Guest Post: on a Joint Declaration on Justification

With the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation just around the proverbial corner, I was fascinated – and slightly perplexed – to read this news piece on the Church of England Website. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is an attempt by some church leaders and theologians, from both Roman Catholic and non-Roman Catholic Churches (notably in this case the Church of England) to articulate common ground over the vital doctrine of Justification. The Doctrine of Justification was at the core of the differences that led to the Reformation – and in turn led to the split in the church that continues to fracture and crack into different parts. 500 years on, it is great that the disparate groups of people who call Jesus Lord are coming together to think about the Gospel, but the differences remain, and, in many cases, contribute to and relate to even bigger gaps. If all Christians could agree on how Justification works, and how the Gospel works in and on us, that would be amazing. Indeed, Jesus himself prays for the unity of the Church in John 17. This Declaration, then, is a step towards a better conversation. I’d thoroughly recommend reading this interview with Michael Reeves about the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) – it offers a firm challenge to those who might like to accept it uncritically. As many regular readers will know, thanks to the internet I’m connected to and interested in all sorts of conversations, and one comment on one thread that really caught my eye was so thought-provoking that I asked it’s author if I could share it more widely. The Rev Dr. Tom Woolford is an Anglican curate, with a PhD in _ history, who I’ve enjoyed reading and thinking with for a number of years. His comment is presented below with light edits from myself.

I knew about the Anglican Consultative Council resolution affirming the Joint Declaration last year. So I wasn’t massively taken aback by the Archbishop’s move to sign it next week. But unlike some of my fellow ‘hot Prods’, I’m not completely scandalised. Here’s what I think about the Joint Declaration:

1. It is not the end of the Reformation.

The Joint Declaration deliberately masks aspects of the fundamental Reformation divide between the Roman and Reformed churches. It is silent on the imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness; it doesn’t define grace as being either God’s unmerited favour or a quality infused into the soul; it doesn’t make clear whether grace is the instrumental and faith the meritorious cause of justification or the other way round; and it doesn’t separate forgiveness of sins from inner renewal/being made righteous. It is, as it has been called, ‘Regensburg redivivus.’ I’m therefore sorely tempted to yell, ‘NEIN!’ and slam my fist on the table, or to take up a hammer, nails and 95 new theses to my parish notice board…


2. What it *does* actually say is nearly all fine.

It’s hard to pin down a specific objection to it. Take this for example: “Justification thus means that Christ himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father. Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” – Amen and amen!

3. Let us concede that this is a huge improvement on C16th Tridentine Catholicism.

Even though it would still be theoretically possible to hold a Tridentine theology and yet sign this document, there are no anathemas, no excommunications, and plenty of concessions to Protestant concerns and language. That is not nothing. Imagine if Pope Leo had provided this at the Diet of Worms? It wouldn’t have been the end of the Reformation, but it might at least have saved a lot of bloodshed and – in the long run – might even have provided a possibility that 1517-21 didn’t end up in permanent schism.

It might also help us, as twenty-first century Protestants, to avoid attacking a straw man version of Roman Catholic teaching on justification. However we understand and describe their doctrine, it must be able to accommodate that they can confess such a declaration – with its confession of ‘grace alone’ and its denial of ‘any merit on our part.’ Questions and concerns remain despite these sentences, and we mustn’t think that the Joint Declaration answers everything and supersedes the authority of our Anglican formularies – which are much clearer on this matter – but we mustn’t lazily describe Roman doctrine as straightforward Pelagianism.

4. ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore.’

Christendom is over. In this age of rampant secularism and the prevalence of other religions in the West, we surely must recognise that rubbing along OK with Roman Catholics is no bad thing. They confess the Creed. They stand up for Christian moral teaching on the sanctity of life and other ethical matters. Yes, they remain in serious error on various matters of doctrine – including justification; and those who teach serious error are in danger of God’s judgment. But many millions today will be saved by the grace of God through the ministry of the Roman Church. None will be saved through the ministry of the Mosque. So let’s get our priorities right.

I hope you’ll agree with me that Tom makes some good points. We should be both quick to celebrate signs of unity, and realistic about the importance of differences. Seeing this in the grand scope of history and ecumenical dialogue is vital – these things matter, ultimately, and even an inch of rapprochement is better than none.

I’d love to hear other folk’s thoughts, if you had a moment.

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