“Justification and Freedom” – 5: The Ecumenical Problem with the Text

on August 1st, 2014 by admin | No Comments »

Why did the 2017 “foundation text” of the Evangelical Church in Germany [EKD} call forth such strong reactions from Catholic bishops and theologians? The initial news report noted Cardinal Walter Kasper’s disappointment that no mention is made in the of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. That complaint sounds a bit like a nitpick (and in fact the text does seem to include an implicit reference to the JDDJ when it states that Protestants and Catholics “can indeed together formulate the doctrine of justification” [p. 39]).

The ecumenical problem with the EKD text is more fundamental; it lies in the intentions embodied in the text and shows the way in which church division is self-perpetuating.

German Protestantism has been concerned lately about its identity. Is there a clear sense of what it means to be evangelisch?. Note, not a clear sense of what it means to be Christian or to follow Jesus, but a clear sense of evangelisch, Protestant. In the face of that worry, one seeks out what makes a Protestant to be Protestant, i.e., what is distinctively Protestant, what sets a Protestant apart from another Christian (and in Germany, that means a Catholic). For the EKD text, the Protestant distinctive is a specific doctrine of justification. Here is what the Reformation has to offer the modern person; here is what justifies a distinctive Protestant existence in the modern world.

For this project, ecumenism is at best irrelevant. Of course, positive things need to said about ecumenism and one can trust that they are said sincerely. But such words remain marginal to what the text is trying to achieve: Protestant self-definition in an attractively modern garb. (And, there has been much talk in the EKD of late of a “profile ecumenism,” an ecumenical attitude which would stress a distinctive Protestant profile, rather than emphasize commonalities.) The decision to focus on the five “alone”s feeds this tendency. As the text notes, to say “this alone” is to say “not that.” And so, as the “alone”s are explicated, medieval Catholicism becomes the contrast case.

I will say some more next week about some of the more specific problems in the text. What I want to stress today is that the basic problem is not one of performance or lack of good will. The problem is with what the text is trying to do.

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