Where there’s a will there’s a way: the backstory behind the Joint Declaration on Justification

One of the many ways unity in the church is envisioned.  See here for a Lutheran perspective.
One of the many ways unity in the church is envisioned. See here for a Lutheran perspective.

About one week ago, there was an interesting discussion promoted by the journal First Things at Biola University (watch it here) where theologians Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders, and Carl Trueman discussed “The Future of Protestantism”.  Among the many interesting topics discussed were efforts towards unity among Protestants as well as how Protestants should relate to Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.  After the event Trueman, shared a reflection on the discussion and brought up the practical concerns he had.

In any case, this talk about efforts towards unity and practical matters (Trueman mentioned some of these in the discussion as well) put me in mind of the things that my pastor, Paul Strawn, had recently said at a conference of Confessional Lutherans in a very well-received paper.  It’s title is “The Elephant in the Confessional Lutheran Room: When Considerations Other Than Theology Hamper Theological Concord”, and you can read the whole thing here

He begins his paper with a fascinating but little known [back]story about the much trumpeted Joint Declaration on Justification.  According to the Wikipedia article (which I know provides a good summary):

“The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) is a document created, and agreed to, by the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, as a result of extensive ecumenical dialogue. It states that the churches now share “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.”[1] To the parties involved, this essentially resolves the conflict over the nature of justification which was at the root of the Protestant Reformation.”

Here is the insightful beginning to Strawn’s paper:

jpIIChurch history is full of instances of theological agreements being reached as a result of non-theological factors being brought to bear upon a given situation. One recent example was brought to light in a scarcely noticed article appearing in English translation first in 1994[1], by Wolfgang Bienert, professor of patristic studies at Marburg University and participant in the ecumenical dialog between representatives of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) of the Roman Catholic church. There Bienert sketched the enigmatic methodologies, the ecclesiastical politics, deployed to achieve some sort of ecumenical agreement in the afterglow of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1980.[2] At that time, a commission was established, comprised of representatives of the Roman Catholic conference of German bishops, the Vatican Secretariat for the Unity of Christendom, and the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany and, in the giddiness of the moment, given this curious mandate:

“…to express in a binding fashion, that the condemnations of the sixteenth century do not confront the contemporary partner, since its doctrine is not determined by the same error that the condemnation was meant to renounce.”[3]

According to Bienert, the idea that the reciprocal condemnations of the sixteenth century[4] no longer were applicable to the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches respectively, was simply assumed to be true by those issuing the mandate. All that was needed was some sort official declaration of that predetermined reality.[5] To its credit, the Ecumenical Study Group assigned this task, a group founded in 1946 by then Cardinal Lorenz Jäger (1892-1975) and Lutheran Bishop D. Wilhelm Stählin (1883-1975), returned a report entitled: “The Condemnations of the Reformation Confessional Documents and in the Doctrinal Decisions of the Council of Trent: Do They Still [emphasis mine] Confront the Contemporary Partner?”[6] There they noted that simply declaring that the condemnations of the sixteenth century void was problematic, not the least because at a minimum, the condemnations could not all be weighted equally:

“About some of the condemnations of the sixteenth century, we must say today, that they are based on a misunderstanding of the opposite position. Others no longer address the contemporary partner. Concerning still others, new insights have led to a wide degree of understanding. About some statements of condemnations, however, even today no adequate consensus can be discovered.”

It was the condemnations, over which “no adequate consensus [could] be discovered” which proved to be most problematic. Why? The Study Group realized that such reciprocal doctrinal condemnations could not be lifted, because “that would mean that at the same time the existing confessions would have to be annulled.”[7] In other words, since the condemnation statements of the Book of Concord and the Council of Trent flowed from and were a part of the theologies contained in both confessions respectively, declaring the former null and void negated the latter. That could not be done.

So how then was the enigmatic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) signed by the parties involved in 1999? By declaring that the reciprocal condemnations of each other’s doctrine of justification, did not apply to the doctrine as it was expressed in the JDDJ:

“41.Thus the doctrinal condemnations of the 16th century, in so far as they

relate to the doctrine of justification, appear in a new light: The teaching of

the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration [emphasis added] does not fall under the

condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran

Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented

in this Declaration [Emphasis added]”[8]

Where there is a will, there is a way. The reciprocal condemnations of the doctrines of Justification of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran confessions are considered no longer to apply to today’s ecumenical partner, even though priests in the Roman Catholic church at their ordination are still obligated to the doctrine as found in Trent, and Lutheran pastors in their ordination to the doctrine as it is found in the Lutheran Confessions. So in fact, the reciprocal condemnations are still very much in effect.

So why all of the effort? The desired outcome of the Joint Ecumenical Commission years before that the respective churches “express in a binding fashion, that the condemnations of the sixteenth century do not confront the contemporary partner” demanded it. The pope’s visit, the 50th anniversary in 1996 of the “Jäger-Stählin-Circle”, and the advent of the new millennium undoubtedly also played a role. And how exactly such a command was eventually obeyed provides a salutary warning, a modern example, of how so often within the history of the church, factors beyond theology drive discussions toward theological agreements, church unions and communions.

Here clever ecclesiastical politics are not the only methods to bring to light. Factors beyond theology, beyond the church, have often caused the church to act, to move toward theological union, sometimes in a salutary fashion, and other times not….

(end quote from Strawn’s paper, bold mine)

The paper goes on to talk about the practical issues that kept confessional Lutherans of the 19th century apart, and that still hinder Lutherans today.  Again, the full paper is here, for those who are interested in exploring these matters further.


[1] Wolfgang A. Bienert. “Do the Condemnations of the Reformation Era Still Confront the Contemporary Ecumenical Partner?” Lutheran Quarterly VIII (1994), pp. 53-70.

[2] Ibid., p. 55.

[3] Ibid., p. 53.

[4] For a general description of the use of such condemnations in 16th century by Luther and others see: Hans-Werner Gensichen, Damnamus (Berlin-Grunewald: Herbert Renner, 1955), English edition: We Condemn. How Luther and 16th-Century Lutheranism Condemned False Doctrine, Trans. By Herbert J. A. Bouman (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967).

[5] Bienert, p. 54f.; cf. p. 66.

[6] Ibid., p. 55. F. Karl Lehmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg, eds. The Condemnations of the Reformation Era. Do They Still Divide? Trans. By Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).

[7] Ibid.

[8] http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_31101999 _cath-luth-joint-declaration_en.html.

2 thoughts on “Where there’s a will there’s a way: the backstory behind the Joint Declaration on Justification

  1. Hi Nathan — sorry for the delay getting back to you in this.

    Have you seen this word about the official response from Rome to the “JD”?


    These developments received considerable play in the general media with stories about an “historic agreement” on the chief doctrine that had separated Lutherans and Catholics for almost five hundred years. The reality is somewhat more complicated than that. Rome did officially “receive” JD in the sense that it affirmed that very significant progress had been made in removing past misunderstandings, and in moving toward full agreement on what it means to say that the sinner is justified by faith.

    However, many of the Catholics and Lutherans involved in producing JD are saying—mainly off the record, for the present—that the Roman response is, in the most important respects, a rejection of the declaration. JD proposed that, with the new understandings achieved by the dialogue, the mutual condemnations of the sixteenth century no longer apply, and remaining differences over the doctrine of justification are not church-dividing. The Roman statement does not accept that proposal.

    It would be an understatement to say that the theologians involved in the dialogue, both Lutheran and Catholic, were taken aback by the Roman response. During the process, Rome had indicated problems with aspects of the declaration and, almost up to the last minute, revisions were made to take those concerns into account. The participants in the dialogue thought they had been assured that JD would be approved by Rome. Certainly that was the understanding that informed the LWF’s approval of the declaration. In the immediate aftermath of the statement by CDF and CCU, the mood among dialogue participants was bitter and despondent.

    One Lutheran pioneer of the dialogue declared that the theologians, both Lutheran and Catholic, had been “betrayed” by Rome. For decades to come, he predicted, it would be impossible to reestablish confidence in any theological dialogue with the Catholic Church. Such assertions, and there are many of them, may be excessive. Perhaps when the dust settles, the theologians will go about the task of putting together the pieces and resuming the dialogue in a way more likely to meet with approval from Rome. At present, however, it is not too much to say that they are in a state of shock….

    In Roman Catholicism, the theologians may say and do things that they think are within bounds, however, official Rome (in this case, the CDF), still whacked the whole thing, and as you can see, the result was “bitterness and despondency”.

    The title of Neuhaus’s article that I’ve quoted was “Setback in Rome”. I believe Rome is never going to allow itself to change one iota — and that, in good part, is one motivation for the “bitterness” that I also hold with respect to Rome. And it’s one thing that I think that any “ecumenical ” efforts that hope to deal with Rome need to understand.


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