The Meaning of the Joint Declaration on Justification
One of the most important acquisitions of the modern ecumenical movement has been without any doubt the reception by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church of the consensus document the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which had been prepared by a special committee of the Roman Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue Commission and submitted to the competent authorities in February 1997.
While this document involves directly only the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church, it cannot be ignored by other members of the Christian family. For all the Reformers, the doctrine of justification is seen as the article of faith on which the church stands or falls. They consider justification by faith to be a criterion or corrective for all church practices, structure and theology. It is the heart of the Gospel's proclamation of God's free and merciful promises in Jesus Christ that can rightly be received only through faith.
In fact, the doctrine of justification has been dealt with in the theological dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches as well as in the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. But nowhere else have the results of dialogue on this subject been submitted for formal, official reception as in the present case.
From the beginning of the formal Lutheran-Roman Catholic theological dialogue, the doctrine of justification has been an important topic. The special commission which was responsible for drawing up the joint declaration had to rely on earlier dialogue reports to form the basis of their discussions. To understand fully the consensus reached in the joint declaration, it is necessary to consider this document together with those earlier reports, especially the 1972 report of the Joint Lutheran-Roman Catholic Study Commission "The Gospel and the Church" and the 1994 report of the same commission titled "Church and Justification."
Two other dialogue documents of special importance in this process leading to consensus have been "Justification by Faith" from the U.S. Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogue in 1983 and the study of an ecumenical working group of Protestant and Catholic theologians in Germany, which published its findings in 1986 in a volume titled "The Condemnations of the Reformation Era—Do They Still Divide?"
I think that I should acknowledge here also the contribution made by scholars on both sides, who in the second half of the present century have laid the foundation for the consensus now reached.
While we stress the importance of the joint declaration and joyfully celebrate its reception by the two churches, we need to keep in mind also its precise nature and limitations.
The joint declaration is not a new confessional statement nor is it a compromise document. It seeks to summarize the results of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue on this doctrine over a period of some 30 years by stating what each community holds as its faith in basic truths of this doctrine and showing that the two explications of these basic truths are not contrary one to the other.
The joint declaration in fact states that it has the following intention: "to show that on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ. It does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnation" (No. 5). Nor does it attempt to cover other doctrinal questions such as the sacraments, ministry, Eucharist and authority that are still subjects for study by the Joint International Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission for unity.
A fundamental principle in ecumenical dialogue is that there may be a distinction between the doctrines of faith and the manner in which these doctrines are formulated or expressed. This was stated already at the opening of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII and is a basic principle of the Ecumenical Directory of the Holy See published in 1993. In other words, the same truth may be expressed in different traditions in diverse forms without that necessarily implying diversity in faith. Differences in expression are not necessarily contradictory or mutually exclusive. Of course, the theological dialogue and then the churches concerned have to discern when this is the case. Diversity of expression may enrich faith understanding. It may also, however, wound unity and divide Christians.
The joint declaration takes themes that have separated Lutherans and Catholics for centuries and seeks to show how they can now be seen as complementary positions while emphasizing distinctive Lutheran and Catholic concerns. The method followed is to set down first our common faith on each of the truths dealt with and then where necessary explain the different approach or emphasis that each party traditionally follows in regard to a particular truth. I believe that we can truly state in giving thanks to God that on the eve of the third Christian millennium Lutherans and Catholics have taken a significant step toward "overcoming the divisions of the second millennium."
In the words of Herbert Anderson, a Lutheran pastor and professor of pastoral theology at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago:
"It is a small but significant movement toward unity and a powerful witness to the Spirit's presence. God has brought us to a new place I certainly could not have imagined when I began my pastoral ministry in 1962 or the Helsinki assembly met in 1963."
The Reception Process
In February 1997 the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was formally submitted to the Lutheran World Federation and to the Holy See for study and an official response. Each of these dialogue partners has its own distinct process for arriving at an authoritative response to such a question. Hence in each case the reception process was different.
In the course of the following year, member churches of the Lutheran World Federation examined the document in their synods, and on June 16, 1998, the Lutheran World Federation Council was able to declare that an almost unanimous response from the synods had been favorable. The council therefore approved unanimously the joint declaration. This was the first time that the Lutheran World Federation had ever attempted such a process, and I believe it can be said that in doing so the Lutheran World Federation established a new milestone in its own self-understanding as a communion of churches.
The process of reception within the Catholic Church was quite different. A number of local churches had been consulted on the earlier versions of the joint declaration but now the final approval was entrusted to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in close consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. After much study, consultation and discussion, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity was able to announce on June 25, 1998, that "a consensus had indeed been reached in basic truths of the doctrine of justification." At the same time, our response indicated several points that seemed to us to require further study and clarification.
The Vatican response was the cause for some disquiet on the part of the Lutheran World Federation, which expressed concern as to the nature and the extent of approval of the joint declaration on the side of the Catholic partner. This resulted in numerous statements being made in the press, especially in Germany, and in a widespread sense of disappointment shared by both parties to the dialogue. The question was raised as to whether both parties were in full agreement about what they would be signing, were the joint declaration to be signed in such circumstances.
In the months that followed, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity sought in various ways to explain more clearly the positive nature of its official response, but it became clear that something more was required. The two parties therefore sought to prepare a short explanatory document that would affirm the positive statement made by the Vatican while at the same time seeking to clarify further those points which had been indicated by both parties as requiring further study.
These efforts proved successful and have resulted in an official common statement to be signed, together with the joint declaration, to which is attached an annex. These new documents duly received the approval of the Lutheran Federation Council and the Holy See, so that on last June 11 the Rev. Ishmael Noko, secretary-general of the Lutheran World Federation, and I were able to announce that a formal signing of the said documents would take place in Augsburg, Germany, on Oct. 31 of this year, a date annually celebrated as Reformation Day in the various Protestant churches.
Rev. Ishmael Noko has explained that "for Lutherans, a signing of the joint declaration on that day underlines the understanding of the Reformation itself as a movement not aimed at creating division within the church of Christ, but aimed at reforming the one church in certain areas." The city of Augsburg in Germany has been chosen because of its situation in a part of Germany with strong Lutheran and Catholic traditions. It was of course the place where in 1520 the Confessio Augustana was presented by the Lutherans. This signing will be certainly a historic event.
The Joint Declaration
The joint declaration begins with a preamble and then gives the main points of the biblical message of God's work of justifying fallen human beings. This is followed by an analysis of the doctrine of justification as an ecumenical problem between the Catholic Church and the churches stemming from the Reformation. The result of recent dialogues is then stated as the present-day common or shared understanding of justification.
The joint declaration sets forth in some detail the following seven basic components of the common understanding of the doctrine of justification:
1. Human powerlessness to attain justification.
2. Justification as both forgiveness for sins and being made righteous before God.
3. Justification by faith and through grace.
4. The justified person as still affected by sin.
5. God's twofold word of law and the Gospel.
6. Confidence and certitude of salvation.
7. The value of good works of justified persons.
The final section of the joint declaration sets forth the significance and scope of the consensus that has been reached.
It is not possible for me to dwell at length on the contents of the joint declaration in a lecture such as this. I must, however, present what may be termed the three basic truths on the doctrine of justification on which the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church have reached consensus. These are found in the joint declaration in Section 3, Nos. 14-18.
First, justification is a free gift bestowed by the Trinitarian God and centers on the person of Christ, who became incarnate, died and rose. In being related to the person of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit, we enter into a condition of righteousness. This is not something that we merit, but is freely bestowed. And so "together we 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."
Second, we receive this salvation in faith. Faith is itself God's gift through the Holy Spirit, who works through word and sacrament in the community of believers and who at the same time leads believers into that renewal of life that God will bring to completion in eternal life. Hence, the reality of justification is linked to faith but not simply as an intellectual assent of the mind. Rather the believer is to give himself/herself over to Christ in the renewal of life.
Third, justification points to the heart of the Gospel message but must be seen in an organic unity with all the other truths of faith, Trinity, Christology, ecclesiology and sacraments. "It stands in an essential relation to all the truths of faith, which are to be seen as internally related to each other. It is an indispensable criterion which constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ."
The annex contains a number of elucidations which do not add to or alter the joint declaration but rather underline and further substantiate the consensus reached in basic truths of the doctrine of justification as set out in the joint declaration.
The three principal concerns expressed in the response of the Catholic Church are dealt with in the annex under No. 2 (Joint Declaration, 28-30, on the justified as sinner) and No. 3 (Joint Declaration, 18, justification as criterion for the life and practice of the church, and 21, concerning the expressions co-operatio and mere passive with reference to the new life that comes to the justified from divine mercy).
The joint declaration under No. 15 was not in question:
"Together we 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."
But the Lutheran explication of that common statement made it difficult for the Catholic partner to see how this could be reconciled with the relative condemnation of the Council of Trent.
No. 2A of the annex therefore stresses the new life that comes with justification and explains that "we are truly and inwardly renewed by the action of the Holy Spirit, remaining always dependent on his work in us." It reminds us of St. Paul's words to the Corinthians: "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Cor. 5:17). "The justified do not remain sinners in this sense." The following paragraph immediately reminds us, however, that "we would be wrong were we to say that we are without sin," recalling that "there is a persisting danger which comes from the power of sin and its actions in Christians," and it concludes with the statement: "To this extent, Lutherans and Catholics can together understand the Christian as simul Justus et peccator despite their different approaches to this subject as expressed in the joint declaration, Nos. 29-30."
I should like to quote in this important connection once again from Herbert Anderson's article in Ecumenical Trends:
"Lutherans can no longer assume that the 16th-century Reformers were right and the church of Rome was wrong. Roman Catholicism never denied justification through grace. It simply focused more on the struggle of the transformed sinner than on the exclusive divine origin of his or her transformation. Salvation is a divine human drama. It is what God does and what humans do because of what God has done and continues to do. In order to preserve the primacy of God's grace, Lutherans tend to minimize what humans do in the equation of salvation. Both perspectives are true. Our common task is to learn to live in that paradox."
In No. 2B, the annex takes up the understanding of concupiscence and explains the different senses in which Catholics and Lutherans use this word. This needed to be done in view of the apparent contradiction of the statement in the joint declaration that "concupiscence is truly sin" and the condemnation of this statement by the Council of Trent. It sets down the Lutheran and Catholic understanding of the relationship between concupiscence and sin. "In the Lutheran confessional writings concupiscence is understood as the self-seeking desire of the human being, which in light of the law, spiritually understood, is regarded as sin. In the Catholic understanding concupiscence is an inclination, remaining in human beings even after baptism, which comes from sin and presses toward sin." This tendency, according to both Lutheran and Catholic conception, does not correspond to God's original design for humanity (cf. Joint Declaration, 30).
In this context I think it important to stress that the Reformation concept of sin is a broader category than for Roman Catholics. It designates anything that stands in opposition to God; the normal Catholic usage describes sin an involving personal culpability. The Rev. John J. McDonnell, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and adjunct professor of systematic theology at Mundelein Seminary, has explained that in dealing with original sin, its lasting effect on human nature and justification, Roman Catholic and Lutheran thought was developed in two different frameworks: metaphysical vs. existential. Let me quote his comment on this important point:
"Although in certain places Luther speaks about an internal change in the human person, he more frequently describes this process of justification as involving no real change in human nature. The sinful nature remains but now covered by the righteousness won by Christ and proclaimed by the Scriptures. In time the terms forensic or alien Justification will be employed to describe this condition. Thus Luther can describe the human person as 'justified and at the same time a sinner.' Once this fundamental condition is established, then one could speak about the process of personal sanctification and sacramental life. In contrast with the more abstract reasoning of scholastic theology, this approach is more existential and coherent with Luther's own personal experience of God's working in his life This also provided the basis for the critique Luther used toward the Catholic Church."
The Council of Trent emphasized rather the true change that grace effects in a person even though the effects of original sin remain. Given the polemical spirit of the time, there was no opportunity for true dialogue in which shared points of view could be affirmed and apparent differences objectively analyzed. For the council, sin has a personal character and as such leads to separation from God. And so this section of the annex can conclude:
"The reality of salvation in baptism and the peril from the power of sin can be expressed in such a way that on the one hand the forgiveness of sins and the renewal of the humanity in Christ by baptism are emphasized and on the other hand it can be seen that the justified also 'are continuously exposed to the power of sin pressing its attacks (cf. Rom. 6:12-14) and are not exempt from a lifelong struggle against the contradiction to God' (Joint Declaration, 28)."
The third and fourth sections of Paragraph 2 of the annex take up the question of faith and good works. Quotations from Romans 3:28 and Philippians 2:12ff are recalled, together with some words of St. Thomas Aquinas and the following extract from the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration II, 64ff: "As soon as the Holy Spirit has initiated his work of regeneration and renewal in us through the word and the holy sacraments, it is certain that we can and must cooperate by the power of the Holy Spirit."
The annex makes it clear that it is the responsibility of the justified not to waste the grace freely received but to live in it. It quotes the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, XX, 13, to support the affirmation that the good works of the justified "should be done in order to confirm their call, that is, lest they fall from their call by sinning." With these explanations, the annex states that "Lutherans and Catholics can understand together what is said about the preservation of grace in the joint declaration, Nos. 38 and 39. Certainly, whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification or merits it (Joint Declaration, 25)."
The final part of Section 2 of the annex (No. 2E), refers to the promise of eternal life as found especially in Romans 6:5, John 3:36 and Romans 8:17. Several quotations are included to show that in the final judgment the justified will bejudged also on their works. While affirming clearly that "any reward is a reward of grace, on which we have no claim," the annex quotes from the Formula of Concord (SD IV, 38): "It is God's will and express command that believers should do good works which the Holy Spirit worked in them, and God is willing to be pleased with them for Christ's sake, and he promises to reward them gloriously in this and in the future life."
Under No. 3, the annex makes a brief reference to the question of the doctrine of justification as the measure or touchstone of the Christian faith. All that is added here to what is stated in the joint declaration is the statement that "as such, it has its truth and specific meaning within the overall context of the church's fundamental Trinitarian confession of faith." This recalls No. 18 of the joint declaration, which affirms: "We share the goal of confessing Christ in all things, who is to be trusted above all things as the one mediator (1 Tm. 2:5-6) through whom God in the Holy Spirit gives himself and pours out his renewing gifts."
The questions raised concerning the sacrament of penance and authority in the church are also left for future study. They have not been dealt with specifically as yet in the official Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogue nor does the joint declaration seek to express a consensus regarding them. Since the Catholic response on what it describes as "the different character of the two signatories" as regards their representative quality (No. 6 of the Catholic response) resulted in strong resentment on the part of the Lutheran World Federation, the annex explains:
"The response of the Catholic Church does not intend to put into question the authority of the Lutheran synods or of the Lutheran World Federation. The Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation began the dialogue and have taken it forward as partners with equal rights (par cum pari). Notwithstanding different conceptions of authority in the church, each partner respects the other partner's ordered process of reaching doctrinal decisions" (No. 4).
As a consequence of these clarifications, we were able to make clear the precise significance of the consensus that had been reached. This was done in an official common statement of the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church, which states as follows:
"1. On the basis of the agreements reached in the joint declaration regarding the doctrine of justification, the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church declare together: 'The understanding of the doctrine of justification set forth in this declaration shows that a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics' (Joint Declaration, 40). On the basis of this consensus the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church declare together: 'The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this declaration does not fall under the condemnations of 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' (Joint Declaration, 41).
"2. Having confirmed without reservation these two fundamental statements of the joint declaration, the official common statement explains how the questions raised by the Council of the Lutheran World Federation in its resolution on the joint declaration, dated June 16, 1998, and in the response to the joint declaration by the Catholic Church of June 25, 1998, have been satisfactorily dealt with in a document attached to the official common statement. This document, under the title of annex, 'further substantiates the consensus reached in the joint declaration; thus it becomes clear that the earlier mutual doctrinal condemnations do not apply to the teaching of the dialogue partners as presented in the joint declaration.'
"3. A third paragraph of the official common statement commits the two parties to 'continued and deepened study of the biblical foundations of the doctrine of justification,' and to seeking 'further common understanding of this doctrine.' It indicates that 'based on the consensus reached, continued dialogue is required specifically on the issues mentioned in the joint declaration itself (Joint Declaration, 43) as requiring further clarification in order to reach full church communion.' And, finally, it declares that 'Lutherans and Catholics will continue their efforts ecumenically in their common witness to interpret the message of justification in language relevant for human beings today and with reference both to individual and to social concerns of our times."'
This third paragraph of the official common statement responds to Nos. 7 and 8 of the Catholic response to the joint declaration regarding "prospects for future work."
The joint declaration itself sets before us a number of questions that await our joint attention. "These include, among other topics, the relationship between the word of God and church doctrine as well as ecclesiology, authority in the church, ministry, the sacraments and the relationship between justification and ethics" (Joint Declaration, 43). The dialogue is in fact continuing. It has as its stated aim, as set out in the official common statement, No. 3, to "reach full church communion, a unity in diversity, in which remaining differences would be 'reconciled' and no longer have a divisive force." This recognition of our common goal is in itself a significant ecumenical commitment.
A first consequence of the signing of this joint declaration is the realization that we have been able to overcome one of the fundamental differences that have distinguished us as two communities. This should have a positive and real effect not only on the future theological dialogue but also on our communities at every level. We should now be able to appreciate more all that binds us together as sons and daughters of the one Lord, to whom we look as the one mediator between God and his people. Serious difficulties remain, but they are secondary to what we hold in common. No longer may we look upon our different expressions of faith as being like two huge cannons drawn up in battle line and facing each other!
Second, we must now be deeply aware of the need to move further along the path to unity. We have not reached the end of the road. We have certainly made good progress and opened the way to further achievements. Let us all beware, however, not to place new obstacles along that way. We must avoid developments in doctrine and in ecumenical relationships that would hinder our progress toward the unity we seek. At the same time we have to be sure that our attitudes, our words, our devotions and our understandings respect fully the truths we have set out so clearly in the joint declaration.
Third, we are reminded by the joint declaration of the new life that we have received, not through any merit of ours but through the free gift of Jesus Christ. This is cause for constant thanksgiving and celebration — something that we can and should do together far more often than in the past. It is good to remember also that what we have achieved in the joint declaration is not primarily the result of the efforts of those involved but of the grace that comes to us from the Holy Spirit. Prayer has played an important role, and prayer for unity continues to be an essential part of our ongoing relations.
And then, fourth, we are also reminded of our responsibility to live fully the new life that has been so freely given to us. Catholics and Lutherans are called to give witness to their faith in Christ to the world of the coming third Christian millennium. As the Rev. Herbert Anderson has reminded us: "We live in a time in which pervasiveness of selfishness and greed and scapegoating necessitates more taking responsibility for our actions." Justification calls for transformed living.
Together we can now proclaim to the world the same good news of justification by faith in Christ. As I stated in July 1997 before the general assembly of the Lutheran World Federation in Hong Kong:
"To those citizens of today who are so often the victims of false and questionable values created by materialism and secularization, Lutherans and Catholics can now confess together, in the words of the joint declaration, 'that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation' (Joint Declaration, 19). To those who are brokenhearted, or feel overwhelmed by the manifold threat to life and to well-being, we can now confess together 'that the faithful can rely on the mercy and promises of God' (ibid., 34), To those who feel deeply the burden of guilt for sins committed in the past or of a sinful life today, we can now 'confess together that God forgives sin by grace and at the same time frees human beings from sin's enslaving power and imparts the gift of new life in Christ' (ibid., 22). To those citizens today who, as in the time of St. Paul, are looking for the unknown God, we can now 'confess together that in baptism the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies and truly renews the person' (ibid., 28) and 'that persons are justified by faith in the Gospel "apart from works prescribed by the law" (Rom. 3:28)' (ibid., 31)."
To do this more effectively we need also to grow together in Christ. The joint declaration must not remain a document somewhere over there in Geneva and Rome. What we have achieved must become part of the lives of our parishes and congregations wherever they are. How this can best be done needs to be studied and carried out at the local level. One suggestion that I would make is that the Bible studies on justification that the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity prepared together a couple of years ago be taken up and reflected on jointly by Lutheran and Catholic congregations.
The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification can be seen as a further sign that as the Second Vatican Council Decree on Ecumenism stated: "The Lord of Ages wisely and patiently follows out the plan of his grace on behalf of us sinners. In recent times he has begun to bestow more generously upon divided Christians remorse over their divisions and a longing for unity."
This agreement between Lutherans and Catholics has been fashioned by decades of theological dialogue, supported by prayer for unity, and is a tribute to the persistence of the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. Yet we would be surely remiss if we did not acknowledge our firm conviction that accompanying all this were impulses fostered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is the spirit of unity and who assists us in responding to the prayer of Jesus for his followers "that they may all be one" (Jn. 17:21).
And so with the psalmist we proclaim: "O give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever!" (Ps. 118:1). For my part, I conclude with the following words from the joint declaration, which I have the privilege to endorse before this distinguished gathering:
"We give thanks to the Lord for this decisive step forward on the way to overcoming the division of the church. We ask the Holy Spirit to lead us further toward that visible unity which is Christ's will" (Joint Declaration, 44).
1 On the Catholic side there have been valuable contributions from scholars such as Erwin Iserloh, Harry McSorley, August Hasler, Jos Vercrusse, Otto H. Pesch, Vinzenz Pfnur and Jared Wicks. Lutheran scholars have made similar contributions: Hans Vorster, Ulrich Kuhn, Wilfried Joest and Peter Brunner.
2 In the apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente Pope John Paul II indicated "overcoming the divisions of the past" as "one of the tasks of Christians as we make our way to the year 2000." He wrote that "the approaching end of the second millennium demands of everyone an examination of conscience and the promotion of fitting ecumenical initiatives so that we can celebrate the Great Jubilee, if not completely united, at least much closer to overcoming the divisions of the second millennium" (No. 34).
3 Herbert Anderson, Ecumenical Trends, Vol. 28. No. 5 (May 1999) 1/65.
4 From the statement of the secretary general of the Lutheran World Federation at the press conference in Geneva on June 11, 1999.
5 Anderson, 3/67.
6 Ibid., 8/72.
8 Ibid., 5/69.
9 Unitatis Redintegratio,
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