Rereading Paul Together: Protestant and Catholics Perspectives on Justification

Rereading Paul Together: Protestant and Catholic Perspectives on Justification
By David E. Aune
272 p.
Baker (November 2006)

Rereading Paul Together (RPT) is a collection of essays originally presented as papers at a conference of Roman Catholic and Lutheran biblical scholars and theologians. The papers were delivered in February 2002, not long after the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Roman Catholic Church signed the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" (JDDJ). They consciously explore the JDDJ from the disciplinary perspectives of biblical studies, systematic theology, and historical theology.

The late David Truemper, a Lutheran professor of theology, introduces the JDDJ by placing it in the context of a half century of Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogue, highlighting its key features, and reflecting on the near-term significance of the joint statement.

Susan K. Wood and Michael Root provide systematic-theological reflections on the JDDJ from Roman Catholic and Lutheran perspectives, respectively.

The Roman Catholic, Joseph Fitzmyer, and the Lutheran, John Reumann, two senior New Testament scholars, address the doctrine of justification from the standpoint of the Pauline evidence. Richard E. Demaris and Margaret M. Mitchell provide Lutheran and Roman Catholic responses to Fitzmyer and Reumann, respectively.  

David M. Rylaarsdam, Randall C. Zachman, and David E. Aune offer surveys of the history of Pauline interpretation in the ancient church, the medieval church, and twentieth century historical critical scholarship. Significantly, no essay specifically explores the biblical and theological writings of Reformation-era and post-Reformation Protestant and Roman Catholic authors.

Because RPT is so integrally tied to the JDDJ, a brief survey of the origins, content, and aspirations of the JDDJ will help the reader to appreciate better the context of RPT.

On October 31, 1999 in Augsburg, Germany, the LWF and the Roman Catholic Church signed the JDDJ.[1]  Unlike the 1994 statement "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" and its 1998 companion statement, "The Gift of Salvation," the signatories to the JDDJ were ecclesiastical bodies, not private individuals. The JDDJ was immediately hailed as a momentous advance in Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue. Since the LWF currently claims to represent over 68 million Lutherans in 140 Lutheran denominations around the globe, [2] one could not dismiss the JDDJ as unrepresentative of contemporary institutional Lutheranism. Since the Vatican lent its signature to the document, one must regard the JDDJ as an official statement of the Roman Catholic Church.

The date and location of the signing of the JDDJ is symbolic. On October 31, 1517, the German monk, Martin Luther, posted ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenberg Schlosskirche in order to promote reform in the church. Over the next two years, Augsburg would be the scene of tense discussions between Luther and church leadership. These discussions helped make clear that church leaders were unwilling to embrace Luther's reforms. Roughly a decade later, Augsburg would lend its name to the earliest creedal affirmation of the "Lutheran" theology - the Augsburg Confession of 1530.
Against the background of these and subsequent events, the JDDJ claims consensus, at long last, has been reached between Rome and Lutheranism on the doctrine of justification, "The understanding of the doctrine of justification set forth in this Declaration shows that a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics. In light of this consensus the remaining differences of language, theological elaboration, and emphasis in the understanding of justification described in paras. 18 to 39 are acceptable." (Para. 40).

Consequently, concludes JDDJ, "the doctrinal condemnations of the 16th century, in so far as they relate to the doctrine of justification, appear in a new light: The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration." (Para 41).

If the JDDJ has succeeded in what it has claimed to do, then a significant step forward in ecumenical dialogue has been taken. The question is whether the JDDJ delivers what its conclusions promise. Is there genuine consensus between official Roman Catholic dogma and Lutheran theology on the doctrine of justification?

To begin answering this question, a couple of related observations are in order.

First, the Council of Trent (1546-1564) quite literally anathematized (i.e. placed under the curse of God) Protestant teaching on justification by faith alone. To be sure, some of what Trent anathematized was a caricature of the Protestant doctrine. But enough of the genuine article was there to substantiate the conclusion that, from the classical Lutheran viewpoint, Rome had in fact anathematized the biblical gospel. The distance from "anathema" to "consensus" is great. To bridge that gap is nothing less than a marvel of theological engineering.

Second, Rome claims infallibility for Trent's statement on justification. By definition, an infallible church (Rome) is incapable of teaching error in an infallible conciliar statement (Trent). Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani's battle cry in the midst of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), "Semper Idem" ("always the same"), reminds us that Rome has neither forgotten nor wants us to forget its doctrine of infallibility.

What does this mean for the JDDJ as a consensus statement on justification? Is it possible that the JDDJ does represent genuine movement away from Trent? If that is the case, then Homer has nodded. The unerring church has unwittingly admitted that it erred. "Aliquando Idem" ("sometimes the same") or "Saepe Idem" ("often the same") but not "Semper Idem."

When one examines the JDDJ carefully, however, it becomes clear that Rome has not changed her doctrine of justification. The Vatican, in signing the JDDJ, did not formally acknowledge the doctrine and anathemas of Trent to be in error. A reading of the JDDJ suggests that its consensus was achieved by at least two primary means. First, The JDDJ employs language that is so ambiguous as to accommodate both the Roman Catholic and the Lutheran doctrines. [3] Second, the document fails clearly to affirm that the sole ground of the believer's justification is the imputed righteousness of Christ. The document also refuses to affirm that the sole instrument of the believer's justification is faith. The JDDJ masks, therefore, the very differences that lie at the heart of the Roman Catholic - Protestant debate on justification.

The essays in RPT are a collaborative, multi-disciplinary effort to reflect on the significance of the JDDJ. Their significance is twofold. First, they provide a fascinating window into the consensus that the JDDJ claims to have achieved. Second, they help the reader to see the fundamental instability of this consensus. Let us look at an example of each.

First, one is struck by the conspicuous absence of any Lutheran contributor articulating and defending sola fide (justification by faith alone). RPT therefore parallels the JDDJ in bypassing any sustained consideration of this crucial doctrine.

Luther and other Reformers argued that the Bible teaches that the sinner is declared righteous solely on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. The sinner receives Christ's righteousness by faith alone. Neither the sinner's faith nor the fruit of that faith justifies the sinner. Christ justifies the sinner. Our faith simply receives the imputed righteousness of Christ.

When David Truemper surveys the JDDJ, he fails to call attention to the document's refusal to affirm justification by faith alone (34-6). Michael Root's essay has little to say to sola fide apart from a brief survey of an intra-Lutheran debate on the extent to which the human will is active in justification. Richard E. Demaris's response to Joseph Fitzmyer's essay passes over consideration of sola fide. John Reumann's discussion of faith in justification is largely confined to (correctly) defending the position that at Gal 2:16 and elsewhere, Paul means to say that the believer is justified by faith in Christ, not that we are justified by the faithfulness of Christ (124). He does not directly address sola fide.

It is stunning that the very doctrine that distinguished the Reformation's doctrine of justification from Rome's doctrine - sola fide - is neglected by these heirs of Luther in this consortium. Where these contributors do address Lutheran / Roman Catholic differences in justification, they tend to focus upon the historical Lutheran insistence on justification as the theologically generative center of Paul's thought, and, less so, on the justified person as simul justus et peccator ("at the same time righteous and a sinner"). These are certainly legitimate points for Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogue. But where is the discussion of the issue that historically has most visibly defined Roman Catholic and Lutheran division on the doctrine of justification? What theological progress can come from an ecumenical exchange that leaves sola fide largely unaddressed?

Second, the embrace of historical-critical methodology by biblical scholars within each tradition has accompanied and, more than one contributor claims, has fostered the emergence of this recent ecumenical consensus.  Joseph Fitzmyer points to a "common reading" of Paul that has made possible the JDDJ (77). As the Lutheran contributor Richard E. Demaris observes, the historical-critical study of Paul has substantially contributed to the emergence of this common reading. The historical-critical method, Demaris argues, offers Roman Catholic and Lutheran scholars alike "a common method ... a lingua franca for conversation and collaboration between them" (99). [4]

Demaris's conclusion gains plausibility when one compares the contributions of (Lutheran) John Reumann and (Roman Catholic) Joseph Fitzmyer. Both Reumann and Fitzmyer address justification by faith in the Pauline epistles. To be sure, there are differences between the two essays. One is struck, however, by their similarities - their choice of "righteousness" to structure their discussions; the common bibliography underlying their scholarship; their substantial exegetical agreement concerning the meaning of such central Pauline statements as "works of the law," "faith in Christ;" and "to be justified;" and their common understanding of the place and importance of justification in Paul's theology and ministry.[5]  Reumann's and Fitzmyer's multiple agreements in method and result certainly suggest that the historical-critical method holds promise for lasting ecumenical consensus.

Or do they? Historical-critical scholarship has in actuality proven incapable of providing the kind of lasting consensus that ecumenical endeavor requires. One need only review Aune's fine, detailed essay surveying twentieth century historical-critical scholarship of Paul to witness the fundamental and unresolved differences in that tradition. Did Paul experience a conversion and change religions on the Damascus Road, or did he simply receive a call to preach the gospel to the Gentiles? Did Paul break from Judaism because it was a religion of merit, or did Paul break from ancient Judaism's particularism in favor of a Christian universalism? What is the "righteousness of God"? Is the "New Perspective on Paul" correct in its reevaluations of such key Pauline phrases as "the righteousness of God," "the works of the law," and "justified by faith"? To these questions we may add the more fundamental questions posed by Demaris. Are Paul's letters fundamentally incoherent, as Heikki Räisänen has argued? Should we follow John Ashton in identifying experience as "more basic and determinative in Paul" than doctrine (105)?

A second observation follows from the first. It is not simply that historical-critical scholarship has provided no consensus on these questions. It is that historical-critical scholarship will never provide a stable consensus on these questions. Why is this? Aune correctly observes that historical-criticism's practitioners are undertaking a descriptive rather than a normative enterprise. Historical criticism, Aune notes, "is inimical to the valorization of one religious system over another when fortified by the presuppositions of cultural relativism. From the perspective of historical criticism, for example, Luther's understanding of Christology is neither superior nor inferior to that of Trent - it is just different" (190, emphasis Aune's). If historical-critical scholarship is a fundamentally descriptive enterprise, retiring from the normative claims advanced by Christian confession, then how can it provide the lasting foundation for ecumenical endeavor? [6] Only if that ecumenical endeavor embraces historical criticism's aversion to normativity. Such endeavor, however, fundamentally departs from the way that the Scripture bases Christian unity upon unchanging biblical truth (Eph 4:11-16, 1 Cor 1:10, Phil 1:27).
The essays in this volume have helpfully illustrated the dynamics of contemporary ecumenical discussion. A profound irony in this discussion is that historical-critical methodology, the very occasion of drawing together Roman Catholics and Lutherans into common exegetical endeavor, is itself incapable of delivering lasting consensus among those parties.

We may put it more strongly. To the degree that historical-critical methodology relativizes or sidelines Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism as defined by their respective confessions, historical criticism is an impediment not an aid toward true ecumenical dialogue and consensus.

So is there consensus between the Roman Catholic Church and many Lutheran bodies on the question of justification? In one sense, the answer to that question is "yes." That consensus, however, has come at tremendous cost - the Protestant Reformation. In another sense, the answer to that question is "no." The leading figures may have changed, but the rules have not. The Roman Catholic and the Lutheran confessions still pose two mutually exclusive options - either we cooperate with Christ to be justified or the imputed righteousness of Christ alone justifies us.
[1] The JDDJ is available online at  (Accessed 08 October 2008).
[2] Accessed 08 October 2008.
For examples, see the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, "The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in Confessional Perspective" (St. Louis, Mo.: The Commission on Theology and Church Relations, The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, 1999), available at  See also the recent analysis of John V. Fesko, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine (Phillipsburg, N. J.: P&R, 2008), pp. 365-7.
[4] Compare Aune, 245.
Compare here the concurring observation of Aune, 227; cp. 241-2.
[6] Aune assesses the role of historical criticism in ecumenical dialogue differently. He lauds historical criticism because he believes that it has made possible the "general agreement" between Protestants and Roman Catholics on justification reflected in JDDJ, 245.

Guy Waters is a professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.