History in our own time: The Joint Declaration on Justification

 — Oct. 31, 199931 oct. 1999

“How are we saved?” This was the central question of the Protestant Reformation. Or, as Martin Luther phrased it: “How are we, as sinners, found righteous in the sight of a just God?” This is a question that has challenged Christians throughout our history, and has challenged our Hebrew brothers and sisters for even longer. The fact that we believe we will be saved is evident in our decision to come here today, for we all believe that God has offered us salvation. But why are we saved? Because we come here? Because we do our homework, say our prayers and try not to pick on our little brother?

For Martin Luther, the answer came in a moment of clarity as he was preparing his lectures on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Because St. Paul also asked this question, and he found the answer in the experience of faith. Paul was a little different from the other disciples, because Paul never actually saw Jesus of Nazareth. Certainly, Paul writes of the experience on the road to Damascus and says that he saw the Lord in a bright flash of light. But he didn’t know Jesus as a friend whom he walked and fished and ate with. And yet, for Paul, Jesus was as real as he was for Thomas. Paul didn’t need to see the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet, or place his own hands in the wound in Jesus’ side. For Paul reports that he had faith, and that it was this that had saved him. This is the same faith that Paul proclaims to the gentiles, and to each of us.

Imagine a busy university town. It is Wittenburg, and the Feast of All Saints is fast approaching. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor of Biblical studies, is preparing his lectures on this pivotal passage of Paul’s letter to the Romans:

“no human being can be justified in the sight of God for having kept the law: law brings only the consciousness of sin. … For all alike have sinned, and are deprived of the divine splendour, and all are justified by God’s free grace alone.” (Romans 3: 20, 23-24a)

Reading further, and exploring the Scriptures as scholars are expected to do, Luther confirmed his reading of the text:

“we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”

And yet, this seemed a far distance from the Gospel being preached from the pulpits in his day. So Luther posted a list of 95 examples of where the church’s teaching diverged from this doctrine of “justification by faith.” Historians can argue about whether Luther knew that his “95 theses” would be provocative. But what is undoubtedly clear, is that the reaction to Luther’s list has changed the world, the church, and Christian life forever.

Almost everybody learns at some point that the Protestant Reformation began with these “95 theses,” and that the Protestants and the Catholics have argued ever since whether we are “justified by faith” or “sanctified by grace,” whether we are saved by faith or by works. Well, like all legends there is some fact and some fiction. Whatever the real history may be, one fact that is true is that for the past 35 years Lutherans and Roman Catholics have not been fighting about this. Finally, after exactly 450 years the two churches were able to sit down and begin to talk about the dispute that started it all.

Today we celebrate the results of 35 years of exploring and learning, of sharing and teaching. Through this experience of “dialogue” we have been able to affirm that there are certain basic truths which we all accept, whether we are Lutheran or Catholic, or indeed, Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, or Orthodox.

These truths are as follows:

Now, these all seem pretty simple, I know. We have believed and taught these things forever, haven’t we? Well, my Lutheran friends think that they have believed and taught these things forever too. But somewhere, in the history of our religious hatred, we forgot to ask our neighbour what they think they believe. And to be perfectly honest, our neighbour forgot to ask us.

What do we do with history? Can we perpetrate another historical fiction by saying that Martin Luther and the 16th Century Catholic church didn’t really have a dispute? No, of course not. Because we know that’s not true. But what we do know is that we don’t have a quarrel today. We know that as Catholics, we are faithful to our tradition and teaching when we say that the Lutheran churches today do not teach anything about justification that conflicts with Catholic dogma. And Lutherans know that they are faithful to their tradition and teaching when they say that the Catholic church today does not teach anything about justification that conflicts with the Lutheran Confessions.

So, today in Augsburg, a city in Germany that is loaded with historical memory, representatives of the Vatican and of 128 Lutheran denominations around the world will sign a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. This declaration expresses this simple, yet profound, consensus. And further, “we pledge together to strive to deepen this common understanding and to make it bear fruit in the life and teaching of the churches.”

Other churches are watching this development and celebrating with us. A recent letter from the Anglican Communion states:

“Along with our Roman Catholic and Lutheran brothers and sisters, Anglicans give thanks to God for this notable step forward. We pray that this great event of the signing of the Joint Declaration may be a gift to the whole Church of God. We pray also that the Holy Spirit will guide and strengthen all efforts to overcome the polemical divisions of the past which impede the Church’s witness to a reconciling God who draws all humanity into union with himself.”

Many other world communions have also expressed support for this declaration. At the recent World Methodist Council assembly, the startling question was posed about how it might be possible for the Methodist churches to become signatories of this agreement.

I wish I could say that on the basis of this agreement, all issues that divide us will fall away. Unfortunately, that would be too simple. There are issues that will continue to separate Catholics and Lutherans, just as there are issues that divide each of our churches from so many other denominations in our world. But this issue which was the spark that lit the Reformation, will also be the consensus that allows us to begin to repair the wounds that have been inflicted upon Christ’s body. And so we enter into the prayer that ends the final paragraph of the Joint Declaration:

“We give thanks to the Lord for this decisive step forward on the way to overcoming the division of the church. We ask the Holy Spirit to lead us further towards that visible unity which is Christ’s will.”

Posted: Oct. 31, 1999 • Permanent link: ecumenism.net/?p=6258
Categories: OpinionIn this article: Catholic, Christian unity, dialogue, Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, ecumenism, JDDJ, Lutheran World Federation
Transmis : 31 oct. 1999 • Lien permanente : ecumenism.net/?p=6258
Catégorie : OpinionDans cet article : Catholic, Christian unity, dialogue, Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, ecumenism, JDDJ, Lutheran World Federation

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