In my opinion what the Council of Trent anathematized was (ultimately) a caricature of the robust and clear evangelical view of justification. Who is to blame for this problem? Honestly, both sides bear fault in my estimation. The Reformers were careful thinkers about these matters. They did not speak with a divided mind, though Luther at times spoke both aggressively and in ways that remain, to me at least, a bit confusing. (His strong law-gospel contrast underscores what I mean by this statement, to give but one example.) But many followers of the Protestant Reformers misrepresented their views in ways that radically separated faith from works. This plainly helped to provoke the growing tensions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A better understanding on both sides would have helped then and can surely help us now. Most evangelicals are not (generally speaking) separating sanctification from justification. With the exception of those who advocate radical “non-Lordship” theologies I think few genuinely advocate antinomianism. A strong view of union with Christ, as taught by John Calvin, would go a long way in helping us here. And Catholic theology is not advocating salvation by grace plus works, which any careful reader of Trent and Vatican II can clearly see. Many badly taught Catholics do seem to think that their good works will ultimately determine their final salvation! The common mistake occurs when these Catholics come to a deep and life-transforming conversion through faith in Christ and then turn on their former church insisting that it denies the gospel. The truth is that my most fierce critics are usually not Catholics but former-Catholics who adopt this stance. It saddens me to see these “converts” shred their families socially and then attribute this to the offense of their now believing the pure gospel.
I believe the starting point for a new kind of ecumenism can be theologically found in The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.
Fr. Fred Bliss, whom I quoted in an earlier post in this series, spent several hours with a small group I was a part of (see photo above) in March of 2011 in Rome. Fr. Bliss has inspired faith and hope in me through his gracious display of Christian love and ecumenism. In his excellent book, Catholic and Ecumenical: History and Hope, Bliss rightly summarizes the present state of relationships between most Lutheran leaders/churches and the Catholic Church by saying: “
As we talk together and mutually revisit history, we are finding that much of the past is a matter of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. . . . we have to admit that definite deviations did occur. Given our mutual commitment to the cause of visible Christian unity, the task that lies ahead is to find the ways and means to overcome the misunderstandings, the misinterpretations and the deviations (italics all my own, 115).
Bliss shares the same perspective that I have embraced for several decades now and puts it his way: “This is where ‘dialogue,’ not polemic, will help us on the journey. Such is the grace of our age” (115). Amen and amen!!!
This new dialogue seriously began at Vatican II. To the amazement of many, especially to the cardinals and bishops of the Catholic Church, over seventy-five honored Protestant theologians were seated in the best seats at Vatican II. The seats they were given were so good it prompted many responses, pro and con. Why were they received in this manner even though they did not speak or vote in the assembly? Saint John XXIII desired to “love and listen” and thus he deeply embraced this new way in order to reach out to the wider church with love and respect. He deeply desired that this council would finally address the schisms of the past with actions that would bring about reflection and, over time, real change. There were two immediate results of the Council’s passage of Unitatis Reditegratio (The Decree on Unity). First, a bilateral dialogue with the Lutheran World Federation began. Second, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity was established. It is the latter that invited me, with my several friends in the photograph above, for a visit in 2011. It is the former that worked tirelessly with the Catholic Church to get The Joint Agreement completed in 1999. (They also worked with the Catholic Church to adopt a new agreement called: From Conflict to Communion, 2013. I will say more about this document in a few weeks. It was written to prepare the global church for the remembrance of the Reformation in 2017.)
These are all historic turning points. The fruit of them is being realized in ways that polemicists on both sides seem to know far too little about. Besides these two great gains both national and regional dialogues began around the world. In the United States these dialogues found a home in the National Workshop on Christian Unity, where I had the joy of addressing the gathered leaders in April of this year (Albuquerque, New Mexico). They have also led to groups such as LARCUM, an interdenominational expression of unity in Virginia. LARCUM includes a working relationship between the Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Episcopal dioceses of the state. All nine bishops of these four respective churches have entered into an agreement to work together in every way possible. I have been invited to speak to LARCUM this coming December at their annual gathering. I will tell you more about this ecumenical group as that time draws nearer.