These past few days I have been down with the flu. Appropriate to my weakened condition, I used part of this "down time" to reflect on the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Representatives of the Lutheran World Federation* and the Holy See signed the historic document on October 3, 1999, in Augsburg, Germany. It culminated almost thirty years of dialogue and ecumenical statements. Seattle's Archbishop Alexander Brunett, who is chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, played a significant role in developing the agreement.
Besides reading and meditating on the Declaration itself, I found two helpful articles. In This Rock (Nov/Dec 1999) James Akin writes about Justification, Setting the Record Straight. He begins by acknowledging that "among Protestant groups, the Lutheran view of justification has always been closest to the Catholic view in many respects. (For example, Luther taught the necessity of baptism for justification, the practice of infant baptism and the possibility of losing one's salvation.)" After giving a brief history of the agreement, Akin analyzes the seven issues it addresses. He concludes with some consequences for Catholic apologetics.
Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles offers his analysis in the December issue of First Things. He opens with these words:
"One of the central themes of the New Testament, if not the central theme, is the way to obtain salvation. To be on the right road is, in New Testament terminology, to be justified. The corollary is that unless we are justified we are unrighteous and are on the road to final perdition. In other words, justification, as a right relationship with God, is a matter of eternal life or death. If it is not important, nothing is."
Indeed. But before we can appreciate this central doctrine, we need to clear away a couple of our own cultural biases. We live in a blasť culture which pretends to be concerned about "nothing in particular." It is difficult for us to understand an openly passionate culture like sixteenth century Europe. Applying our supposed standards of civil discourse, we assume the Reformers and the Council Fathers of Trent were engaged in an overheated polemic. If they only had our spirit of tolerance, they would never have mutually condemned each other. (They would have politely worked things out like people have done here in Seattle with the World Trade Organization talks. Excuse the aside.)
The media took that "spin".** For example, in reporting on local celebrations, they naturally focused on the most dramatic part, the Penitential Rite. In it Lutherans and Catholics asked forgiveness from God and each other "for all prejudices, offensive words, reproaches without foundation, reprehensible gestures, or sheer indifference oftentimes, by which we, or our forebears, have offended them." That's nice, but did any of the participants consider himself personally guilty of those things? For example, if someone said to him, "You seem a little prejudiced," the response would be dismay, maybe even hostility.
But I am not so concerned with false contrition as what the Penitential Rite implies about "our forebears." Take away the the adjectives and one is left with the conclusion that their disagreements were after all a matter of "prejudices" and "words." Our culture naturally leads us in that direction. However, even a cursory reading of of the Joint Declaration shows its framers did not think that about "our forebears." The Declaration takes seriously their disagreements. What then are they?
Fr. Dulles sums up the issues with seven questions:
Most Catholics today would not know what the Council of Trent teaches regarding those questions. And I suspect many Lutherans would be surprised by their church's traditional teaching: We are merely passive in receiving justification; we are justified by faith alone (not combined with hope and charity bringing one into communion with God); justification is an imputation of Christ's righteousness (not an inner renewal); the justified continue to be sinners; concupiscence is sin; God's law, beyond our power to observe, still accuses us of guilt and eternal life is never merited. Those dogmas at best seem paradoxical, at worst irrational. Yet, with some qualifications, they are affirmed in the Joint Declaration - and juxtaposed with the traditional Catholic teaching which likewise is placed in a broader context.
So what do we do with this remarkable document? I have already warned against our cultural tendency to trivialize the issues. They are matters of life and death, salvation and perdition. We need to return to them continually because none of us shakes the deadly attraction of a theology of works: that I can pull myself up by my own bootstraps, that I have something I can take pride in ("self-esteem"), that when you come down to it all of us are basically good and that our entry into heaven is of course deserved. The classic Lutheran teaching provides a strong antidote against such poison. I remember when I first read Martin Luther. He made me tremble but also filled me with a strange warmth. His vision of man as simul justus et peccator (at the same time sinner and justified) touched me deeply. Even tho I accept Trent's teaching about the possibility of inner renewal, I have to admit Luther's colorful image of man as a dunghill covered with snow (the snow being Christ's forgivenness which enfolds us but does not change us inside) is firmly imbedded in my imagination.
Fr. Dulles provides a key for sorting out these contradictions. "Catholic thought-form as expressed at Trent, is Scholastic, and heavily indebted to Greek metaphysics. Lutheran thought-form is more existential, personalistic or, as some prefer to say, relational. The Scholastics adopt a contemplative point of view, seeking explanation. Luther and his followers, adopting a confessional posture, seek to address God and give an account of themselves before God."
The Joint Declaration asks Catholics and Lutherans to take another look at our roots. In that context repenting on behalf of our forebears does have some value. The pope himself has undertaken that delicate task as we enter a new millennium, but not out of sense of smugness, "Look how far we have come!" Still ordinary folk like you and me should focus on our own sins and let people higher up worry about those of past generations. Our task instead is to learn from them. They will help us correct our narrowness. We need both the passion of the Reformers and the precision of the Tridentine Council Fathers. They grappled with issues deep in each human heart.
One final note, an ironic one. What touched off the Reformation was the abuse of indulgences. But, if I understand it correctly, the Holy Year Indulgence accords closely with Luther's view of salvation as a free gift. Even the requirement of a complete, integral confession would warm Luther's heart. After he broke with the Catholic Church, he continued to advocate and practice individual confession of sins.
*The Lutheran World Federation, which includes the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) represents about 58 million of the 61 million Lutherans world-wide. However, it is interesting to note that Lutheran bodies which did not sign the Declaration, like the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, are in some ways closer to us than other Lutherans. The November/December issue of Touchstone has a letter from Pr. Rolf Preus (River Heights ELS Lutheran, Minn.) criticizing the ELCA for their decision to "have their church insurance cover the abortions of employees, including clergy." He notes that 3 million Lutherans in the U.S. do not belong to ELCA which is "the only Lutheran church body in the United States that ordains women and the only one that supports the 'right' to kill the unborn."
**E.g. The Washington Post wrote that the Delcaration "settles the central argument that Luther provoked about the nature of faith. The agreement declares, in effect, that it was all a misunderstanding." The Post article was handed out a local celebrations.
Was Martin Luther a Determinist? (Response from Lutheran Pastor)
Has Luther Won?
No Salvation Outside Catholic Church?
Homily: Saved by Grace Alone