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Synthesis and Ecumenism

by Roy A. Harrisville III (Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Luther Seminary)

June 10, 2001


Before proceeding to my argument, a bit of definition may be in order. The word “synthesis” is the English version of an old Greek term for something put together or combined. In philosophy the term is at home in the Hegelian idea of world history as a never-ending series of conflicts and their resolutions, each resolution or synthesis in its turn begetting a new candidate for a conflict ending in still another resolution. In ordinary, everyday usage, the term can be used of the combining of two types of distillate into a single fuel. But “synthesis” need not denote the coming together of two things in order to form a third. The term can also describe the coming together of opposites for the sake of something higher or greater that is able to embrace them both while allowing both their integrity.

Synthesis has not been absent from the history of the community of faith. For example, that portion of the Old Testament called “the writings” represents a coming together of universal common sense and worship of the one true God at the point of Wisdom, “fear of the Lord.” Translation of the Old Testament into Greek for Jews no longer at home in Hebrew and the writing of the New Testament in Greek spelled synthesis, since the word of the God of Israel and the earliest Christian community was linked to the language of paganism for the sake of “the Word become flesh.” In fact, the history of Christian thought gives ample evidence of the synthesis of Greek or Latin with biblical thought in statements about the Trinity, Jesus Christ, sin, redemption, and theChurch. And precisely because “synthesis” does not always spell absorption or the combining of two things to make a third, debate still rages over whether or not in all this “synthezising” Jerusalem or Athens or Rome had gotten the upperhand. Which brings me to my story....

I. That was Then

“First” and “Second Form.”

The Christian Lutheran fellowship into which I was baptized was just recovering from the opposition between two views about the movement of faith. This was the Norwegian-American version of the great American Lutheran war over predestination. In caricature, the one view so strongly accented the sovereignty of God in the matter of faith that there seemed to be little or no room for the factor of human responsibility. Cartooned, the other so strongly accented the aspect of human responsibility that there seemed to be little or no room for the factor of God’s sovereignty. The contest over these two views was no doubt merely the sub-plot of a battle occurring over a much wider territory. But the opposition was no less bitter for all that, and the proponents of the one or other view no less hostile or embittered. What was the higher, greater thing able to “synthesize” those opposing views, those contradictories? Or was there none? To this day, some have insisted that there was none. They have even raised an ensign to their insistence by forming a group that allows for only the one view. On the other hand, most of those who came together to form the community into which I was born believed a synthesis had in fact been achieved. They believed a higher, greater thing could reconcile the two views. That higher thing was the assertion, the confession that faith was a gift, a given. Both parties laid claim to the word in Ephesians 2--“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” They even gave legal witness to the synthesis in an instrument sometimes called “agreement,” though it might be better translated “settlement” or “reckoning,” in view of its genuinely synthetic character. The instrument, usually called “The Madison Agreement,” reads in part:

we have agreed to reject all errors which seek to explain away the mystery of election…in other words, every doctrine which either on the one hand would deprive God of His glory as only Savior or on the other hand would weaken man’s sense of responsibility in relation to the acceptance or rejection of grace.[i]

Thus each, with varying degrees of reticence or eagerness, gave the other license to accent its view since both believed their differences had been synthesized, embraced in a common recognition of faith as God’s gift.

Of course, one may set synthesis down to the tyranny of the majority, to deny that synthesis, any kind of synthesis, is anything more than repression—an argument frequently used by contemporary historians. But again, not only did the authors of the “settlement” believe they had in fact achieved a synthesis, but also, and more important, neither the one nor the other of the views was abrogated or silenced.

The Bible.

Later, another synthesis was achieved in my corner of the world. The contesting parties were no less embattled than those of the synthesis above described. This contest, too, was only the sub-plot of a much larger dispute. It had to do with the Bible and its interpretation. The one view held that since the Holy Spirit moved the biblical authors to write, in each instance supplying the fitting word and content, use of the historical-critical method in Bible investigation was eo ipso excluded. The other held that the investigation of the Bible in a manner analogous to that of any other piece of literature was justified since God undertook to address his creatures in their own tongue. The one group pointed to historical criticism as an atheistic method originating in the desire to get free of divine authority. They cited collapse of scriptural authority as a result. The other, acknowledging the danger of a research loosed from the faith and confession of the Christian community, nevertheless insisted that the method could be harnessed in the service of the gospel. Both parties appealed to authorities and documents from the wider dispute here and abroad. Both pamphleteered, filled the pages of their magazines and journals with indictments against the disparagement of reason or against the absence of faith. The one was tagged with a reduction of God’s activity to the purely supranatural, and the other with its reduction to the purely human and contingent. The contest became sufficiently bitter that at times advocates of the one view worked to exclude from their congregations graduates of divinity schools in which the one or other view prevailed. If the contest is no longer attended by that earlier bitterness, it does in fact still exist, but with a majority that believes a synthesis has been reached which, with varying degrees of eagerness and reluctance, allows each view its own voice. The advocates of these opposing views were also involved in a merger (the promise of synthesis, kept or not). The instrument drafted in anticipation of their coming together reflects the affirmation of something higher that could embrace them both. On the one hand it reads that the Bible is the only “authentic and infallible source of God’s revelation…the “only inerrant and completely adequate source and norm of Christian doctrine and life…[the Word of God] as a whole and in all its parts.” On the other, the document describes the Bible as given by inspiration of the Spirit “through human personalities in the course of human history,” evidence of the “condescending love of God in speaking to men through the agency of human language.”[ii] Such terms as “infallible,” “inerrant,” “as a whole and in all its parts” clearly derive from documents of an earlier period calculated to exclude the critical method. In these the Bible as such was described as infallible and inerrant, not merely as the source of revelation, doctrine and life. Now, however, the time-honored language of accomodation is used in order to open the way to the use of historical method. Reference to the Bible as given “through human personalities” or “the agency of human language,” allows the advocate of critical method to live under the same roof with its opponent. What was the roof, the “synthesis,” the higher thing to embrace them both? It was, simply, belief in the Bible as the Word of God. The biblical word as mediating encounter with God resulting in “forgiveness, life, and salvation” was that higher thing to which both parties to the dispute could swear allegiance.

Relevance and Desire.

In an authentic synthesis, the higher or greater thing to embrace opposing views must be relevant to the subject under dispute, or at least seen to be so. If the parties to the dispute concerning faith had decided upon confession of the Trinity, for example, as furnishing that higher or greater thing, there would have been no synthesis but something else. The synthesis had to be relevant to that quite discrete, specific topic of the movement of faith which had furnished the occasion for the division. Although confession of the Trinity would have linked the disputants to thousands of Christians around the world it would have lacked relevance and left them at odds.

It is important to stress the factor of relevance, since confusion easily arises over the function of a synthesis. Where there is a specific conflict or dispute, the synthesis or higher thing to embrace the opposing sides cannot be anything at all. Anything at all cannot embrace the two sides nor allow each its integrity. If the contestants regarding the reading and interpretation of the Bible had agreed upon faith in Jesus Christ as the higher thing to embrace them, there would have been no synthesis. For again, synthesis involved relevance to the specific topic of Scripture and its interpretation. And again, although confession of Jesus as Lord would have linked the opposing parties to a multitude of Christian communities around the globe, it would have lacked relevance to their quarrel and left them divided.

Of course, they would not be divided. They wanted to live together under one roof, not simply as neighbors in the same town. And though their desire was compounded of many things, of race and geography and shared experience, without that desire there would have been no synthesis. They would have lived a “separate but equal” existence—which they already enjoyed with others. Wanting to be more than neighbors, wanting to live under the same roof, drove them to synthesis. But again, that synthesis had to relate to what had initiated the dispute, and again, it had to transcend it without outlawing the view of either side. In any other way the two would simply have remained neighbors.

II. This Is Now.

We turn now to contemporary differences within American Lutheranism and their possible synthesis.

  1. Absolution.

The hymnal used by a majority of Lutherans in the United States contains a section preparatory to the regular worship entitled “Brief Order For Confession And Forgiveness,” in Lutheran catechetical language the “Office of the Keys.” The conclusion of the “Brief Order “contains two types of address to the congregation. The one reads in part:

As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins...

The other reads:

In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for you, and for his sake God forgives you all your sins. To those who believe in Jesus Christ he gives the power to become the children of God and bestows on them the Holy Spirit. [iii]

These two words derive from what once were two discrete positions regarding absolution. In the hymnal, the difference between them is now either accented by their mere juxtaposition, or it is all but totally obscured, depending on the reading. The first originates in the view that forgiveness is to be unconditionally announced, the second in the view that forgiveness is granted on condition of faith, and reads, “to those who believe in Jesus Christ he gives the power to become the children of God.” The one view reflects Reformation opposition to an attitude or performance conceived as prior or necessary to absolution. The other view reflects opposition to the ignoring of faith as indispensable to receiving the word of forgiveness. Again, the dispute in my own Lutheran church mirrored a contest birthed years before in Europe, but again, it was no less bitter and was almost as protracted. After a contest of almost forty years; after the requisite number of appeals to experts here and abroad, after innumerable theses, counter-theses and the formulation of statements--a habit uninhibited by immigration--parties to the dispute achieved a synthesis. What was the higher thing to embrace the division without repression of the one or other view? In the words of their 1906 St. Paul agreement, the divided parties asserted that the initiative in absolution belonged to God alone; that it occurred prior to any human response; that it remained valid and genuine whatever the response, but that the reception requisite to its benefit was that of faith.[iv] Was the synthesis a make-shift, artificial? If so, it had towering precedent in Luther’s treatise concerning the keys. On the one hand the Reformer could state:

Whatever does not direct us to God’s Word but to our remorse is a conditionalis clavis, a fickle key. If [Christ] should say, “if you are remorseful and pious then I will forgive you, but if not, I have failed,” that would be a clavis errans(a defective key)...If my remorse is not enough, his word is; if I am not worthy enough, his keys are. He is faithful and true; my sins shall not make him a liar. [v]

On the other hand, he could also write:

What the one speaks and the other hears is God’s command and word. For their souls’ salvation both are bound to believe that word as surely and firmly as all other articles of faith....We shall and must in all seriousness and confidence believe what God says. Whoever does not believe, let him leave the keys in peace... [vi]

Within the context of the community from which I trace my ancestry the appearance of the two rubrics in the Lutheran Book of Worship does not reflect synthesis of the competing views. The unconditional and conditional absolutions, albeit in fragmented form, are merely listed side by side. But this represents an anomaly,since a synthesis of the opposing views actually did occur and was documented. Curiously enough, in form at least, the hymnal gives the faintest suggestion of a nod in the direction of something akin to synthesis, since the first rubric reads that God in his mercy “has given his Son to die for us and, for his sake, forgives us all our sins”--a phrase lifted from the older version of the second, conditional absolution.

The “Great Thanksgiving.”

In the Lutheran Book of Worship all three settings for the Lord’s Supper contain a section in which the Words of Institution are set within the context of a prayer called “The Great Thanksgiving.” For almost as long as they have lived in this country, Lutherans have engaged in dispute over use of the term “Eucharist”—the English derivative of the Greek “thanksgiving.” The one group asserts its legitimacy by the fact that the Gospel narratives refer to Jesus’ giving thanks over the bread or cup (over the cup in Mk. 14:23 and Matt.26:27; over bread and cup in Luke 22:17 and 19; over the bread in I Cor.11:24), contending that his action derives from the ancient Jewish practice of giving thanks (the Berakah) at meals. [vii] The other group insists that the assumption of an underlying Jewish thanksgiving is unproven, more important, that use of the term “Eucharist” confuses what is tendered to God (sacrifice) with what God gives (sacrament). Added to the controversy is the fact that the “Great Thanksgiving” is the twin of an ancient prayer petitioning the Holy Spirit to descend into the bread and wine that the meal may accomplish its purpose (the so-called epiclesis).

The literature pro and con has grown exponentially. It is not necessary to review it, but merely to ask whether or not the one view of the Supper as thanksgiving or sacrifice and the other view of it as sacrament are capable of synthesis. Luther believed they were not. The Reformer’s distaste for the Roman Catholic Canon of the Mass, ancestor of the “Great Thanksgiving,” is well known. When he had finished with his reform, little of it remained. Whether or not that reform was clumsy, violent, “a hatchet job,” or conformable to his understanding of the sacrament, has remained an object of perennial debate. But clumsy or no, Luther’s reform reflected his conviction that the canon was an attempt at reconciling the irreconcilable in the sacrament—the action of Christ and human action. Evidence of his conviction is not hard to find. In his “Smalcald Articles” (1537), he wrote as follows of the liturgy and practices grown up around the Lord’s Supper:

It is held that this sacrifice or work of the Mass…delivers people from sin both here in this life and beyond in purgatory, even though the Lamb of God alone should and must do this...[viii]

And of the distinction between sacrament and sacrifice he stated:

For this is the true God who gives, but does not take; helps, but asks no help—in short, who does everything and gives everything, yet needs no one. And all this he does freely out of pure mercy and without merit for the unworthy and undeserving, even for the damned and lost. As such he wants to be remembered, confessed, and glorified.[ix]

The distinction between the disputants in the matter of the sacrament may have been too neatly drawn, since the one party to the debate states that while the Lord’s Supper is a thanksgiving “actualized in the fellowship of eating and drinking,” it is also the act of God’s presence which alone is the object of faith. [x] Similarly, the other party, while omitting the “Great Thanksgiving” and using only the words of institution, uses the “Post-communion Canticle” in all three settings for the Supper.[xi] Acknowledging the resolve of the one or other side to “live and let live,” at what point has a synthesis of the two views occurred? Would the concept of human involvement in the activity of God furnish that higher thing to embrace them both? Who would care to deny, for example, that Jesus Christ makes his way in the world in those who are his?The point at issue, however, is the conflict over that quite discrete, specific and singular phenomenon of the sacrament, so that a genuine synthesis must relate to the two views and embrace them both. If we keep to Luther’s definition of a sacrament, Jesus Christ is sole initiator and actant in the Lord’s Supper, and whatever of human activity is assigned it confuses what God gives with what is given to God. Whether or not contemporary liturgiologists allow for this definition, those who do see no possibility of a synthesis--to which the “may rubric” of “The Great Thanksgiving” or the “may rubric” of the mere use of the words of institution give witness. For the one or other party to the dispute, the appearance of the one or other rubric may actually spell an intrusion.

Again, where there is no desire for some higher thing able to transcend opposing views without absorbing them, there is no synthesis. Without assigning the persisting dispute over the Lord’s Supper to the intransigence of the one or other group, evidence of desire for synthesis is lacking. In fact, rather than reflecting an anomaly as did the two forms for absolution, appearance of “The Great Thanksgiving” and the Words of Institution in parallel or in tandem, the one or the other left to the discretion of the officiant, suggests the absence of synthesis at best, and at worst the intrusion of one into the other.

Lutherans and Episcopalians.

These last years, the subject of hottest debate among Lutherans has been "full communion" with the Episcopal Church, requiring the incorporation of Lutheran bishops into the historic episcopate for the sake of fully interchangeable ministries. Once more, the question is whether or not the disputants have achieved a synthesis, a point able to embrace them both without repressing either. In answer, attention needs to be paid certain events without rehearsing the entire complex of occurrences culminating in the Concordat of Agreement or its revision in Called to Common Mission.

In 1984 the final report of participants in a two-year study of the historic episcopate sponsored by the Division of Theological Studies of the Lutheran Council in the USA included the following statement:

When the 'historic episcopate' faithfully proclaims the gospel and administers the sacraments, it may be accepted as a symbol of the church's unity and continuity throughout the centuries provided that it is not viewed as a necessity for the validity of the church's ministry.[xii]

Seven years later, participants in the "Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue, Series III" concluded their work with a report entitled "Toward Full Communion" and "Concordat of Agreement." The "Concordat" in part read:

While the two churches will fully acknowledge the authenticity of each other's ordained ministries from the beginning of the process, the creation of a common, and therefore fully interchangeable, ministry will occur with the full incorporation of all active bishops in the historic episcopate.[xiii]

A minority of participants in the dialogue registered dissent, stating that

in this "Concordat"...the historic episcopate is made to be a necessity for church fellowship and thus essential to the unity of the church....To introduce the historic episcopate into the ELCA under the terms of this "Concordat" is to make an adiaphoron into a matter of necessity.[xiv]

In an unprecedented move, the majority responded with an “Assenting Report.” In a first paragraph it referred to the minority's misinterpretation of the dialogue, stating that the initiative of the dialogue's Episcopal members had been to recognize the validity of the ELCA's existing pastoral ministry, thus facilitating the proposal that in future Lutheran bishops be incorporated in the historic episcopate. A second paragraph expressed regret over the minority's inability to endorse the 1982 mandate of the respective churches to move toward "full communion," and in a third over "the fact" that the minority no longer endorsed the conclusion of the Lutheran Council in the U.S.A. report on "The Historic Episcopate," which it had helped to formulate.[xv]

The first "regret" reflects a curious confusion of means with ends. It was the task of the Lutheran participants to determine precisely whether or not the historic episcopate as condition for "full communion" could in fact be met. Resistance to the condition could scarcely be interpreted as inability to endorse the church's mandate when the church itself had established this series of dialogues to determine whether or not the condition could be met. In fact, the condition would not be met till eight years later.

The second "regret" should be read in light of the first, that is, in light of the majority’s misunderstanding of the committee’s task and thus of the minority’s position. Any other reading would be hard pressed to detect dissent in the agreement of both sides respecting the historic episcopate as not required for the "validity of the church's ministry." The point in all this, however, is that no synthesis was achieved, no arrival at some higher thing which both parties to the dispute could affirm, something able to embrace them both without the one or other being inhibited, silenced, suppressed. At best, the dispute involved misunderstanding, and at worst misinterpretation and the accusation of betrayal.

At its 1997 Philadelphia Assembly, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America narrowly defeated the “Concordat of Agreement” as revised by a new Lutheran-Episcopal team, all trace of the 1991 minority removed. The Assembly then required the preparation of a new document addressing the concerns resulting in the “Concordat’s” defeat. The presiding bishop of the ELCA assigned the drafting of the document to a committee of three. In addition, he ruled that no proposal could be written that did not provide for the adoption of the historic episcopate, thus precluding discussion of the items controverted in the earlier dialogues. The committee of three and its Episcopal counterpart proceeded to a first draft of the required document, now titled “Called To Common Mission.”The committee worked in closed session, kept no minutes, disallowed dissent and the submission of a formal minority report.This rough draft was presented to the Church Council of the ELCA in 1998.

In that same year, the ELCA Church Council received three thousand signatures from persons opposed to the adoption of the historic episcopate. Whether or not due to the size of the protest, the bishops of the ELCA adopted a resolution stating that “Called To Common Mission” required neither the adoption of the threefold pattern of ministry (bishop, priest, deacon), nor the ordination of deacons, nor did it prohibit the laity from presiding at the Lord’s Supper. To add to the dissent, thirty-three synods of the ELCA representing sixty per cent of the membership voted against or failed to vote for the document by a two-thirds majority, or voted for an alternative resolution.

In a final session the drafting committee of three again met in closed session, kept no minutes, permitted no voting, and once more ruled out a minority report despite the appeal to the “Concordat” of 1991 as establishing precedent for it. The document was then submitted to the Church Council of the ELCA together with a covering letter. When the dissenting member indicated that the letter had to make clear he did not recommend approval, it was agreed that the letter would include a statement to that effect. That promise was never kept. [xvi]On the other hand, since no records exist of the committee sessions, there is nothing to prevent the majority from challenging the dissenter’s recitation of events.

The final draft of “Called To Common Mission” was submitted to the ELCA at its 1999 summer assembly in Denver, Colorado, and was approved. Later, in the fall of the year, the ELCA Secretary informed Episcopal officials that the Assembly did not vote on the ELCA bishops’ 1998 resolution, for which reason the Episcopal Church was not required to consider it. A leading Episcopal official informed the Episcopal delegates at their April, 2000 meeting, that the bishops’ resolution could be disregarded.

In all of this, there is no evidence of any coming together on the part of disputants for the express purpose of reaching a point at which their differences could be transcended, and without silencing or inhibiting the one or other side. All the available documentation points to an officialdom lurching pell mell toward satisfying conditions laid down by another church body for interchangeable ministries, an effort accompanied by administrative fiat and the repression of dissent.

In a recent electronic letter one erstwhile co-editor of Called to Common Mission writes of the “cloud” on the horizon of Lutheran-Episcopal relations. A “small (?), but vocal minority” opposes the rule that a bishop must preside at the ordination of pastors. To mollify this minority, or as he writes, to “allow for the respect for consciences that some are now demanding,” the author repeats the refrain that temporary provision be made for “exceptions in unusual circumstances.” Adding that permanent provision for such exceptions would alter the character of the Lutheran-Episcopal relation, thus giving rise to “another bruising debate, another round of bitterness,” he concludes that such provision must be made subject to a time limit.[xvii] Application of “respect for consciences” to a matter of Christian teaching suggests confusion of the spheres of love and faith. Of persons who accused the “Lutherans” of neglecting love, Luther once wrote:

They even subvert many good men, who suppose that we disagree with them because of sheer stubbornness or some other personal feeling... We are surely prepared to observe peace and love with all men, provided that they leave the doctrine of faith perfect and sound for us…it belongs to faith to bear nothing whatever and to yield to no one. Love yields freely, believes, condones, and tolerates everything. Therefore it is often deceived.[xviii]

At any rate, where “respect for consciences” is merely temporary, and where the resolution of the dispute consists not only in the one side’s finally prevailing but in its sole existence, the term “synthesis” or any of its congeners is inapplicable.

In midst of this dispute, one curious erratic looms up on the terrain. A decade prior to his 1997 ruling on the non- negotiability of the historic episcopate, the presiding bishop of the ELCA published a translation of a two-volume commentary on the Augsburg Confession by his Erlangen teacher, Wilhelm Maurer. In that work Maurer had cited Luther’s contention that no legislation in the church could be derived from the gospel’s central core. He further documented the Reformer’s indifference toward the historic office of bishop, his rejection of the sacramental consecration of priests, as well as his conceding episcopal jurisdiction by human right (iure humano), together with his conviction that the bishop was merely to corroborate what had been established by God and accepted by the congregation, his rights thus extending no further than those of any ordinary pastor. <>[xix] “Foolish consistency” being the “hobgoblin of little minds,” the bishop could hardly be indicted for once having translated a work with which he did then or does not now altogether agree. On the other hand, there is no evidence that he did or does not, or that once having agreed, he has changed his mind.

Lutherans and Roman Catholics.

In 1967 Catholic and Lutheran theologians began dialogue in earnest on the subject of justification. A first phase with its so-called “Malta Report” (“The Gospel and the Church,”1972) reflected what has been called “significant convergence.” Next followed two national dialogues (“Justification by Faith,” USA 1983; “The Condemnations of the Reformation Era,” Germany 1986 [xx]), heralded as moving from convergence to “firm consensus.” In 1994, the report titled “Church and Justification” concluded a third dialogue. Now, it was assumed, the time was ripe for a move from consensus to a “joint declaration” on the part of the two churches. Accordingly, there appeared from Geneva and Rome the ecumenical-theological document titled “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” (first draft 1995, final draft 1997).

It is not our purpose here further to trace the origins or review the contents of the Declaration, but simply to inquire whether or not it represents a synthesis in terms of that “higher thing” to which both parties to the dialogues could assent without the repression of the one or the other.

First of all, the document states that “all the dialogue reports as well as the responses show a high degree of agreement in their approaches and conclusions” (Preamble, para. 4). The 1971 “Malta Report,” however, indicates a tension in the understanding of justification on the part of the two churches. The relevant passage reads:

Although a far-reaching agreement in the understanding of the doctrine of justification appears possible, other questions arise. What is the theological importance of this doctrine? Do both sides similarly evaluate its implications for the life and teaching of the church? [xxi]

The USA report of 1985 and the German study of 1986 which comprise the second round of the dialogue note the absence of total agreement. The pertinent paragraph in the USA report reads:

Hope and trust for salvation are gifts of the Holy Spirit and finally rest solely on God in Christ. Agreement on this Christological affirmation does not necessarily involve full agreement between Catholics and Lutherans on justification by faith. [xxii]

The German report makes no reference to a consensus over the doctrine of justification, but only to “a high degree of mutual understanding” in confession of the one Lord as well as in central themes of Christian doctrine.[xxiii] As for the international dialogue which ended the third round (“Church and Justification”), one member of the commission wrote that the “far-reaching agreement” of the Malta Report [xxiv] was shaky soil from which to set out for new country. The member continued:

All members of the commission agreed that...advances had been made in the understanding of justification. Taken in this sense “far-reaching agreement” was affirmed. But whether there could be any talk of essential agreement in the understanding of God’s justifying activity—this question was given different answers. Some members of the Lutheran commission replied that there could not. [xxv]

In the same fourth paragraph of the “Joint Declaration,” the document claims to “take stock and to summarize the results of the dialogues on justification so that our churches may be informed about the overall results of this dialogue with the necessary accuracy and brevity...”

Despite this claim, no space is given the critical response of the German Evangelical Church (EKD) to the German study of 1986.[xxvi] The response countered the central thesis of the 1986 study that doctrinal differences between Roman Catholics and Lutherans no longer applied, and corrected and deepened the statement of one of its principal participants that the study did not maintain consensus had been reached. [xxvii] Among other things, the response states that differences between Protestants and Catholics still linger regarding the understanding of grace as God’s gift (extra nos) versus grace as a reality in the human soul (qualitas in nobis); regarding faith as trust in the promise of the gospel versus faith as mental assent to the revelation which must take shape in hope and love. A difference is also noted in the understanding of humans’ relation to God. In the one case the concept of merit is excluded, in the other it is included so as to accent human responsibility.

Again, no mention is made of the response of the United Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Germany (VELKD) and the German National Committee of the Lutheran World Federation to the first or 1995 version of the Joint Declaration.[xxviii] This document to which the then leading bishop penned his signature opened with the remark that the initiative from Geneva and Rome had placed the German churches “in a difficult spot.” One commentator interprets the remark as hiding anger over a “jamming maneouver.” Rather than waiting for a papal reply to the 1994 evangelical response to the 1986 German study, Roman Catholics were handed the opportunity to regard the document dealing with the condemnations as well as the response to it as outdated and unworthy of reply.[xxix]

Finally, in response to the “Official Common Statement” of the Lutheran World Council and the Catholic Church of June 1998, to the effect that on the basis of the Joint Declaration consensus had been reached in the understanding of justification,[xxx] close to three hundred evangelical and Lutheran pastors and theologians in Germany replied that the statement fundamentally called into question the Lutheran doctrine of justification and that it assumed a notion of purpose irreconcilable with Reformation criteria. It added that the statement had not received the consent of those bodies responsible for doctrinal questions, that nothing practical would result from it, and warned against its signing. A year earlier, the bishop named above stated in an interview that the Roman Catholic Congregation of Faith had altered an initial paragraph of the Joint Declaration to read that “the doctrine of justification…is an[xxxi] indispensable criterion which constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ” (para. 14), an “unfortunate” change, since it appeared to rank the criterion of justification alongside other criteria. For this reason, the bishop added, a series of professors and other responsible persons in the evangelical church see no consensus respecting the doctrine of justification.[xxxii]

Once more, to the question whether or not the disputants have been able to give their allegiance to something higher that can embrace them both without absorbing the one or the other, some higher idea or proposition immediately relevant to the concern or argument of both, the answer is in the negative. And once more, the available evidence points to the one party to the dispute as ignoring, repressing, or inhibiting the other, leading one critic to set down the “Joint Declaration” to “Lutheran ignorance, impotence, or church-political cunning.”[xxxiii]

The primary task of this essay was not to “reason why,” but to illustrate the absence of synthesis in Lutheran intra-mural dispute. If, however, an explanation were hazarded for activities in present-day Lutheranism so radically dissimilar to those of the past, the figure of the ideologue directly comes to mind, such as emerges, for example, in a recent work by the celebrated historian, philosopher, and poet, Robert Conquest. Conquest’s analysis of ideology is alarmingly applicable to current Lutheran ecumenism, and his portrait of the ideologue alarmingly suitable to its advocate. The ideologue emerging from Conquest’s analysis is a person trained in, or selected for, susceptibility to dogma, a victim of something like monomania, betraying family resemblance to the ideologue in the totalitarian sense. This susceptibility renders its subject hostile to reality, persuaded by smoke and mirrors, accepting information about matters for which there is totally contradictory evidence, and incapable of conceiving minds and persons markedly different from oneself. Such persons do not act so much in the real interests of those they purportedly serve as for some Idea in which they have been led to believe. In fact, they consider themselves to have arrived at a higher and more comprehensive plane than others. Scornful of the rabble, they imagine themselves charged with the unique mission of bringing history to its preordained consummation. The origins of this phenomenon may be found with those for whom politics has become a mania, a mindset nourished, interpreted, and retailed by a bureaucracy, a mania to which failed and mediocre academics in midlife are particularly prone. “Moreover,” adds Conquest, “it is very easy to believe, or assent to, something that justifies one’s own power and position.”[xxxiv]

  • Roy A. Harrisville
  • St. Paul, MN
  • June 10, 2001


[i] “V. Election (The Madison Agreement), Appendix C, Union Documents (1906-1912), “ in E. Clifford Nelson, The Lutheran Church Among Norwegian-Americans, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1960, 356-358.

[ii] United Testimony On Faith And Life, Report of the Joint Union Committee to the Conventions of the Negotiating Churches (i.e.American Lutheran Church, The Evangelical Lutheran Church, United Evangelical Lutheran Church), 1958, 165-166.

[iii] The Lutheran Book of Worship, Prepared by the churches participating in the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1978, 56, 77, 98.

[iv] Cf. e.g., John F. Saarinen, “An Historical Introduction to the Study Of Confession And Absolution,” St. Paul: Luther Seminary B. Th. Thesis, 1941, and Olaf G. Borge, “Confession And Absolution In Relation To The Lord’s Supper,” St. Paul: Luther Seminary B. Th. Thesis, 1944.

[v] Martin Luther, Von den Schlüsseln, Wittemberg: Hans Lufft, 1530, 63, 75-76.

[vi] Ibid., 64.

[vii] In years past, support for this view was sometimes taken from the study of Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, trans. Norman Perrin, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966, 108-111.

[viii] “Smalcald Articles,” The Book of Concord, The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, 30-1, 1.

[ix] “Admonition Concerning The Sacrament,” Word and Sacrament IV, Luther’s Works, ed. Martin E. Lehmann, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971, 38, 107.

[x] Cf. e.g., “The Great Thanksgiving,” Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship, New York: 1975, 2-3.

[xi] In the first, second, and third settings of the service, the Lutheran Book of Worship includes a shortened form of the “Great Thanksgiving,” which for the one side would still spell the intrusion of a prayer into the sacrament. Cf.ibid., 70, 90, 111.

[xii] The Historic Episcopate, New York: Division of Theological Studies, Lutheran Council in the USA, 1984, 7.

[xiii] “Toward Full Communion” and “Concordat of Agreement,” Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue, Series III, eds Norgren and Rusch, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1991, 104.

[xiv] “The Dissenting Report of Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue,. Series III, “Toward Full Communion” and “Concordat of Agreement,” 111.

[xv] “The Assenting Report of Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue, Series III,” in ibid., 113-114. To this report is appended a statement of Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod participants to the dialogue. Whether or not they agreed with the majority or minority is impossible to tell; they merely express appreciation for the opportunity to sit in on the three rounds of the dialogue. What loss of integrity for the LCMS may have resulted from agreement with one or the other party sola Deus scit. Ibid., 115-116.

[xvi] For a review of the pertinent facts, cf. Todd Nichol, “Minority Report,” Called to Common Mission: A Lutheran Proposal for a Revision of the Concordat of Agreement,” The Lutheran Quarterly, Vol. XIII (1999), 91-97.

[xvii] Michael Root, “Exceptions to the Rule of Episcopal Ordination: A Possible Way Forward?” February 16, 2001.

[xviii] Lectures on Galatians, Luther’s Works, eds. Jaroslav Pelikan and Walter A. Hansen, Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964, Vol. 27, 37-38.

[xix] Wilhelm Maurer, Historical Commentary on the Augsburg Confession, trans. H. George Anderson, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986, 61, 75, 79, 83, 194, 226, 227, 229, 234, 355.

[xx] Lehrverurteilungen—kirchentrennend? Herausgegeben von K. Lehmann und W. Pannenberg, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, I-III, 1986-1990.

[xxi] “Report of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Study Commission on ‘The Gospel asnd the Church,’” Worship, 46, 6, 334.

[xxii] Justification by Faith, Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, ed. H. George Anderson, T. Austin Murphy and Joseph A. Burgess, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House (4), 16.

[xxiii] Lehrverurteilungen—kirchentrennend? I, 32.

[xxiv] “Report of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Study Commission on ‘The Gospel and the Church,’” 46, 6, 332.

[xxv] Dorothea Wendebourg, “Kirche und Rechtfertigung,” Ein Erlebnisbericht zu einem neueren ökumenischen Dokument, ZThK 93 (1996), 88-89.

[xxvi] “Gemeinsamen evangelischen Stellungnahme,” December 1994.

[xxvii] In the Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 88 (1991), 232, Wolfhart Pannenberg continued to state that the opposition between the two churches had not been settled.

[xxviii] “Stellungnahme zum Entwurf einer ‘Gemeinsamen Erklärung zur Rechtfertigung,’ ” VELKD, Nr. 65 (1996), 21.

[xxix] Cf. Jörg Baur, “Einig in der Hauptsache?” Frei durch Rechtfertigung, Vorträge anlässlich der römisch-katholisch/lutherischen “Gemeinsamen Erklärung,” Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997, 66, 70. For the outline of the argument of this portion of the essay, I am indebted to Baur.

[xxx] Official Common Statement by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church and Annex, 1998, 1.

[xxxi] Italics mine.

[xxxii] Das Sonntagsblatt,17 Oktober 1997, Nr. 42/1997.

[xxxiii] Baur, 76.

[xxxiv] Robert Conquest, Reflections On A Ravaged Century, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000, 113; cf. 31, 39, 75, 111-112, 119, 124, 143, 149, 181-182, 196, 198, 201, 219.