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If the Lutheran and Catholic traditions seek “full unity,” they must arrive at the same understanding of salvation and authority. An opinion article sent by Andrew Messmer, one of our readers.
Recently the heads of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches met together in Lund, Sweden, during which occasion they signed the above mentioned Joint Catholic-Lutheran Commemoration (hereafter JCLC).
I would like to take this opportunity to interact with this declaration concerning one particular point. Before entering into issues, the reader should know that I have chosen the title’s wording “A Protestant Response” on purpose. I do not attempt to offer “The Protestant Response” nor “My Final Analysis.” The reader should know that I am a Baptist scholar who focuses primarily on the New Testament, although I have an interest in historical studies and ecumenical dialogue. With these limitations, however, I trust that the reader will find some use in this Response.
There is much in the JCLC that could be evaluated, both positively and negatively, but I would like to limit my comments to interacting with the following statement: “we commit ourselves to further growth in communion rooted in Baptism, as we seek to remove the remaining obstacles that hinder us from attaining full unity.” What I would like to demonstrate is the following: many of the “remaining obstacles” that separate the Lutheran (and broadly speaking, Protestant) and Catholic traditions, such as the role of the sacraments, Purgatory, and the papacy (to name just a few) are merely the logical outworkings of two decisive doctrines that have divided the two traditions for nearly five hundred years, namely, the doctrines of salvation and authority. In other words, to a large extent there are just two core doctrines which dive these two traditions, and if an agreement were to be reached here, then agreement would be reached on the other doctrines as well. We will look first at the different systems of salvation and then at the different systems of understanding authority..
The fundamental, overarching concept to be grasped in understanding the Catholic system of salvation is that God makes the sinner righteous over a process of time. The sinner begins the process of being made righteous at baptism, and continues the process through various good works, especially by partaking in the sacraments, of which Confirmation and the Eucharist are the most important and practical for the average lay person. For most people, the process of being made righteous is not completed at the moment of death, and therefore it continues after death in a place known as Purgatory, where the sinner is further purged of sinful inclinations until, at last, he or she achieves righteousness and consequently may enter into God’s presence in Heaven. This process can be completely undone through certain sins committed at any point during one’s lifetime, and thus assurance of one’s final salvation is practically impossible)
For some people, however, the process of being made righteous is completed before the moment of death, and therefore all of their subsequent righteous deeds done here on earth may be placed at the disposal of others in helping them to attain a righteous state more quickly.To state it another way, these saints’ post-perfection good works may be shared with the many average laymen who lack full righteousness. For one person, that is, Mary the mother of God, she was born in a righteous state, preserved her righteousness for her entire life, and was taken directly to Heaven in her righteous state, where she enjoys the special title as “Mary Queen of Heaven.” Since death and Purgatory are appointed for sinners, Mary cannot experience either since she has always been perfect.
In contrast to the Catholic system, the fundamental, overarching concept to be grasped in understanding the Lutheran (and generally speaking, Protestant) system of salvation is that God imputes Christ’s righteousness to the sinner by faith. Whereas in the Catholic system the sinner is made righteous through a process that begins with baptism and ends with the completion of Purgatory, in the Lutheran (Protestant) system the sinner is counted or reckoned as righteous at the moment one repents and believes. According to the Lutheran (Protestant) system, the sinner does not need to be made righteous since Jesus Christ offers His righteousness to the sinner through repentance and faith. In comparing the two systems, we could say that the same degree of righteousness that one attains in the Catholic system after finishing Purgatory (made righteous) is the same degree of righteousness that one attains in the Lutheran (Protestant) system after repentance and faith (imputed righteousness)..
This is the core difference between these two systems as it relates to salvation, and the implications of these two systemsmay already be perceived. If salvation is a process of being made righteous, then the sacramental system, Purgatory, the saints and Mary, and lack of assurance of one’s salvation are all necessary byproducts of this system. If, however, salvation is not a process but rather the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner by faith, then the sacramental system, Purgatory, the saints and Mary, and lack of assurance of one’s salvation are all done away with or radically redefined. In the Lutheran (Protestant) system, the sacraments do not further one along in the process of salvation (i.e., being right), but rather further one along in the process of sanctification (i.e., living rightly). Purgatory is completely done away with, or, if one would like to attempt to reinterpret its meaning and purpose, Purgatory is placed in this life where the Christian molded into the image of Christ, the rewards of which will be enjoyed forever in eternity. The saints and Mary are completely done away with as it relates to their ability to offer the Christian the overflow the their righteous deeds. Finally, lack of assurance of one’s salvation is replaced with assurance of one’s salvation since it is based on Christ’s imputed righteousness to the sinner at the moment of repentance and faith. Stated succinctly, sola gratia is incompatible with the Catholic view of salvation.
Second and more briefly, three other outstanding differences between Lutherans (Protestants) and Catholics are the canon (that is, the Apocrypha), the papacy, and the role of the Magisterium and Church tradition. These three differences are all interrelated and have to do with differing views of authority. According to the Catholic view of authority, Christ has given His authority to the Church to decide matters of faith and practice. This authority resides especially in the Magisterium and Church tradition (especially the ecumenical councils), and is supremely manifested in the papacy. It is for this reason that the Catholic Church was able to add what it calls the “Deuterocanonical” (i.e., the Apocrypha) books to the Bible in the sixteenth century–they have the authority to determine such matters.
According to the Lutheran (Protestant) view of authority, Scripture alone has ultimate authority and arbitrates all matters relating to faith and practice. If this is true, then the Magisterium and Church tradition and the papacy are all unnecessary, at least as it relates to the matter of ultimate authority. Additionally, the Church does not have authority to determine which books belong in the canon, but rather recognizes their inherit authority which was given to them by God. Again, the Lutheran (Protestant) view of authority may be described as sola Scriptura, and it is incompatible with the Catholic view.
In conclusion, if the Lutheran and Catholic traditions seek “full unity,” they must arrive at the same understanding of salvation and authority. These are two principal doctrines from which many other “remaining obstacles” between the two traditions spring. Therefore if they arrive at the same understanding of these two doctrines, then they will also arrive at the same views on the sacraments, Purgatory, the saints and Mary, assurance of salvation, the canon, the papacy, and the Magisterium and Church tradition.The latter are merely the logical outworkings of the former. All of this is to say the following: if Lutherans (Protestants) and Catholics are to come together and achieve “full unity,” then either Catholics must give up their view of the sacraments, Purgatory, the saints and Mary, lack of assurance of salvation, the Apocrypha, the papacy, and the Magisterium and Church tradition, or Lutherans (Protestants) must give up sola gratia and sola Scriptura.
The two systems cannot be “blended” into one without sustaining heavy losses on one or both sides. Again,they are mutually exclusive systems. If “full unity” is reached somehow, it will be reached at the cost of one or both sides no longer being able to recognize who they are.
I am among those Christian who mourn the fragmentation of the body of Christ, as well as the implications that it has for Christian witness in the world. If “full unity” is to be reached, however, it must be done so in the truth, for it is only in the Truth that unity in the Spirit exists. May the Lord give the Church great wisdom in seeking out the Truth.
Andrew Messmer is a part-time professor at Facultad Internacional de Teología IBSTE in Barcelona, Spain. He teaches courses related to the biblical languages and literature. He is a PhD student at Evangelical Theological Faculty in Louven, Belgium, and plans to defend his dissertation in 2017. He lives with his wife and three children in Madrid, Spain.