Must the Reformation Wars Continue? (Fifteen)

For many Protestants the doctrine of the Council of Trent that was, and still is, the central point of the Reformation, is the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

UnknownThis Trent question, it seems to me, comes down to this – did the Council of Trent reject a caricature of the Reformation view of sola fide and sola gratis or did it totally and completely reject the full blown doctrinal emphasis entirely? Or, have opponents misrepresented Rome’s position all along because they never denied the Reformation gospel in the first place?

The late Dutch Reformed theologian G. C. Berkouwer wrote in 1958:

People generally had the feeling that here was a decision of extremely far-reaching importance and that the entire controversy concentrated on this focal point. Does sola fide not imply a clearly drawn boundary which must be acknowledged by both sides? Does sola fie not function critically, just as do “only through Christ” and “only through the Holy Scriptures”? (G. C. Berkouwer, Recent Developments in Roman Catholic Thought, Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1958, 58).

It should be acknowledged that for centuries Rome understood the Reformers to teach the doctrine of salvation in a way that was one-sided and dangerous. But now we have Catholics confessing that this reaction to the Protestant Reformation was a misunderstanding. We have The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church (1999) to prove just how far we have come when we seriously work at this contentious issue together. This 1999 document makes it quite clear that the respective churches believe that this doctrine was the “crux of all disputes.” It acknowledged, further, that both sides put forward “condemnations [that] are still valid today and thus have a church-dividing effect.” But over the course of the last fifty years of the modern ecumenical movement Lutheran-Roman Catholic working groups have continued to pursue a much deeper understanding of these issues. In their own words they have reached a “high degree of agreement in their approaches and conclusions.” This is why the 1999 Declaration says that what it says is not “new” or “independent” but rather this new work will “encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnation.” (Read that sentence again. Even if you reject it at least read it very carefully!) The Joint Declaration candidly admits that “earlier controversial questions and doctrinal condemnations . . . [will not allow] the churches to take the condemnations lightly nor do they disavow their own past.”

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