An Interview with Theodor Dieter, Lutheran Ecumenist

Posted on Posted in Theology

Tell us how you became an ecumenist.

First: When I was a student of Protestant theology and philosophy I studied twice the magisterial book The Theology of Justification in Martin Luther and Thomas Aquinas by the Catholic theologian Otto Hermann Pesch. This took me many months. Educated as a strong Lutheran, I realized for the first time that one could develop theology in another language, other concepts, and thought structures than Luther did and nevertheless adhere to similar core biblical insights. Thus studying Thomas Aquinas – the main figure for Roman Catholic theology – helped me to become an ecumenist.

Second: When I did my habilitation on Luther’s criticism of Aristotle, I studied medieval theology and philosophy for many years. I have learnt to appreciate the seriousness and deep insights of medieval thinkers. Thus I was no longer able to look at them exclusively from the viewpoint of Luther, but I also learnt to look at Luther from the viewpoint of medieval theology. I understood my research on Luther as a dialogical process realizing different perspectives. This methodology was ecumenical in itself even though I did not understand myself as an ecumenist.

Third: In a full sense, I only became an ecumenist when I was called to be a research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg. Here I learned much more about other Christian churches than I had ever known, about dialogues with them and their methods, and I became more and more fascinated by and committed to the true Catholicity and unity of the church. Lutheran churches and Lutheran theology have to offer an indispensable contribution to true Catholicity. This is what the Strasbourg Institute has always promoted.

You were deeply involved in the drafting of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Can you tell us something about the process?

The JD summarizes the results of many dialogues and academic studies over more than 40 years. The first draft was written by a small team of Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians including the Strasbourg Institute. This draft was sent out to the member churches of the Lutheran World Federation and distributed in the Roman Catholic Church. The Lutheran responses were collected by the Institute in a synopsis so that the recommendations and criticisms of the LWF member churches could influence the rewriting of the draft. There were two revisions.

Eventually, the Lutheran churches responded to the final draft, saying that they agreed with or denied that a consensus in the doctrine of justification with the Roman Catholic Church existed. The Institute had to evaluate these responses, and the LWF Council acted on it, taking up those responses and thus declaring unanimously that there is a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification with the Roman Catholic church. It was very disappointing that the first response from Rome was ambiguous, saying both “Yes” and “No.” Then Cardinal Ratzinger was very helpful in finding a way out of this difficult situation by adding  an “Annex” so that the JD could be signed officially and solemnly in Augsburg on October 31, 1999.

What were the biggest surprises for you in the JD process?

Cardinal Cajetan, who had interrogated Luther in Augsburg in 1518, commented on the reformer’s understanding of the assurance of faith: “This means to build a new church!” But in the JD in 1999, it was officially stated with reference to exactly this Lutheran understanding: “Catholics can share the concern of the Reformers to ground faith in the objective reality of Christ’s promise, to look away from one’s own experience, and to trust in Christ’s forgiving word alone (cf. Mt 16:19; 18:18)” (§36).

It is very astonishing what both churches say together concerning old debates, e.g. about freedom in turning to God: human freedom is freedom “in relation to persons and things of the world,” but “no freedom in relation to salvation” (§19). Or they state: “Whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it,” while jointly emphasizing, “Such a faith is active in love, and thus the Christian cannot and should not remain without works” (§25). Looking back at the history of the old struggles, this is more than a surprise!

What is unique about the JD and what are its implications for the future of Lutheran-Catholic relations?

The main difference between the JD and ecumenical dialogues is that the JD is an officially accepted and binding document of the Roman Catholic church and the Lutheran World Federation. The results of other dialogues represent, strictly speaking, only the opinion of the members of the respective dialogues, and they are as much binding as the strength of their arguments are. But the JD represents the official doctrine of the churches. Thus further dialogues can build on this document as a firm basis.

What do you think the next step needs to be between Lutherans and Catholics?

The JD deals with a conflict of the 16th century of which both churches say that their respective doctrines are still binding for them today. But many members of both the Roman Catholic and the Lutheran churches feel that they do not understand very much of these doctrines, and that they do not influence their spiritual life, at least not in a clearly recognizable way. Thus theologians of both churches should work together in order to open the tradition for the present and for members of the other church so that the insights of the respective traditions can help contemporary people to live out more faithfully and joyfully their faith in God. This will broaden and deepen what Lutherans and Catholics have in common.

Ecumenical documents are not always easy for non-specialists to read. How would you advise Lutherans and Catholics to approach the JD to maximize their understanding?

The answer to this question continues the answer to the previous question. Lutherans and Catholics could study together biblical texts to which the old doctrines refer, take short pieces of the two traditions, read them in the light of the JD, and bring their own experiences into a dialogue with the biblical texts and those traditions. I am convinced that this will lead to the experience that theology can indeed be helpful in deepening our faith in Christ, our love of others (also members of other churches), and our hope in God.

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