Is the Reformation over?

(RNS) — Family spats are unpleasant, especially when they persist for five centuries. At some point, most families wonder if reconciliation is possible. Among Christians, now is such a moment.

On this 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, Catholics and Protestants are pausing to consider the nature of their relationship. Thanks to the labors of ecumenicists, some now see the Reformation as completed.

Here is how Peter Kreeft puts it in his book Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other?: “The single greatest obstacle to reunion, by far the most important religious difference between Protestants and Catholics, has essentially been overcome. Goliath is slain; it remains only to slay the other smaller Philistines. There are many of them, but none are as big as Goliath.”

The Goliath-slaying document to which Kreeft refers is the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed on October 31, 1999. Since then, it has been a crucial touchstone for Catholic-Protestant discussion, particularly on that central theological division of the Reformation: justification, the idea that God accepts a sinner as just, based on Christ's righteousness. But is the JDDJ really a miracle?

When Goliath was slain

Through centuries of debating justification, Catholics and Protestants have enjoyed some agreement. The most significant moment came in 1541 in Regensburg, Germany, where a religious gathering brought together three Catholic and three Protestant theologians. Such luminaries as Martin Bucer, Philipp Melanchthon, and Johann Eck were present. Under the oversight of the papal legate, Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, they endeavored to compose statements of common agreement on a range of doctrinal subjects.

The groups agreed on the first four articles. They then addressed the controversial topic of justification. Unhappy with the long-winded and ambiguous document before them, an open discussion ensued.

After days of debate, a statement was produced to which both sides gave their approval.

Goliath was slain

An inside look at the Protestant’s reaction to the statement (called Article Five) can be seen in a personal letter John Calvin penned to his friend William Farel (as quoted in Peter Matheson’s "Cardinal Contarini at Regensburg"): “You will marvel when you read the copy of the article on justification … that our adversaries have conceded so much. For they have committed themselves to the essentials of what is our true teaching. Nothing is to be found in it which does not stand out in our writings.”

With agreement on justification, discussion proceeded to the thorny matter of the Roman Catholic Church’s authority. However, it quickly became obvious they were confronting a far bigger Goliath than justification. In due time, the giant difference over authority would destroy any prospect of reconciliation. And yet, on justification the theologians agreed. So how did they do it?

The genius of Regensburg was the way it reconciled Catholic and Protestant thought. It captured the Catholic emphasis upon internal renewal that gives way to virtuous works, and it upheld the Protestant notion of imputation, that is, the benefits of Jesus’ completed work on the cross attributed to sinners as the basis of their acceptance before God. In this view, justification is a double gift — internal and external righteousness — grounded particularly in the latter.

A stubborn giant

After Regensburg, Rome initiated the Council of Trent (1545-1563). And though some Catholic bishops went to Trent advocating for Regensburg’s formulation of justification, their position was rebuffed.

Eventually, Rome would assert a much different position. As the Decree on Justification (1547) states: “Finally, the sole formal cause is the righteousness of God … by which we are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and are not merely considered to be righteous but are truly named and are righteous.”

Simply put, the basis of divine acceptance according to official Roman Catholic teaching is not imputation but rather inherent righteousness.

Justification today

It is true that, confronted by the Goliath-like challenge of justification, the JDDJ took a page from the history of Regensburg and employed the concept of double gift. Here is its most significant statement: “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.” (paragraph 15)

Yet, while this paragraph and the balance of the JDDJ echo the spirit of Regensburg’s Article Five, there is a crucial difference. Nowhere does it affirm the idea or use the term “imputation” to identify the basis of divine acceptance.

Moreover, the statement about “merit” is misleading in that it only applies to initial justification and not one’s final acceptance by God, as Regensburg envisioned. Instead, the JDDJ puts acceptance and renewal in an undefined relationship. Far from resolving the dispute over justification, the JDDJ simply reiterates the teaching of Trent, albeit in a more Protestant friendly tone.

Are we there yet?

Nearly six months ago, I had the privilege of participating in a Catholic-evangelical dialogue, sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Our subject was the doctrine of justification, including the question of why one is accepted by God in the final judgment.

I realized this was a fantastic opportunity to get clarification on the above question. Is it possible for contemporary Catholics to read the JDDJ in some degree of continuity with Regensburg? More specifically, does justification rule out merit in the final analysis, or does the JDDJ simply reiterate Trent?

I waited a couple of days until I had enough rapport with my interlocutors, and then I asked the question.

I began by citing the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, who stressed that contemporary Catholic theology recognizes the ground of salvation to consist in the (particularly Protestant) notion of divine grace that comes from a personal participation in Christ’s righteousness. Dulles explains that while Catholics do not employ the Protestant terminology of “imputation,” they are nevertheless keen to underscore the fact that one’s righteousness is derived from identification with Christ. In Dulles’ words from his chapter, “Justification in Contemporary Theology,” “In that sense the Reformation categories of (‘alien righteousness’) and ‘imputed righteousness’ convey an important truth that Catholics do not wish to ignore.”

The reply from my Catholic friends was swift and clear: Trent is unequivocal. The sole reason for our justification is the charity of God by which we are inherently made righteous. It is certainly not the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The wonder of justification is that God pours his Spirit into our hearts so that we can merit all the graces needed to attain eternal life.

I appreciated the candor of my Roman Catholic conversation partners. They respected me enough to withhold ecumenical fudge. And they helped to clarify that even if Regensburg leveled Goliath, Trent revived him.

As to the JDDJ, I am afraid that it failed to land a rock on him. So long as Trent stands in the way, Goliath lives.

For more insight on the key issues that have divided Catholics and Protestants over the centuries, read Luther vs. Pope Leo: A Conversation in Purgatory by Paul R. Hinlicky.

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