Jonathan Naumann reviews the recent Roman / Lutheran Joint Statement

ALL THE COMMENTATORS on Luther who get anywhere near understanding what he or the reformation were about spiritually, refer to how Luther’s doctrine of Justification was part of a personal crusade for spiritual peace of mind. He wanted to be certain of his own salvation. But what, doubtlessly, started out as a crusade for personal peace of mind became, on the same Reformation battlefield, a crusade for Christ and the effect of the Saviour’s redeeming work. Lutherans have long since believed that what is at stake in the doctrine of Justification is both the most important issue of one’s soul’s salvation, and the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement.

This is a position held also by the orthodox Anglican divines. Under the heading, ‘Of the Justification of Man’, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion agree with Luther that ‘we are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full for comfort…’

Rome, on the other hand has been notoriously ambivalent on this point. In their efforts to hit back at the Reformation, Rome has been quite willing to deny Protestants, as well as themselves, their wholesome comfort by denying that there is a forensic sense to the term ‘justify’, even though the word justificare itself, in their own Vulgate Bible means ‘to acquit, or make just’.

Yet, here we are, in 1999, contemplating a ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’ between the Church of Rome and the churches of the Lutheran World Federation.

Without question, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is being taken seriously by many Lutherans, at least by some of the most prominent leaders of world Lutheranism who are members of the Lutheran World Federation, the rather liberal umbrella organisation whose efforts led up to the Joint Declaration. It is taken seriously by those who take their ecumenical agenda seriously.

What is questionable is whether the Joint Declaration can be taken seriously by those like the members of Forward in Faith and Confessional Lutheran churches who take Christian doctrine seriously. It is disconcerting to consider that, at least from the Lutheran side, the Joint Declaration has been driven largely by those with interests in modern ecumenism more than in an agreement that is true to historic approaches to doctrine. As we may see from history, theologians of the past discussed and argued about beliefs with the presupposition that there was such a thing as ‘pure doctrine’. The modern Lutherans involved in the Joint Declaration did not presuppose this. When one adds to this the fact that, from the Roman side, what seems to be at stake is not Rome’s doctrine but Rome’s political position with respect to those whom it would ultimately like to have submit to itself, then one could be forgiven for being a bit wary of the results.

From the outset, orthodox Lutherans, and members of Forward in Faith must bear in mind that the very reason we find ourselves confronted by a common threat precludes us taking much interest in ecclesiastical developments which are mere manifestations of the modernistic. If this spirit of the age lies behind the Joint Declaration on Justification, then we do well to be wary of it.

For example, it seems to be the modern view that all antitheses are inappropriate. The Joint Declaration seems to have avoided antitheses with a zeal that more than borders on obscurantism. Yet Forward in Faith is living proof that antitheses are not only appropriate, but are necessary at any time in history when error threatens truth. It needs to be asked, therefore, whether the Joint Declaration is consistent with the laudable aims of Forward in Faith in its motto ‘with a vision for unity and truth’; or whether it is driven by the opposite modernistic vision of unity at the expense of truth.

It would be unworthy of Forward in Faith, which, since 1996 has affirmed as normative for all Christians ‘the faith and practice of the undivided Church, and in particular the teaching of the Seven Ecumenical Councils’, to fail to distinguish the theological discipline which defined the faith of the undivided Church from the theological woolliness that drives so much of what is dignified by the term ecumenical today.

Theological precision, including antitheses as well as theses, is of the essence of respectable doctrinal agreement. Just as the battle for the jot and tittle of the term homoousios was a vital battle for orthodox Christology, so the church cannot put in the place of a victory over error an agreement which is a mere ‘treaty’ in which the only loser is truth (a very gratifying settlement from Satan’s perspective).

Without wishing to prejudice ourselves unduly, we examine the Joint Declaration, at the very least hoping that, perhaps in spite of themselves, Lutheran and Roman theologians have made real progress toward understanding the doctrine which is rightly described as the article by which the Church either stands or falls.

In its preamble, the Joint Declaration announces that ‘the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ. It does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations’.

That is quite a claim. But the basis for that claim requires closer scrutiny. For a start, those words ‘justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ’ have to be examined to determine whether they are being accurately understood by those who claim to have agreed on them. Can we accept that there is no prevarication in the Joint Declaration, or is there, at the very least, some serious equivocation and metonymy involved – the use of words as jargon without agreement on their definition?

The Joint Declaration takes pains to point out that that it is not a stand-alone presentation, but one which builds upon and refers to the documents produced by recent Lutheran – Roman Catholic dialogues. Such documentation does not really add to the strength of the Joint Declaration, since all those previous efforts were inferior to it for precisely the following reason. They failed to honestly address the doctrine of Justification in a way that would have been recognised by those who fought over it in the first place.

The relationship between modern dialogues and the more polemical efforts of the 16th century is not as dubious a point as it might sound to many modern ears. Quick as many might be to dismiss the contentions of the Reformation era, it has to be conceded that they were closer to the point in question than we are. Back then they also had a rigorous devotion to doctrinal accuracy, which is not to be despised by those of us who still value truth.

The lifting of the Reformation Era condemnations, the source of most of the hype surrounding the Joint Declaration, is announced in paragraph 41 with the words: ‘the doctrinal condemnations of the 16th century, in so far as they relate to the doctrine of justification, appear in a new light: The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration’.

Yet is this announcement consistent with the unaltered authority of the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent and the corresponding Lutheran formularies? Glossing over differences is not good enough, when they are important differences like those concerning the doctrine of Justification. As one of the best orthodox Lutheran theologians of our time always used to say, it is agreement in terminology which is key to resolving theological differences, not the modus operandi of much modern ecclesiastical dialogue: ‘a facile equivocation of the concept of equivocation’.

How Biblical is the Joint Declaration?

Biblical support for the Joint Declaration is given top priority, or at least top billing. The first section of the Joint Declaration proper is filled with scripture references and is entitled ‘Biblical Message of Justification’. The biblical support lacks some important references, but it is still an encouraging feature of the document, not to be found in the document’s predecessors nor taken for granted these days.

Fortunately only occupying one paragraph (number 13), is a patronising swipe at orthodox principles of biblical interpretation. The orthodox use of the Bible is blamed for causing an ‘Ecumenical Problem’ and ‘insights of recent biblical studies’ and ‘modern investigations of the history of theology’ are credited with coming to the rescue. Although it is brief, this is a very telling paragraph. It implies that the doctrinal condemnations of the 16th century no longer apply because modern Rome and modern Lutheranism have discredited their historic positions as biased by out-moded biblical and doctrinal theology.

Saying the same things?

The Joint Declaration uses all the good words we could want to hear as it describes Justification. The five paragraphs under the heading ‘The Common Understanding of Justification exemplify this. We are told that both sides in this declaration have ‘together listened to the good news proclaimed in Holy Scripture’. The Christocentricity of Justification is also clear. ‘Christ Himself is our righteousness’, ‘together we confess: by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part’. ‘Through Christ alone we are justified, when we receive this salvation in faith’. ‘Lutherans and Catholics share the goal of confessing Christ, who is to be trusted above all things as the one Mediator (1 Tim 2:5-6)’. ‘Faith is itself God’s gift through the Holy Spirit who works through Word and Sacrament’. ‘…a gift we receive in faith and never can merit in any way’. Furthermore the centrality of the doctrine of Justification is taught. ‘…the doctrine of justification, … 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 as internally related to each other’.

So far so good. Were both Catholics and Lutherans (to say nothing of Anglicans!) to speak this way in sermons and teaching all over the world then a hearty ‘Hallelujah’ would definitely be in order. But the complexities of language require the explication which follows in the Joint Declaration. The declaration tries to leave room for Catholics and Lutherans using words which they still want to use despite their tendency to undermine the very consensus they have just proclaimed. For example Catholics should still be able to say they ‘co-operate in preparing for and accepting justification’ because they have just agreed that ‘such personal assent is itself an effect of grace’.

What about Forensic Justification?

As we have already noted, Justification is a forensic concept in the Bible and in Lutheran theology, derived from the Bible. How does the Joint Declaration deal with the forensic aspect of Justification that the Roman church has historically opposed? If, as some insist, Rome has conceded that the Lutherans are correct in picking up on the forensic meaning of the term ‘justify’ in scripture, then the Joint Declaration is a wasted opportunity because it fails to reflect such a consensus. The word ‘forensic’ is only found in the Appendix and then with the somewhat dismissive comment that ‘it is by no means the only biblical or Pauline way of representing God’s saving work’.

How does the Joint Declaration cope with the subtle but real question of the effect of Justification? Is justification an event which clears people of guilt, followed by the process of sanctification, as the Lutherans teach, or is justification itself a process as the Roman side hold? Should one, as Lutherans do, speak of justification in a narrow sense, or as the Romans do, in the broad sense, including aspects of spiritual growth and life that Lutherans would confine to the doctrine of sanctification?

It is irritating, from the Lutheran perspective, to find the Joint Declaration continually joining together with the word ‘and’ aspects of the doctrine of salvation which Lutherans have kept separate to safeguard the glory of Christ, whose efforts don’t require topping up with ours to be effective. Yet for the Council of Trent such an understanding of Justification makes perfect sense since Trent teaches that Christians ‘co-operating with good works, increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ and are further justified’. For Lutherans, the Tridentine phrase ‘further justified’ is an insult to Jesus Christ, as though the Saviour’s efforts unaided by us are hopelessly incapable of achieving our justification. The Joint Declaration does not use such a phrase as ‘further justified’, yet supports the idea rather than questions a mixing of Sanctification with Justification.

Certainty to us and glory to Christ

Both Justification and Sanctification are works of God, one may say, so what difference does it make if they are mixed? The difference is this. All agree that sanctification gives some credit to human beings for co-operating in its success, albeit aided by God’s grace. That is all very well for Sanctification. But if human co-operation is not excluded from Justification, then in no function obtaining our salvation can God take all the credit and glory. Humans would take some of that glory for themselves for achieving salvation.

But is it fair to imply that Roman Catholic theology seeks to rob Christ’s sacrifice of its full effect? Perhaps not entirely, but without a doubt, it is fair to say that RC theology wants to rob believers of the certainty that their justification is complete through Christ’s merits alone. As Trent teaches: ‘no pious person ought to doubt the mercy of God, the merit of Christ and the virtue and efficacy of the sacraments, so each one, when he considers himself and his own weakness and indisposition, may have fear and apprehension concerning his own grace (emphasis mine).

Such ‘apprehension’ and uncertainty of having adequate righteousness (grace) to be received directly into Heaven is surely behind the theory of purgatory, which Anglican doctrine rightly calls ‘vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God’. Lutherans would add to that the judgement, if they teach that our “own weakness and indisposition” is not forgiven by the virtue and efficacy of the sacraments, nor even by the very merit of Christ Himself, Rome has a pretty feeble view of the power of Christ crucified. Demurring from the thought of being accepted directly into Heaven they disparage the saving work of Jesus and detract from the quality of eternal life as a free gift for Christ’s sake. Thus they gain for themselves the virtue of achieving humility at Christ’s expense.

Lutherans would say, in the realm of sanctification, where there is a human part in the equation, our perfection is very much in doubt. But in the realm of Justification, where there is no human part in the equation, no – there is nothing to doubt. Christ has obtained righteousness for us. Yet Trent labels this position ‘the vain confidence of heretics’. Surely there is no vanity in the Lutheran position that Justification rests with Christ alone who ‘knew no sin’, yet has chosen to bear our sins that we might ‘become the righteousness of God in Him’.

Justification ‘sola fide’

The question in all this must be, ‘what is the object of Justifying faith?’ You say you ‘believe’. But tell me in what or whom do you put your trust. The answer will give me your definition of faith. Rome wants to define faith, not as trust (that is anathema) but as a firm opinion. But by this definition, Satan definitely has faith.

If faith is to be regarded as a component of Justification, then it is not as a virtue but as a vehicle that it works. This is what Lutheran orthodoxy tries to say. Faith is like water in baptism – a vehicle and means by which the gifts and blessings of Christ’s atonement come to us as individuals. To illustrate this, in material terms, not just anything one drinks quenches thirst. Not anything one believes saves. Thus the vital saving thing is the object of our drinking – the object of our trust.

None of these things are vital – not the size of your faith, not the occasion of your faith, not the identity of the person who has faith. The vital factor is in whom you have faith. With Jesus as the object of Justifying faith, then Justification by ‘faith alone’ is Justification by ‘Christ alone’.

The synthesis: ‘Forgiveness of Sins and Making Righteous’

The Joint Declaration, by virtue of its both/and style of presenting the Catholic and Lutheran teaching manages to offend both orthodox Catholics and Lutherans. One paragraph, said to portray the Lutheran position distorts it by implying that Lutherans include ‘the renewal of the Christian life’ (sanctification) in the doctrine of Justification (which they don’t). And a second paragraph, said to portray the Catholic position seems to contradict the Council of Trent, whose theologians would probably anathematise the Joint Declaration.

Since it is quite crucial to biblical theology, Lutherans should welcome the fact that the Joint Declaration includes a section devoted to the distinction between Law and Gospel. Especially since most of the rest of the Declaration seems to ignore it. Thankfully here it is noted, at least, that ‘Lutherans state that the right ordering of law and gospel is essential for the understanding of justification’.

No such luck for the Lutheran distinction between Justification and Sanctification. In fact the Joint Declaration never mentions the distinction between Justification and Sanctification except once, in the Appendix, if anyone is interested. Lutherans could be forgiven for suspecting that this distinction, which has never been as clearly set forth by Rome, (yet for Lutherans has ever protected the work of Christ from being diluted with the works of men) is deliberately being phased out in the interest of agreement with Rome. Instead of continuing to protect justification from being mixed with sanctification the Joint Declaration has Lutherans and Catholics ‘confess together’ that fruits of the Spirit, biblically associated with sanctification such as ‘faith, hope and love – follow justification and are its fruits’. At least such works are not made the cause of Justification but rather, as St. James teaches, a sign that faith is alive.

Despite all the criticism against it, one should not be entirely negative about something which has done as much as the Joint Declaration has done to set before the eyes of the Christian world once again the most important doctrine of the Christian faith – Justification. There is reason to celebrate the Joint Declaration, even among orthodox Lutherans.

Jonathan Naumann is a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church ministering in Ruislip. This article was delivered as a John Keble Lecture to members of Cost of Conscience earlier this year.