Cover Story

On earth peace?

Despite media reports, Roman Catholics were faithful to their beliefs, some Lutherans were not

Issue: "On Earth Peace?," Dec. 25, 1999

Editor's note: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." Those words from chapter 2 of the gospel of Luke are rightfully part of today's Christmas cheer. But on what basis does God's favor rest on men? That was a fiery argument during the 1500s and one that has blazed over the centuries. Last month, however, major news media cheerfully declared that peace had come to earth, with Catholics and Lutherans now united on the primary issue that had divided them. For Christmas, 1999, in light of that Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, WORLD asked four thoughtful Christian leaders to respond to the following question: "Does the Roman Catholic Church accept the doctrine of justification by faith alone as the Reformers understood it?" Our coverage begins with WORLD's overview of the agreement and press coverage of it. We then continue with commentaries by J. Budziszewski, Paul T. McCain, Richard John Neuhaus, and Michael S. Horton.

The date chosen for representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation to sign their Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was Oct. 31. This was Reformation Day for Lutherans and other Protestants, the 482nd anniversary of Luther's posting of the 95 theses. The place chosen was Augsburg in Germany, the site where the first major confessional document of the Reformation, the Augsburg Confession, was ratified in 1530. To great ceremony and fanfare, over 700 dignitaries proceeded from a Catholic church to a Lutheran church, where, with some 2,000 people watching on video screens outside, 10 representatives of both traditions signed the document. "Together we confess," read one section of the document, "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." And thus, according to the news media, the Reformation ended. Five centuries of bitter division-not only between Catholics and Lutherans, but, by extension, between Protestants and Catholics-were brought to a peaceful accord in an agreement on the central issue of the Reformation, "the article by which the church stands or falls," justification by faith. It appeared that not only did the two traditions find agreement, it looked like the Lutherans won, that the Catholics were conceding the point that salvation is by "grace alone," through "faith in Christ's saving work," not "because of any merit on our part." And yet, only days after signing the document, the major Vatican negotiator, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, President of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said that the accord "helps us to put in a balance which does not place too much emphasis neither on the divine, neither on justification, nor the human but at the same time finds a way of bringing these together." Not too much emphasis on the divine? Or on justification? Bringing together human works and divine works? But what about the agreement in the Joint Declaration about grace alone? Doesn't that mean that God does it all? Asked by a reporter whether there was anything in the official common statement contrary to the Council of Trent (The Roman Catholic Church's 16th-century response to the Reformation), Cardinal Cassidy said, "Absolutely not, otherwise how could we do it? We cannot do something contrary to an ecumenical council. There's nothing there that the Council of Trent condemns." But Canon IX of the decrees of the Council of Trent says, "If anyone says that the ungodly is justified by faith alone in such a way that he understands that nothing else is required which cooperates toward obtaining the grace of justification," which is what traditional Lutherans say, "let him be anathema." And Canon XII says, with the Augsburg Confession in mind, "If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than trust in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ's sake, or that it is this trust alone by which we are justified, let him be anathema." In the meantime, the Vatican was pronouncing new indulgences for the "Jubilee Year" of the new millennium, the issue that was the catalyst for the whole controversy in the first place. So how can there be an agreement between Catholics and Lutherans on justification by faith? The reason that this accord could be struck now, and at no other time in the last five centuries, is that postmodernism allows some Lutheran academic theologians to agree on words, without pushing for an agreement on the meaning of those words. Catholicism has always stressed that salvation is by grace, that we are justified by faith, and that the basis of salvation is the merit of Christ. Where Protestants differ is on what is meant by those terms. For Luther, the other Reformers, and for Protestants in general, sinners are "declared" righteous for the sake of Christ, who took the punishment for our sins on the cross and whose righteousness is "imputed" to those who have faith in Him, even though, despite all of the good things they do, they remain sinful. For Catholics, Christ's righteousness must be "infused" into believers. Catholics agree that we are saved not by our own merit but by Christ's. And yet, Christ's merit is something that we must have, that we must act out in our own lives, receiving the grace to do so through the sacramental system of the church. According to historic Catholicism, a person actually must be righteous for God to count him as righteous. Certainly, Lutherans and Catholics, along with other Protestants, agree on many issues-on the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the need for salvation, the great truths encapsulated in the Ecumenical Creeds. One could say that Catholics and Protestants have a common worldview, the assumptions about moral truth, the value of life, and supernatural reality that are under such attack by the forces of secularism today. Lutherans have even more similarities with Catholicism, including liturgical worship and a high view of the sacraments. But they do not agree on justification by faith. For heirs of the Reformation, salvation is a free gift. For Catholics, salvation is a matter of human works. To be sure, those works are made possible by faith and grace. And for Reformational Christians, sanctification is the fruit of faith. But the reason the gospel is such "good news," according to Luther, is that sinners can have the assurance that when God looks at them, He sees Jesus, who covers their sins with His blood, and whose total righteousness-all of His goodness, His miracles, His love, His perfect keeping of God's Law-is "counted" as if it belonged to them. The 44 articles of the Joint Declaration rehearse the Lutheran emphases and the Catholic emphases and the agreements that they were able to find. But they evade the essential issues. The Catholics were only repeating what they have always taught. But how could the Lutherans, whose confessional documents make these distinctions crystal clear, say that they are now agreed with Catholics on the doctrine of justification? It must be emphasized that this agreement was negotiated and signed, not by all Lutherans, but by the Lutheran World Federation. This is an organization of liberal church bodies and state churches. This group has long since given up the inerrancy of Scripture. They ordain women. (If they had discussed that topic with the Vatican, they would not have come to such a harmonious accord. Actually, though, three female pastors were among the signers of the accord.) They do not require a rigorous confessional subscription. Theological looseness makes it easy to come to agreements. To say, as much of the press has, that "Lutherans" are now agreed with Catholics, on the basis of what the LWF does, is like saying "Calvinists" have changed their views on Scripture, based on the policies of the liberal Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. At best, what we have here is an agreement between Catholics and some liberal theologians. The LWF member in the United States, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has been agreeing lately with just about everybody in an orgy of ecumenical good feeling. They have signed an agreement on the Lord's Supper with the PCUSA, the United Church of Christ, and other liberal Reformed denominations-playing down the distinctly Lutheran doctrine of the Real Presence. (Headline: "Calvinists agree with Lutherans on Communion.") At practically the same time, they forged an agreement with the Episcopalians, even though this meant that ELCA had to accept the principle of Apostolic Succession. (When ELCA installs its church officers, an Anglican bishop now has to be present to do the laying on of hands.) And now they are agreed with Catholics on justification. About the only church bodies they don't agree with are those that still insist on Lutheran theology. And they are legion. The LWF is only one organization of global Lutheranism, though because it includes state churches in which every citizen is counted as a member, it is the largest. But there is also the International Lutheran Council, which consists of conservative, confessional Lutheran churches from Africa, Asia, South America, Europe, and North America. In the United States, this includes the 2.5-million strong Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Then there are conservative Lutheran denominations that are not members of the ILC, such as the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, with over 400,000 members, and smaller but theologically lively denominations such as the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. These Lutherans would no doubt agree with LCMS president A. L. Barry, who called the joint accord "a betrayal of the gospel." In an official statement under this title, President Barry dissects the ambiguities and contradictions in the accord. "We rejoice in what we have in common with the Roman church," he concludes, "and, indeed, that is much. However, it is a great tragedy when those who claim to be leaders of Lutheranism depart from the very essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ." That is to say, it wasn't the Catholics who betrayed their deepest beliefs. To be sure, there are many confessional, gospel-believing Lutherans in the ELCA and in the LWF-43 of the 124 member churches did not vote for the accord, and 240 theologians in Germany signed a petition of protest. But the point is, the Reformation is far from over. In today's postmodern climate, in which there are no absolutes, in which liberal theologians construct their own meanings, and in which tolerance trumps truth, the solas of the Reformation-Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone-are more important than ever.

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