A review of the joint Declaration on the dogma of justification

A candid evaluation of the Joint Declaration, including significant Protestant responses

Hans Heinz, Th.D., is a retired professor of theology at Marienhohe Seminary, Germany

Dialogue since the second Vatican Council between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran churches has led to an unmistakable rapprochement not only in the realm of ecclesiastical life, but also in the arena of doctrine.

This includes above all the main article of the Lutheran Reformation, the tenet of justification, by which, according to Reformation Protestant conviction, the church stands or falls.

Luther, the Council of Trent, and justification

For Luther justification was the "main article" 1 and the "sum of Christian doctrine."2 According to his own confession, he had lost Christ due to the impact of the Catholic Church's theology of the late middle-ages, but rediscovered Him again through his study of the Apostle Paul. Luther was well aware of the fact that what he had dis covered was "new," but he was convinced that, after the church had taught a nonbiblical righteousness by works for centuries, he was again connecting with Paul; "my Paul," as he put it.

The Council of Trent (1545-63), which on the one hand removed certain abuses, such as the sale of indulgences, continued, on the other hand, to draw a marked dividing line between the teaching of the Catholic Church and that of the Reformers. The Council clearly identified the doctrine of justification as the principal reason for the separation be tween the confessions. From the start (1547) it delivered an exhaustive definition of the Catholic dogma of justification with pointed arguments against the "heretics."3 Trent also made it clear that its aim was to stamp out the heresy 4 it saw in the teaching of the Reformers. In the canons concerning the decree on justification, the Reformation was anathematized, without actually calling the Reformers by name. Trent affirmed that the memory of Luther and Calvin should fall into eternal oblivion damnatio memoriae and their religious conviction forever be "anathema." That is how the statement of the Council has been understood for 400 years.

Thus, amid the change illustrated by and emanating from the Joint Declaration on the Dogma of Justification, the objective question remains and indeed now clamors for an answer: Who, if not the Reformers and their teachings, were the heretics of the sixteenth century with their false teaching on justification and what, if anything, has in fact altered since then to suggest the kind of rapprochement gathering in the wake of the document we are reviewing?

The outlook today

These days, of course, both sides refer to the fact that Luther had not only said, "We are and remain eternally divided,"5 but also that if the pope could admit that God justifies only through His mercy in Christ, "then we would not only carry him on our hands, but also kiss his feet."6

Since Catholic theologians today present Luther's concern in regard to justification as "Catholic truth" (Y. Congar) and his teaching as "more Catholic than previously assumed" (J. Lortz), new perspectives seem to be emerging. Some Catholic theologians appear almost lyrical when speaking of Luther today. "The legacy of Luther must be brought back to the Catholic Church" (J. Lortz), Luther must receive "right of residence" (O. H. Pesch), be cause his thinking is a "unique word-and-event-theology" (A. Brandenburg) that could be a "liberating aid" (J. Brosseder) in the fight against every form of new scholasticism.

Catholic ecumenical thinkers such as Hans Kung and O. H. Pesch classify Luther's teaching on justification as a "re turn to the Gospel." Consequently, they demand categorically that the church learn from Luther. They interpret the Catholic teaching on justification in such a way that there can be no longer any reason for the separation between the churches.

The Joint Declaration itself

Climactic in this ecumenical endeavor, of course, has been the Joint Declaration on the Dogma of Justification 1997, a document abbreviated here as JD or Joint Declaration, published by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. It culminates in the declaration of a "Consensus on the Fundamentals of the Dogma of Justification,"7 and states that further valid differences on the way to "visible unity"8 may not be used to condemn one another's teachings.9 This document certainly reveals a high degree of accord. But it achieves this, with some apparent deliberation, through frequent inaccuracies and by the use of some misleading statements. Whoever has endeavored to familiarize themselves to some degree with Paul's teaching on justification, as Luther understood it, must ask the question: Have not the essential points of the Reformers' teaching been compromised and in fact misrepresented or altered through this kind of ecumenical endeavor?


Inaccuracies are observable from the beginning of the document where justification is, biblically speaking, properly defined as the "forgiveness of sins" 10 and where "forgiveness and making right" 11 are placed together as the Catholic position. Problems begin to show themselves when one realizes that nowhere in the document is it said that the two (forgiveness and making right) contradict one another, since "making right" (sanctification) is seen in the Bible to be the result of justification, so that although good works are necessary, they are not necessary for salvation. In Catholic teaching however, making right which is manifested by works is necessary for salvation; 12 while in the teaching of the Reformation they only bear witness to salvation. The gospel sees good works as a consequence of salvation, while in Catholic teaching they are a means to salvation. In other words, according to Catholic teaching, good works do not happen because of salvation, but they lead to salvation. 13 This crucial distinction is not pointed out in the document.

When the Joint Declaration speaks about justification by faith, 14 it is mentioned that the Pauline sola fide (by faith alone) was the Reformers' position, but nowhere is it said that this position is incompatible with the Catholic position, which remains in fact, one which affirms that justification comes by both faith and works. 15

Justification by faith alone means full salvation here and now—and there fore completed justification and with it the assurance of salvation. Justification by faith and works, on the other hand, means an incomplete justification16 and therefore there is hope but no assurance or certainty of salvation. Those who "through the observance of God's law and the Church's laws are constantly more justified," 17 cannot be sure of salvation, since they do not know whether or not they have completely fulfilled all that is needed.

Further, Paul's "by faith alone" (Rom. 3:28)—as Luther understood it—is incompatible with a justification of faith and love. 18 Paul nowhere speaks of a justification by love because love is for him a witness to faith (Gal. 5:6). Justification by love is justification already transformed into sanctification, which again has good works not in order to be saved but as a witness to salvation.

Although the Joint Declaration constantly stresses that justification cannot be earned, 19 it does not say that according to Catholic understanding this refers only to the initial justification received at baptism. According to Catholic dogma, final justification in the judgment must "truly be earned."20 Even though necessary works are a gift of grace, says the Catholic position, they are at the same time man's "good merits."21 The reason for taking this position is that Trent defined grace as "inherent grace,"22 which is therefore the possession of the believer.

This was not the Reformation position, which saw both the saving grace and the works that save to be those of Christ, Himself, quite aside from the believer.

Even though the document constantly asserts that grace is not a "possession" but a "gift"23 (and no biblically oriented Christian would disagree with that assertion in and of itself), yet when reading the Joint Declaration we must nevertheless ask on the basis of the evidence in the document, whether the Catholic position is fully and correctly represented to the reader.

That a true Christian will help his fellowman and glorify God through obedience belongs to the ABCs of Christianity. However, that this obedience, which includes obedience to the rules of the church, will constantly make the Christian more righteous,24 thus contributing to salvation, no Protestant is able to accept. The Joint Declaration states that the laws of the church can also be affirmed by Protestants, when they "validate God's Commandments."25 The question is, can this also be said concerning such actions as the duty of confession, where the priest absolves from sin?26

It is impossible to see the condemnatory judgments coming down from the Council of Trent as mere "warnings,"27 as the Joint Declaration interprets them to be. For example, looking at the Trent judgment against the Reformation positions on sola fide,28 on the confidence of faith,29 on justification as imputed or accounted righteous,30 and on the assurance of salvation,31 in all honesty, one cannot say that these were only "warnings"32 as the Joint Declaration reinterprets them to be. An anathema is not a warning, but an unequivocal judgment of condemnation.

The Joint Declaration maintains that condemnations in regard to the doctrine of justification have become irrelevant.33 This could mean either the decrees of Trent are no longer valid—which is clearly not the case—or that the whole truth is no longer being told so that the ecumenical cause maybe promoted. The problem is that this degree of ambiguity does not help the ordinary believer, who is likely to be confused and misled by it.

Protestant scholars evaluate the Joint Declaration

Heike Schmoll, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 34 has called this confusing approach "cheating-ecumenism." It is not surprising that more than 150 Professors of Theology in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria have formulated arguments against it or have rejected the whole undertaking. Among them are such well-known names as Eberhard Jiingel, Ingo U. Dalferth, Gerhard Ebeling, Reinhard Schwarz, Karin Bornkam, and Dorothea Wendebourg.

Meanwhile, the Joint Declaration has developed a history of its own. In June 1998, Rome published a "note" as part of the Council of Unity in which, according to Cardinal J. Ratzinger, consensus in regard to "fundamental truths" is avowed, but certain critical aspects of the Lutheran position, such as the passive reception of justification and thus the denial of merits, the justification of sinners, simul justus et peccator [at the same time righteous and sinful], as well as justification as the principle criterion of the church, remain condemned by the anathemata of the Council of Trent.35

This note produced a considerable stir in the Lutheran World Federation and beyond that in the Protestant world.

Johannes Dantine spoke of "the end of the ecumenical consensus," and Reinhard Freiling referred to the "immobility of Rome." The Reformed (Calvinistic) professor of dogmatics— Ulrich Kortner—goes so far as to say that Rome's ecumenism is the "antithesis to ecumenism." A statement of appeasement from the Catholic side was issued by Cardinal Cassidy, who in spite of the reminder of the anathemata of Trent, expressed his conviction that Rome would sign the Joint Declaration.

In the meantime both sides have at tempted to remove the offending items through a "joint official statement" (June 1999) concerning the Joint Declaration. This statement became possible because those on the Protestant side compromised the Reformation view of sin. For Luther, indwelling human sin (Rom. 7:18-23) is a transpersonal power, through which humanity is totally alienated and constantly drawn away from God. According to Luther this alienation is so pervasive that no one is able to do good before God. Thus, in a theological sense (Col. 2:13) human beings are dead, morally speaking. Because of this the human being is unable to contribute any thing toward his or her salvation (Eph. 2:8,9).

For these reasons justification, forgiveness before God, and acceptance as God's child is most certainly the "justification of the sinner" (Rom. 4:5). For the same reason the good works of the believer, or the holy character of the child of God follows justification rather than causing it. And while good works are necessary, they are not necessary for salvation. But it is also true that these works are nevertheless just as much a gift of God as justification itself (Eph. 2:10).

The Council of Trent audaciously attempted to correct Paul's position by declaring that it was not ready to follow Paul, calling sin in Romans 7:20 by its right name. Thus the Catholic position is that concupiscence [lust] is only the result of the loss of original grace and therefore actually something secondary; not the power of sin but only the "fuel" for sin.36 Since according to Catholic teaching, humanity is sacramentally cleansed from sin through baptism, God actually justifies sinless human beings.

Cardinal Ratzinger made this clear when he said: "When one is not just, he is also not justified." By agreeing that a Christian is no longer a sinner, the representatives of the World Lutheran Federation have come closer to the understanding of the Council of Trent in this matter. Cardinal Ratzinger said, "The Lutherans indeed move in the direction of Trent." Thus, it became possible to sign the Joint Declaration with its commentary ("Joint official statement"). It is of special interest to note that this signing took place on October 31,1999, on Reformation Day, and in Augsburg.

Fundamental questions remain

The agreement implied in this signing is still not a "general consensus." Many questions remain, such as the basic question of how sola fide, mentioned in the "Joint official statement," relates to the explicit condemnation passed down at Trent. Along with this, there are serious unaddressed issues related to the seminal matter of whether grace is extrinsic or inherent and the matter of the nature and role of "merits."

According to I. U. Dalferth, both documents (Catholic and Lutheran) "speak a common language without having a common understanding," 37 and the suspicion of J. Baur38 has validity, that the whole process is an enterprise in "ecclesiastical diplomatic slyness" that disguises a remaining fundamental dissent.

1. Weimar edition of Luther's Works, 40 III, 366, 24.

2. Ibid., 352, 2.

3. Denzinger-Huncrmann, Compendium of Creeds and Dogmatic Decisions of the Church, 1533

4. Ibid., 1500.

5. Weimar, 50, 204, 19.20.

6. Weimar, 401, 181, 11-13.

7. A Joint Declaration on the Dogma of Justification produced by the Lutheran World Federation and the Papal Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, 5.

8. Ibid., 44.

9. Ibid., 5.

10. Ibid., II.

11. Ibid., 27

12. Denzingcr-Huncrmann, 1535.

13. Ibid., 15S2.

14. Joint Declaration, 11:16.

15. Denzingcr-Himcrmann, 1535.

16. "Growing justification," Denzinger-Hunermann, 1535.

17. Ibid.

18.  Ibid.

19. Joint Declaration, 15; 17.

20. Vere meren, Denzingcr-Huncrmann, 1582.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., 1547.

23. Joint Declaration, 27.

24. Denzingcr-Hunermann, 1535.

25. Joint Declaration to 4.15.

26. Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, 2042.

27. Joint Declaration, 42.

28. Denzinger-Hunermann, 1559.

29. Ibid., 1562.

30. Ibid., 1561.

31. Ibid., 1533, 1534.

32. Joint Declaration, 42.

33. Ibid., 5.

34. Frankfurter AllgemeineZeitiing, No. 133. June 12,1998.

35. Compare Matermldienst—Publication of the Denominational Institute, Bensheim, 49 [1998]:63-67.

36. Denzinger-Hunermann, 1515.

37. Materialdicmt, 50 (1999).

38. Frri durch Rechtfertigung: Tubingen 1999, 68.76.


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Hans Heinz, Th.D., is a retired professor of theology at Marienhohe Seminary, Germany

November 2000

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