BEFORE THE CROSS | Hope reigns as Reformation anniversary approaches

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

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In a couple of weeks, Lutherans will mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. And for the next month — from Oct. 16 to Nov. 11 — Mass readings will come from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans.

St. Paul's understanding of justification, especially as set forth in Romans, was (and is) one of the central points of division between Catholics and Protestants. Most famously, St. Paul declares: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). In Romans, he gives a systematic grounding for this declaration.

Of course we have to understand what St. Paul says in a way that's consistent with other things in the New Testament — for example, what Jesus says in Matthew 25:31-46 about the role of works in salvation, or what James says about the relationship between faith and works, or even what Paul says in Philippians 2 about working out your salvation in fear and trembling. It's good biblical theology to synthesize those points rather than pick and choose among them.

But I don't want to re-hash the debates here. They cannot and should not be minimized. There's still important work to be done. Instead, though, I want to draw your attention to a shift that's happened in the last 20 years.

On Oct. 31, 1999, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation affirmed and published the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification." In that document, each side declared that there are certain things about justification, grace, faith and works that we can fundamentally agree on.

That doesn't mean the disagreement is over and the process is done! Further nuances are possible and needed from both sides of the table — so much so that our brothers and sisters in the Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod didn't feel that they could sign the Joint Declaration. Still, after 500 years of separation, the process of healing has begun. We've gone back to the heart of the matter, and have begun to turn a corner. If we still find ourselves disagreeing — and we do! — we do so as brothers and sisters rather than as enemies. That's a big step forward.

Similarly, the group Evangelicals and Catholics Together has issued nine statements since its founding in 1994. These statements also bear witness to a new attitude of cooperation among Catholics and Protestants. Like the Joint Declaration on Justification, these statements aren't perfect. But they show that we can work together on some things even while disagreeing on others.

Outside of specialists in theology, not many people know that this kind of work is happening. But, as we prepare to observe the 500th anniversary of the division between Catholics and Protestants, it's good to focus on some of the positive things that are happening to draw us back together. 

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