Implications of an Ecumenical Agreement
"See how they love one another." According to Tertullian, a Christian writing in 197, this was the amazed comment of outsiders observing the members of the new Christian sect that was then sweeping the Roman Empire. That was in the second century, early in the history of Christianity. During the second millennium of Christianity, however, an outsider would have been hard pressed to find reason to make such a remark. In the 11th century the western and the eastern domains of Christianity went their separate ways in a divorce over irreconcilable differences. Halfway through the millennium, Christianity in the West endured its own division. Gradually these divisions multiplied as Christian denominations split into the hundreds.
It was a scandal that Christian love failed after Jesus had said that his disciples would be known precisely by their love for one another (Jn. 13:35). For its final number of 1999, The Economist published an issue in observance of the millennium just ending. The issue included an obituary of God that placed a large part of the blame for God's demise (what people of faith would call atheism) on those believers who insist on a partisan God. Christians were held responsible for this denigration of belief as much as anyone (the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World makes the same accusation in No. 19). The obituary noted that although throughout the world and during the second millennium God indeed had many believers, Like many great personalities, [God] had countless admirers who detested each other....
Christians, after having once impressed many by their love for one another, eventually became better known for fighting both with one another and with adherents of other faiths, particularly Jews and Muslims.
Fortunately, in the last century of the second millennium Christian believers have become concerned to reverse their longstanding divisions. The signatures of the institutional representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and of the Roman Catholic Church that were affixed to a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification on Oct. 31, 1999, witnessed to the enormous progress that has been achieved by the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue during recent decades. It can be called enormous because disagreement over the justification of sinners in the Christian dispensation has been at the very heart of the painful separation of Western Christians since the 16th century. One would like to think that Martin Luther and Cardinal Thomas de Vio Gaetano, who could not reach any resolution of their differences in 1518, are rejoicing that 481 years later their heirs in the faith could say jointly:
In faith we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God. The Father sent his Son into the world to save sinners. The foundation and presupposition of justification is the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. Justification thus means that Christ himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father. Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works. (No. 15)
Three implications of this joint declaration are evident as Christians continue their pilgrimage through history.
We May Be Closer Than We Think
When Christians talk with one another about the differences between their denominations, often neither party to the conversation has a very clear idea about what these differences are or the reasons for them. Often the issue is resolved with a sweeping agreement: Well, we all believe in the same God after all. While it is true and very significant that we do believe in the same God, stating that belief in a Christian context does nothing to resolve those differences that are not about our belief in God.
A sounder basis for understanding that we are closer than we think is directly linked to the joint declaration. That document has managed to overcome the disagreement over justification, the root problem of the 16th-century division in Western Christianity. Remaining differences, while still nettlesome, ought not be so intractable now as they seemed to be in the past. Intense prayer together and painstaking and patient scholarship and conversation remain necessary. It took 35 years of prayer, study and conversation to arrive at last October’s joint declaration. But now we can continue with renewed confidence our conversations on other issues related to justification.
Just as confidently we can continue our Lutheran-Catholic conversations, already well advanced, on the celebration of the Eucharist, on ordained ministry, on authority in the church and on the place of Mary and the saints in the church, with great hope for future resolution on the essentials. By the grace of God we have come this far. By the grace of God full sacramental unity of Lutherans and Catholics is not beyond our grasp. Won’t it be a moment to savor when Catholics and Lutherans, while probably continuing to remain attached to their own denomination for their usual church life, will be able to visit each other’s houses of worship when the occasion warrantsattendance at a baptism, for example, or a wedding or funeraland there feel entirely at home and entirely free to participate fully in the sacramental celebration of the Lord’s Supper?
The joint declaration teaches us something about legitimate diversity, not only for the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, but for all ecumenical and interreligious dialogues. It demonstrates how agreement on a fundamental doctrine, one necessary for genuine unity, can still accommodate different theological trajectories. There is room, to take two examples acknowledged in the joint declaration, for variations of emphasis on human cooperation with God’s grace and the effect upon the redeemed human person of Christ’s saving gift of himself. The same holds true of the knotty problem of how sin can still be so prevalent in people who have accepted in faith God’s justifying grace.
This is one of the most controversial points of the joint declaration, as has been acknowledged by both sides. The presiding officer of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Dr. A. L. Barry, has rejected the declaration as nothing more than linguistic sleight of hand that allows Catholics to sign on without retreating one iota from the affirmations of the Council of Trent. Dr. Barry finds this to be an unacceptable manipulation of ecumenical dialogue.
On the other hand, Avery Dulles, S.J., a Catholic theologian, argues not dissimilarly that both churches have chosen to diminish what appear to be fundamental contradictions between the Lutheran and Catholic doctrines of justification on important points. But Father Dulles finds this approach acceptable, though reluctantly, it would seem, on the basis of a new ecumenical methodology. This new methodology enables Lutherans and Catholics to engage in a process of thought and conversation in which both communities are ready to learn from each other’s understandings where they differ. This is possible, Father Dulles says, because we now trust one another and thus find that in spite of our different thought-forms, we can say many thingsthe most important thingsin common.... We are confident that our doctrinal formulations, currently expressed in different idioms, can in the end be reconciled (Justification Today, Laurence J. McGinley Lecture, Fordham University, 10/26/99).
In response to criticisms like that of Dr. Barry, it may be noted that the joint declaration does not attempt to undo the affirmations and condemnations either of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530) or the Council of Trent. The declaration is designed for contemporary Lutherans and Catholics, who no longer operate and think in a 16th-century context. As it says: In light of this consensus, the corresponding doctrinal condemnations of the 16th century do not apply to today’s partner (No. 13).
Moreover, the joint declaration acknowledges just what Father Dulles notes, namely, that consensus has been achieved on basic truths of the doctrine of justification. Differences in its explication remain, but are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations. Indeed, throughout the declaration a Lutheran perspective and a Catholic perspective are presented to indicate those areas of difference that invite further prayer, study and dialogue. In the future these differences may be resolved or even valueda possibility that Father Dulles does not seem to envision.
What have harmoniously come together in the joint declaration are recent biblical scholarship, careful review of theological concepts (such as justification, salvation, good works, merit, sin and the tendency to sin) along with a rich understanding of Christian faith in the triune God. Additionally, apologetic theology has been transformed into ecumenical theology. It is no longer a case of one side giving in to the other, or a skirting of irreconcilable differences, but rather there is mutual recognition of a fundamentally unified position. Perhaps we can go so far as to say that both groups held this position in common all along (although there is no undoing of history, nor any point in trying to undo it). But in the 16th century and for most of the ensuing years, Lutherans and Catholics could not appreciate each other’s language and emphases, since the divided communities were so emotionally antagonistic.
We are living in an age that is professedly pluralistic. In October 1986 devotees of a wide array of the world’s religions accepted the invitation of Pope John Paul II to come together in Assisi, Italy, for a day of prayer to intercede for world peace. Each different religious group prayed in its own way. In a review of the event a few months later, the pope noted that as long as each sincerely sought to be in touch with transcendent mysteryin other words, as long as the action was genuinely prayerthen the Holy Spirit could not fail to be inspiring the participants, diverse as their doctrine was.
The pope was not claiming that the differences among religions are inconsequential. He was not saying: God is the same anyway, so it matters little how we express or live out our faith. Some of the differences among that assembly of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Taoists, Jews, Christians and so many others are indeed differences about the essentials of religious faith. But the pope, along with the other participants, was acknowledging that something centrally important is held in common by such diverse people of faith, and that some of the differences are simply a matter of legitimate diversity. If it were not so, such a gathering would lack authenticity. It would be a sham, a charade. If this is the case among the widely different world religions, how much more must we recognize that diversity can have a place as well among Christians who together place their faith in Jesus as the incarnate God and unique savior of the world.
Indeed, the New Testament itself seems to sanction diverse ways of expressing even important elements of our faith in Christ Jesus. More and more we recognize among the 27 books of the New Testament, different theologies, different community structures, different ways of relating to the Mosaic covenant. If we maintain that they are all within the canon, then do we not have to maintain as well that they all express in some way the regula fidei, the rule of faith, which is the apostolic tradition?
I see three contemporary realizations coming together. First, the joint declaration can allow for differences in theological emphasis on the part of Lutherans and Catholics, while celebrating a common doctrinal core. Second, a plurality of ways to express religious faith is acknowledged in contemporary ecumenical and interreligious dialogue as somewhat acceptable. Third, the New Testament is seen to witness to a certain diversity among Christians of the first generations. Do these three contemporary realizations perhaps invite us, Lutherans, Catholics and other Christians, to let ourselves be stretched beyond the limitations of our denominational perspectives and behaviors to a reassessment of the perspectives and behaviors of other denominations and thence to an appreciation of legitimate diversity?
Beyond Scandalous Disunity
A third implication of the joint declaration may help to prevent us from again falling into such scandalous disunity, even as we remember that we still have a distance to go before finally resolving the 16th-century rift. We have let separation rule the day for nearly five centuries, frequently bitter and hostile separation, only to discover at the end of the millennium that the truth we were certain we did not hold in common we actually do hold in common. Would our tragic history over the last several hundred years have been avoided if, instead of immediately homing in on the truth we were sure our fellow Christians did not maintain together with orthodox Christians like ourselves, we had first reaffirmed that the primary gift is love? What are faith and hope without love? Nothing at all, according to St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. Jesus instructs us to abide in love: As my Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love (Jn. 15: 9). If we can let love get the upper hand, we may have enough generosity of spirit and patience not to jump to conclusions about the failures of others to acknowledge the truth. A preference for love, even as we seek to be faithful to the truth of the Gospel, may help to avoid future tragic church divisions such as those from which we are now emerging with enormous effort.
The huge cost of our disunity should be motivation enough to let our quest for the truth that Jesus brings never again be severed from our quest for the love that Jesus commands. For five centuries we let evil get the better of us and keep us apart. During this time, our divisions either caused or supported terrifyingly destructive behaviors. Without the bitter hostility among Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists, the wrenching Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648 would not have taken place. Without the growing fragmentation and consequent petty fighting among Christians, a more creative dialogue might have taken place between Christians and the new scientists and philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the negative side of the Enlightenment might have been reduced or avoided altogether. Finally, a more cohesive and coherent Christian church in Europe might have prevailed against the destructive movement of Nazism in the 20th century.
If these several scandals of disunity were not enough to drive us to profound repentance, there is also the Christian disunity that was disseminated throughout North and South America, along with Africa and Asia, because of our denominationally separated missionary activity in the centuries dominated by European colonialism. Surely this has not been a service that glorifies the God of Jesus Christ! The entire Christian church bears some responsibility for this spread of division.
Given human natureor, as Lutherans and Catholics alike would say, given human concupiscenceother divisions among Christians are almost sure to occur in the future over new issues. Is it possible, however, that we have learned enough from our recent resolution of the centuries-long dispute about justification to understand that disagreements need not take such control of our life in the one faith of Jesus Christ that we must separate ourselves from one another. Do the joint declaration and the process that led up to it offer us a foundation for an ecumenical spirituality that will keep us praying together and conversing together, reaching out to one another, no matter how troublesome the conflict of interpretations? We may hope so, by the grace of God.