The joint Declaration on the doctrine of justification: One year later

A thoughtful assessment of the Joint Declaration between Vatican and Lutheran World Federation representatives

Raoul Dederen, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology and former dean of the SDA Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

On October 31,1999, representatives of the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) formally signed a joint statement on the theological issue of justification an issue that played a crucial role in the debates leading up to the Protestant Reformation.

The formal signing took place in Augsburg, Germany, 428 years to the day after Martin Luther nailed his list of 95 theses against the sale of indulgences to a church door in Wittenburg.

Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity (PCPCU), signed the document on be half of the Vatican and described the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) 1 as "without doubt an outstanding achievement of the ecumenical movement and a milestone on the way to the restoration of full, visible unity among the disciples of our Lord and Saviour."2 Pope John Paul II described the event as marking "a milestone on the not always easy road towards the restoration of full unity among Christians." 3

Did the Roman Catholic Church accept the Lutheran position? Or did Lutherans surrender Luther's stance? Can it truthfully be said that the mutual condemnations of the sixteenth century no longer apply?

Five documents hold an important place in the development of the Catholic- Lutheran agreement: (1) the JDDJ itself; (2) the Official Catholic Response (OCR); (3) the Official Common Statement (OCS); (4) an Annex to the former; and (5) a note explaining details of the Annex statement.4

The first document was approved by the Lutheran World Federation Council on June 16, 1998. The second was the Catholic response to the same text, made on June 25, 1998. The last three were issued together in June of the following year.

The Vatican's reaction to the Joint Declaration appalled many observers, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. In June 1998, one week after the LWF Council had approved the document and had stated that the Lutheran condemnations no longer applied to Roman Catholic teaching, Rome's response seemed to call into question the very consensus ex pressed in the JDDJ. It threw into confusion hopes of an imminent joint signing. Rome expressed its perplexity at some of the statements, declaring some unacceptable as presented and requesting clarifications. It even questioned whether the LWF had the authority to speak on doctrinal issues in the name of its member churches (OCR 7).

Once the "misunderstandings" were cleared, the two parties released a short Official Common Statement and an Annex affirming the JDDJ and responding to certain concerns raised a year earlier, in June 1998. An additional Note was shared by Cardinal Cassidy further ad dressing questions raised by the Catholic partner in its Official Response. A few months later, the signatories put their names to a volume containing the Joint Declaration, the Official Common Statement, and the Annex.

Common understanding

What is the common understanding of justification as the Joint Declaration sees it? Let me first mention that at the heart of the Declaration is an astounding and compelling statement. It reads: "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" (JDDJ 15).

The Joint Declaration itself represents a significant progress in mutual understanding. There is much in which Christians, mindful of Christ's longing for His disciples to be one, can rejoice. In the spirit of Vatican II more value is given to the Scriptures. The section on the "Biblical Message of Sanctification" (JDDJ 8-12) is helpful. Here, both dialogue partners have more in common than what divides them. They are ad dressing the central point justification, how to be right with God. They also show a more sympathetic understanding of what the other side was and is saying.

"A consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics" in spite of "remaining differences of language, theological elaboration and emphasis" in the understanding of the doctrine, states the JDDJ (40; cf. OCS 1). Some of the latter are even "divergent" and simply "not acceptable" according to the OCR (Declaration 2; Clarification 1).

Divisive themes

Some of these divergent themes5 include human involvement in justification, justification as declaration or process, concupiscence, and the Lutheran term "justified and a sinner."

First, the human involvement in the act of justification: The JDDJ explains that human beings have "no freedom in relation to salvation" (19) and, in an explanatory section, Lutherans emphasize that while believers are fully involved personally in their faith, a "person can only receive [mere passive] justification." This means they mean "to exclude any possibility of contributing to one's own justification (JDDJ 21). On the contrary, the Council of Trent (1545-1563), called to formulate a comprehensive response to Luther, taught under anathema that sinners can cooperate in the preparation for and the reception of justification. They do not receive it passively (DS 1154).6

How will the two views be harmonized? Shall we suggest that Lutherans use the term "justification" in an active or functional sense, referring to the justifying activity of Christ, whereas Roman Catholics use it in an objective sense, in reference to the transforming effect of Christ's justifying activity in the believer?7 The disagreement remains essentially unresolved.

The second issue (justification: a declaration or process?) was probably the most conspicuously divergent between Lutherans and Catholics from the very start. Luther consistently claimed that justification is an event God declaring the sinner righteous on account of and in Christ. Christ's righteousness, "alien" to the sinner, is imputed to him or her. In time, Lutherans began to draw an increasingly sharp distinction between the event of being declared righteous (justification) and the process of being made righteous (sanctification, regeneration). This perception gave rise to the term "forensic justification," from the Latin forensis ("public") and forum ("market place," "public place," or "courtyard") where the dispensing of justice took place in ancient Rome.

Over against this forensic grasp of justification that distinguishes between justification and sanctification (JDDJ 26), Roman Catholics, along with Trent, have consistently defined justification as an internal transformation of the believer (DN 1528). Justification, "the most excellent work of God," repeats the Catechism of the Catholic Church,8 "entails the sanctification of [the] whole body" (CCC 1994,1995). It "includes the remission of sins, sanctification, and the renewal of the inner man" (CCC 2019).

This evident disparity is corroborated by the approach adopted in the case of the next issue, that of concupiscence the unruly and self-centered spontaneous desires that mark our fallen human nature. Is the unruly inclination that comes from sin and presses us toward sin, indeed sin? Roman Catholic doctrine holds that thanks to God's infused justifying grace, Original Sin is eradicated by baptism and sinners are made righteous, as we noted above (CCC 2023). A true change has occurred. Concupiscence, which stems from the effects of Original Sin and inclines us to sin (CCC 11264,1426,2515), however, is not sin.

"Catholics do not see this inclination as sin in an authentic sense." It "does not separate the justified person from God" (JDDJ 30). In fact, the Council of Trent condemned under anathema whoever would hold the view that concupiscence is sin (DS 1515).

Lutherans, by contrast affirm that the justified person, accounted righteous, continues to be involved in a battle between the Spirit and the sin that re mains in us. Sin still lives in us. Hence, the believer can be rightly described as simul Justus et peccator, i.e. at once righteous and sinner.

The Official Catholic Response, though rather blunt, declared that this view is "not acceptable" (OCR 1), adding, quite understandably, that "it remains difficult to see how... we can say that this doctrine of 'simul justus et peccator' is not touched by the anathemas of the Tridentine decree on original sin and justification" (OCR 1). The Vatican seems to see a serious prob lem in this divergence.

Justification and indulgences

The doctrine of justification, how ever, is not a purely academic matter. It touches the practices of the church. It has obvious relevance to church life and practice, including, for Roman Catholics, one's view on purgatory, the assistance of Mary and the saints in the life of salvation, as well as indulgences. Where is the connection?

Catholic doctrine teaches that sin, as rebellion against God, has enduring consequences from which one must be purified. To begin with, sin involves deprivation of communion with God. To the repentant sinner, however, God, in His mercy, grants pardon and remission of the "eternal punishment" it would bring. Besides, since sin entails a destructive attachment to temporal things, the repentant sinner must be purified either here on earth or after death in purgatory. This purification cleanses the sinner from the "temporal punishment" of sin and removes what ever still impedes full communion with God and with other believers.

In this context, indulgences entail remission, partial or plenary, of the temporal punishment in purgatory still due to sins that have already been forgiven. This remission is the privilege of the church, which authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfactions won by Christ and the saints. Believers may obtain partial or plenary indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.9

In the early sixteenth century such practices and beliefs lent weight to the selling of indulgences and the remission of purgatory penalties. Such practices may have been in conflict with the teaching of more responsible leaders of the church but few serious efforts were made to suppress them. In recent years Pope Paul VI's 1967 Indulgentiarum Doctrina and John Paul II's 1998 bull Incarnationis Mysterium have sought to avoid any commercial overtures.

Do indulgences still play a role in Roman Catholicism today? John Paul II, who deplored the abuses of indulgences in the 1998 bull, unhesitatingly decreed during the Jubilee of the year 2000 that "all the faithful, properly prepared, be able to make abundant use of the [divine] gift of the indulgence," whether partial or plenary, "which is one of the constitutive elements of the jubilee." 10 Indulgences do still play a role in Roman Catholicism today.

It might be argued that indulgences encourage believers to acts of devotion, charity, and works of merry. But don't indulgences and purgatory and prayer for the dead inexorably call into question the doctrine of justification? There maybe some confusion among Roman Caiholic theologians as to what the role of indulgences really is, but how could one dismiss indulgences as some cryptic and antiquated practice that has no meaning today and certainly no relevance in an ecumenical discussion on the doctrine of justification?

Should one conclude that when he issued his indiction bull in 1998 John Paul II was unaware of the fact that the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was being prepared with his approval and would be signed the fol lowing year? I don't think that the Roman Catholic Church was intending to indulge in double talk. 11 But I do wonder if the claim is true that the basic issues debated at the time of the Reformation have in fact been resolved.

Substantial differences persist

I can understand why Roman Catholics wanted and still want clarifications. I, too, want clarifications, some from Catholics and others from Lutherans, before being able to say that Lutherans have not capitulated to the Roman Catholic view. Nor do I feel reassured when I learn the answer Cardinal Cassidy gave to a question brought up by journalists in Augsburg before the official signing of the Joint Declaration. Asked whether there was anything in the JDDJ contrary to the Council of Trent, Cardinal Cassidy answered: "Absolutely not, otherwise how could we do it?" 12

Not surprisingly, not all Lutherans felt it possible to reconcile the Joint Declaration to the Confessions of their respective churches. In the United States, the large Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, though a full member of the dialogue, did not feel able to sign the document. To A. L. Barry, its president, the agreement is "a betrayal of the Gospel of Jesus Christ." 13 Some 245 German Lutheran scholars likewise expressed their great concerns and reservations regarding the JDDJ. 14 Forty-three of the 124 LWF member churches did not sup port the Joint Declaration, while 30 of the Lutheran churches, worldwide, that are not members of the LWF, shared the same objections. 15

At the same time the co-signatories have committed themselves to continue the dialogue "in order to reach full church communion, a unity in diversity, in which remaining differences would be reconciled and no longer have a divisive force" (OCS 3). They will, most probably, seek to fit their confessional statements in a single coherent system.

Biblical and ecclesiastical integrity

The easier road to take in these days of agnosticism and postmodern relativism, is to simply acknowledge that we have two systems that have unfolded from the Scriptures, the creeds and tradition, which express themselves through different thought-forms and "languages," and that together we must bring them side by side, attached by mutual respect, spurning any inclination to insist on absolute agreement. 16

But is this a sound approach? Can one really claim that two or more contradictory theological statements can best serve the cause of Christian unity? Some of the differences we are facing in the Joint Document are not simply matters of language or emphasis. They are not even just differences in the theological expressions of the faith. Instead they are differences in the faith itself. They concern aspects of substance, and they are hardly compatible (cf. OCR 5). They are not convergent but contradictory and divergent, in matters not only of doctrine but of church life and practice. Consensus declarations such as the one under review too often carry with them the scent of compromise. They imperil the integrity of the church.

There is much good in the fact that Lutherans and Catholics are engaging in dialogue. As partners in dialogue, they will continue to learn from one another and correct one another's oversights. But the only way partners in dialogue will ever be able to make significant inroads in their dialogues with one another is by expressly, even strictly, confining their discussions to the Scriptures. Ecclesial "rapprochement" should not be obtained at the expense of truth, that is, biblical truth.

1. For a responsible English version of the JDDJ see Origins vol. 28: no. 8 (July 16, 1998). Origins is published by the National Catholic News Services, Washington, D.C., and sponsored by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

2. At a Rome press conference on June 25,1998. Origins id., 128.

3. Ecumenical News International Bulletin, no. 20, Nov. 10, 1999, 32.

4. For an English version of all five documents see Origins vol. 28: no. 8 (July 16, 1998): 120-127; 130-132; vol. 29: no. 6 (June 24, 1999): 86-89.

5. Various points in this article have been drawn from Avery Dulles' cautionary piece "Two Languages of Salvation: The Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration," First Things, No. 98 (Dec. 1999): 25-30.

6. All statements by the Council of Trent are taken from Denzinger-Schonmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum 32nd to 36* editions. Hereafter: DS.

7. As does Richard J. Schlenker, "The Lutheran-Catholic 'Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (June 1998)," Ecumenical Trends vol. 28, no. 5 (May 1999), 14.

8. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Latin text copyright, rev. edition. Cita del Vaticano, 1997.

9. New Code of Canon Law. Latin-English ed. Washington, D.C.: Canon Law Society of America, 1983: cans. 992, 994.

10. "John Paul II/Bull of Indiction Year 2000 Incarnationis Mysterium," Origins vol. 28: no. 26 (Dec. 10,1998): 446-452. The conditions for gaining the Jubilee indulgence are stipulated in an "Appendix by the Apostolic Penitentiary," id.: 452, 453.

11. My point is borrowed from David Mashman's article "Is the Reformation Over?" in The Lutheran Witness, Nov. 1999, 24.

12. Ecumenical News International Bulletin, no. 20, Nov. 10,1999, 36.

13. "Lutheran Church -Missouri Synod press release," October 15, 1999.

14. "Supporting Documentation for the Statement 'Toward True Reconciliation,' " a duplicated 30-page-long document prepared by Paul T. McCain, Assistant to the President of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, [St. Louis], January 13,2000,12-24.

15. Ibid., 26-28.

16. As eloquently developed by Avery Dulles, the veteran ecumenist: "Two Languages of Salvation: The Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration," First Things, Dec. 1999, 25-30. See also John J. McDonnell, "The Agreed Statement on Justification. A Roman Catholic Perspective," Ecumenical Trends, vol. 28: no. 5
(May 1999), 7-8; Richard J. Schlenker, "The Lutheran-Catholic 'Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification'" (June 1998), 12-14.


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Raoul Dederen, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology and former dean of the SDA Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

November 2000

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