Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Model for Dialogue, Ecumenical or Otherwise

Pope Francis with representatives of the Lutheran World Federation
I'm fortunate to co-teach a graduate class for Bellarmine University's M.A. in Spirituality program alongside Dr. Kathryn Johnson from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  Kathryn is a Lutheran long active in Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogue both nationally and internationally.  Last night our class discussed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church, published in 1999.

It may seem a strange choice to have students in a graduate program focused on the study of Christian spirituality read a document focused on a controversial point of doctrinal theology.  But it seems to me that this remarkable joint declaration was itself the product of deep and prayerful yearning by participants in the dialogue to understand their interlocutors more clearly and so to move towards obedience to Christ's hope "that they may all be one" (John 17:22).

With a few notable exceptions, Lutherans and Catholics spent the better part of 450 years caricaturing one another on the issue of justification by faith, with Catholics characterizing Lutheran soteriology as promoting antinomianism, and Lutherans characterizing Catholic soteriology as promoting works-righteousness.

In this joint declaration, all the layers of these caricatures are systematically dismantled. Each side articulates fully what it believes about justification in a manner that, remarkably, allows Catholics to see much of their own theology in Lutheranism and vice versa.  The result is that Lutherans and Catholics were able to make important shared statements on justification with the recognition that both Lutherans and Catholics might read those shared statements in somewhat different ways.

In other words, they achieve unity without compromising diversity (it's a very Trinitarian way of going about things!).

Let me give you an example.  A key point of disagreement between Catholicism and Lutheranism revolved around the role of works in salvation.  Catholics thought that Lutherans didn't believe in transformation of life after faith, while Lutherans thought that Catholics promoted a kind of works-righteousness whereby one could buy one's way into heaven.  In section 4.7, titled "The Good Works of the Justified," Lutherans and Catholics confess a common statement regarding good works, and then follow this statement with an explication of how each tradition interprets the statement:  
37.We confess together that good works - a Christian life lived in faith, hope and love - follow justification and are its fruits. When the justified live in Christ and act in the grace they receive, they bring forth, in biblical terms, good fruit. Since Christians struggle against sin their entire lives, this consequence of justification is also for them an obligation they must fulfill. Thus both Jesus and the apostolic Scriptures admonish Christians to bring forth the works of love.
38.According to Catholic understanding, good works, made possible by grace and the working of the Holy Spirit, contribute to growth in grace, so that the righteousness that comes from God is preserved and communion with Christ is deepened. When Catholics affirm the "meritorious" character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace.

39.The concept of a preservation of grace and a growth in grace and faith is also held by Lutherans. They do emphasize that righteousness as acceptance by God and sharing in the righteousness of Christ is always complete. At the same time, they state that there can be growth in its effects in Christian living. When they view the good works of Christians as the fruits and signs of justification and not as one's own "merits", they nevertheless also understand eternal life in accord with the New Testament as unmerited "reward" in the sense of the fulfillment of God's promise to the believer.
We needn't get into all the theological details in the statement above to recognize what takes place.  Both traditions are here given the opportunity to clarify their theologies and to correct the ways in which their positions have been caricatured, and the agreement they reach is the fruit of truly listening to the other to find places of congruence.

What the Joint Declaration provides us with is a model for how we are to engage in dialogue with our theological and political others, whether they exist within or without our particular traditions.  It's a model rooted in prayer, whereby the positions of the other are taken seriously and treated charitably, where all work towards a unity in love that does not compromise the real differences that do exist.

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