On the approach to the 500th year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, some major efforts have been made to bridge the theological divide. In July, the World Council of Reformed Churches (WCRC) joined the Lutheran World Federation, Roman Catholics, and the World Methodist Council in accepting a common view of the doctrine of justification, one of the key issues of contention between the parties. The Anglicans have passed affirming resolutions in the Anglican Consultative Council, and in the Church of England’s general synod. The Archbishop of Canterbury plans to spend Halloween celebrating the accord during a service at Westminster Abbey on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s revolt. (See article from Christian Today.)
The Protestant understanding of justification states that we are saved through faith alone (“sola fide”) by God’s grace alone (“sola gratia”). No human cooperation is of any merit. This was central to Martin Luther’s teaching.
The Roman Catholic Church grappled with this idea and soundly rejected it in the 16th century Council of Trent:
Canon IX: If anyone says that the ungodly is justified by faith alone in such a way that he understands that nothing else is required which cooperates toward obtaining the grace of justification . . . let him be condemned.
At the heart of the new agreement is an attempt to formulate a statement on justification to which both parties can assent. As a Jesuit publication, American Magazine, summarized:
The Joint Declaration effectively closes the centuries-old “faith versus works” debate by merging the Lutheran and Catholic views on salvation rather than setting them against each other.
“By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part,” its key passage said, “we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.”
The Catholic church states that the anathemas in the 16th century Council of Trent do not apply to Protestants who agree with the Joint Declaration.
The Joint Declaration is not without criticism from both sides. One need not look too far to find Catholics who feel that this betrays the Catholic doctrines advocated in the 16th century Council of Trent. One example is the theologian Dr. Christopher Malloy of the University of Dallas:
“In fact, I am quite concerned that many people–even many Catholics and perhaps some of those who have recently become Catholic–are under the misimpression that, since the JD, Catholicism now holds that humans stand just before God by “faith” apart from charity and apart from observance of the commandments. Many high-caliber theologians have contended that Catholicism has changed some of its dogmas on justification. Catholics are rightly horrified”.
Furthermore, he is concerned about the diverse views held by Lutherans:
“We do not have a consensus of interpretation on the very identity of Lutheranism. Therefore, the JD’s claim to reconcile Lutheran and Catholic positions on justification begs the question: Which Lutheranism?”
(Source: 2007 interview by Ignatius Insight).
A very good summary of the issues, and criticism of the accord can be found in a 1999 essay penned by the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, entitled “Two Languages of Salvation: The Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration.”
On the Protestant side, there is considerable dissent as well. The more conservative Lutheran and Reformed bodies (such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) have repudiated it. In an essay entitled “Betrayal of the Gospel” Paul McLain charges,
“In fact, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is a fraud. It was a sell-out by revisionist Lutherans to Rome.”
In the end, this accord is largely a symbolic gesture, but then symbols do matter. It is encouraging that the heirs of the disagreement that so bitterly raged centuries ago have agreed to seek common ground and soften their condemnations of each other. I don’t foresee Protestants and Catholics achieving institutional unity, as a great many other serious issues divide us.
Still, I might echo the statement of a prominent evangelical (who was recalling a similar rapprochement between evangelicals and Catholics):
“There is enough commonality that evangelicals and Catholics with a living faith can recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ with a common Lord and common grace that brought them together.”
(Dean of Beeson Divinity School, Timothy George, quoted in Christianity Today).