A very large part of the debate between Lutherans and Roman Catholics was and still is, the importance of Scripture versus that of tradition. Luther and others, Martin Chemnitz in this particular case, felt that the Roman Church was much more interested in elevating the importance of tradition and the ruling of the Church, via the Pope and the Cardinals. This was in reality, probably much more of a hot button issue in the debate than the discussion over indulgences. The debate over the unique and sole authority of Scripture certainly being inclusive of the debate over indulgences.
I’m reading Chemnitz’s “Examination of the Council of Trent” (Part 1 Translated by Fred Kramer, published by Concordia Publishing House copyright 1971). This council was called by Pope Paul III, as a reply to the Lutheran Reformation in 1547. The original intent was to try and reconcile some of the issues, I do believe it was a good faith attempt by the church to examine if maybe, just maybe, Luther might have a point in some areas. The result didn’t come close, in fact it hardened the position the Roman church held before the Reformation.
But as Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon left the scene a new voice stepped in to further the cause of the Reformation and Christianity. Martin Chemnitz wrote extensively and persuasively in order for the Lutheran Reformation to continue to advance Christianity. Well could be if it weren’t for Chemnitz, the Lutheran Reformation might have been a brief bright flash in the Church, only to be repressed by the Roman Church or limited to an obscure corner of the church.
Chemnitz argued that none of the early church fathers had favored the canon of Scripture that had been organized by the church in the 4th century. While there was a time that the apostles and early church leaders did not have canon and had to preserve and pass on Scripture orally, they never intended for that to be the practice. They had written down the books of the New Testament and as much as possible intended all Christians to rely on the written, universally agreed on, books of the New Testament.
Chemnitz writes: “…Irenaeus says: ‘The apostles delivered to us in the Scriptures what they had preached.’ And for what purpose? What use did the apostles want the church to make of this their Scripture? Irenaeus answers: ‘That that which they delivered to us in writing might in the future be the foundation and pillar of our faith,’ namely, of that faith which the church received from the apostles and delivered to her children. Therefore we have in the Scriptures which the apostles delivered to us by the will of God the foundation and pillar of the only true and life-giving faith of the primitive church, received from the apostles. It is called the foundation of faith, because faith is learned, known, built up and received from it. It is called a pillar because through it that faith which alone is true and gives life is proved, confirmed, defended against all corruptions, and preserved. A faith, therefore, which is built up, received, proved and confirmed from any other source than from the Scriptures transmitted by the apostles is not the true, life-giving, apostolic faith of the primitive church. This lies most clearly and firmly in the argumentation of Irenaeus. And later he says that those are heretics who do not agree with the apostolic writings, and he describes the marks of the heretics in these words in chapter 2: ‘When they are proved wrong from the Scriptures, they turn and accuse the Scriptures themselves, as if they were not correct and were without authority [wow! where do we see that today? Everywhere including the churches from across the spectrum who don’t like to get too dogmatic. Basically so much of Christianity today that likes to pick and choose and make it up]. “both because they speak now one way, now another, and also because the truth cannot be found from Scripture by those who do not know the tradition; for (so they say) the truth was not given through epistles, but through the living voice” etc [kind of the same whiney make-believe rationalism of today].
Chemnitz goes on to quote Irenaeus that the apostles had passed on God’s word and did not intend to leave room for tradition and additions to God’s word, that their writings were to be the foundation of the church: “…Irenaeus shows in this statement for what purpose the apostles delivered their doctrine to us in the Scriptures and what use they wanted made of this Scripture in the church, namely, that it should be the foundation and pillar of our faith who have not heard the living voice of the apostles. And he adds that those are heretics who either cast away those Scriptures or turn and accuse them of speaking inconsistently and say that the truth cannot be found in them, unless besides these Scriptures the traditions are added which are treated as having been handed down by the apostles orally.”
Chemnitz put a lot of weight on Irenaeus’ word on Scripture. Irenaeus was a very early defender of the Christian Church, going back to the second century. He was also a leader in opposing the heresies of the period. He took Scripture seriously and did not take lightly any attempts to dilute what was written by the apostles only about 100 years earlier and passed on through the church from all over the Christian world, Asia, Europe, Africa, which generally subscribed to the canon of the New Testament.