The New Ecumenical Language

Posted on Posted in Theology

Now suppose we have made great progress in our ecumenical dialogue. We are beginning to understand each other’s language. We have discovered that we believe many of the same things, even though we don’t use the same words. We would like to tell all the members of our churches about this wonderful discovery. We would like to declare ecumenical consensus.

But now we have a whole new difficulty. The thing we both believe has to be described—by words! Which words will we use to describe it? If we describe this common thing in Methodist language, the Reformed will misunderstand. They will fear that their Reformed way of speaking hasn’t been heard at all. But if we describe this common thing in Reformed language, then the Methodists will misunderstand, and fear that their Methodist way of speaking hasn’t been heard at all.

So that is why, in a statement of consensus like the Joint Declaration, you find three kinds of language: 1) a new common language that both churches can use, 2) Catholic language, and 3) Lutheran language.

The new common language finds ways to express the common thing in words that both sides can agree on. So, for example, you find this sentence in the Joint Declaration: “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” (§15).

In this new common language, you will notice that there is no mention of sola fide (a favorite Lutheran expression) or of caritas fide formata (a favorite Catholic expression). Instead it is “faith in Christ’s saving work.” You see the words “grace alone” at the beginning of the sentence and the words “good works” at the end. Both Lutherans and Catholics could agree that this sentence was true, even if it was not the natural or usual way for either of them to talk.

A little bit later in the Joint Declaration, we see examples of the traditional Catholic language and Lutheran language. There is a discussion of some specific controversies relating to justification. For each of these points, there is a statement in the new common language, but then both Catholics and Lutherans get a chance to describe what this means within their own theological languages.

For example, “When Catholics say that persons ‘cooperate’… they see such personal consent as itself an effect of grace, not an action arising from innate human abilities” (§20). Catholics still use the word “cooperation” in their own language, but they have explained its meaning in a way that Lutherans can accept.

On the other side: “When Lutherans… stress that God’s grace is forgiving love… they do not thereby deny the renewal of the Christian life” (§23). Lutherans will still emphasize the extra nos of forensic justification in their own language, but they have explained to Catholics that this does not exclude a renewal of life.

The goal of ecumenism is not to end up with just one new common language and get rid of all the others. That would be like the European Union deciding that everyone has to speak only Esperanto and all other languages must be eliminated. Such a decision would not only be foolish and destroy the interesting variety of the world, but it wouldn’t work—people would simply become more determined to have their own language and not learn any other.

Instead, consensus insists that each church is allowed to keep speaking its own language. But it also insists that the time has come to start learning other languages. The technical term for this in ecumenism is differentiated consensus: true agreement that still allows each church to keep its own way of speaking.

This means that translation will always be necessary in the church. When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, it didn’t make everyone capable of understanding just one language. Instead, it made the same good news available to each person in her own language. So don’t expect statements of ecumenical consensus to sound just like the theology you’re used to. They don’t. But you can still recognize the same Scripture, the same gospel, the same thing inside of them, if you are willing to translate.

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