Often when there is an interesting article in our local paper’s religion page, folks mention it to me to make sure I read it or to inquire what I think. This past weekend, an AP article appeared entitled Pope urges Lutherans to set Aside Doctrine to Work Together that has brought a record number of comments and questions. I’m delighted for the interest – perhaps the coming 500th anniversary of the Reformation is catching on! Take a look at the article if you haven’t already. Here are my thoughts:
Headlines are Misleading
I think the Pope’s plea isn’t so much to “set aside” doctrine in order to work together but that he doesn’t want doctrinal differences to keep us from teaming up to address the humanitarian crises of our time. When it comes to working together on these matters, it seems we are already doing so in many ways but one would be happy for more collaboration on extending the love of Christ to the most vulnerable. There are some social issues on which ELCA leaders and the Vatican would probably not be able to work. Nonetheless, “Amen” to working together to care for the poor. Nothing that new here in my view.
What about Doctrine?
What is new are some signals from Pope Francis and other Vatican officials regarding movement on some of the traditional doctrine divides. Probably most folks don’t know that the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), including ELCA theologians, have been holding dialogues for 50 years and have produced some important documents celebrating the many beliefs we hold in common. In this regard, we have significant doctrinal agreement that can actually be a foundation for working together. Recent achievements include the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) and the most recent Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist. Here is a short exert from the introduction of the Declaration on the Way:
As Catholics and Lutherans, we have not yet achieved the goal of unity that is God’s gift in Christ and to which St. Basil calls us. Yet we have come a long distance from the disunity, suspicions and even hostilities that characterized our relationships for generations. This Declaration on the Way (In Via) to unity seeks to make more visible the unity we share by gathering together agreements reached on issues of church, Eucharist and ministry.
Much has been made of these works and they are indeed significant. (FYI – it is important to note that two of the large Lutheran churches in the US, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Synod, are not members of the LWF, nor ascribe to these documents) Roman Catholics and Lutherans hold much in common and we need to affirm each other. We certainly, to use a sports metaphor, are on the same team.
However, what I really appreciate about the Declaration on the Way is that it also names and addresses the very important and serious remaining disagreements. How we understand ordination, who can be ordained, how Christ is present in the Supper, the Catholic understanding of the Mass as a sacrifice, the location of authority in scripture alone vs. the Pope and Councils, are just of few of the hurdles that still remain. I personally believe that even with the JDDJ, we still have a long way to go on justification by grace through faith alone.
I hope our celebration of the Anniversary of the Reformation will include both the places of agreement and disagreement. There is much to celebrate in the Reformation but there is also a lament and longing for unity. I am not in favor of an ecumenicism that requires us to surrender our most central convictions. However, I do hope we can celebrate the restoration of the Word in the life of the church while somehow steering clear of the condemnations and vindictive actions of the past. Moreover, I’m glad for the Pope’s want to heal divisions and work together to be instruments of God’s kingdom in this world.