A matter of interest that occurred on Reformation Day came to my attention after the fact. Roman Catholic Pope Francis and Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, signed a Joint Statement at this year’s Joint Catholic-Lutheran Commemoration of the Reformation at the Lutheran Cathedral in Lund, Sweden.
The statement begins: “With this Joint Statement, we express joyful gratitude to God for this moment of common prayer in the Cathedral of Lund, as we begin the year commemorating the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. Fifty years of sustained and fruitful ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans have helped us to overcome many differences, and have deepened our mutual understanding and trust…Through dialogue and shared witness we are no longer strangers. Rather, we have learned that what unites us is greater than what divides us.”
For the full text of the statement go to: http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2016/10/31/full-text-joint-declaration-for-the-500th-anniversary-of-reformation/.
The 16th century Reformation spawned documents known collectively as Lutheran Confessions. One of them, The Smalcald Articles: Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, was completed February 17, 1537. Written by Philip Melanchthon, it states in part: “… the pope is the real Antichrist who has raised himself over and set himself against Christ…” (Art. II) and “… the doctrine of the pope conflicts in many ways with the Gospel…” (Art. XI). Those statements make unity difficult.
Arguably, those and other confessional comments could be considered descriptive of popes who lived and ruled centuries ago but may not be accurate assessments of all popes since that time. Some in the LCMS and the rest of Christendom might strongly disagree with the application of those words to more recent popes, including John Paul II, Benedict XVI, or Francis.
Be that as it may, here are my perspectives:
- The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian body in the world with 1.2 billion members. It has many commendable beliefs and practices, yet numerous theological points are problematic, including the doctrine of justification, the authority of the pope, the sacraments, the veneration of saints, the holiness of Mary, and the use of indulgences.
- The worldwide Lutheran Church is much smaller in number. About 74 million members are scattered among 160 different Lutheran bodies, 145 of which belong to The Lutheran World Federation. Any healing of the wounds between Lutherans and Catholics that have existed before, during, and since the Reformation would most likely occur at that level. The rest of Lutheranism, including The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, would need to make independent decisions regarding setting aside the differences that have existed for nearly 500 years. It would take a miracle for that to happen in my lifetime.
- The overwhelming majority of Christians, including Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, some Baptists, and other Christians confess in the Apostles’ Creed a belief in “the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints …” While that term means different things to different people, my hope, prayer, and conviction is that those who confess the truths of the Apostles’ Creed are the folks I’ll see in heaven, even though we disagree on points of doctrine and practice here on earth. Such disagreement fostered the Reformation and continues to make the kind of unity envisioned by the Joint Statement signed last month a difficult alliance to achieve, assuming it is based entirely on genuine agreement on basic articles of faith and life.
Motivation for genuine unity in the Body of Christ must be based on the words of Jesus himself:
“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent… I am not asking on behalf of them alone, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:1-3, 20-21)