Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper says, “I also say and confess that in the sacrament of the altar the true body and blood of Christ are orally eaten and drunk in the bread and wine, even if the priests who distribute them or those who receive them do not believe or otherwise misuse the sacrament. It does not rest on human belief or unbelief but on the Word and ordinance of God . . .” (LW 37:367).

4. Contrary to what Millare says, Luther never speaks about “consubstantiation.” He does make use of the nominalist approach—“Occam’s razor”—to assert that God does not have to destroy the bread as bread in order to use it sacramentally. But he does not insist on this. In fact, he thinks the argument unnecessary. For him, it is enough to say with the scripture: “this bread is the body of Christ; this cup is the blood of Christ.” But Lutherans love to quote one line from the Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper that is so characteristic of Luther’s brash truth-telling, untethered to any philosophy: “Sooner than have mere wine with the fanatics, I would agree with the pope that there is only blood” (LW 37:317).

5. Also contrary to what Millare says, the idea that faith in Christ is a sacrament—in fact, the only sacrament—would never have crossed Luther’s mind. Faith does indeed receive what the sacrament gives. But it does not create the gift. And faith itself is no visible sign with God’s promised attached. Faith does trust and receive those concrete signs that come from Christ, together with that promise. In this Luther is a faithful Augustinian. Augustine himself wrote that the “visible word” of the sacrament of baptism is effective for life and salvation “not because it is uttered, but because it is believed” (On John 15:3; NPNF Series 1, 7:344). But also for Augustine, it is God who makes it a visible and effective word, not the believer. The word and sacraments of God’s gift are always awakening faith in us to trust the gift and so come to life. For Luther, the one sacrament, then, is Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified, risen, and encountered as active in preaching, baptism, supper, absolution, and the presence of the Christian community. A sacrament is, for Luther, like a ship or a bridge or a stretcher (LW 35:66). Faith does not build the ship—or the bridge or the stretcher. But faith does trust enough to go on board or cross the bridge or lie down on the stretcher—in order to then sail or cross or be carried into life.

6. It is certainly true that Luther resists the Latin tag ex opere operato. But that is mostly because of the widespread abuses associated with that tag, abuses that Millare himself (187) begins to catalogue but which were and are, in fact, much more extensive than he notes. Luther’s deep concern is to oppose the idea that the eucharist is pleasing to God ex opere operato (see LW 35:63), as if the doing of the eucharist were a gift to God. The point being made in this resistance is not the subjective character of effective sacraments but their character as life-giving gifts from God to us. For Luther, a sacrament comes to us from outside of ourselves and gives us faith, life and salvation. Indeed, sacraments are part of God’s going out to the needy world in mercy. The pre-eminent name of that “going out” is Jesus Christ, and as he is both true God and true man, so the sacraments are both human realities—done in real assemblies, with real people, real ministers, real water, human words, and human bread and wine—and concrete places of God acting. The Chalcedonian dance of the “two natures of Christ” is quite alive in Lutheran sacramental thought.

7. Neither does Luther insist, as Millare says, that there are only two sacraments. This is one of the many places where systematizing Luther does not work. In one place in Luther’s writing there will be two sacraments. In another, three—including penance or absolution—or even four—including “the mutual conversation and consolation of the brothers and sisters.”  In another, only one, Christ himself, manifested and encountered in all the others. In his essay On the Councils and the Church (LW 41:148-166), Luther argues that one can tell that an assembly is Christ’s church by the presence of seven “signs of life” (that is, signs of God’s life among us, giving life). These are: the preached word of God, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the use of absolution, the calling and consecrating of ministers, the public use of thanksgiving and prayer, and what he calls “the holy possession of the cross,” that is the presence of suffering and the absence of triumphalism as a mark of communal life. It is a remarkable and still useful list. And that list does not support some easy idea of “only two sacraments.”

8. Nor are the sacraments gifts only to lonely individuals. In an important passage in the 1519 treatise On the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, he writes: “When you have partaken of this sacrament, therefore, or desire to partake of it, you must in turn share the misfortunes of the fellowship . . . Here your heart must go out in love and learn that this is a sacrament of love. As love and support are given to you, you in turn must render love and support to Christ in his needy ones. You must feel with sorrow all the dishonor done to Christ in his holy Word, all the misery of Christendom, all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing. You must fight, work, pray, and—if you cannot do more—have heartfelt sympathy . . . It is Christ’s will, then, that we partake of it frequently, in order that we may remember him and exercise ourselves in this fellowship according to his example” (LW 35:54).

Here and there in Luther there may indeed be nominalist themes in his sacramental theology. Luther was a man of his times. But there is no nominalist “justification” for his vigorous use of the sacraments. There is rather a lively reading of the Bible and a fierce pastoral interest in making clear that the sacraments are gifts of the triune God, meant to bring us to faith and so to life and meant to turn us toward our neighbor. Jared Wicks S.J., whose work on Luther Millare quotes, has recently written, “Such a dedicated biblical theologian as Luther can lead one to see New Testament themes which have long lain fallow in Catholic theology” (Pro Ecclesia 22:3, Summer 2013, 324). If scholars like Schillebeeckx and Chauvet are accentuating again some of those themes, I rejoice. If they are doing so without recourse to a “realist” approach to the universals—without a necessary metaphysics—I think that is wise in our time. I wish Roland Millare, too, would see that uniformity in philosophical position is a will-o’-the-wisp that will not assist Christian unity. But I wish even more that if he means to report Luther, he would do it accurately.

Gordon W. Lathrop

Gordon W. Lathrop is Professor of Liturgy Emeritus, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and Visiting Professor of Liturgical Studies, Yale Divinity School and Institute of Sacred Music


  1. Fantastic summary of the nuances and depths of Luther’s sacramental theology. That we are not closer to the Lutherans pastorally is a shame. Unfortunately the Lutherans in the pews subscribe to a caricature of Lutheran thought just as Catholics ordinaire cannot always be relied on to get Catholicism right…even the traditionalists will get it wrong. What Newman desiderated of laity is still an unfulfilled vision.

  2. Thank you Professor Lathrop for your response, and in particular for your sixth point.

    I have not yet read Roland Millare’s article in Antiphon yet (I will as soon as possible), but I would like to raise a few points.

    When reading Luther I have always been struck by his careful distinction between the Eucharist as sacrament and the way the Eucharist is offered. Luther rightly criticized chantry Masses as damaging to a just understanding of the Eucharist for the reasons Lathrop writes. ex opere operato, in the minds of peri-modern monks with busy lists of benefactors, degraded the dignity of Mass by reducing liturgy to a divine transaction not unlike stock trading. And yet, even though the renewal of the Church in Vatican II has emphatically restored the vitality of the assembly to the Mass, not all Catholics today are willing to embrace the Catholic teaching that the Eucharist requires the presence of the faithful, just as Luther taught.

    Looking back in at my time in Catholic traditionalism, I can see why the notion of assembly is contentious. In its attempt to extend the vertical aspects of the Mass, not a few contemporary Catholic traditional/ists wish to sever the the action of the anaphora from the people metaphorically (i.e. the silence of the Canon heightens its holiness and distance from the human sphere). Luther’s decision to remove the offertory and Canon from his reformed Mass makes sense in an age where lay participation was minimal. It is easy to see how a heterodox notion that a priest is separate from the assembly flourished in the feudal and peri-modern eras. One may argue whether or not Luther’s decision to remove the Canon was theologically sound, but one cannot argue that in his time eucharistic prayer was no longer meaningfully a prayer of priest and people together.

    Even today, despite advances in ecclesiology, some wish to place the priest at an advantage over the assembly. If there is anything that Catholic traditionalists must learn from Luther it is, as Prof. Lathrop writes, […] “the sacraments are both human realities—done in real assemblies, with real people, real ministers, real water, human words, and human bread and wine—and concrete places of God acting.” Anything less is a valid Mass, but one which has taken on a theatrical — and therefore not-human and unreal — aspect.

  3. The essay does not appear to be online, so I have a question. Does the author cite actual nominalists (e.g., Ockham) and discuss what they say on the basis of a reading, even cursory, of the primary texts, or is this yet another example of the “nominalism destroyed Western Christian civilization” narrative, set forth on the basis of only secondary sources on nominalism?

  4. Michael Root —

    I’m delighted to see someone here who rejects the demonization of the nominalists. Ockham has been treated particularly shabbily. Granted, he has very serious faults as a theologian (though not the “faults” he was accused of), but he still has a great deal of value to offer as a philosopher and logician.

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