It is worth noting that a significant ecumenical event took place this month. Symbolically, it occurred during the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the split in the western church initiated by Martin Luther in 1517.
On July 5 in Wittenberg, Germany, the city where Luther posted his “95 Theses” that marked the beginning of the Reformation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) signed a declaration endorsing the 1999 Catholic-Lutheran agreement on how Christians might be worthy of salvation in the eyes of God.
Five hundred years ago, this sort of theological discussion was very much in the air. If there had been Twitter or Facebook at the time, a lively discussion by engaged lay Christians would have filled the digital media. Today, the theological discussion around the doctrine of justification is largely of interest to academics.
Yet, the doctrine of justification has remained an historical wedge between Protestants and Catholics. Historical research has shown that many of those differences were due to misunderstandings and polemics. Now a common agreement has been reached because churches have come to new shared insights.
The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was first agreed to by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation on Oct. 31, 1999. It declares that the churches now share “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.”
A key passage says: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.”
The World Methodist Council adopted the Declaration on July 18, 2006. The World Communion of Reformed Churches has now followed suit and the Anglican communion is expected to do the same later this year. The Reformed churches represent an estimated 80 million Christians in Congregational, Presbyterian, Reformed, United, Uniting and Waldensian churches around the world.
Lutheranism and the Reformed movement (based on the writings of the French theologian John Calvin) are two of the main branches of Protestant Christianity. Luther taught that eternal salvation is attained by faith alone, while Calvin and other Reformed thinkers put it in the wider context of God’s covenant with humanity. Lutherans have bishops while most Reformed churches are less hierarchical.
Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, commented: “One of the crucial issues of dissent between the Reformers and the authorities of the Catholic Church in the 16th century is thus being diffused and overcome, making further growth in spiritual and ecclesial communion between the Protestant and Catholic churches possible.”
Over the past 500 years each church community evolved its own traditions. Hopefully further dialogue can clarify what is essential for full unity and what can be continued to be practiced by each one differently.