Sweden and Finland Get Justified Too

Posted on Posted in Theology

The international agreement in the Joint Declaration, with both churches signing at the highest level, was a huge breakthrough. The JD is binding and permanent. But the reality is that nothing is binding and permanent unless the whole church receives it and makes it local and even personal.

That’s exactly what’s happened in a Report from the Roman Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue Group for Sweden and Finland, Justification in the Life of the Church, Sweden and Finland. It highlights what the international agreement could mean on a local level.

Some historical specifics make this dialogue unique and uniquely promising. For instance, a church structure with the historic succession of bishops is vital to Catholic self-understanding, and Sweden and Finland happen to be the two “traditionally” Lutheran countries that continued to have bishops in succession without interruption. (Germans couldn’t find supporting bishops, so they had pastors ordain new candidates into the ministry, and were governed by superintendents for a long time; Norway, Denmark, and Iceland all had disruptions in the line of bishops, though they quickly resumed that form of church governance.)

Also, a great deal of the medieval liturgical tradition was preserved in Sweden and Finland, such as prayers, liturgies, architecture, vestments for the clergy, and even a certain level of veneration of the saints. It’s not uncommon for Catholics and Lutherans to be a little uncertain of what kind of church they’re in these countries, so similar are their worship practices.

Much of this Report is in response to the Joint Declaration, sorting out its claims and assessing them. This is essential to the “reception” process, in which all the people of God consider what small ecumenical teams have done on their behalf. An interesting observation follows the discussion of “God’s Grace and Human Response,” noting the typical Lutheran emphasis on the all-sufficient act of Christ and the typical Catholic emphasis on the necessity of human “cooperation.” The Swedish-Finnish report comments:

“Here the Declaration has not kept an entirely clear balance between both these legitimate aspects. Maybe that can never be done. Maybe the problems of life itself are too complex for that. It belongs to a life lived in faith and love of fellow human beings to oscillate between these two perspectives. Such an insight probably lies behind the fact that Catholics and Lutherans have nevertheless discovered a fundamental synthesis here” (p. 21).

Another section on “Christ our Righteousness” also tries to sort out typical Lutheran and Catholic emphases, with their strengths and weaknesses. First a common affirmation is made:

“The grace of Christ (Greek charis) is a gift (Greek doron) in a very special, even unique sense. It springs from the very nature of God himself, who gives himself, as manifested in the all-inclusive love of the three divine persons. Moreover, grace in Christ is not a thing or an object that is given. Grace is by nature a personal reality, by which human beings are justified and renewed. It is by nature distinct from the manifold gifts that come through God’s providence and even from the gift of life itself” (p. 46).

With that common ground, the report goes on to ask:

“To what extent can this common foundation unite the different religious views that have arisen over the centuries of theological divisions and controversies? Historically, Catholics have linked justification to participation in the sacramental life of the church. That position has led to legitimate questioning by the Lutherans. Is a person ‘more justified’ by Christ because of regular attendance at the Mass?… In the Lutheran tradition, the dimension of ‘once and for all’ (ephapax) in the saving work of Christ ahs been strongly emphasised. This position has however been questioned by Catholics: Does the concept of imputative righteousness, i.e. the definitive abolition of the divine condemnation that was caused by human sin, imply that no spiritual renewal is required during the lifetime of a Christian?” (p. 47).

Sometimes, even in the face of extensive agreement, mutual questions have to be left on the table, calling each other to account. After all, “A dialogue is not a process of negotiation, in which compromises are made in order to achieve agreement, but a common search for a deeper understanding of the truth” (p. 15).

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