I keep hearing about an agreement between Lutherans and Catholics. What’s that?
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, a statement signed by Roman Catholic and Lutheran theologians, declaring their agreement on the doctrine of Justification. That’s right, the doctrine of Justification, the article that caused the reformation, the article—Lutherans assert—on which the Church stands or falls. Confessional Lutheran groups, or those who hold to the authority of the Scriptures and who believe the Lutheran Confessions a faithful exposition of Scripture, including the Missouri Synod, did not sign on. (In fact, the Missouri Synod wasn’t even invited to the last round of discussion, the one that led to the JDDJ, but that’s another story.) Seven years later, in 2006, the World Methodist Council voted to adopt the JDDJ as well.
So, there you have it. Apparently Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists all agree on the doctrine of Justification. So what’s the big deal? Why are Lutherans and Roman Catholics still divided? As the JDDJ reveals, even if they use the same words, Lutherans and Roman Catholics don’t mean them the same way. In other words, they are not agreed. Not even close.
What keeps Lutherans from being Roman Catholic?
The word “catholic” is bigger than the Roman Catholic church. Catholic comes from two Greek words, meaning “according to the whole,” or universal. In fact, the term “Roman Catholic” is by nature contradictory; you can’t be both universal and confined to a location (like Rome). In the Nicene Creed, we confess that we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. That’s the Church of the apostles, the Church throughout history, the universal Church.
When arguing against the false teachings of the Roman Catholic church, the reformers sought to make their case that they were not creating any new church. Rather, they were continuing in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church that had existed for 1,500 years. As they saw it, they were merely calling the Roman church to repent of newly minted false teachings and practices and return to the true, catholic church, the church with the doctrine of the apostles. It’s all a matter of perspective. From the perspective of the Lutherans, it is not they who “broke off” from the Church of Rome, but rather the Church of Rome that had departed from the true, catholic church.
At least three major things keep Rome and Wittenberg apart: Justification by works, the anti-Christ nature of the papacy, and the abomination of the Roman Mass.
For all the ecumenism and cooperation that went into the meetings leading up to the Joint Declaration, the result is not an agreement on Justification. The Church of Rome still teaches justification by works, even if she can agree to justification by grace. Therein lies a difference of terms. When Rome says “by grace,” what she means is, “God gives you grace through His sacraments which enable you to do the God-pleasing works that merit His mercy.” That’s still justification by works, and it’s an abomination. Anything which makes a person look to himself for confidence for salvation must be completely rejected, whether works to earn God’s mercy or a decision to accept His grace.
While Pope Benedict XVI is known for his appreciation of Luther and Lutheran scholarship, the official teachings of the Church of Rome on the office of the papacy are still problematic for Lutherans. Because Rome teaches that the Bishop of Rome is the head of the church by divine right, not by human arrangement, because he claims for himself authority over Scripture, and because the Church of Rome teaches that popes and councils cannot err, the Lutheran Confessions rightly call the office of the papacy anti-Christ.
Third, while the Lutheran Divine Service and the Roman Catholic Mass look very similar (and, in fact, the first Lutherans argued that they observed the Mass with greater reverence than their opponents), they is one big dissimilarity. In the Roman Mass, the Lord’s Supper is a work that further earns God’s mercy. So the priest can “say Mass” without anyone around to hear or receive the Body and Blood of Jesus because what matters is that the work of the Mass is done to appease God. In the Lutheran Mass, the Lord’s Supper is the way God delivers His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. The Divine Service is not our offering something to God; it’s God’s coming to us. That’s why Luther called the Roman Mass an abomination; it has the direction of the gifts backwards.