WRF Member Leonardo De Chirico Responds to the WARC Statement on Justification

July 29, 2017
Leonardo De Chirico

[Note: The item below expresses the views of the individual to whom the material is ascribed and does not necessarily reflect the position of the WRF as a whole.] 

Reflections on the
“Association of the World Communion of Reformed Churches with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”

WRF Member Leonardo De Chirico

It is no surprise that the ecumenical bodies representing mainline Protestant churches gradually come together in celebrating the achievements of the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” (JDDJ). After the signature between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, it was the World Methodist Council that endorsed JDDJ in 2006. Now it’s the turn of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. Notice that these Protestant bodies are highly influenced by liberal and post-liberal theological trends (although in various degrees). This commitment to liberal principles shapes them and makes them close to one another in spite of their historical and ecclesiastical differences. In present-day mainline Protestantism, Liberalism and Ecumenism go hand in hand.

Here are some remarks on the paragraphs of the “Association of the WCRC with JDDJ”.

1.  Justification is defined “by grace through faith”, a definition that even the Council of Trent would have endorsed. With this definition characterized by the lowest common denominator it is no surprise to find agreement with the Catholic Church. Trent would have had no problem in subscribing to it; what about the Reformers? Moreover, is this a biblically fair and historically responsible way of addressing the whole issue? Is this the definition that the Reformed tradition would be comfortable with in describing justification? The document aligns itself to the ecumenical choir whereby the doctrine of justification no longer divides present-day Christians, yet it is clear that the basic terms and issues of the controversy were changed in order to accommodate the Catholic teaching and leaving aside the Protestant insistence whereby the “alone” adverbs are essential to apprehend the biblical message of justification.

2.  It is puzzling to read that the remaining differences between Catholics and Protestants on justification are to be considered as “diverse emphases” against the background of “the model of differentiating consensus”. Here the document practically says that the insistence on “grace alone” and “faith alone” is a matter of “emphasis” rather than substance; is it really? Again, is it fair to the Reformed tradition? Is a truncated definition of justification a real basis for agreement and unity? Liberals do not see any problem in downgrading the importance of doctrinal points to matters of different “emphases”. They are no longer committed to biblical standards as they are enshrined in the classic Protestant confessions. Post-Vatican II Catholicism has a different approach. It is able to stretch itself to accommodate other “emphases” without reforming its unbiblical doctrines and imperial structures. Hence the ecumenical movement can speak of “differentiated consensus” which gives the impression to be very politically correct, but is instead highly problematic from a reformed point of view.

3.  Reference is made to the 1541 Regensburg Agreement as a historical precedent of the present- day consensus. This is the standard ecumenical mis-representation of Regensburg. There the agreement on “duplex iustitia” did not have sacramental overtones. The lack of sacramental language and implications was the main reason that led the Catholic side to reject it while the agreement was approved by Calvin and other Reformers. It is no surprise that JDDJ frames its understanding of justification in sacramental categories that are acceptable to Catholics. JDDJ is therefore fundamentally different from Regensburg because while it blurs the forensic categories it majors on sacramental ones. The WCRC document simply misses the point (see Appendix N. 1 for further discussion on the sacramental framework of JDDJ).

4-11. Here there is a reference to a Trinitarian definition of justification which speaks of reconciliation to the Father, the incarnation of the Son and union with Christ through the Spirit, the call to all people to be saved. Insistence is placed on the inseparability between justification and sanctification. While what is stressed is important, what is missing is perhaps more significant.

Throughout the document there is a “light” view of sin. Reprobation is never mentioned.

        God’s judgment is never mentioned.

        Imputation is never referred to. Question: can a biblical (and therefore reformed) doctrine of justification fail to rely on the doctrine of imputation? Can it fail to speak about God’s judgment for those who are not justified?

12-21. The additional particular emphases that the document wants to suggest have to do with the social outworking of justification. According to the document the distinctive Reformed contribution links justification to justice (here the 2008 Accra Confession is mentioned). The document seems less interested in representing the historic Reformed position than to representing the present-day social implications of the doctrine of justification.

Official Common Affirmation. It is stated that the document serves “the pursuit of the full communion and common witness” between Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and Reformed. Indeed, Liberal Protestantism thinks of “full communion” as the goal of its liquid theology, having no controlling parameter apart from resisting traditional Protestant theology and ethics. Roman Catholicism sees in “full communion” the full legitimacy of its imperial structures that make it possible for the whole of Christianity (indeed the whole world) to be represented by the central institutions of the church of Rome.

In summary: the WCRC document selectively and poorly represents the Reformed position on justification being more interested in pursuing ecumenical unity than upholding biblical truth.

Rome, July 25th, 2017  Dr. Leonardo De Chirico

www.reformandainitiative.org www.ifeditalia.org


Appendix N. 1


Is the Roman Catholic Church Now Committed to “Grace Alone”?

By Leonardo De Chirico (www.vaticanfiles.org; August 1st, 2017)

Many commentators with good intentions, even on the evangelical side, have rightly given attention to what seems to be the heart of the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) signed by the Roman Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation. No. 15 solemnly says:

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.

If read out of context and in a theologically naïve way, this sentence could be a relevant and pointed summary of the biblical message concerning the mode of justification (by grace only and not based on merits), the means of justification (by faith alone), the grounds of justification (the saving work of Christ), and the consequences of justification (divine adoption and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the renewal of the heart and the activation of the Christian life). However, every sound exercise in theological hermeneutics, including the reading of the documents of the ecumenical dialogue, must take into account the immediate and more general context, the meaning of the words used, and the consequences of what is being claimed. Taken out of context, No. 15 would make much sense from an evangelical perspective. Yet it must be considered as an integral part of the JDDJ and therefore must be understood in relation to the whole document.

Sacramental Grace

Presenting the various aspects of the doctrine, the Catholic and Lutheran Churches agree on a sacramental understanding of grace. It is this sacramental framework that qualifies the reference to the expression “by grace alone” contained in No. 15. Together, in fact, they declare that “by the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they (the sinners) are granted the gift of salvation” (No. 25), thus undermining the idea that it is only by grace that God saves sinners through faith alone.

Lutheran theology, with its theology of regenerational baptism, actually runs this risk. Later, in No. 28, the JDDJ states (always with both parties affirming this together) that “in baptism the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies, and truly renews the person”. It is not surprising, however, that the Catholic clarification on this point forcefully underlines that “persons are justified through baptism as hearers of the word and believers in it" (No. 27). On the one hand, then, JDDJ wants to affirm the importance of the declaration of the righteousness of God received by faith. On the other, though, it reiterates the need for sacramental action through the mediation of the church as essential for justification and, therefore, for salvation.

The Catholic point is further reinforced through the claim that Catholics hold that the grace of Jesus Christ is “imparted” in baptism (No. 30). According to this view, grace is not received by faith alone, but is granted by God through the Church that administers it in baptism. This statement cannot be reconciled with the view according to which salvation is by grace alone apart from works, even sacramental ones. So for all the good intentions expressed and the admirable effort in dialogue, the result is below expectations and beyond an obedient adherence to the biblical Word of God. In contemporary Roman Catholicism we see a total consistency with respect to the traditional doctrine, that is, that justification occurs at baptism by a sacramental act.

Stretching Trent Rather than Reforming Rome

For the Catholic Church, the “by grace alone” of No. 15 means that grace is intrinsically, constitutionally, and necessarily linked to the sacrament, and thus to the Church that administers it and the works implemented by it. In this view, salvation cannot be by grace alone, unless “by grace alone” is understood as the same grace being organically incorporated into the sacrament of the Church. We are evidently in the presence of a different concept of grace. In JDDJ there is an attempt to re-describe this theological understanding of salvation in language that looks like the Lutheran one (which the Catholic Church appropriates through the use of such expressions as “by grace alone” of No. 15 and the recognition that works “follow justification and are its fruits” of No. 37). However, this new description does not give the impression of changing the theology of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), according to which grace is sacramental and seen inside of a synergistic dynamic of the process of salvation. This understanding of grace appears to be more in line with the Catholic heritage of the Council of Trent, in an updated form, than with classic Protestant theology. In this sense, JDDJ is a clear exercise in an increased “catholicity” (i.e. the ability to absorb ideas without changing the core) on the part of Rome, which has not become more evangelical in the biblical sense.