More than 165 of Germany's top Protestant theologians, including Jurgen Moltmann, are criticizing a new Lutheran-Catholic statement that attempts to resolve historic differences on the doctrine of justification.
The theologians' protest comes in response to the proposed Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) devised by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Vatican.
The LWF, which is made up of 124 member churches and 61 million members, is voting this month on whether to approve or reject the document.
The JDDJ proposal declares that Lutherans and Catholics have a "consensus in the basic truths" of justification, a doctrine that became "the crux" of all ensuing disputes, including mutual condemnations by and against both churches that remain valid today. The statement says there are remaining doctrinal differences but they "are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations."
Germany's debate over the JDDJ has been characterized by cautious elation, serious reservations, partial rejection, and a great deal of confusion about what the document will mean at the practical level.
"The joint declaration shows that since there has been such great agreement [on justification], existing doctrinal differences should no longer warrant church divisions," says Bishop Horst Hirschler of Hannover, president of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church. Luther, he told CT, would have been "filled with joy" over the current debate and the JDDJ's emphasis on faith alone bringing "true freedom for the Christian."
Evangelicals have added their voices to the debate. "Theological discussions between different denominational confessions are helpful and necessary for mutual understanding," says Rolf Hille, chair of the German Evangelical Alliance. But Hille, who also chairs the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship, notes that the JDDJ falls short in that it does not stipulate that faith includes the assurance of salvation. "What is, then, grace? What is faith? All of this remains unclear."
Most of Germany's regional Lutheran church bodies that have acted so far are approving the accord, but with reservations—praising the effort as an important ecumenical step forward but agreeing in principle that they have not achieved full consensus on the basic truths of justification.
THEOLOGIANS OPPOSED: The largest and most critical opposition to the declaration has come from more than 165 Lutheran scholars who have signed a letter of protest initiated by theologians Gerhard Ebeling and Eberhard Jungel. The professors argue, among other points, that there has been no consensus reached on justification by faith alone and the "importance of good works for salvation." They urged churches to reject the document completely, or at least deny that an overall consensus has been reached on justification.
One of the signatories, Bonn University New Testament professor Michael Wolter, says key differences between Catholic and Lutheran tradition and understanding of ecclesiology and church authority are being "pushed in the background and handled as if these differences do not exist or as if they have no significance." He also questions how the LWF, which is not a church, could be authorized to enter into official talks on doctrinal issues with the Vatican.
Criticism of the Protestant professors' letter has come from several quarters. Presiding Catholic bishop Karl Lehmann, a JDDJ advocate, says formal protests against the document are cause for "serious concern." He warns that a 30-year ecumenical process leading up to the declaration could be derailed because of several "painful allegations and incomprehensible misinterpretations."
Scholars who support the declaration have not issued a position paper with a similarly large number of signatories to counter the JDDJ's academic critics.
Munich pastor Otto Kietzig told CT the protesting scholars have been unable to see the broad picture because of theological "nitpicking." Wolter's colleague in Bonn, church history professor Karl-Heinz von Muhlen, rejects Kietzig's view as "nonsense," arguing that justification by faith alone for the Lutheran is the central, indispensable Christian doctrine, which cannot be compromised.
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