One evangelical respondent to the blog that sparked my initial interest in preparing this series of posts put the common view of so many quite well: “What is needed from the Catholic Church is repentance so shouldn’t the Church formally renounce what it said at Trent?”
Isn’t this really the bottom line? Shouldn’t the Catholic Church “repent” or we cannot trust a single thing that they now say about justification and the gospel?
The answer of many anti-Catholic apologists to this question is very simple. They say something like this: “The Catholic Church cannot change by its own confession about itself never changing so whatever they now say has no bearing on the fundamental issue of justification unless they recant, repent and remove the teaching of the Council of Trent on this central issue.”
My first response to this is to ask you another question: “What church removes the past and unconfesses what it once strongly confessed?” And, “What would the Catholic Church do, given how it develops dogma and reflects upon its own teaching by new dogmatic ways of expression, to make you actually believe that it really does teach salvation by grace through faith?”
A theologian once used an illustration with me that compared this matter to “blue laws” in America’s legal history. They are still on the books but the present circumstances and legal opinions clearly override them in a way that reconsiders these laws and, in some cases, makes them of less importance to the present situation in history. This illustration may help but it doesn’t quite go far enough. The Joint Declaration says what happened far better than this approach can put it.
So what does The Joint Declaration actually say?
This declaration is shaped by the conviction that in their respective histories our churches have come to new insights. [Remember, this is an official church agreement between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation.] Developments have taken place which not only make possible, but also require the churches to examine the divisive questions and condemnations and see them in a new light.
That is clear and staggering if you take it seriously. Only a person on the outside, willingly hoping that this was not what they said or meant, could miss this. Here is section 2 of the same document:
By appropriating insights of recent biblical studies and drawing on modern investigations of the history of theology and dogma, the post-Vatican II ecumenical dialogue has led to a notable convergence concerning justification, with the result that this Joint Declaration is able to formulate a consensus on basic truths concerning the doctrine of justification. In light of this consensus, the corresponding doctrinal condemnations of the sixteenth century do not apply to today’s partner.
In section 27 we read this from the Catholic contributors:
The Catholic understanding also sees faith as fundamental in justification. For without faith, no justification can take place. Persons are justified through baptism as hearers of the word and believers in it. The justification of sinners is forgiveness of sins and being made righteous by justifying grace, which makes us children of God. In justification the righteous receive from Christ faith, hope, and love and are thereby taken into communion with him. This new personal relation to God is grounded totally on God’s graciousness and remains constantly dependent on the salvific and creative working of this gracious God, who remains true to himself, so that one can rely upon him. Thus justifying grace never becomes a human possession to which one could appeal over against God. While Catholic teaching emphasizes the renewal of life by justifying grace, this renewal in faith, hope, and love is always dependent on God’s unfathomable grace and contributes nothing to justification about which one could boast before God (Rom 3:27). [See Sources for section 4.3].