The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification
By William H. Lazareth
Martin Luther wrote very little on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as such, concentrating instead in his own calling as a church reformer on the redemptive work of the Triune God among us. Nevertheless, it was only “the lofty articles of the divine Majesty…both parties confess” (Die Bekenntniss-chriften, der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, BSLK, The Smalcald Articles I, 1), that enabled the successfully completed resolution of the final doctrinal “sticking points” on basic truths of the doctrine of justification between the 125 member churches of the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity along with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith respectively. It was these concrete exercises in “reconciled diversity” (“Annex; Official Common Statement” ) that finally enabled the subsequent official signing (1999) of the consensus document entitled The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1997). This work solidified the doctrinal basis for mutually declaring the future non-applicability of the 16th century condemnations (anathemas) on justification to all the current partner-church signators.
In sum, the theme of the Church and ecclesial unity must now be explored in the absence of any universal conciliar decrees that are authoritatively comparable to the Trinitarian and Christological foundations of the faith which were solemnly decreed in the early church. Therefore we are well advised to explore more deeply the two interrelated but easily overlooked commitments that are at stake in all authentic ecumenism today. It is not insignificant that coherently interwoven throughout all post-Vatican II doctrinal dialogues between Catholics and Lutherans have been 1) the warp of a “Christocentric Trinitarian criteriology,” along with 2) the woof of a “differential consensus.”
This article is therefore divided into two historically and doctrinally distinguishable parts.First, it offers an introductory look at Luther’s own Christocentric Trinitarianism, and how it decisively impacted Philip Melanchthon and the Confessional documents of early 16th century Lutheranism in the doctrine of justification. Second, it provides a close reading of some recent 20th century ecumenical documents that manifest the Catholic-Lutheran bilateral struggles for a more universal and ecclesial criteriology that is centered in, but not limited to, a narrowly forensic construal of the iustifcatio impii, and that may more winsomely bespeak the sensus fidelium, the regula fidei, the paradosis of the kerygma, “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), during the preparation and reception of further modern consensus documents aiming at realizing church unity.
It is our thesis that there is an ecumenically promising “real presence” Trinitarianism in the very bedrock of a non-sectarian Lutheran confessional reading of the doctrine of justification (the divine Who beneath the redemptive how), which has ecumenically surfaced in all this bilateral research that should be both doctrinally welcomed and pastorally taught, even as it obviously carries the real risk of exposing the non — and even anti — Trinitarian “fault lines’ that now also seem to run as deeply within some of our congregations (and theological faculties) as between and among them. It is simply awesome to try to envisage what blessings the Triune God may now have in store for those of us fellow Christians who, after almost 500 years, now embark in a new millennium no longer officially condemning as “heretical” each other’s faithful teachings on basic truths of God’s salvific work through the Spirit in our crucified and risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
I. Luther’s Trinitarian Soteriology
Significant for our purposes is Luther’s sequential treatments of the doctrines of the Holy Trinity and justification in his own theological “last will and testament.” (The Smalcald Articles, 1537) He was officially commissioned to compose this material for the preparation of Lutherans if and when called to testify at the anticipated Council of Mantua — later postponed and relocated to Trent a few months before Luther’s own death in 1546.
First Luther dealt briefly but reverently with the wholly undisputed doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the subsequently normative authority of the confessional Book of Concord (BSLK 15).
The first part of the Articles treats the sublime articles of the divine majesty, namely: 1. That Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three distinct persons in one divine essence and nature, are one God, who created heaven and earth; 2.That the Father was begotten by no one, the Son was begotten by the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son….These articles are not matters of dispute or contention, for both parties confess them.
Then Luther turned in Part II to concentrate on that disputed doctrine of justification which he had hoped already before the Diet of Worms (1521) to defend and dispute in an authoritative general council of the church. Almost five centuries later, this is how the American Catholic and Lutheran members in the 7th round of their official theological dialogues jointly characterized and biblically documented Luther’s views in their own consensus text on Justification by Faith: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, 1985:
26. Justification sola fide (as Luther read Rom. 3:28) is justification propter Christum. Nothing but faith in Christ alone makes sinners pleasing to God; their works are good in his sight only “on account of Christ” (propter Christum).Because faith itself is wholly the gracious work of the Spirit, the Reformation teaches that God forgives and justifies by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone.
27. The doctrine of justification with its Christological focus and its Trinitarian presuppositions was later described by Luther in the Smalcald Articles (1537) as “the first and chief article” : Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, “was put to death for our trespasses and raised again for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). He alone is “the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:39). “God has laid upon him the iniquities of us all” (Isa. 53:6).Moreover, “all have sinned” and “they are justified by God’s grace as a gift through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, by his blood” (Rom. 3:23-25).
Inasmuch as this must be believed and cannot be obtained or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that such faith alone (sola fide) justifies us…Nothing in this article can be given up or compromised, even if heaven and earth and things temporal should be destroyed…[As Luther says still later], “If this article stands, the church stands, if it falls, the church falls.”
On the basis of this unequivocal witness to God’s gracious righteousness, the bilateral ecumenical commissioners then highlight the criteriological significance of Luther’s doctrinal definitions here.
28. To see justification by faith in this fashion as the articulus stantis et ecclesiae is, for the Reformers, to treat it as a criterion or corrective for all church practices, structures, and theology. The regard it as the heart of the gospel, because the gospel message in its specific sense is the proclamation of God’s free and merciful promises in Christ Jesus, which can be rightly received only through faith. All aspects of Christian life, worship and preaching should lead to or flow from justifying faith in this gospel, and anything which opposes or substitutes for trust in God’s promises alone should be abolished.
This extended passage is cited for three important reasons. First, it lays out for us summarily at the outset Luther’s view of “the heart of the gospel.” As the chief spokesperson for this 16th century reform movement within the church catholic, Luther emphasizes the proclamation of the awesome message of justification (viva vox evangelii), which is then also theologically explicated in the doctrine of justification. As such, it was consistently afforded pride of place among the developing Lutheran Confessions. In the definitive Book of Concord, 1580, both before and after Luther designated justification as “the first and chief article” of the Christian faith in the Smalcald Articles (1537), justification was likewise confessed elsewhere therein by such glowing terms as “the foremost doctrine in the church” (The Augsburg Confession, art. 20, 1530) ; and “this high and preeminent doctrine of justification before God” (Formula of Concord, SD, art. 3, 1577).
Contextually in the 16th century, however, the unique place of justification was not so much championed for its intra-doctrinal preeminence, as for its pastoral applicability.The doctrine served to substantiate the proclamation of good news in comforting and renewing the terrified and guilt-ridden consciences of weak Christians in the church’s ministerial “cure of souls.” The cross of Christ was God’s personally embodied answer to the gnawing question of whether enough had really been done for their salvation. Surely it had answered Luther’s own heart-wrenching Anfechtung: “How do I get a gracious God?” This is explicitly stated in the very opening paragraph of Melanchthon’s definitive Christocentric explication of justification in his Apology of the Augsburg Confession (art. IV, BSLK, 1531): “This controversy deals with the most important doctrine of Christian teaching which rightly understood, illumines and magnifies the honor of Christ, and brings the abundant consolation that devout consciences need.”
Second, the 20th century bilateral ecumenical commissioners therefore steadfastly refused to pit the doctrines of the Holy Trinity and justification over against each other in sectarian isolation or even competition (as had subsequently been done in some theological schools influenced by German Protestant idealistic and Existentialist Geistesgeschichte).Rather they ecclesially elucidated justification in orthodox and organic interdependence with the economic Trinity as the simultaneously regenerating and renovating activity of the Triune God himself. In other words, the “chief article” was never meant to be confessed in splendid isolation as the “only article.” To cite once again the commission members’ own words in 1985, they coherently construed “the doctrine of justification with its Christological focus and Trinitarian presuppositions.” Justification by grace through faith is the Triune God’s own salvific work.
Third, the ecumenical text rightly accentuates Luther’s biblical and ecclesial teaching that through the power and gifts of the church’s Holy Spirit, all Trinitarily baptized, reborn and renewed believers are inseparably declared and made righteous by God the Father “on account of Christ” (propter Christum) “through faith” (per fidem), and not anthropocen-trically vice versa. Luther proclaims this gospel simply for the laity in his Small Catechism (1529) of the BSLK,
5-6. “Where there is forgiveness of sin, there is life and salvation” — all of which is complementarily conveyed from outside us (extra nos) in the church by the Triune God through the Spirit in the holy Word and the blessed sacraments within the risen Christ’s earthly body, the church catholic.
Incidentally, this citation from Luther’s Small Catechism serves also to remind us that he there also faithfully (and in his day, often uncommonly) organized his commentary on the Apostles Creed not in the traditional string of twelve unrelated articles allegedly attributable to the twelve apostles, but rather within the explicitly Trinitarian structure of the Triune God’s distinguishable but inseparable work in Creation, Redemption and Sanctification (opera ad extra indivisa sunt). Moreover, Luther then went further to analyze the Creed’s second article of Redemption by the redemption of Christus Victor, without ever once mentioning the distinctively Pauline soteriological category of justification in general, to say nothing of the metaphor of forensic, imputational justification in particular. That same homiletical and pedagogical adaptability was likewise demonstrated in literally dozens of his other published sermons and biblical commentaries from non-Pauline sources.There the gospel message was also freely heralded by Luther in such other biblical categories and metaphors as forgiveness, adoption, redemption, ransom, healing, pardon, reconciliation, new creation, sanctification and salvation.
At the same time, it also remains certainly true that Luther did prefer to use the powerful Pauline juridical metaphor — 10 times in Romans 4 alone — of the unrighteous who faithfully trade their sin for Christ’s reckoned and imputed righteousness in the “happy exchange” (glücklicher Wechsel) that graciously effects their external judge’s acquittal, all for Christ’s sake (propter Christum). In fact Luther especially preferred it when expressing his doctrinal opposition to what he perceived to be the semi-Pelagian threats to “Christ alone” for salvation (solus Christus), as taught by William of Ockham, John of Paltz, and Gabriel Biel in the corrupted form of late medieval nominalistic Catholicism, in the distorted form with which Luther was directly most familiar in the eastern part of 16th century Germany. Here, we may recall, Augustine’s concern to vindicate God’s absolute priority (“When God rewards our merits, he crowns his own gifts” ), and Aquinas’ affirmation of the undeserved help of God’s merciful providence as the basis for doing what is in one’s power for justification (facere quod in se est) were badly corrupted in a semi-Pelagianizing sense in the via moderna’s support of reliance on the grace-unaided powers of fallen human nature (e puris naturalibus).Many late medieval scholars attest now that this likely led to the rampant scrupulosity of the late Middle Ages so deplored by the Reformers as a cause of the widespread “terrified conscience” of so many of their spiritually insecure parishioners.
In this connection, we may also note a related development in the work on justification of Luther’s close Reformation co-worker, Phillip Melanchthon. We recall his similar memorable dictum: “To know Christ is to know his saving benefits” (Christum cognoscere est beneficia eius cognoscere), in dependence on the Pauline proclamation concentration on “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Cor. 1:23). In this spirit, Melanchthon dedicated the longest-by-far article in The Apology (1531) to justification, articulated forensically in the exclusively imputational terms of Paul’s Romans and Galatians. In his Luther-approved summary of their movement’s Christian faith, Melanchthon had likewise structured his own Augsburg Confession (1530) in such a way as to incorporate the Reformation’s “evangelical corrective” organically within the catholic substance of a Trinitarian, Christological and ecclesiological faith. No mere private opinion after the Diet of Augsburg, this test was soon recognized by allied Lutherans as “the confession (symbol) of our time” (FC, The Epitome, Intro., 1577) and also late included in the new communion’s normative Book of Concord (1580).
Significantly, in the commemoration of the 450th anniversary of Augustana’s composition, the official international joint commission of Catholic and Lutheran ecumenists met together in Augsburg to celebrate the Trinitarian breadth of its soteriological focus on justification. In a joint declaration entitled All Under One Christ (1980) — the title itself an irenic formulation taken literally from Melanchthon’s Augustana preface — they bilaterally affirmed:
7. In context and structure, this (Augsburg) confession, which is the basis and point of reference for the other Lutheran confessional documents, reflects as no other confession does the ecumenical purpose and catholic intention of the Reformation.
10. The express purpose of the Augsburg Confession is to bear witness to the faith of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Its concern is not with particular doctrines, nor indeed with the establishment of a new church (CA VII), but with the preservation and renewal of the Christian faith in its purity — in harmony with the ancient church, and “the church of Rome,” and in agreement with the witness of Holy Scripture.
13. [Hence], we are able to appeal to the Augsburg Confession when we say: Together we confess the faith in the Triune God and the saving work of God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit which binds all Christians together (CA I and III).Through all the disputes and differences of the 16th century, Lutheran and Catholic Christians remained one in this central and most important truth of the Christian faith.
We pause here again to emphasize Luther’s affirmation of “this central and most important truth of the Christian faith.” In the massive body of Luther’s biblical and liturgical writings, there is not a single page in literally dozens of volumes to deny or even to qualify this unqualified Trinitarian fidelity.
For Luther, the Triune God, the eternal Lord named “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is the one and only Holy One whom we “are to fear, love and trust — above all things” — to use his classic explanation of the Decalogue’s first commandment (BSLK II, 2-6). In The Small Catechism (1529), it is God the Father “who has created me together with all that exists,” it is God the Son who is “true God and also a true human being” who has “redeemed me, a lost and condemned human being” ; and it is God the Spirit who “has called me through the gospel, made me holy and kept me in the one true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth” — to recall Luther’s indivisible explanation of the three articles of the creed.
Hence, the Holy Trinity, as the Lord of the church’s gospel, is no mere optional and culture-bound result of antiquated metaphysical or even Patriarchal projection. Put simply and directly, as normed by the church’s tradition of the gospel throughout the ages, the Christian church is not at liberty ecumenically to surrender God’s revealed name as “Father, Son and Spirit” in its creeds, prayers, invocations and Holy Baptisms. We may speak metaphorically about God, but not symbolically to God, or other than as to the Father through the Son in the Spirit.This is because God’s holy name is grounded in the unique and eternal intra-Trinitarian relation of God the Son to God the Father in God the Spirit.
Let us return now to the 1980 bilateral report of the international ecumenical commissioners (All under one Christ), as they moved sequentially from Augustana’s first and third articles on the Trinity and the incarnate Christ to its fourth article on justification, along with its renewing and fruitful ethical consequences.
14. A broad common consensus emerges in the doctrine of justification, which was decisively important for the Reformation (CA IV) ; it is solely by grace and by faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit in us that we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit who renews our hearts and equips us for, and call us to, good works (cf CA IV, VI, XX).
15. Together we testify that the salvation accomplished by Christ in his death and resurrection is bestowed on us and effectively appropriated by humanity in the proclamation of the gospel and in the holy sacraments through the Holy Spirit (CA V).
16. A basic if still incomplete accord is also registered today even in our understanding of the church, where there were serious controversies between us in the past. By church we mean the communion of those whom God gathers together through Christ in the Holy Spirit, by the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, and the ministry instituted by him for this purpose. Though it always includes sinners, yet in virtue of the promise and fidelity of God, it is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church which is to continue forever (CA VII and VIII).
17. Reflecting on the Augsburg Confession, therefore, Catholics and Lutherans have discovered that they have a common mind on basic doctrinal truths which point to Jesus Christ, the living center of our faith.
Once again, we may be permitted two interpretive comments on the significance of this cited material.On the one hand, the doctrine of justification is jointly treated not as a (sectarian Lutheran) “denominational distinctive,” perhaps somewhat comparable to speaking in tongues, or double predestination, or dispensationalism, or moral perfectionism, or rapture millennialism in some other ecclesial groups.Rather it is developed as an inherent and coherent element of the Christological soteriology of the Trinitarian faith of the church catholic. In other words, it is mutually recognized that the Reformers’ orthodox and ecclesial Trinitarianism is comprehensively paramount as CA IV (Justification) was intentionally preceded by CA I (God), CA II (Original Sin), CA III (Son of God), and then purposed followed by CA V (Ministry), CA VI (New Obedience), CA VII and VIII (The Church).
On the other hand superior biblical and doctrinal scholarship, hermeneutically sensitive to the methodological and linguistic ambiguity that has perennially complicated this discussion for centuries, now courageously cuts the Gordian knot of unresolved Catholic — Lutheran ecumenism. The international bilateral commission “reconciles the diversity” represented by two interpretive doctrinal models: 1) the Council of Trent’s “inclusive” treatment of forensic, effective and meritorious justification (Canons 1-32), along with 2) the combination of Augustana’s “exclusive” treatments of (forensic) justification (CA IV), (effective sanctification) in New Obedience (CA VII) and (non-meritorious but divinely rewarded) Good Works (CA XX).
This conceptual imbalance is rooted, not least, in the divergent construals of justification: in the Hebrew “performative event” model of the Reformers and the Greek “transformative process” model of the Catholics. The explicit acknowledgement of this critical hermeneutical distinction is decisive for producing any joint ecumenical agreement that incrementally promotes more ecclesial unity short of uniformity, and overcomes doctrinal division while still allowing permissible differences.Though surely not always the case, conscientious 16th century opponents found themselves all too often unable to express doctrinal agreement to their mutual satisfaction because of their different thought-structures and language-expressions.
To cite but one notorious example, the condemnations of the Council of Trent used the single term “justification” to cover what, to Lutherans, was meant by both terms “justification” and “sanctification.” It is now common knowledge that the theologians of the Reformation tended to follow the predominant usage of the Greek New Testament, in which the verb dikaioun usually means (forensically) “to declare, or pronounce, righteous.” The Catholic theologians and notably the Council of Trent, tended instead to follow St. Jerome’s 4th century Greek translation into the Latin Vulgate. They normally employed the usage of patristic and medieval Latin writers, for whom justificare (the traditional Latin translation of the Greek diakioun) signified not “to declare righteous” but rather “to make righteous.” Thus, the Catholic understanding of the lifelong transformative process of justification/sanctification, following Latin usage, tended to include various elements of salvation which the performative-oriented Reformers would describe as belonging more properly to the Christian renewal of effective sanctification (CA VI) rather than to Christ’s imputed righteousness of forensic justification (CA IV).
As a consequence, Lutherans took Catholics to be emphasizing sanctification in such a way that the absolute gratuitousness of the Triune God’s salvation was being humanly threatened, On the other hand, Catholics feared the Lutherans were so stressing the justifying action of God that sanctification and human responsibility for good works were being gravely depreciated. (So at the 1530 Diet of Augsburg, Lutherans were likely often thinking in Greek and Roman Catholics in Latin — while both were cursing at and past each other, in German!)
Finally, one should add that this intermural linguistic and (then resultant) conceptual dilemma was only exacerbated internally when we recall that Philip Melanchthon’s Augsburg Confession (1530) was soon published in parallel German and Latin official editions. The German used Luther’s direct translation from the Greek and Hebrew Bible, while the Latin freely employed the extant scholastic terminology, often only intensifying communication confusion. At his irenic best, of course, the master linguist, Melanchthon, freely acknowledged “that out of unrighteous people righteous people are made or regenerated, it also means that they are pronounced or regarded as righteous. For Scripture speaks both ways” (CA, AP IV, 72:BSLK).
In sum, the ecumenical well has been frequently poisoned from both sides, often totally unintentionally, as Catholics wrongly heard loveless “fideism” whenever Lutherans have treated justification narrowly and performatively from the “exclusive” perspective of CA IV; just as reciprocally, Lutherans wrongly heard faithless “synergism” whenever Catholics have treated justification broadly and trans-formatively from the “inclusive” perspective of the 32 Canons of Trent. Obviously it is biblically and doctrinally indefensible for either of us to perpetuate these unfounded and polemical caricatures of each other. Catholics are not faithless and Lutherans are not loveless, so we turn now to the recent unprecedented bilateral attempts to declare this multifaceted truth together.
II. Ecumenical Evidences of Differentiated Consensus
It is important to recall that the 1980 international bilateral commission was massively reinforced by the American Catholic-Lutheran study on Justification by Faith, published soon thereafter in 1985. Climaxing two decades of dialogues after Vatican Council II, the commissioners reached a 12-point doctrinal agreement which concluded with what they called a “fundamental affirmation of faith.” Its nuanced Christo-centric Trinitarian core deserves our careful consideration.
4. We emphatically agree that the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ is the source and center of all Christian life and of the existence and work of the church. In view of this experience, we have found it helpful to keep in mind in our reflections an affirmation which both Catholics and Lutherans can wholeheartedly accept.
Our entire hope of justification and salvation rests on Jesus Christ and on the gospel whereby the good news of God’s merciful action in Christ is made known; we do not place our ultimate trust in anything other than God’s promise and saving work in Christ (solus Christus).This excludes ultimate reliance on our faith, virtues, or merits, even though we acknowledge God working in these by grace alone (sola gratia). In brief, hope and trust for salvation are gifts of the Holy Spirit and finally rest solely on God in Christ.
Agreement in this (Christological) affirmation does not necessarily involve full agreement between Catholics and Lutherans on justification by faith (sola fide), but it does raise the question …whether the remaining differences on this doctrine need to be church-dividing.
These affirmations bear witness to the dramatic encouragement given to the recent biblical and hermeneutical scholarship of modern Catholics by the issuance, for example, of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu and in the Second Vatican Council’s “Constitution on Divine Revelation” (Dei Verbum). Rome can now affirm that even a binding doctrinal decision requires further historical interpretation. The forms in which they are expressed, if not in the truth they embody, are historically conditioned.They are enunciated in terms that bear the traces of the “changeable conceptions” of a given epoch (Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Mysterium Ecclesiae”, of 24 June, 1973, sec. 5). All these views have been developed under the overarching affirmation of faith articulated in Vatican II that the one Word of God is the content of Scripture and tradition (DV 10: unum Verbi Dei sacrum depositum — “a single sacred deposit of the Word of God” ), stressing that to this Word of God the church’s teaching office is bound: “This Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it” (ibid.).
In short, the doctrinal advances in the dialogues’ momentous achievements could now be publicly praised and traced back explicitly to the two traditions’ methodological complementarity. To quote once again from the American Bilateral Report, paras. 158-99 passim (1985):
It must be emphasized that our common affirmation that it is God in Christ alone whom believers ultimately trust, does not necessitate any one particular way of conceptualizing or picturing God’s saving work. That work can be expressed [by Lutherans] in the image of God as judge who pronounces sinners innocent and righteous, and also [by Catholics] in a transformist view which emphasizes the change wrought in sinners by infused grace…Wherever this affirmation is maintained, it is possible to allow great variety in describing salvation and in interpreting God’s justifying declaration without destroying church unity.
Here we are now publicly introduced to the critical intersection of the two concepts of 1) “Trinitarian Christological criteriology” on the one hand, and 2) a “differentiated consensus” on the other. It demonstrates to this writer that some modern sectarian Lutherans needed to get beyond their exclusive preoccupation with forensic justification in virtual disregard of the church’s regula fidei throughout the ages (a persisting Vatican concern reiterated right down to the 1999 final signing).
In the more ecumenical age begun in the 20th century, would-be confessional Lutheran Christians must quietly but firmly be reminded that the doctrine of justification by grace through faith — essential as it is to a major part of the Pauline New Testament — nevertheless still remains a soteriological proposal for official Christian dogma, a Reformation proposal to which the larger church, catholic, whether in East or West, has yet to grant official conciliar recognition. What has been solemnly decreed to date as the lex credendi of all creedal orthodoxy is the blessed Holy Trinity: “We worship one God in Trinity and the Trinity in unity” , as the Athanasian Creed declares. So, as yet, the normative test for all catholic and evangelical doctrine remains its Trinitarian fidelity: “neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being.” If ecumenical Lutherans rightly remain committed to the Gospel’s Christocentric soteriology for the establishment of full communion and visible unity among ecclesially divided Christians, then some of their most prominent academic teachers must also be prepared to witness to it now more effectively in terms of Trinitarian plentitude, and not resort to sectarian sloganeering. After all, the New Testament, even within the Pauline corpus itself, provides the basis for a rich variety of doctrinal ways to proclaim the apostolic message of salvation without compromising the teaching of the apostolic gospel.
The final and official Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1997) would state this Trinitarian criteriological consensus underlying the reconciled and ecclesial teachings in a more elegant and nuanced manner:
We also share the convictions that the message of justification points in a special way towards the heart of the New Testament witness to God’s saving action in Christ…The doctrine of justification, which takes up the message and explicates it, is more than just one part of Christian doctrine. It stands in an essential relation to all truths of faith, which are to be seen to be as internally related to each other. It is an indisputable criterion, which constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ.
When Lutherans emphasize the unique significance of this criterion, they do not deny the interrelation and significance of all truths of faith. When Catholics see themselves as bound by several criteria, they do not deny the official function of the message of justification. Lutherans and Catholics (Trinitarily!) share the goal of confessing Christ, who is to be trusted above all things as the one mediator (1 Tim. 2:5-6), through whom God in the Holy Spirit gives himself and pours out his renewing gifts (cf. Sources, sect. 3, paras. 17-18).
To summarize, this cumulative breakthrough in Catholic-Lutheran relations for confessing basic truths on justification took place only through a Trinitarian-based mutual accommodation. Lutherans dealt with justification “inclusively” in the cumulative style of Trent; i.e., coupling affirmations of faith on Christ’s (forensic) justification (Ca IV), with related issues they also confessed in New Obedience (CA VI) and Good Works (CA XX). In return, Rome has quietly departed from Trent’s modality of “merits” by now explicating the Christian’s good works “exclusively” as fruits of faith empowered by the renewal of the Holy Spirit. To cite but one of the appended resources to the Joint Declaration’s part 4.7: “Many antitheses could be overcome, if the misleading word “merit” were simply to be viewed and thought about in connection with the true sense of the biblical term, “wage” or “reward.”
Moreover, the final Joint Declaration (1997) also candidly acknowledges that while it has achieved a “common understanding on basic truths of the doctrine of justification,” it still “does not cover all that either church teaches about justification.” In other words, added to the first ecumenical use of a “Christocentric Trinitarian criteriology” for affirming justification, is also the second ecumenical use of negotiating, as a step toward achieving the two churches’ “full communion,” an official declaration of “differentiated consensus” to substantiate the future non-applicability of past mutual condemnations on justification. What, then, did the negotiators means exactly by this new ecumenical methodology? Here is another place where many ecumenically-inexperienced scholars (to say nothing of “win or lose” -oriented sensational journalists) need to engage quickly in some on-the-job remedial training.
On the Lutheran side, Harding Meyer, formerly the director of the Lutheran World Federation-related Institute for Ecumenical Research and member of the two churches’ European study commission, has tried to explain this “consciously intended double structure” of the Joint Declaration (1997) in terms of “bi-dimensionality” :1) on the one level of the fundamental commonality of the two communions’ doctrines of justification, and 2) on the other level of their remaining differences. He wrote in Ecumenical Trends (6/166, 1997):
The Joint Declaration…speaks of consensus on basic truths concerning the doctrine of justification, in whose light the remaining differences of understanding are bearable. “Therefore, the Lutheran and the Catholic explications of justification are in their differences open to one another and do not destroy the consensus regarding the basic truths” (para. 40) …In distinction to a “standardized consensus” that pushes toward uniformity, this kind of consensus is designated as a “differentiated consensus.”
This is not a hermeneutical trick. It corresponds most deeply to the fellowship of Christians and churches that seeks a greater fellowship which respects and recognizes differences …which no longer divide, but challenge each other within the limits of the mutually affirmed consensus on basic truths.
Bishop Pierre Duprey, Secretary of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, had likewise sought during the 1990s to communicate this new understanding to a variety of ecumenical audiences in the United States.In speaking to public audiences of lay persons who are also electronically au courant, he put it this way in 1998 to Lutherans in New York City:
Of course, even today there is no identity in the doctrine of justification, nor is such an identity intended. Lutheran and Catholic theologies have developed their respective doctrines on justification starting from different questions and placing justification in different contexts in their theological systems. Justification has a very central place in Lutheran teaching.
What is therefore called for, is not identity, but coherence or — using the technical computer language — compatibility; that is, a) the official recognition that both sides agree on the essential contents of the doctrine of justification, and b) the official recognition that the one side (Catholic) does not affirm what the other (Lutheran) is denying, and that the other side (Lutheran) does not deny what the first side (Catholic) is affirming.
With such a nuanced and differentiated methodology, Rome’s official Vatican review could now affirm that “Canons 1-32 of the decree on justification do not apply to Lutheran doctrine as determined by the Lutheran Confessional Writings.” The ecumenical bottom line would then be that in Trent, Rome officially and rightly condemned false teachings which Lutherans never officially and wrongly taught — preeminently a “fideism” that totally divorced faith from love, justification from sanctification, in a truncated view of holistic Christian salvation. It is now commonly agreed that those whom God declares righteous by grace through faith on account of Christ (propter Christum), are also made righteous by the effectual gifts of the accompanying and indwelling Holy Spirit.In the language of the 1997 Joint Declaration (26): “In the doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone,’ a distinction but not a separation is made between justification itself and the renewal of one’s way of life that necessarily follows from justification and without which faith does not exist…Justification and renewal are joined in Christ, who is present in faith.”
This illustrates that the proper role of Christian dogma or doctrine is to set the orthodox boundaries beyond which creative Christian theologies — in the plural — cannot trespass in the church. So, e.g., the Council of Chalcedon (451) settled Christian theological disputes by officially affirming that the eternal Son of God became historically incarnate in Jesus Christ as “one Person with two natures, one divine and one human, which are united unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably.” Clearly, the ecclesial purpose was to define the limits of legitimate speculation, rather than to make an exact and comprehensive statement of one theological position. Today, we cannot do more, but we dare not do less, in ecumenical reconciliation that seeks to speak the truth in love together.
Building on this foundation, our common hope is that many other ecclesial divisions can now become less intractable when illumined by the splendor of the holy church’s Christocentric Trinitarianism. The “differentiated consensus” that is declared on some basic truths of faith in the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification provides us with a promising model for both further ecclesial endorsement (perhaps by the World Methodist Council and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches), as well as doctrinal expansion (perhaps in the new theme of “Church and Ecclesial Unity” ). In all these efforts, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, under the inspiring direction of its President, Cardinal Walter Kasper, will surely be supported mightily by the prayers of many faithful and ecumenical Christians in many churches throughout the world.
Reprinted from the author’s chapter in a Festschrift anthology compiled by Peter Walter, Klaus Kraemer, and Georg Augustin (eds.), Kirche in Oekumenischer Perspektive: Kardinal Walter Kasper zum 70, Geburtsag (Herder: Freiburg, 2003) 340-353.