Article/Interview: The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: A Curtain on the Reformation? (original source Italy, and Director of the Reformanda Initiative, which aims to equip evangelical leaders to better understand and engage with Roman Catholicism.
Michael Reeves is President of Union and Professor of Theology. He is the author of The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Paternoster, 2012).
Leonardo De Chirico of the Reformanda Initiative interviews Prof. Michael Reeves, President and Professor of Theology at Union School of Theology, UK. Author of books such as The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (2010) and (with Tim Chester), Why The Reformation Still Matters (2016).
On October 31, 1999, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed ‘The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’ (JDDJ), claiming that they were ‘now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.’ This has led many since to think that the fundamental theological differences of the Reformation have now been resolved, and that there remains little or nothing of real theological substance to prevent evangelical-Catholic unity. Professor Mark Noll, for instance, boldly declared,
If it is true, as once was repeated frequently by Protestants conscious of their anchorage in Martin Luther or John Calvin that iustificatio articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae (justification is the article on which the church stands or falls), then the Reformation is over.
Let’s start here: what should we make of the JDDJ?
The JDDJ itself was rather less sanguine about what had been achieved, and stated explicitly that it ‘does not cover all that either church teaches about justification.’ Nevertheless, it did claim to be a ‘decisive step forward on the way to overcoming the division of the church’ in that it managed to express ‘a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations.’ This itself, though, was a considerable claim. Those ‘doctrinal condemnations’ it professed to avoid include the binding anathemas of the Council of Trent (1545-63), such as:
CANON IX.-If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.
CANON XI.-If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.
CANON XII.-If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.
CANON XXIV.-If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.
Is this a failure of the JDDJ?
Since the JDDJ expressly sought to avoid those condemnations, its understanding of justification cannot be that sinners are saved by faith alone without works by the sole remission of sins and the sole imputation of the righteousness of Christ. It cannot then amount to the evangelical understanding of justification that the Council of Trent sought so carefully to define and oppose. And since it does not encompass the evangelical understanding of justification, it cannot be a decisive step forward to overcoming the theological differences between evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church.
How does the JDDJ define justification then?
When it first sets out to define the biblical message of justification, various aspects of salvation are listed alongside each other.
In the New Testament diverse treatments of “righteousness” and “justification” are found in the writings of Matthew (5:10; 6:33; 21:32), John (16:8-11), Hebrews (5:3; 10:37f), and James (2:14-26). In Paul’s letters also, the gift of salvation is described in various ways, among others: “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1-13; cf. Rom 6:7), “reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:18-21; cf. Rom 5:11), “peace with God” (Rom 5:1), “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17), “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11,23), or “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (cf. 1 Cor 1:2; 1:30; 2 Cor 1:1). Chief among these is the “justification” of sinful human beings by God’s grace through faith (Rom 3:23-25), which came into particular prominence in the Reformation period.
In evangelical theology, all these diverse aspects of salvation are important. But they are not to be confused. Particularly, the believer’s progressive transformation into the likeness of Christ is not to be confused with – or taken to be the cause of – his or her justification. Yet in that paragraph, it is not at all clear whether different aspects of salvation are being listed alongside and including justification (the traditional evangelical view), or whether they are being seen as facets of justification (the traditional Roman Catholic view). And the possibility of two substantially – even radically – different interpretations of that paragraph is never mentioned. Continue reading