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Witte, Pieter de
Doctrine, Dynamic and Difference. To the Heart of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Differentiated Consensus on Justification.
London u. a.: T & T Clark International (Bloomsbury) 2012. XV, 251 S. = Ecclesiological Investigations, 15. Geb. US$ 120,00. ISBN 978-0-567-23665-4.
A thaw in relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the rest of Christendom began with the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65. The Council gave the green light for Roman Catholics to play a full part in the ecumenical movement. The Lutheran World Federation also immediately set up a dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. This dialogue culminated several decades later in a Joint Declaration on one of the most intractable areas of dispute between the Roman Catholic Church and the Churches of the Reformation: the doctrine of justification, the way that sinful human beings are restored to a right relationship with God. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification did not come about without a struggle. Nearly 150 German theology professors publicly opposed the document. The Vatican initially expressed reservations. Reformation controversies had set the stakes very high.
For Martin Luther justification by the free unmerited grace of God, received by faith and without regard to good works, is the very essence of the Christian gospel and the ultimate criterion of theology and practice, the decisive litmus test of a true or false church. It was to be distinguished from sanctification, the gradual and imperfect process of growth in holiness. Roman Catholics interpreted Luther’s insistence that the righteousness of Christ was imputed to the believer as implying a denial that any real inward change was involved. Protestants understood the Roman Catholic insistence on good works, flowing from the regenerate life, as smuggling salvation by human works through the back door.
The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is careful to claim only ›a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justifica-tion‹. It affirms that salvation is by grace alone, through faith in Christ’s saving work and not through any merit on our part, while the Holy Spirit renews our hearts and calls and equips us for good works. This agreement is manifestly what ecumenical theology calls a ›differentiated consensus‹ – one that is compatible with remaining areas of difference that need further study. The hesita-tions of the Vatican and the ensuing insistence of the Lutheran World Federation on further reflection before the Declaration could be signed were met by this distinction between basic consensus and the need for further work.
The Lutheran Churches and the Roman Catholic Church ana-thematized each other in the sixteenth century and these condemnations are embedded in the Lutheran confessional documents and the decrees of the Council of Trent. The immediate effect of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was that those mutual condemnations were lifted in so far as they related to the doctrine of justification. When Roman Catholics and Lutherans signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in Augsburg on Reformation Day 1999 it seemed to many observers that a major fissure in the Christian Church had been bridged.
Pieter de Witte has now produced one of the most careful and thorough analyses of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. His approach is not primarily historical but doctrinal and methodological (though he does give a short resumé towards the end of how the report came about: 157–164). At the start (2) he confesses that in the doctrine of justification we are dealing with the heart or essence of Christianity. He rightly recognises (5) that there can be no merely literal comparisons between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran ways of expressing the doctrine of justification: there are different and possibly incommensurable conceptual hinterlands. This aspect was not acknowledged in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, but was explored by Daphne Hampson in Christian Contradictions: The Structures of Lutheran and Catholic Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2004). Hampson found the claims of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification unconvincing.
A major crux of de W.’s account is the relation between »fundamental consensus« (Grundkonsens) and »fundamental difference« (Grunddifferenz) (6). The notion of »fundamental difference« has been played up by André Birmelé and Harding Meyer and figures prominently in de W.’s argument, but it is not fully unpacked in this book and remains a rather nebulous idea on which much is supposed to hang.
De W. makes critical use of the pioneering work of the Roman Catholic scholar Otto Hermann Pesch (36–60) and the Finnish School of Luther reinterpretation (60–95) to exegete the areas of convergence between the two traditions. He also analyses the national German and American Lutheran – Roman Catholic dialogues for their contribution. In the latter part of the book various specific aspects of the doctrine and the dialogue process are examined. What emerges is that we are dealing with mutual suspicion: Roman Catholic suspicion of Lutheran ›subjectivism‹ over against the objectivity of divine grace, and Lutheran suspicion that traditional Roman Catholic teaching has subordinated the individual con-science before God (coram deo, as Luther typically puts it) to the Church’s magisterium (210).
De W. believes that the resulting consensus is actually closer to the Roman Catholic position than to the Lutheran, though he suggests that it is significant that, in the process, the Roman Catholic Church has moved to a fuller acceptance of sin remaining in the Christian. Towards the end he briefly raises the question, vis-à-vis the Lutherans, of trust in the historic institution of the Church, specifically with regard to the continuity of episcopal ministry (apos-tolic succession: 239) – as if to explain why, from a Roman Catholic point of view, agreement on justification is not enough for the full reconciliation and sacramental communion of the churches.
This detailed, critical treatment of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification raises several tantalizing issues that it does not pursue. But it stands as a major academic treatment, clearly written, of an historic agreement and an essential resource for anyone making a scholarly study and evaluation of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.