Luther, Rome & the Bible

December 1, 2008

Luther would have been amazed at the efforts of the Vatican today to put the Bible back into the heart of the Roman Catholic Church. In October, bishops from around the world were called to Rome for a three-week synod to discuss how to promote prayerful reading, understanding and proclamation of God’s Word.

Pope Benedict XVI himself kicked off the synod with a round-the-clock Bible-reading marathon lasting a whole week, by reading the opening verses of Genesis. Twelve hundred readers took part, including actor Roberto Bellini (La Vita e Bella) and tenor Andrea Bocelli, as well as Orthodox and Evangelical leaders.

Last week, briefly passing through Rome, my wife and I stood in an empty St Peter’s Square, where the chairs were still laid out for the 20,000 who had attended the pope’s weekly public audience on the Wednesday before. On our return to Holland, we read in the newspaper what the faithful had been told that day. 

The headline read: Pope quotes Luther: Sola Fide. Luther, the pope had told his audience, had been right to insist in sola fide, that a believer was justified by faith alone!

Disagreement over this doctrine had been at the heart of the Reformation in the 16th century, splitting Christianity in western Europe.


Yet, said the pope, it was indeed biblical to say, as did Luther, that it was the faith of a Christian, not his works, that saved him. Such faith however could not be separated from love for God and for neighbour, he qualified. Paul wrote about this balance in his letters, epecially the letter to the Philippians, he added.

The pope defined faith as ‘identification with Christ expressed in love for God and neighbour’. Such love fulfilled the law. Being justified meant simply being with Christ and in Christ. Christ alone was sufficient. 

Living by faith had had radical consequences for the Apostle Paul after his conversion on the road to Damascus, explained the pope. Prior to that, his life had been regulated by all sorts of Jewish rules and commandments. Paul’s new lifestyle, based on faith in Christ alone, surfaced in his various letters, especially his letter to the Romans.

Luther had correctly translated Paul’s words as ‘justified by faith alone’, the well-known sola fide, Benedict affirmed, as reported in the newspaper.  

Some have blamed the widespread lack of biblical knowledge among Italians, on the Catholic Church due to its monopoly on the teaching of the Bible. The Italian newspaper, La Stampa, responded to a recent survey showing that only 14% of Italians questioned were able to answer questions about the Bible correctly, with the headline: ‘In the beginning was the Word – but the Italians don’t read it’.

Only one in four Italians

had read a passage from the
Bible in the past year, the survey revealed, compared to three out of four in the USA. Few even knew whether or not the Gospels were part of the Bible. Philosophy graduates confused Paul with Moses and thought that Jesus wrote Genesis, according to the survey. This despite the encouragement of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65)  for the faithful to rediscover Scripture as the primary source of spiritual life.

So now Benedict is personally leading the way to encourage Catholics to engage with Scripture. The theme of the synod was The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. The pope told the gathered bishops that true reality was to be found in the Word of God. Many had put their trust in money as the true reality, observed the pope, but this was evaporating in the current global financial crisis.

The Bible Society of the UK has been assisting the Vatican to promote the reading of Scripture through the Lectio Divina Project. This new resource for Catholics provides notes and prayers to go with weekly lectionary readings of the Sunday Mass (downloadable at

From Rome I had flown to Switzerland last week for an interconfessional gathering of Together for Europe. Talk of the synod there prompted someone to quote Cardinal Kaspers’ recent statement: ‘The Word divided us; the Word must unite us’. 

We began to dream about how Christians in Europe could celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017-less than nine years away-as a prophetic statement by Catholics and Protestants together that the Word that once divided us is now uniting us again. 

That would be a giant step toward the fulfilment of Luther’s original dream of a Bible-centred Church!   

Till next week,

Till next week,

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