The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: "A Shaky Bridge"

I will get to that quote and who said it in a bit. First, last night I was teaching my Last Things course for Anima Education and we were addressing the particular judgement at the time of death. Three texts were juxtaposed in the order in which we read them, and elicited a question: “How does that work?”

1) 2 Tim 1:8-10

8 Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel in the power of God, 9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago, 10 and now has manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

2) 2 Cor 5:8-10

6 So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.

And 3), the passage which refers to both, from the Catechism:

1021 Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ [cf. 2 Tim 1:9-10]. The New Testament speaks of judgment primarily in its aspect of the final encounter with Christ in his second coming, but also repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith. The parable of the poor man Lazarus and the words of Christ on the cross to the good thief, as well as other New Testament texts speak of a final destiny of the soul-a destiny which can be different for some and for others [cf. Lk 16:22; 23:43; Mt 16:26; 2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23; Heb 9:27; 12:23].

The question relates to the words in bold italics. The Catechism says that the judgement at the time of death will be made “in accordance with…works and faith”, thus smoothing over the apparent contradiction in the two Pauline texts.

This is, of course, the old problem of Justification. We are at this time celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the Joint Declaration signed by representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity on October 31, 1999. (For an account of the celebration in Brisbane at which I was present, see here). That document – or rather, the act of the joint signing – was instrumental in opening up for me the road to Rome. If, as Lutherans had always said, the reason why they were separated from the Papacy was the doctrine of Justification, what was to justify remaining out of communion with Rome any more?

Of course, it was not as simple as that. Ask any Catholic or Lutheran scholar who knows anything about it, and you will be told – correctly enough – that the JDDJ “papers over some fairly large cracks”, as one Catholic biblical scholar told me just recently. The feeling is mutual on both sides. Not every Lutheran Church has accepted the JDDJ (although the Lutheran Church of Australia did – I was one of the Lutheran pastor’s who voted in favour of it back in 1999), and indeed only 80 of the 125 member churches of the LWF agreed to it.

In preparation for a little private celebration coming up locally in Melbourne on Friday night, I have been revisiting some reviews of the document by the late Cardinal-extraordinaire, Avery Dulles. Two of these are: “Justification: the Joint Declaration” published in the Josephinum Journal, and the better known one published in First Things, “Two Languages of Justification”. The first one is, I think, from the point of view of analysis, the better one, but the message of both is (as Dulles writes in the second one):

The heart of the Joint Declaration is surely paragraph 15, and more particularly the sentence: “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.” This consensus does not go beyond the clear conclusions of the dialogues. While it is in perfect accord both with the Augsburg Confession and with the Decree on Justification of the Council of Trent, it dispels some false stereotypes inherited from the past. …If the Joint Declaration had stopped at this point, it would have been a breakthrough of sorts because the two churches have never in the past jointly expressed their shared convictions about justification. But the Declaration goes further. …importantly for our present purposes, the Catholic Response raises the question whether the Lutheran positions as explained in the Joint Declaration really escape the anathemas of the Council of Trent.

He argues the difficulties presented by the text in both articles at some length.

Especially noteworthy is the following from the Josephinum article, in which he addresses the core problem which Mark Henderson and I have agreed is the central issue:

Human Cooperation

As you would expect from what I have already said, Lutherans tend to minimize human cooperation, while Catholics tend to magnify it. For Catholics the dignity of the human being requires that we be not manipulated like puppets but invited to accept God’s gifts by the exercise of our free will. Lutherans, evidently fearing that this would be a cause for boasting and would detract from the sole glory of God, sometimes speak as though human beings are merely passive in receiving justification. The Joint Declaration reports that Lutherans affirm this pure passivity, but it adds that they do not deny that believers are personally involved in the reception of God’s word.(19) The Annex says that Lutherans, while insisting that God effects everything, hold that the working of grace includes human action. It then quotes the Lutheran Formula of Concord to the effect that we can and must cooperate — but this statement has reference not to justification itself but to the work of sanctification, which the Formula of Concord treats as a subsequent step.(20)

Here as elsewhere, the Joint Declaration narrows the divergence without eliminating it. In view of the limited convergence, we may perhaps say that the present disagreements on this issue are matters of theological understanding and do not directly contradict the gospel.

Good Works and Merit

According to Catholic doctrine, no one is in a position to merit without having first been justified, but when justified persons perform good works with the help of grace, they truly please God, so that God can call them “good and faithful servants” and give them the wages of eternal life. Thus we do merit, even though our merits are totally dependent on God’s gracious assistance. The reward of eternal life far exceeds all that we could claim apart from God’s gracious promise. The reality of merit, however, should not be denied. Justified believers who freely cooperate with divine grace may be said to earn the promised “crown of righteousness” (2 Tim 4:8). If God were to send saints to hell, he would not be the “righteous judge” that we, like Paul before us, know him to be.

Lutherans, as I have already indicated, agree that those who are justified receive the Holy Spirit and thereby become capable of good works, which are indeed required of them. Luther and Melanchthon occasionally stated that the justified by their good works merit certain rewards.(21) Most Lutherans today, however, fearing that any mention of merit might give ground for complacency or boasting, refrain from saying, as Catholics do, that the righteous can merit anything in this life or the next. Instead, they usually speak of good works as fruits and signs of justification.

The Joint Declaration softens the opposition by teaching that when Catholics speak of merit they mean that “a reward in heaven is promised.”(22) This is true enough, but it is incomplete because it fails to say that the reward is a just one. Without reference to justice, the true notion of merit would be absent.

As you can see, this passage addresses directly the questions thrown up by my class last night. It also addresses the difficulties that Lutherans still have with some Catholic doctrines. As Dulles puts it in the same article:

Third, the Joint Declaration fails to address the vast question of satisfaction. According to Catholic doctrine, reparation may be needed even after the guilt of sin has been forgiven. Problems about satisfaction underlie many of the Reformation disputes, such as Purgatory, Ingulgences, penitential practices, and the satisfactory value of the Mass. The doctrine of satisfaction, I grant, impinges on many issues besides justification, but it cannot be excluded from justification, as canon 30 of Trent’s decree makes evident

All this leads Dulles to remark (while treating the Lutheran claim that the doctrine of Justification is “the article on which the Church stands or falls”):

Strict Lutherans, for their part, feel that the Joint Declaration did not sufficiently protect the centrality of the doctrine of justification. Here, as on so many points, the Joint Declaration builds a shaky bridge that does not satisfy the guardians of orthodoxy on either side.

Despite my appreciation for and celebration of the agreement which the JDDJ has achieved, I find that I must agree with him.

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9 Responses to The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: "A Shaky Bridge"

  1. David,

    I’m not sure you’re correct to say that the LCA has accepted JDDJ. Correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t believe it has ever been taken to synod for such a purpose, and synod is the only body in the LCA with such power. I think what the Pastors’ Conference voted was to receive it, if acceptance terminology was used, it was not correct.

    • Schütz says:

      At the time that the LWF requested a response to the JDDJ (early 1999), there was no upcoming scheduled Synod.

      The General Church Council referred the matter to all the meetings of the District Pastors Conferences to vote on.

      On the basis of the fact that all the Pastors Conferences were overwhelmingly in favour, General Church Council replied to the LWF that it accepted the JDDJ.

      Now, if you want to argue that the Synod has greater power and authority than the pastorate of the Lutheran Church of Australia, go ahead. It has been argued before, and in fact was tested at the next General Synod, which was at Faith College in Tanunda in 2000, when, despite the fact that the Generel Pastors Conference had reached no agreement on the matter of the Ordination of Women, the motion was put to, debated and voted on by the General Synod.

      This was, in part, the proof to me that the LCA was not a “catholic” Church, when a self-authorising representative body of laity and clergy could trump the teaching authority of the “magisterium” of the ordained ministry. According to the Lutherans Confessions and to the ancient practice and tradition of the Church, only the ordained apostolic ministry has the authority to determine and teach on matters of doctrine.

      But, for the record, the LCA accepte the Joint Declaration by the non-Synodical process of seeking the opinion of all its Pastors Conferences. I remember. I was there. I voted for it.

  2. Co-incidentally, I just published a comment by Dulles on Glosses from an Old Manse.

    I’ve only just now read your post in its entirety, but since I’m on my lunch break I only have time to fully digest a sandwich at present, which means I’d like to reflect on these matters further before commenting further.

  3. Paul says:

    Hi David,
    As a cradle Catholic and certainly not a theologian, I don’t understand all of this discussion, but sometimes I wonder why it is so complicated. My simple-minded understanding is…

    -we are saved by the grace of God
    -it is possible, however, to say no to God’s gift. (perhaps people who believe in predestination disagree with this???).
    -a demonstration of our acceptance by faith is to do what God wills, which in many cases could be described as good works.

    I have Anglican friends, who I think could be described as “Evangelical Sydney Anglicans”, if that is considered a precise definition these days. The idea of justification by faith alone seems to come into almost everything they say, even to a comment one person made to the Stations of the Cross during World Youth Day. She said she thought the Stations were very good ….. but……….

    At one of the last Stations, the narrator said something like “because Jesus died, we should work to make the world a better place..” She said that in her opinion it would have been much better if they had left this sentence out.

    I’m sorry, I don’t get it. Should we trash the place just because we can, or as a sign of our trust in the Lord? Isn’t it worth saying that Jesus’ sacrifice should inspire us to do what he wants us to do?

    • Schütz says:

      a demonstration of our acceptance by faith is to do what God wills, which in many cases could be described as good works

      I don’t think that is quite the way that Trent put it, Paul. Works – faith active in love – are more than a demonstration. Check up on this in the Catechism.

      The protestant Evangelical will not want anything about “what we do” to come into the story of salvation. That’s what your friend was getting at. Social action, care for the environment, “building the kingdom”, is “human works” lanuage, in their book. Therefore it is out.

      • Paul says:

        Thanks for the suggestion, David, I will certainly look that up.
        I suppose what I’m saying about this observation by an Evangelical is that I find it obsessive.

        This is perhaps an irritatingly non-theological way of looking at it by me, but I agree with the Evangelicals that Catholic parishes and groups who emphasise “social action” often also show a lack of faith. For someone who no longer believes, it seems easier to defend social action in public rather than any kingdom not of this world.

        Having said that, I find it nitpicking to criticize this observation at the end of the Stations. Surely, after going through all the Stations of the Passion and Sacrifice of Jesus, the point that we are saved by Christ has been made.

        Anyway I’d better go and consult the Catechism before saying anything else.

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