Wait, Wait… continued

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The question at hand is: how is ecumenism even possible? If we disagreed enough in the past to split into different churches, how can we claim sudden agreement now without totally selling out everything we believe in?

I already covered the possibility of misunderstanding. Now I’ll turn to the matter of differing traditions within each church.

Except for the tiniest little sects—and probably even there—all churches harbor a range of opinions and convictions. This is not automatically a bad thing, and often a strength; one single person can’t recognize or understand every last issue in theology or ethics or cultural engagement. We’re meant to be many members of one body (I Corinthians 12).

And this means that there will various developments and streams of tradition even inside of one single church. Think for instance of all the different religious orders in the Catholic Church: they share the same faith but they have different areas of emphasis.

Of course, it’s only natural that some will be stronger in one area than another. Or that a tradition needs time to explore the consequences of its own ideas… which may eventually be judged: nice try, but wrong. Churches need a certain amount of freedom to make mistakes along the way, because they clarify the truth that much better.

Now one of Luther’s major criticisms of the church of his day is that it taught works-righteousness. Lutherans ever after have assumed that justification by works is THE Catholic position, end of discussion. But this is not correct.

Yes, there were some Catholics who taught works-righteousness. But not all Catholics taught it. The ecumenical research of the past century has realized that there were (at least) two major schools of thought about justification in the Catholic church leading up to the Reformation.

One school, following Gabriel Biel, thought that the “grace” of justification was given to a Christian only after the Christian, entirely by her own natural powers, produced a true and genuine love of God—this merit “earned” God’s grace. Luther rightly recognized this theory as Pelagianism in disguise, and that’s why he condemned it.

But other Catholics, following Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, taught justification by faith—and they insisted that faith is a divine work, not a natural human power. During the Council of Trent, the view of justification that won the day was actually more like Thomas than it was like Biel—and therefore more like Luther than like some Catholics! But for the next five hundred years, practically speaking, most of the Catholic church followed Biel instead of Thomas.

So what you see in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by Lutherans and Catholics in 1999, when it says in §3.15 that we are justified “not because of any merit on our part,” is that the Catholic Church finally decided it had to follow one of its traditions and reject another.

9 thoughts on “Wait, Wait… continued

  1. I’ve been following your journey and thoughtful blog posts with great interest. I would offer one correction here:

    The Catholic Church condemned Pelagianism (and semi-Pelagianism) over a millennium before the Reformation. If a person between 400 and 1500 AD was a Pelagian (or semi-Pelagian), they were going against the Church’s teachings.

    The Catholic Church has taught and continues to teach the following on justification. There are two different aspects to justification:

    1. Initial justification, where a person goes from unrighteous to righteous in God’s sight. This is by grace alone through faith made alive by love. Works play NO part in it at all. None. Zero.

    2. Progressive or ongoing justification: Once a person is justified (by grace through faith and in the sacrament of baptism), they can grow in righteousness through grace-ful works. This is what James 2 is talking about when it says that we are justified by works and not by faith alone. James is not talking about our initial justification but our ongoing justification (note at the beginning of the chapter he addresses his readers as brothers. Protestants usually call this process sanctification.

    During Luther’s time, there was an error taught locally around parts of Germany by some theologians that we were even initially justified in part by works. This was against the Church’s teachings and unfortunately Luther over-reacted against something the Church did not even teach.

    God bless you on your journey! I’ll be following.

  2. Ah yes! The conversion question, never far behind when ecumenism comes up. Remarkable that ecumenists haven’t spend more time on it. We’ll probably need to devote a whole post to this at some point, but one answer for now is that ecumenism is concerned with the reconciliation of communities, not the relocation of individuals. People can and do change church affiliations all the time, but that does nothing to alter the separation between the church bodies (and not infrequently exacerbates it).

  3. I have heard it said (by someone essentially arguing against Roman Catholicism) that the Catechism of the Catholic Church somehow indicates justification by works. At the time I suspected this was an incomplete interpretation. (I cannot remember the reference I heard the person quoting, but I am guessing that this section may be near to if not the one in question, though I’m not sure – http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s1c3a2.htm ).

    In light of Devin’s comments above, I think the interpretation of the Catechism used by the person I heard failed to incorporate the full context of the document.

    Devin – Thank you.

  4. This section has initiated the most comment of your journey so far, and rightly so because it is the issue that Luther said the church “stands or falls on” : justification by faith alone. The agreement mentions Christ Alone and Grace Alone but not Faith Alone as a shared conviction. What is the relationship of the Joint Declaration to the official RCC Doctrine from the time of the Council of Trent on this issue?

  5. Actually the Joint Declaration does say plainly that it is by faith in Christ’s saving work and not by any merits of our own that we are justified. Further, the Joint Declaration is binding teaching of the Catholic church, in fact the first it has entered into with another Christian body. More on the JD in October!

    In the meanwhile a good question to ponder is–how many Lutherans really believe in justification by faith? My experience is that most will gladly agree to grace alone and Christ alone but they get nervous about faith alone. I could speculate about reasons for this, but more important to my mind is this lesson of ecumenism–it always calls for more and deeper catechesis, rather than watering down the faith, otherwise our theological agreements mean nothing because they don’t reflect the living faith of a real live community.

  6. Glad I could help, Jed.

    Paul, the sticking point is whether faith “alone” means “without agape (love)” or whether the alone still includes agape (love).

    Sarah, I don’t want to rain on the parade because I also think the Joint Declaration was a great step forward, but I don’t think it is quite accurate to say that it is “binding teaching” of the Catholic Church. We can discuss it more when you bring up the topic in October. God bless!

  7. To Politely Puzzled: Um, I seem to recall a few little matters about the papacy, and sacraments, and the nature of the church…

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