Joint Statement of Catholic and Lutheran Leaders

bishop-munib-younan-pope-francis

Credit: Bishop Munib Younan and Pope Francis (Michael Campanella/Getty Images)

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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)

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Reformation Courage

screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-9-02-35-pmOctober 31 is the 499th anniversary of the Reformation, observed this Sunday. The blessing of the Reformation is the return of a distracted church to the truth of Christianity that eternal salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, through faith in Christ our Lord. Here’s a brief summary:

  • In the late 15thcentury the Catholic Church was afflicted by internal corruption.
  • The sale of “indulgences,” raised money to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
  • Indulgences made people believe deceased loved ones could be released from purgatory.
  • The sales slogan was: “When a coin in the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory springs.”
  • Onto this scene arrived a troubled man named Martin Luther.
  • Luther saw God as a God of justice and was tormented by fears over unresolved sin and guilt.
  • In a thunderstorm during which his traveling companion was killed by a bolt of lightning, Luther exclaimed, “Save me, St. Anne. I will become a monk!”
  • He survived, became a monk, but could find no peace with God through his own effort.
  • Luther’s discovery of God’s grace came from Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
  • Also Romans 1:16-17: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…The righteous shall live by faith.”
  • What happened next was an act of courage, motivated by the truth Luther had discovered.
  • He boldly spoke truth to power by posting his 95 theses, intended as an invitation for debate on topics of faith and church practice.
  • Pressure was placed on him to retract his criticism of church belief and practice.
  • He refused to do so and was threatened with excommunication from the Catholic Church.
  • Asked to retract his words, Luther stated: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
  • Ultimately, Luther was excommunicated for refusing to retract his newfound beliefs.
  • Thus began what is known as the Protestant Reformation.

My Reformation question, to you and to myself, is this: If we were to conclude that a teaching or practice of the church was not based on clear passages of Scripture or was mandated by the church but not commanded by Holy Scripture or was not allowed by the church but not forbidden by Scripture, would we have the courage to speak our conviction?

Thank God for the Reformation courage Luther displayed in doing just that nearly 500 years ago!

Reformation Day

"Luther Before the Diet of Worms" by Anton von Werner, 1877 Credit: Wikipedia

“Luther Before the Diet of Worms” by Anton von Werner, 1877
Credit: Wikipedia

Today is Reformation Day, observed and honored in Christian churches around the world. The primary focus is the work of Martin Luther, born November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany. Luther spent his early years in relative anonymity as a monk and scholar but went on to become one of Western history’s most significant figures.

On October 31, 1517, Luther gained notoriety when he wrote a document attacking the Catholic Church’s corrupt practice of selling “indulgences” to absolve sin and nailed it to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. His “95 Theses” propounded two primary beliefs—that the Bible is the central religious authority and that humans receive salvation only by faith and not by works. His speaking and writing catalyzed the Protestant Reformation.

On November 9, 1518, Pope Leo X condemned Luther’s writings as conflicting with the teachings of the Church. Later, in July of 1520, Pope Leo issued a papal bull (public decree) concluding that Luther’s propositions were heretical and gave Luther 120 days to recant in Rome. Luther refused to recant, and on January 3, 1521, Pope Leo excommunicated Luther from the Catholic Church.

On April 17, 1521 Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms (this term has nothing to do with culinary mattersJ) in Germany. Refusing again to recant, Luther concluded his testimony the next day, April 18, 1521, with the courageous statement:

“Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”

Frankly, for a number of reasons, I often ponder whether the world and church are long overdue for a new Reformation! Much has changed in nearly 500 years. Authority concentrated in the hands of leaders who pursue power and crave control does not serve the church well!

Renewal and reformation will occur only if and when humble, courageous servant leaders, lay and clergy alike, pave the way for a return to the primary purpose of the church. The heart of the Gospel, God’s grace in Christ, has life changing power! That message must be proclaimed clearly, unfettered by trappings and traditionalisms that hinder its impact!

So today while the world observes Halloween, we Lutheran Christians join members of other Protestant denominations in thanking God for Martin Luther’s insight, courage and conviction. In doing so we remember things as they were and envision things as they might and ought to be!

Some Things Haven’t Changed

Sale of Indulgences

The sale of indulgences, as depicted in a woodcut by Jörg Breu the Elder, c. 1530
Credit: Wikipedia

News that caught my attention last week was in Time magazine (August 5, 2013) in the section titled The Culture. It read: “Tech-savvy Catholics will spend less time in purgatory—or so says Pope Francis. The Pontiff has decreed that people who follow the events of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro via the Vatican’s Twitter feed can get indulgences, which Catholics believe reduce time spent atoning for sins in the afterlife.”

Bummer! And just when it seemed the largest Christian Church in the world was beginning to move in the right direction. Pope Francis has done things in the early days of his papacy that provide hope to many, both in and beyond the church he leads. But, alas! One very important matter is still in need of papal rectification—the doctrine of justification by grace through faith.

In our Lutheran understanding, that doctrine on which the church stands or falls is described with the words sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura. We believe the Bible teaches that a sinner is justified—forgiven and declared right with God by God’s grace alone, through God’s gift of faith alone, communicated in God’s Word alone.

That’s the central teaching of the Christian faith, expressed by Holy Spirit-inspired St. Paul:  
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works (and not a product purchased by tech-savvy Twittering—my words, not Paul’s), so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)

The primary focus of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses was this doctrine. He wrote directly against indulgences, especially in Thesis # 27: “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.”

Why was this necessary? Because Johann Tetzel, a Reformation era penance peddler, chanted in his sales pitch: “As soon as the coin in the coffer clings, the soul from purgatory springs!”

With due respect and love for the 1.2 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church and their papal leader, it appears the primary issue that catalyzed the Reformation is still an issue. Apparently some things, including that thing, haven’t changed in 500 years!

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always!