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

on August 1st, 2014 by admin

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.

“Justification and Freedom” – Summary of contents – 4

on July 31st, 2014 by admin

The heart of the document is Chapter 2, Central Themes of Reformation Theology [Kernpunkte reformatorischer Theologie]. An opening section summarizes the thesis: “The Reformation doctrine of justification breaks through the logic that to be justified one must be in the right.” Rather, “God wishes to have fellowship with each person, regardless of how each has behaved with G, with other persons, or with themselves” (p. 45). This thesis is then elaborated by means of five “alones”: Christ alone, grace alone, Word alone, Scripture alone, faith alone. Each section follows a similar pattern. First, the “basic theological idea” [theologischer Grundgedanke] is expounded. Then, “present challenges” to the basic idea are noted. In each case, both “challenges within the church” and “social challenges” are discussed.

Four comments on this chapter:
– The emphasis falls on justification as God’s nearness [Nähe], despite our unworthiness of such nearness (p. 49). Jesus makes that nearness concrete and in his cross and resurrection, shows that God is near even sin and death and takes away that which in sin and death would separate us from God (p. 50).
– The emphasis is on justification. While it is said that justification is not just one theme among many, but “the basis for a consoled, healed, borne life” (p. 46) not much is said about that life, beyond the statement that good work will follow “quasi automatically” (p. 89).
– In light of the title of the total text, not much is really said here about freedom.
– As the text notes, to say “alone” is to exclude. To say “this alone” is to say “not that” (p. 47). In the discussion of most of the “alones,” the contrast with what is excluded is explicitly drawn.

Chapter 3, “How can [the Reformation] be celebrated [gefeiert]?” focuses on the relation between a strictly ecclesial celebration and one oriented to the concerns of the wider culture. The hope expressed is for a celebration that would make the connection between the Reformation and “present experiences and expectations” visible. (p. 97).  Anniversary celebrations of this sort offer “concentrated narratives” that help to shape cultural understanding (p. 99). The connection between the Reformation and “modern history of freedom” is offered as an example of this relation (pp. 98-104), with a focus on the cultural impact of Luther’s appeal to conscience before the Reichstag in Worms (the “here I stand” speech).

A brief conclusion, Chapter 4, expresses the desire for the widest possible ecumenical and social celebration of the Reformation.

An ecumenical analysis of the text will come tomorrow.

“Justification and Freedom”: Summary of Contents – 3

on July 30th, 2014 by admin

Let me give a detailed description of the text’s contents (see information here), since it is not available in English. All translations are my own

Here is a slightly simplified table of contents:
1. Introduction: Reformation Then and Now

2. Central Themes [Kernpunkte] of Reformation Theology
2.1. On the Concept of Justification – Key to the Reformation
2.2 Solus Christus – Christ alone
2.3. Sola gratia – from grace alone
2.4. Solo verbo – in Word alone
2.5. Sola scriptura – on the basis of Scripture alone
2.6. Sola fide – through faith alone

3. How can [the Reformation] be celebrated? [Wie kann gefeiert werden?]

4. Conclusion

Chapter 1, the Introduction, The Reformation Then and Now, lays out the intentions of the text. Most centrally, it wishes to interpret, with an eye to the questions of the present, the central concerns of the Reformation about how God relates to humanity (pp. 12f). “The doctrine of justification will here be elaborated as the heart of evangelical theology and piety and thus serve as an answer to the questions of present men and women” (p. 14).
In the chapter’s first subsection, the question is asked: how can the Reformation understanding of justification be made alive to the present? It lays out four concepts that can serve as an approach [Annäherung] to justification: 1) love, 2) recognition and appreciation; 3) forgiveness, and 4) freedom (pp. 29-33). All four of these concepts share this: “Persons are not measured by that which they outwardly represent or by their personal standing, but they are loved, acknowledged, valued by God, totally independently of their education, income, social background, or social standing” (p. 33).
The chapter’s second subdivision addresses the Reformation as a “learning history” [Lerngeschichte]. The Reformation is not a closed event, but an open-ended renewal, within which old teaching yields new insights (pp. 34f). A prime example is the process of the discovery of individual freedom, which contributed to the modern ‘history of freedom’ (p. 37). Four examples of this ‘learning history’ are given (pp. 38-43):
– The Reformation churches have learned to overcome the challenge of confessional division, most notably in the reconciliation of the Lutheran and Reformed strands of the Reformation;
– The Reformation churches must further learn how to address the challenges of secularization and atheism;
– The Reformation churches must further learn how to value the equality of the sexes and “dismantle gender hierarchies”;
– The Reformation churches must now learn to take up the task of interreligious dialogue.

Summery of further contents tomorrow.

“Justification and Freedom” – 2

on July 26th, 2014 by admin

Some perhaps tedious background is useful in understanding what is going on with the text Justification and Freedom from the Evangelical Church in Germany which has created some stir.
The text comes from the Evangelical Church in Germany, the organization of the various regional Protestant churches in Germany. Article 1 of the EKD Constitution [Grundordnung] states: “The Evangelical Church in Germany is the community [or communion or fellowship; the German Gemeinschaft can mean all three] of its Lutheran, Reformed, and United member churches.” Well, is the EKD a church or isn’t it? Hard to say, but note that the EKD member churches have distinct confessional identities (and are organized in confessional subgroups, creating a baffling maze of organizations). Decisions on doctrinal matters lie with the member churches, not the EKD; member churches set ordination standards. The member churches, and not the EKD itself, belong to organizations like the Lutheran World Federation or the World Council of Churches. Nevertheless, surveys have shown that outside ecclesiastical circles, most Germans think of the EKD as the Protestant Church of Germany and it is the EKD that has taken the lead in the national commemoration of the anniversary of the Reformation for 2017.
Relations between the EKD and the Catholic Church (which between them include the vast majority of Christians in Germany) have recently been bumpy. In the 1980s, the EKD and the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference undertook a major ecumenical dialogue aimed at lifting 16th-century condemnations related to justification, ministry, and sacraments. The results were impressive. But when it came time for action, the Vatican, which for understandable reasons prefers to deal with world-level organizations rather than an endless series of national churches, turned to the Lutheran World Federation in a process that led to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The problem was that the United and Reformed EKD regional churches (a slight majority in terms of membership) were thus excluded from the process, which did not make them happy. They contended that the Vatican had pulled an ecumenical bait-and-switch. This unhappiness was one element in the rocky road the JDDJ had to German acceptance.
More recently, the EKD has taken positions on questions of sexual ethics that have increased its distance from the Catholic Church. Last year, an EKD position paper on families urged the full acceptance of a wide range of family structures, including same-sex couples (see my comments here,unfortunately behind a pay wall). Predictably, this did not make the Catholic Church happy.
So, the 2017 process begins with some smoke in the air.


“Justification and Freedom” – 1

on July 25th, 2014 by admin

Over the next few days I will be making a series of posts in relation to the brouhaha in Germany over the “foundation text” [Grundlagentext] produced by the Evangelical Church in Germany for the 2017 Reformation anniversary, entitled Justification and Freedom [Rechfertigung und Freiheit]. As noted below, the text has drawn a strong and negative reaction from some historians and from Catholic bishops and ecumenists in Germany. In the series of posts, I will address why one should care about this particular argument, give some background, describe the text’s contents (which, as far as I know, are only available in German), and note some indications it gives of why the 2017 anniversary might be an ecumenically difficult moment.

But first, why should the wider ecumenical world care? 2017 represents an important ecumenical possibility and more effort and money is being poured into this anniversary in Germany than anywhere else. That’s not surprising, since the event being commemorated, Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses, occurred in Germany. The commemoration involves more than just the churches; the ‘Luther Decade’ is also tourism-building event and has received state funding.

Academic theology has also been able to maintain itself as a true discipline, with agreed scholarly and intellectual standards, far better in Germany than in America or Britain. That holds for both the Protestant and the Catholic sides. We should be able to expect high quality work to come out of the anniversary preparations and events. Unfortunately, it is also true that over the last quarter century German-language theology, both Protestant and Catholic, has not produced thinkers comparable to Ratzinger, Pannenberg, Balthasar, or Jüngel and has become more parochial.

There are also a more negative reason to care. My experience has been that the Vatican tends to accord great importance to the Germans in Catholic-Lutheran relations, more probably than their objective weight within world Lutheranism merits. Problems in the 2017 commemoration in Germany might have a negative impact on the Vatican’s attitude to the entire event, or they might make the Vatican pay more attention to world Lutheranism, a positive result.

The events in Germany are worth attending to, and so the series of posts that will be forthcoming.

Third Schism

on July 21st, 2014 by admin

Ecumenism has to be about more than healing the divisions of the past.  This comment from Peter Leithart is part of a wider discussion of the “third schism” of our time.

Archbishop of Canterbury on ecumenical implications of Church of England opening episcopate to women

on July 21st, 2014 by admin

Here is the letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to the leaders of other churches on the ecumenical implications of the decision last week of the Church of England to ordain both men and women as bishops.

UPDATE: Here is a news report, including ecumenical reaction.  Nothing surprising; all pretty much as one would expect.

A brief guide to Ephraim Radner’s A Brutal Unity

on July 19th, 2014 by admin

Some of the most important reflection on the unity of the Church has recently come from Ephraim Radner, an American Anglican teaching at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.  His latest book, A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church will be featured in a book symposium in an upcoming issue of Pro Ecclesia (subscribe here!).  Radner could never be accused of simply repeating what others say.  Nor could he be accused of being a light read.  Here is some help: a brief guide in The Living Church, an excellent Episcopal Church magazine.

Further deterioration in Germany over 2017

on July 18th, 2014 by admin

2017 is proving a problem in Germany.  You can see matters deteriorating here.  My sense from a quick glance at the Evangelical Church in Germany’s “Reformation” document is that it pursues a line that has been typical of material from the EKD and its leaders in recent years: the Reformation laid the foundation for the modern understanding of freedom and the modern liberal (in the Lockean sense) social order.  This is not a new line and has generally intended an unflattering contrast with Catholicism just below the surface.  If the Protestants constitute the “Church of Freedom,” you can easily guess who is supposed to be the “Church of Unfreedom.”  There is also a Catholic mirror image of this argument, as can be seen in books such as Brad Gregory’s “The Unintended Reformation” which  blame the Reformation as an at least partial cause of the ills of modernity (secularism, relativism, individualism, etc.).  Both versions of this argument tie the Reformation to modernity and then either blame or praise it for this tie.

There is a real issue here, one deserving careful discussion, but the Germans are not showing us how to have such a discussion.

A side note: in the argument over the EKD “Reformation” document not mentioning the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, it should remembered that the JDDJ was an agreement between the Catholic Church and the churches of the Lutheran World Federation.  The EKD is made up of regional churches (“Landeskirchen”), about half of which belong to the LWF and half don’t.  The EKD thus played no role in the JDDJ, which was part of the problem the JDDJ had in Germany.  The structure of German Protestantism derives from a set of historical compromises and presents a set of both theoretical and practical problems for others (Is the EKD itself a church?  Good question).

New Anglican-Catholic ecumenical statement on ethics

on July 15th, 2014 by admin

One of the most difficult of recent ecumenical issues has been the increasing disagreement between some churches on ethics.  The US Anglican-Catholic dialogue recently completed a statement on this topic, which can be read here.

Press summary of Junge/Koch exchange on recognition as Church

on July 11th, 2014 by admin

Here is a press summary of the exchange between the Lutheran World Federation General Secretary Martin Junge and the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity Kurt Koch on mutual recognition as Churches.

Joseph Small on “Presbyterians’ Procedural Problems” and “The Ecclesiology of Desire”

on July 10th, 2014 by admin

An excellent comment on the First Things website by Center board member Joseph Small here on “Presbyterians’ Procedural Problems.”  At the Center’s 2013 Pro Ecclesia conference, he gave an excellent banquet address on the larger ecclesiological problems that lie behind the phenomenon he describes in the First Thngs post.  I thought we would make that address available.  It is on “The Ecclesiology of Desire”.   Just click on the title.

New German project – Gemeinsam Unterwegs/On the Way Together

on July 9th, 2014 by admin

The Germans are clearly out ahead of everyone on thinking about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.  The German National Committee of the Lutheran World Federation and the Möhler Institute (the ecumenical institute of the German Bishops Conference) has an internet project “2017 gemeinsam unterwegs” (2017 together on the way) which can be found here.  Most interestingly, it includes responses each week to a new question e.,g., how much difference can the Church bear?  The question is answered by a Catholic and by a Lutheran.  The responses are not always from professors or clergy, but from business, political, and media leaders.  This weeks question is: When will the Catholic Church recognize the Evangelical Church as Church, with responses from Martin Junge, the General Secretary of the LWF, and Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (the Vatican’s ecumenical office.

Unfortunately, the site is only in German.  I will try to post summaries here.

New Essay on our Featured Article Page

on July 1st, 2014 by admin

Make sure you go over to our Featured Article pages to read our newly posted piece from the Spring 2014 issue of Pro Ecclesia – “The Apocalyptic Body of Christ? Reflections on Yoder and Apocalyptic Theology By Way of David Foster Wallace,” by Chris K. Huebner of Canadian Mennonite University.

Sensus fidei [Sense of the Faith] in the Life of the Church

on June 24th, 2014 by admin

The sensus fidei, the ‘sense of the faith’ which all the faithful participate in through their baptism, is an ecumenically important theme.  Affirmed by all traditions and with a clear biblical basis (e.g., 1 John 2:27), it is also at the heart of Reformation arguments about the capacity of the church as a whole to judge doctrinal teaching.  The Catholic Church’s International Theological Commission, an advisory body appointed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has just released a new statement on sensus fidei, which can be found here.  It should be of ecumenical interest.

German Statement on Reformation and Justification

on June 23rd, 2014 by admin

The German text Cardinal Kasper refers to in the post below is here.  I haven’t read it yet, but, assuming the Cardinal Kasper is correct, I would say it is a bad ecumenical sign if such an extensive text (over 100 pages) makes no reference to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,  To a degree, such an omission reflects the fact that the United churches that make up a large minority of the Evangelical Church in Germany were not a part of the JDDJ process.  It also reflects, I would guess, the way the doctrine of justification is understood in contemporary German Protestant theology.  More on that later.

A German Resource on 1517-2017

on June 22nd, 2014 by admin

At some point late in the summer, we will set up a blog dedicated to next summer’s conference theme: “Remembering the Reformation Together: Commemorate? Celebrate? Repent?”.  In the meantime, I will be posting here links to various ecumenically relevant resources related to 2017 and the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.  An excellent collection of essays, mostly by Germans, but in English, is here.  One can see here that in Germany the commemoration of 1517 is not simply a church event, but a much more broadly cultural, and even tourist, event.  I haven’t read them yet, but I would think the essays by Theo Dieter and Volker Leppin would be particularly worth reading.

Another bump in German Reformation commemoration

on June 20th, 2014 by admin

The German commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation has had its ecumenical hiccups (more about that later).  Another has occurred (read about it here).

Follow-up from Life Amid the Principalities conference

on June 16th, 2014 by admin

Some updates from the conference:
1. Here is the link to the Catholic-Lutheran text James Buckley discussed in his banquet address: From Conflict to Communion. It was written by the international Catholic-Lutheran dialogue as preparation for the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. It summarizes a common Catholic-Lutheran interpretation of the Reformation and outlines the present state of dialogue.  There will probably be a forum on this text in Pro Ecclesia and perhaps some further comments here.
2. If you want to follow up the debate among New Testament scholars over whether Paul has the Roman Empire in mind when he mentions principalities and powers, you might do what Quinn Fox recommended and put the words barclay, wright, and empire into a search engine and a lot will pop up. You might start with John Barclay’s original critique of N. T. Wright here.

Michael Root


on March 20th, 2012 by admin

Welcome to the blog of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology! We are exploring just what we want to do with this blog. I hope it will be a place to note important theological and ecclesial events, to comment on the passing scene, and to advocate the theological vision that inspires the Center. We will be noting contributors as plans develop. You can expect to see some of the regular participants in CCET events and publications. Check back and see how this develops.

Michael Root