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Catholic - Lutheran - Methodist
Joint Declaration on Justification

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Irreconcilable Differences?:

Lutherans, Methodist, Roman Catholics, and most other Christians, agree that:

bulletIndividuals are initially hopelessly lost in sin and separated from God.
bulletSeparation between God and man is overcome through Justification -- "the free and unmerited assistance or favor or energy or saving presence of God in his dealings with humanity..."). 4
bulletJustification is brought about through God's grace.
bulletJustification is in no way earned by the individual.

The beliefs of the Roman Catholic church and of historic Protestantism agree that when a person is "justified,"  "they are brought into right standing and into a right relationship with" God. 3 Lutherans "refer to justification as 'the chief doctrine upon which the church stands or falls'." 3 Martin Luther considered justification to be the "first and chief article" of belief, 7 and the the "ruler and judge over all other Christian doctrines." 8

But beliefs about the precise mechanism of justification is perhaps the most difficult to attempt to harmonize between Protestants and Roman Catholics. It was one of the most important theological disputes of the Reformation. It is also difficult to harmonize the beliefs of various Protestant denominations as they have evolved. All Christian faith groups use the same terms (baptism, grace,  justification, sacrament, salvation, sanctification, etc.) but they often assign different meanings to the words. However, with a great deal of effort, and some creative editing, it is possible for two faith groups create a single document that they can both agree on. However, the words themselves will often mean quite different things to followers of the two groups. This appears to have happened in the case of a joint effort by Lutherans and Roman Catholics, later joined by the Methodists

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Impact of the Joint Declaration

Disagreements over the nature of Justification were "in the 16th century, a principal cause of the division of the Western Church" 1 into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. At the time of the Reformation, both Protestants and Catholics condemned each other in the most vicious terms over their disagreements in the doctrines of justification. These conflicts were published in a number of Lutheran Confessions and other documents during the 16th century. They also appeared in the statements issued by the Roman Catholic Council of Trent. These remained valid church teachings up to the time of the Joint Declaration.

The Joint Declaration was able to resolve some differences. They agreed that the remaining differences were not sufficiently substantial for the 16th century condemnations to continue in force.

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The Joint Declaration:

Largely as a result of the changes brought about by Vatican II, ecumenical dialog has permeated much of Christendom in recent decades. This includes various Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialog groups which have tackled the justification question since the early 1970's. The 1998 Joint Declaration was largely based on the efforts of those groups.

Partial agreement was jointly reached between the Lutheran World Federation (ILWF) and the Roman Catholic Church. The Joint Declaration had been circulated among the 124 Lutheran denominations who formed the Federation; a significant majority approved the document. In 1998-JUN, the Lutheran World federation Council unanimously approved the Joint Declaration.

Also in 1998-JUN,  Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, responded on behalf of the Vatican. He said: "I wish to stress that the consensus reached on the doctrine of justification, despite its limitations, virtually resolves a long disputed question at the close of the 20th century, on the eve of the new millennium."

In 2006-JUL, at its general assembly in Seoul, South Korea, the World Methodist Council added its approval. The assembly consists of representatives of 76 different Methodist communities worldwide, and is held every 5 years. 13

Some of the important points mentioned in the Joint Declaration are: 1

bullet"From the Reformation perspective, justification was the crux of all the disputes" between Protestants and Catholics.
bulletThey are "now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ. It does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification..."
bullet"Diverse treatments" of righteousness, justification, and salvation are described in many Biblical passages, including:
bulletMatthew 5:10; 6:33; 21:32
bulletJohn 16:8-11
bulletHebrews 5:1-3; 10:37-38
bulletJames 2:14-26
bulletGalatians 5:1-13
bulletRomans 3:21-31; 5:11; 6:7; 6:11; 6:23
bullet1 Corinthians 1:2; 1:31
bullet2 Corinthians 1.1; 5:17; 5:18-21
bulletLutherans and Catholics attribute different shades of meaning and roles to many terms associated with justification. These differences remain; they are basic and currently irresolvable. The document simply listed explanations, both from the Lutheran and Roman Catholic belief systems.
bulletThey agreed that "The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration."
bulletThere are many unresolved issues, including: "the relationship between the Word of God and church doctrine, as well as ecclesiology, authority in the church, ministry, the sacraments, and the relation between justification and social ethics."
bulletThe declaration will be signed in Augsburg, Germany on 1999-OCT-31. 10 The date is of particular significance because it is the 482nd anniversary of the posting of Martin Luther's 95 theses - a date generally regarded as the birthday of the Protestant Reformation.

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Response to the Joint Declaration:

The declaration has received negative reviews among some religious conservatives. 5

According to a news item circulated by Ecumenical News International on 1998-NOV-16:

"The Lutheran World Federation - which represents the majority of the world's Lutheran churches - has said that 'further consultation' with the Vatican is needed before it can sign a major doctrinal statement drawn up by representatives of the two communions. The 'joint declaration on justification' aims to resolve a four-centuries-old theological dispute dating from the time of the Reformation. [ENI-98-0515]"

The Roman Catholic church announced that they would sign the document, but the Vatican was ambiguous on whether it would lift its condemnations of Lutheran teaching. Joint meetings finally led to a resolution:

"The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Roman Catholic Church have reached agreement on an historic document which aims to resolve a theological controversy dating back to the 16th-century split between Martin Luther and the papacy. The two communions are to declare officially on 31 October [1999] that mutual doctrinal condemnations pronounced at the time of the Reformation no longer apply. It is believed to be the first time that the Vatican has ever declared that Catholic doctrinal condemnations no longer apply to a Protestant communion." 9

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Negative responses to the Declaration by conservative Lutherans:

In 1997-SEP, the Department of Systematic Theology of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO issued an analysis of the Joint Declaration, in response to a request by the President of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. 11 They made a number of points in their review:

bulletRoman Catholicism has changed greatly since the Second Vatican Council; many Lutherans tend to look upon that church as it existed at the time of the Council of Trent.
bulletThe declaration shows that Lutherans and Catholics are both Christian groups who have "much more in common than what divides them."
bulletBecause the Roman Catholic Church is so large, and because so many Protestant  denominations are abandoning historical Christianity, dialogue between conservative Lutherans and Catholics is very important.
bulletThe declaration shows that the two groups have not reached a "shared understanding of justification." As the declaration notes, there are differences of language, differences of theological elaboration, and "differences of emphasis in the understanding of justification." Yet the document finds these differences are "acceptable."
bulletThe principal difference between Lutherans and Catholics remains unresolved: Lutherans believe that justification of the individual is "through faith" only. Roman Catholics believe that faith and church sacraments are both involved. Finally, the document extensively uses the phrase "in faith" which is not defined.
bulletThe Document's description of the role of good works is ambiguous and self-contradictory. It says that good works "contribute to growth in grace, so that the righteousness that comes from God is preserved and communion with Christ is deepened." Yet, it also says that "righteousness as acceptance by God and sharing in the righteousness of Christ is always complete." It cannot be under development and complete at the same time.
bullet"...there remain very significant theological differences, in language, theological elaboration and emphasis, regarding the doctrine of justification. It is not a 'breakthrough.' In fact, the document shows that very little headway at all has been made."

By 1999-OCT, a group of more than 240 Protestant German theologians had signed a petition which criticized the agreement. 12

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Additional negative comments in 2006:

At the time of the Methodists' agreement, some Catholic World News subscribers sounded off:


"Those who seem to think the document is doing anything other than offering a most simplistic kind of agreement aren't getting it. Has anyone EVER disputed the FACT that without God's Grace we can never be justified? no matter what we do? Its so bottom line basic, an attempt to find common ground & a snippet of unity. It does not attempt to address the multitude of issues that distinguish & save, like belief, obedience, the Sacraments. Although true, its only a fragment of the Catholic truth."

bulletAltar Boy:"

"Yes, I read it; I read it when it was initially promulgated a couple of years ago as a joint Catholic-Lutheran statement....As I wrote, this is a repudiation of Trent. Shame on the Vatican, shame on Kasper, and shame on the Fathers of Vatican I!."

bullet"J Brown 629:"

"It's so nuanced, and given the Catholic Annex, the statement is symbolic. Neither side is admitting to error, so unless they were both right to begin with (and that is heretical to believe in itself), this is just smoke and mirrors. And, more important, Methodists and Lutherans are, in the main, liberal Protestants, one step away from humanists and definitely not allies of the Church in the battle for respect for Natural Law." 13

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References 1,2, and 5 appear to be no longer available online. The full text of the declaration is at:  http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/

  1. "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," approved by the ILWF on 1998-JUN-16. See: http://www.tcsn.net/fbchurch/fbcdecla.htm
  2. "Irreconcilable Differences: Catholics, Evangelicals, and the New Quest for Unity," transcription of a television broadcast, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, (1995) . See: http://www.biblebb.com/files/ECTDOC.TXT
  3. G.A. Mather & L.A. Nichols, "Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult," Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, (1993), Page 171.
  4. Rosemary Goring, "The Wordsworth Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions," Wordsworth, Ware, UK, (1995), Page 197.
  5. Dennis Costella, "The One world Church is Coming Together," essay at the web site of The Fundamental Evangelistic Association at: http://www.tcsn.net/fbchurch/fbconewo.htm
  6. ILWF Press Release, "Council Unanimously Approves Joint Declaration with Roman Catholics; Document Ends 400-year Dispute on Doctrine of Justification," issued 1998-JUN-16.
  7. "The Smalcald Articles, II, I," Book of Concord, 292.
  8. "Rector et judex super omnia genera doctrinarum," Weimar Edition of Luther's Works (WA), 39, 1, 205.
  9. "Lutherans and Catholics to sign away justification dispute on
    31 October,
    " News Highlights, Ecumenical News International, 1999-JUN-11.
  10. "Lutherans and Catholics to sign joint declaration," Evangelical Press News Service, quoted in Maranatha Christian Journal at: http://www.mcjonline.com/news/news3328.htm 
  11. "An Evaluation of 'Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification 1997'," The Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, 1997-SEP-17, at: http://www.wordalone.org/archives/
  12. Ecumenical News International, News Highlights, 1999-OCT-22.
  13. "Methodists join Catholic-Lutheran statement on justification," Catholic World News, 2006-JUL-27, at: http://www.cwnews.com/

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Copyright © 1999 and 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-AUG-04

Author: B.A. Robinson

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