Orthodox view on the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification

Orthodox view on the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification[*]

Father Nicolas Kazarian

Never has such a sensitive question agitated the religious landscape of Europe, and of the world at large, as this: how is humanity saved? In this debate, which in the 16th century deeply marked the religious and political scene of the European continent by opening the bloody chapter of the wars of religion, Orthodox Christianity has been little exposed for various reasons. First, the political situation of the Orthodox Churches: they were at the time either subject to the authorities of the Sublime Porte in the Ottoman Empire, or under the political influence of Moscow, which was readying itself for Empire. Its theology was, then, not brilliant. For that, we must wait for the period of the “Eastern Enlightenment” in the 18th century, with the renewal of the Philokalia, to rediscover its vitality. Orthodoxy had flown under the radar of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, at least at first. For the Orthodox Church, the Reformation was above all an intra-western event that occurred when the Eastern Roman Empire had just disappeared following the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottomans in 1453.

However, if the Orthodox Church of the past five hundred years was at the fringes of history, today it is fully at the center of an ecumenical conversation that forces it to look at the main achievements on the path of inter-Christian rapprochement. Thus, it is most proper to return for an Orthodox view on the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which celebrates in 2018 its 20th anniversary, especially when the document intends to: "encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and show that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations." (par.5)

It must be admitted that Orthodox analyses on this document are not numerous. To the proper theological discussion that has fractured Western Christianity, it is necessary to add a strict historical dimension that explains the lack of resonance in the Orthodox tradition of issues related to the question of justification, and, more generally, of the Reformation. In twenty years, the ecumenical context has evolved, and I am particularly pleased that an opportunity is offered to reflect on such a central topic in the history of Christianity.

The response to the original paradox of “simul justus et peccator” (simultaneously both just and sinner) is not written for Orthodoxy in the light of the doctrine of original sin, of which it does not share a definition with the West, nor likewise the wake of the theological-political nexus that was at the origin of the Protestant Reformation. It is also necessary to quickly return to some fundamental aspects of Orthodox theology to evaluate the scope of its compatibility with the consensus derived from the Lutheran-Catholic Declaration.

Justification relates to the essential question of salvation, that is, not so much how we are saved, but by whom we are saved. This is a considerable difference of perspective in the dialectic between grace and good works. This duality has a face, Christ, the Incarnate God. This mystery is prolonged in the life of the Church by the work of the Holy Spirit who unites and sanctifies humanity. Vladimir Lossky once wrote: “The Oriental tradition never separates these two moments: grace and human freedom, for they manifest themselves simultaneously and cannot be conceived without each other.”

The tension between grace and freedom on the path of justification has been clearly resolved in the continuation of the debate between St. Augustine and the Pelagians in the fifth century. For Orthodoxy, it is not so much a question of opposition between grace and free will, but of an encounter, an appeal, an invitation to communion, a collaboration or synergy. In the words of the holy Apostle Paul: “For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Co 3:9) St. Cyril of Jerusalem also wrote: “To God to give His grace, to you to welcome and keep it.” As with all such encounters, the event has its own contradictions. The human person has been created in the image and likeness of God and as such has a proper will, a limited free will, but nevertheless indispensable to the unfolding of the infinite grace of God. This asymmetrical relationship does not automatically qualify humanity for salvation. One could say that there is no grace without effort, hence the importance of fasting, prayer, liturgy, etc. ; but good works do not oblige God to grant it to us. Grace is given freely. The very notion of merit is foreign to Orthodox theology. In addition, grace can also be withdrawn despite our efforts, according to a divine plan which invites us to seek it continually.

It goes without saying that Lutherans and Orthodox are called to think through these questions together. Moreover, it is interesting to note that the same year as the publication of the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, in 1998, the Commission which brought together Orthodox and Lutherans published an important document entitled: "Salvation: Grace, Justification and Synergy " issued by the 9th plenary session of the Sigtuna meeting, in Sweden. This statement, much shorter than the Lutheran-Catholic document, analyzes the concepts of "synergy" from the Orthodox tradition and "sola fide" from the Lutheran tradition. Because this document of convergence does not intend to solve the historic dimension of the "condemnations" of the past, it concentrates more willingly on the theological factors. It must be admitted that as early as the 16th century the Luthero-Orthodox debates questioned the theological perspective of justification. In the correspondence of Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople (1536-1595) and the Lutheran scholars of Wittenberg, a first draft of theological dialogue was put forward, without, however, having reached a positive outcome.

The Lutheran-Orthodox Declaration of 1998 no longer reflects the spirit of polemics of the past. As in the Lutheran-Catholic document, it shows that a consensus is possible. Drawing on these documents, and moreover twenty years after their publication, is a three-way consensus too much to hope for? I am convinced that the participation of Orthodox theology, as a third party, deepens not only the scope of understanding of justification, but also the ability of different documents to interact with one another, while respecting the theological differences of each of the Christian traditions.

When both texts say “We confess together” or “Lutherans and Orthodox believe that,” these claims are inherently inclusive. One of the most important achievements of these documents lies precisely in their capacity to widen the scope of consensus by integrating other actors in the Ecumenical landscape. It thus creates a phenomenon of resonance around the question of justification. Also, on the theme of synergy, we may read: “This is what the Orthodox mean by “synergy” (working together) of divine grace and the human will of the believer in the appropriation of the divine life in Christ. The understanding of synergy in salvation is helped by the fact that the human will in the one person of Christ was not abolished when the human nature was united in Him with the divine nature, according to the Christological decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. While Lutherans do not use the concept of synergy, they recognize the personal responsibility of the human being in the acceptance or refusal of divine grace through faith, and in the growth of faith and obedience to God. Lutherans and Orthodox both understand good works as the fruits and manifestations of the believer’s faith and not as a means of salvation.” (par.5) The Lutheran-Catholic document goes in the same direction: “We confess together that good works - a Christian life lived in faith, hope and love - follow justification and are its fruits. When the justified lives in Christ and act in the grace they receive, they bring forth, in biblical terms, good fruit.” (par.37)

The effects and responsibility of bilateral relations on the global ecumenical level are better understood today. By this I mean that relations between churches are not and can no longer be estranged from the ecumenical environment in which we live. Even if certain priorities, such as the question of justification, call for the rapprochement of two particular Churches, the fact remains that the process, or even the movement, determined by their dialogue contributes to the more general rapprochement of Christians and is at the same time an effect of the latter. Advances in dialogue between Catholics, Lutherans and Orthodox show that the search for consensus is not only necessary, but possible.

For Orthodoxy, being justified is a dynamic state, as is ecumenism. Our ecumenical witness is destined to become one of the effects of a theological consensus to which we are drawing closer. Taking seriously the persistent differences that keep us away from unity, the pursuit of a theological dialogue is a key piece on the ecumenical chessboard so that the common understanding of the fundamental truth of Christianity also becomes more inclusive. The common understanding of a theme like justification calls for a subsidiary reflection on its reception. For not only are the types of statements we are celebrating in 2018 little known, at least by non-specialists, but further the direct effects on the ecclesial body are poorly understood. In this sense, it resembles the lifting of the anathemas of 1054 in 1965 by Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras. What has changed? While skeptics would say nothing, I would argue that the paradigm of our relationship has changed. The simple fact that we are able today to dialogue and find common ground on issues as disruptive as the issue of justification, whatever the Christian tradition, is in itself a major advance. The movement from a theological ecumenism to a practical ecumenism, such is the stake we must all bear, and this will also be the necessary condition for any reception of a joint declaration, such as that on the doctrine of justification.

Today, thinking about the issue of justification in our churches is particularly valuable. Justification is not just a theological topic, it is also a moral issue and a question related to the experience of the Gospel in the world. It is determined by our ability to witness not so much to our own individual salvation, but rather to the salvation brought by the incarnation and sacrifice of Christ "for the life of the world". When St. Seraphim of Sarov speaks of the "acquisition" of the Holy Spirit as the goal of the Christian life, I am convinced that this expression is echoed in other Christian traditions, along with experiences of doubt and absence of grace as found in the spiritual journeys of personalities such as St. Silouan of Mt. Athos and many others.

The bright darkness of a life in Christ, despite the inherent weaknesses of our nature, forges the mystical experience of the improbable encounter between God and His creation. Undoubtedly, it is also to be simultaneously “just and sinners,” united and divided.

[*] Article first published in French: “Regard orthodoxe sur la Déclaration commune luthéro-catholique sur la doctrine de la justification”, Unité des chrétiens 193(2019), pp.22-25