by John Armstrong
The disputes which divided the Western Church in the 16th-century are being resolved. We have not solved all of them (for sure) and we will not certainly solve them all at once. Long standing family issues that divide families are never resolved without profound effort. But slowly and effectively we are finding ways to resolve our past hostilities and we are learning to live faithfully with our remaining doctrinal differences.
The modern ecumenical movement began in the late 19th-century but the biggest boost clearly came in 1906 in Edinburgh. Missionary leaders from around the world gathered to address the pressing question of how to resolve the scandal of Christian disunity on the mission field where non-Christians saw the fruit of our division and rejected the Good News accordingly. These leaders felt it was time to work for visible oneness in the church. Their efforts launched a movement. This movement became global when Vatican II issued a decree on ecumenism that marked out a new path to follow in seeking oneness between baptized Christians.
As you listen to various Christians talk about the Reformation today you hear two sets of responses regarding the 500th anniversary. One set follows the narrative that the Reformation was not only needed, but any departure from its specific language and polemical arguments is a denial of the gospel. I once adopted this language, at least for a decade or so of my life. The other set of responses falls into the category of “commemorating the anniversary” as a time for both repentance and thanksgiving. In the 1980s I began to consider this second response and by the 1990s I saw it for myself. What altered my perspective? In one word: mission.
But agreement on prayer, mission and common cause does not mean there are no sticking points in our present context. Let me explain.
In 1999 the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) paved the way for new insights and dialogues about one of the central disagreements of the 16th-century. This document suggests that much of the disagreement was a matter of word choice and emphasis. Lutherans stressed that faith alone saves us. Catholic insisted that we cooperate with grace by living good lives. By refining the debate around the meaning of justification language the churches drew up confessions that rigidly stood in contrast to one another. This debate has been falsely called the “faith vs. works” divide. For some it remains the greatest divide of all. I fell into the camp that this was the really important reason for division until the 1990s. But JDDJ clarifies some of the (muddled) language of the 16th-century and affirms that we are truly saved by faith alone, but this faith is not alone because good works are the result and sign of a living and real faith. This document, which is well worth reading if you’ve not seen it, was formally agreed upon by both the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church.
This year the Catholic Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America agreed on a joint way forward called: Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist. Another huge step forward has been taken. This declaration is a unique ecumenical text that draws on 50 years of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue in preparation for the 500th Reformation anniversary. As happened in the formation of the JDDJ, there is a mutual reinforcement between global and local conversations, including those held within the United States.
The heart of this Declaration is the Statement of Agreements that draws together a litany of 32 consensus statements, where Catholics and Lutherans already have said there are not church-dividing differences between them. An elaboration of these agreements grounds them in the dialogues’ work. Finally, a more tentative section identifies some “remaining differences” – not intending to be comprehensive but suggesting some ways forward.
The Declaration does not solve all our disagreements. But it demonstrates just how far Lutherans and Catholics have come together on three crucial topics: church, ministry and eucharist. It clearly indicates much ground that does not need to be retraced again. It also offers these formal Agreements to the churches to be received into their common life. In this way it helps inspire continuing work toward the visible Christian unity, which is Christ’s prayer.
The theologians who worked on these documents crafted them to “help us to respect the teachings of both Churches,” says Bishop Denis Madden. Both sides agree that we need the encounter of dialogue. When this happens, as it began to happen for me nearly thirty years ago, I began to understand that the other person, and other Christian communions, had something that was of value for me to hear and receive. Not all communions have signed this agreement. The Methodists have signed the JDDJ but the Reformed have not, at least not yet. Baptists and Pentecostals remain major groups of churches that have not responded as positively but they are not at all outside this ongoing work for unity, at least informally. The light of love which guides us toward unity is not limited to documents and formal denominational efforts, thus we should pray for more light and love to fall on all of us in the days ahead.
John Armstrong is a friend of A2J. You can read more of his work here