January 22, 2021

Commemorating the Reformation Together (2)

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This week (today and Thursday) we are considering the June 17, 2013 document, jointly published by the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, called “From Conflict to Communion.” The paper’s introduction states:

In 2017, Lutheran and Catholic Christians will commemorate together the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. Lutherans and Catholics today enjoy a growth in mutual understanding, cooperation, and respect. They have come to acknowledge that more unites than divides them: above all, common faith in the Triune God and the revelation in Jesus Christ, as well as recognition of the basic truths of the doctrine of justification.

Here is a basic outline of the document’s contents:

Foreword and Introduction
I. Commemorating the Reformation in an Ecumenical and Global Age
II. New Perspectives on Martin Luther and the Reformation
III. A Historical Sketch of the Lutheran Reformation and the Catholic Response
IV. Basic Themes of Martin Luther’s Theology in Light of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogues
V. Called to Common Commemoration
VI. Five Ecumenical Imperatives
Appendix: including Common Statements of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity

One of the important perspectives here is that we must view the past through the lens of ongoing developments, not vice versa.

It is no longer adequate simply to repeat earlier accounts of the Reformation period, which presented Lutheran and Catholic perspectives separately and often in opposition to one another. Historical remembrance always selects from among a great abundance of historical moments and assimilates the selected elements into a meaningful whole. Because these accounts of the past were mostly oppositional, they not infrequently intensified the conflict between the confessions and sometimes led to open hostility.

…In light of the renewal of Catholic theology evident in the Second Vatican Council, Catholics today can appreciate Martin Luther’s reforming concerns and regard them with more openness than seemed possible earlier.

While the Council of Trent largely defined Catholic relations with Lutherans for several centuries, its legacy must now be viewed through the lens of the actions of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). This Council made it possible for the Catholic Church to enter the ecumenical movement and leave behind the charged polemic atmosphere of the post-Reformation era. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitate Humanae), and the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) are foundational documents for Catholic ecumenism. Vatican II, while affirming that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, also acknowledged, “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity” (LG 8). There was a positive appreciation of what Catholics share with other Christian churches such as the creeds, baptism, and the Scriptures. A theology of ecclesial communion affirmed that Catholics are in a real, if imperfect, communion with all who confess Jesus Christ and are baptized (UR 2).

When discussing theological themes from Luther and the Reformation, only four are discussed in this document: justification, eucharist, ministry, and Scripture and tradition. Each topic is treated in a three-fold manner — (1) by looking at Luther’s approach, (2) Catholic concerns, and (3) how Luther and Catholic perspectives have been brought into dialogue with one another.

For Lutherans, the key theological theme is and always has been that of justification by faith. Here is some of what the document says about this in the “ecumenical dialogue” portion of its treatment:

Together Catholics and Lutherans confess: “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” (JDDJ 15). The phrase “by grace alone” is further explained in this way: “the message of justification…tells us that as sinners our new life is solely due to the forgiving and renewing mercy that God imparts as a gift and we receive in faith, and never can merit in any way” (JDDJ 17).

It is within this framework that the limits and the dignity of human freedom can be identified. The phrase “by grace alone,” in regard to a human being’s movement toward salvation, is interpreted in this way: “We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation. The freedom they possess in relation to persons and the things of this world is no freedom in relation to salvation” (JDDJ 19).

When Lutherans insist that a person can only receive justification, they mean, however, thereby “to exclude any possibility of contributing to one’s own justification, but do not deny that believers are fully involved personally in their faith, which is effected by God’s Word” (JDDJ 21).

When Catholics speak of preparation for grace in terms of “cooperation,” they mean thereby a “personal consent” of the human being that is “itself an effect of grace, not an action arising from innate human abilities” (JDDJ 20). Thus, they do not invalidate the common expression that sinners are “incapable of turning by themselves to God to seek deliverance, of meriting their justification before God, or of attaining salvation by their own abilities. Justification takes place solely by God’s grace” (JDDJ 19).

Since faith is understood not only as affirmative knowledge, but also as the trust of the heart that bases itself on the Word of God, it can further be said jointly: “Justification takes place ‘by grace alone’ (JD nos 15 and 16), by faith alone; the person is justified ‘apart from works’ (Rom 3:28, cf. JD no. 25)” (JDDJ, Annex 2C).

What was often torn apart and attributed to one or the other confession but not to both is now understood in an organic coherence: “When persons come by faith to share in Christ, God no longer imputes to them their sin and through the Holy Spirit effects in them an active love. These two aspects of God’s gracious action are not to be separated” (JDDJ 22).

Both this document and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification from which it quotes find that both communions have come to affirm essentially the same view of justification. Our common commitments are weightier than our disagreements.

“In light of this consensus the remaining differences of language, theological elaboration, and emphasis in the understanding of justification are acceptable. Therefore the Lutheran and the Catholic explications of justification are in their differences open to one another and do not destroy the consensus regarding the basic truths” (JDDJ 40). “Thus the doctrinal condemnations of the sixteenth century, in so far as they relate to the doctrine of justification, appear in a new light: The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration” (JDDJ 41). This is a highly remarkable response to the conflicts over this doctrine that lasted for nearly half a millennium.


  1. Rick Ro. says

    I posted this at the other “Commemorating the Reformation” thread, but I think it applies here even more so…

    This article seems to be all about “man-shaped spirituality” and has little to do with this site’s goal of “Jesus-shaped spirituality.” I know I can ignore the article and wait for articles that have more of a Jesus-shape to them, but I thought I’d comment on this drift from this site’s purpose. There’s so much human-made doctrinal mumbo-jumbo in this denominational analysis that I’m not sure what the post-evangelical world has to gain from reading about it. Where’s Jesus in this analysis? I don’t see a true focus on Jesus anywhere in the discussion between Lutherans and Catholics. Instead, it’s all about doctrinal similarities and differences. Kinda makes me sad

    • I disagree, Rick.

      Our centrist Lutheran view is anchored on the finished work of Christ and His pure gospel.

      That is how we can open our communion railings to Catholics and LCMS Christians (and any other Baptized who believe Christ is truly present in the meal).

      That they will NOT do the same for us show how they are stuck on their ‘perfect doctrine’ thing. Which is a fallacy.

      • Aidan Clevinger says

        Except for the whole bit about marking those who cause divisions contrary to doctrine and avoiding them at the Communion Table.

        • What bit is that?

        • They’re coming to receive the pure gospel!

          If they are speaking out against the church in a wrong way, or outwardly causing division, we speak to them and correct them. Of throw them out if they continue.

          In my 17 years in my congregation, we have never had anyone do that.

          The case was a man who wanted the pastor to affirm his homosexuality. The pastor told him that he’d have to go elsewhere for that. That we would affirm no one’e sin/

      • Rick Ro. says

        “Our centrist Lutheran view is anchored on the finished work of Christ and His pure gospel.”

        Every denomination would probably claim the same thing. The fact remains is that all denominations are constructs of what leaders think Jesus wants from a church, but are ultimately man-made rickety carts. So laying one rickety cart side-by-side with another to find commonalities could lead to some congratulatory back-slapping while missing that the carts are pretty darn rickety. The comparisons should be with the Son, not with another denomination.

        • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

          The fact remains is that all denominations are constructs of what leaders think Jesus wants from a church, but are ultimately man-made rickety carts.

          How do you know that this is indeed a fact? What if there is an institutional church that Jesus-made rather than man-made? Or (more likely), what if there are some traditions/institutions with a greater amount of what Jesus wanted in the Church and some with less?

          Not a Lutheran, nor a Roman Catholic, but I’ve come to have a much higher view of the Church, both in her visible and invisible forms in recent years. Paul talks about passing on what he received. When Judas killed himself, they find someone else to “take his office” (Acts 1:20, ESV, emphasis added). Organization and authority structures have been part of the way God sets up his people in community on both sides of the Incarnation. Granted, I think we all have gone astray in one way or another, but it’s hard to believe that we’d all be so far astray so that it’s all man-shaped, man-centered, etc. where “there was no king . . . everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” That doesn’t seem to be the way Christ would treat his bride.

        • Many add-on’s to Christ are easily spotted. Taught… and held with great pride.

          Popes. Historic Episcopacy. Inerrant Bibles. “Free-will” decisions for Christ. One’s seriousness. Good works.

          The Word alone. The Cross, alone. The Jesus, alone, folks are vastly outnumbered by those requiring a belief (also) in the things listed above.

    • Rick, I will try my best not to be uncharitable in my response, but I find your complaint to be nonsensical and utterly without perspective.

      For years Michael Spencer dealt with issues of Reformation theology and how it relates to Catholicism on the most personal level imaginable. He came to a much different point of view exactly by considering materials like this as part of his process.

      Sometimes we need to look beyond our own little “Jesus-shaped” personal experiences to see the bigger picture. I happen to think the 500th anniversary of the Reformation will be a big deal. Church history is a big deal. “One holy catholic and apostolic church” is a big deal. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is a big deal. The nature of the apostolic gospel is a big deal.

      I think Jesus is right here in this discussion.

      • Radagast says


      • + many 1s!

      • Rick Ro. says

        My reaction comes mainly from my non-Lutheran, non-Catholic background. As a frequent visitor to this site, I tried to see Jesus in what was written, I really did, but I couldn’t get beyond a “Good grief, there’s too much denominational, man-made stuff here”. God and Jesus used the Reformation, for sure, but I struggle with the implication that the Lutheran denomination is Jesus’ ideal. Thus, when I read about people laying Lutheran doctrine side-by-side with another and seeing what matches up and what doesn’t, I can’t help but think what’s ultimately being done that people are laying one rickety cart next to another and finding out they both have wheels and are made of wood, Yipee, but perhaps missing that they should’ve been made of iron and steel and had a motor. I would think the BEST thing to do would be set Jesus Christ right at the center, then lay the two rickety carts on each side of Him and ask, “What things are we doing that line up with who Jesus is and who He calls us to be?” Then it becomes less of a “how do Lutheran and Catholic doctrines line up or not” exercise and more of a “how do Lutheran and Catholic doctrine line up with Jesus” exercise. Now maybe you’ll tell me that’s what’s being done, but it doesn’t sound like it.

        • Rick, I hear you but we’re talking about the Reformation, for heaven’s sake, one of the top 2 or 3 matters in the history of the church. If Anglicans and Catholics had been the warring parties, this would have been just as important. This has implications far beyond Lutherans.

          • Rick Ro. says

            I understand the significance, CM, and my apologies for perhaps missing the forest for the trees. For whatever reason these two articles struck me as promoting “Lutheran-shaped spirituality,” which is not why I visit this site so regularly. I appreciate your initial push-back on my original post, for it challenged me to better articulate my issue, which I hope I’ve done.

      • ++1

    • I think it might have something to with that now most(all) the front page posters are part of large institutional churches. I’ll admit I to tire of some of these doctrinal conversations because they tend not to be very generous just a lot of people defending their own church’s particular interpretation.

  2. “If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.”

    Is the Gospel not the issue? Is not “focusing on commonalities”, failing to come to where the battle is?

  3. Mike – thanks so much for this post and the preceding one. I look forward to the Thursday installment!

    (signed: a lifelong LCA-now-ELCA member)

  4. Lutheranism and Catholicism are examples of churchianity. Jesus for them is just a symbol, for them the main thing is going to church and following a certain routine. When they make deals with each other, hold onto your wallet!

    • Jesus Christ has left the building. The fancy steepled building…

    • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

      Jesus for them is just a symbol

      Really? You have absolute knowledge of the motivations and goals of the largest group of Christians in the world and the oldest group of Protestants?

      When I got fed up with big-box Evangelicalism, I found my way into visiting a local Catholic parish (due to dating a parishioner who went there). I can honestly say that I heard more gospel from Fr. Jimmy in two Sundays than I had in years of spending time with Christians who are supposed to be so much about the Gospel that their name comes from it (evangel=gospel).

      And while I take issue with some of the way my Lutheran friends’ theology, I can say that I’ve never met a group of people that wave the Justification-by-Faith-in-Jesus flag more than the Lutherans. Perhaps it’s just the evil of trying to find common ground based on a love of Jesus and his Gospel that is so egregious. I mean, really, we wouldn’t want Christians to try to move their groups closer toward living out Jesus’ command of being one.

      I doubt these events/documents/talks/whatever are going to heal all the wounds in the church. But these guys are sincere in their desire to come together in Christian charity so that at least some healing can occur. This kind of cynicism is uncharitable and counter-productive.

      Or, as St. Paul saith: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”

    • How ironic that you choose those particular words for your sneer at us, as one of the things Lutherans and Catholics have in common is that we weekly encounter Christ not as a symbol but as a flesh and blood reality in the Eucharist.

      I guess that’s too routine and not spontaneous and “keepin it real” enough, but I’ll take a sure thing like that where I can get it.

    • Hey, Quinn the Eskimo, is that you? You’re over here now? You like to stir up trouble in more than one pond at a time, don’t you? I think Marcus Johnson must be right….you’re not an Eskimo, you’re a troll.

    • Zardoz – quite the contrary for many of us. And there are plenty of evangelicals who are involved in churchianity with a capital C.

      Denominational differences aren’t the “barrier” here, imo…

  5. IndianaMike says

    Lutherans and Catholics go “Emily Litella” on the Sixteenth Century.

    Oh, but it is the Evangelicals who are shallow. Sure.

    • Yeah, how silly of us to argue whether or not Justification is by faith alone or not, whether the Pope is the head of the church by divine rite, and whether forgiveness can be bought for a price. It’s so much more mature to argue about whether to be Purpose Driven or Seeker Sensitive.

      • “Whether forgiveness can be bought for a price?” I assume you’re talking about indulgences for money. Let’s be clear, indulgences have zero to do with going from damned to justified. They have to do with purgatory. I’m sure, as a good Lutheran, that you think purgatory is crap. Fair enough. I’m at work, so I don’t have time to defend that doctrine right now, and it wouldn’t convice you anyways, and it might derail the thread, so I won’t go any further. But the Catholic Church has never taught, and I will be so bold as to say that it never will teach, that forgiveness–going from unjustified to justified–can be bought. By money or by works.

        • And btw, while the Church still does the indulgence thing, it condemned the sale of them for money.

          • My only point is that such issues are indeed of greater significance than the silly franchise wars of pop-Evangelicalism. These things matter, and these differences can not be lightly brushed aside with a flustered “… never-mind.”

          • Oh okay. Well then I completely agree.

  6. I hate to break it to everybody but Christianity == churchianity, and any Jesus-shaped spirituality is by definition and by necessity going to be a human shaped spirituality. You won’t get to heaven without help but everyone can find their way to hell just fine alone.

    I rejoice to read this document. I nearly became Wisconsin Synod Lutheran when I was investigating apostolic Christianity. I was searching for my true and heart’s home, the True West, the West of Benedict and Boniface, of Columba and Cuthbert, of Willibrord and John Cassian and yes, of Augustine and Ambrose. You can search kirk, chapel or storefront, but you won’t find as much Western Orthodoxy anywhere as you will among faithful Roman Catholics or Lutherans.

    Just because I jumped the Dnieper doesn’t mean I don’t owe a lot to those who are trying to put my house back together for me.

    • and Mr. Mule,

      I would love to see the eastern and western lung of the Church become one again. But I think sometimes we Catholics overstate the commonality and understate the differences. From a Catholic point of view we just cannot understand the damage the sacking of Constantinople did to relations betwen east and west. And from a Western Chritianity point of view we don’t understand that Eastern thought can look at the same milestone of theological thought from a completely different perspective, more mystical than juridical.

      But, it is one of my hobbies to dig into eastern thought where I can with much respect also for the Divine Liturgy.

    • Jesus-shaped spirituality is by definition and by necessity going to be a human shaped spirituality.

      Hence, the Incarnation. Mule, you’d have made a great Lutheran. It’s not too late! We actually borrow several liturgical practices from the East these days. I want to know why we don’t have more Lutheran – EO dialogue than this. Luther certainly seemed interested in working with them.

      • Radagast says

        “…actually borrow several liturgical practices from the East these days….”

        I’d be interested in knowing what those are….

        • Everybody grabs our Doxology, the Phos Hilarion, our kontakia and akathists
          Tell me you don’t want to grab this.

          Go to a lot of services, its like St John Chrysostom’s Greatest Hits

          • Yeah, those and the Ektenia. We use it as an alternate form of the Kyrie or in the prayer of the church, or even for the suffrages in Vespers. And, of course, the standard rep of hymns based off Eastern liturgies (which tend to even appear in Baptist hymnals, even though they never sing them).

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