Philip Melanchton famously signed the Smalcald Articles with a proviso:
I, Philip Melanchthon, also regard the above articles as true and Christian. However, concerning the pope I maintain that if he would allow the gospel, we, too, may (for the sake of peace and general unity among those Christians who are now under him and might be in the future) grant to him his superiority over the bishops which he has “by human right.”
This is not official Lutheran doctrine, but many Lutherans would agree with him.
One such Lutheran is our own Pastor Mark, who wrote on a post below:
Lutherans regard the primacy of the Pope – his headship of the college of bishops – as existing by human rather than divine ordering, but nevertheless we would – for the most part – be willing to accord him that position of honour and service, in the Western church at least
(bearing in mind that the nature of the Pope’s primacy is also an issue for the Eastern Orthodox), if he would accept that the Gospel is the good news that we are saved through faith in Christ, and that this salvation is entiurely a gift from God, and thus we are not saved by our works and nor do our works contribute to our salvation, and if he would subsequently permit the Roman church’s doctrine and practice to be reformed according to this great scriptural truth.
I have posted a number of times on this page passages from Pope Benedict’s magisterium in which he undoubtedly “that the Gospel is the good news that we are saved through faith in Christ, and that this salvation is entiurely a gift from God, and thus we are not saved by our works”. Where we part company (and the reason why there has not been a subsequent ““top down” review of doctrine in light of the Gospel, from the claims about the Papacy, to Mariology, the nature of sainthood, right down to the question of the indulgences” is that we do believe that “our works contribute to our salvation”. This is the real nub of the matter. I don’t know whether Melanchthon would have insisted on that last phrase if, in negotiations with Rome, he had received a complete assurance of the rest, but that is beside the point. I believe the difference between what we Catholics call “the gospel” and what Lutherans call “the gospel” is not unrelated to the fact that while we affirm that salvation is entirely a gift from God, given by grace through faith in Christ, we uphold what we believe to be a Scriptural understanding of the participation of the saved in their salvation.
Another Lutheran theologian who shared Melanchthon’s point of view, and who acted upon it in 2005 by “allowing the papacy”, is now-Catholic Bruce Marshall. I am much aided by his First Things article “Treasures in Heaven”. HT to Michael Root for this one. Michael had linked to this article from his blog “Lutherans Persisting” (which he runs with David Yeago and some others), saying:
If one wants to see an important element missing in contemporary Lutheran theololgy (or in Lutheran theology simpliciter), see the reflections of Bruce Marshall in the most recent issue of First Things, especially the final paragraphs. …There is not a direct conceptual connection between his reflections and the present plight of Lutheranism, but the indirect connection is of profound significance.
[Addition in response to comment. I think the ‘profound significance’ relates most closely to whether and how we understand the gospel as a call into a specific form of life. If the gospel is a call into a specific form of life, then some agreement on the shape of that life is inherent to the gospel. And, in that case, the assertion of the Sexuality Social Statement that agreement in the doctrine of justification is all that the church needs must be wrong.
More distantly, but more importantly, there is the question of how we are called and graced to participate in Christ and Christ’s saving action. That we are called to participate is clear: our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection is our salvation. But do we participate in the way Marshall describes? I increasingly think that Marshall (and behind him, Aquinas) is correct.]
Marshall says that the idea of debt and merit is in fact a very valid Scriptural approach to the question of sin, as evidenced by the use of “debts” and “debtors” in the Lord’s Prayer, of all places! Those “last paragraphs” to which Michael refers read:
Jesus makes the definitive thank-offering of the creature to God for all his gifts, an offering whose value reaches even beyond satisfaction for sin.
But this return of gift is our doing, too. In Christ’s Church and through his sacraments—not least through the giving of alms as a penitential satisfaction—we come to share in our own small way in the one great redemptive act accomplished by Jesus Christ. When he joins our modest efforts to his own supreme gift, he graciously allows the salvation he has accomplished for us to come, in some small way, from us as well. United to him, our salvation is not simply an event that happens to us but includes our own grateful gift of self—our merit.
In Christ, then, none of us is a spectator to our salvation; we are all, painfully and joyfully, full participants in it. Far from lowering God to an unworthy economy of self-interested exchange, Thomas Aquinas and others argue that God’s willingness to accept payment for our sins is a sheer gift from God to us, an act of greater mercy and generosity than any forgiveness by fiat would be, because God allows each of us to claim nothing less than a place in his salvation of the world in Christ. And for this the appropriate creaturely response, as to all God’s gifts, is not a sense of burdened obligation but an ever-greater gratitude.
So it may indeed not be the case that “the gospel” excludes the fact that “our works contribute to our salvation”. In the light of Bruce’s article, it appears that the Papacy does indeed “allow the Gospel”, nay more, the Pope has preserved elements of the Gospel which the Lutherans have forgotten.
I look forward to your entry into full communion with the Bishop of Rome, Pastor Mark! Let me know the time and the place and I will be there with bells on. Ribbons too, if you like!