“Justification and Freedom” – 6: Some final comments

on August 4th, 2014 by admin | No Comments »

In the previous post, I noted that the deep ecumenical problem with Justification and Freedom is not some specific assertion it makes, but the goal it is seeking to achieve: a sharpening of a distinct Protestant identity in a situation of Christian division. In such a situation, such a sharpened identity is almost always contrastive: we are this because we are not that. In Germany, where the EKD and the Catholic Church take in almost all Christians, it is all too easy for the identity of each to become defined by not being the other.

This tendency is strengthened in Justification and Freedom by its emphasis on “this [faith, grace, etc.] alone,” implying “not that.” The “not that” is too often a caricature. It is not understood for its own sake, but as a contrast case to set up the alternative. “Christ alone” means saints are not to be honored in place of Christ [p. 55]. True enough. And what Catholic or Orthodox ever said that saints were to be honored in place of Christ? To create a contrast, a false alternative must be created. (There is a difference on the invocation of the saints, but it is inevitably more subtle).

One particular theme in the text is ecumenically troubling. On ordained ministry, the text takes up a “transference theory” [Übertragungslehre]: every Christian can do what clergy do, but for good order the tasks of preaching and administering the sacraments are transferred [übertragen] to certain persons, who can devote full time to the task. Rather than an “estate [Stand] of consecrated priests constituted by a distinct sacrament, . . . the right [Recht] of publicly preaching the Word and administering the sacraments can be transferred to certain persons according to a regulated ordered process under the prayer of the congregation. Thus evangelical pastors are not consecrated [geweiht], but ordained [ordiniert]” (p. 90).

Again, there is an issue here, but such a stark contrast does not get at the truth, as ecumenical dialogues have shown (see the international Catholic-Lutheran statement The Ministry in the Church, esp. paragraphs 20, 23, 33-35, here). If the difference is so fundamental, than is any possible recognition of Protestant orders by the Catholic Church undercut: after all, here the EKD seems to be saying that what they are doing in ordination is not what Catholics are doing.

Catholic bishops and theologians have reacted to the text quite negatively. Wolfgang Thönissen, director of the ecumenical institute at Paderborn related to the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference, has said Catholics should not accept invitations to “celebrations” of the Reformation, but should weigh invitations to ecumenical “memorial events” [Gedenkveranstaltungen]. The text has been vigorously defended as ecumenical by one of its more prominent authors, Prof. Volker Leppin of Tübingen.

Time will tell whether this text is a momentary bump or a significant obstacle. I worry that, at the very least, it shows deeply ingrained problems.

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