Friday, September 25, 2009

JDDJ and Other Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogues

It has been ten years since representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church attached signatures to what was proclaimed a landmark document on what Lutherans refer to as the article on which the Church stands or falls. Later Methodists affixed their own approval to the document that has been heralded as the crowning achievement of several generations of dialogue between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. It is called the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (hence JDDJ).

You can read the document HERE and you can read the LCMS response to it HERE. I am not going to address the document in any detailed way but to express a concern for the way this declaration differs from previous documents.

I literally grew up as these dialogues were taking place and the people who sat at table were giants of the faith -- I think instantly of Dr. Piepkorn from Missouri but the list is impressive on both sides. It was the most productive of the dialogues the Roman Catholic Church has had with its ecumenical partners (the Anglicans, etc.). What was its genius was that both sides had at the table those who represented the brightest and deepest thinkers and that their goal was to represent their tradition as accurately as possible. Piepkorn had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Lutheran Confessions which often instructed the Lutheran participants as well as the Roman Catholic dialogue partners. Their purpose was not so much agreement but to represent as faithfully and accurately as possible the traditions at the table -- this was not the place where exceptions or oddities or trivialities ruled but the full meaning of their church's teachings explored. Where unity resulted, it was because the differences were honestly approached and the theological treasures deeply mined. The agreements were secondary to the primary purpose of representing their church's teachings well.

The later dialogues were not as fruitful in part because documents of agreement seemed to take a higher priority than this honest confrontation of difference and this honest representation of who we are, what we believe, teach and confess. So ten years after the JDDJ document on justification and faith, neither the Lutherans nor Roman Catholics have done much with this (except to sign it and attach a few provisos to that). This is in part because neither the language nor the agreement carries much weight with either side. Lutherans tried to speak in Roman Catholic language and Roman Catholics tried to use Lutheran language -- like a person with two years of high school Spanish on holiday in Barcelona, it did not work and the traditions did not speak as well or as clearly as they did when they spoke their own language.

In a sense I am saddened that ecumenical dialogue has become the domain of the agreement writers and less the place where the brightest and best of our churches boldly speak what it is they believe, teach, and confess, and why. It occurs to me that if the kind of unity of expression that so many desire is actually to be found, it will be the result of honestly and bluntly speaking about who we are, what we believe, and why... not by trying to find common ground (that usually ends up in being words that neither side is fully comfortable with and therefore the end result becomes a footnote in a history book instead of a formational document toward real unity).

When I read the first 5-6 books that resulted from the early Roman Catholic and Lutheran theological dialogues, I am taught about my own tradition from those who represented the best of my own tradition and I still go back to those books from time to time. It occurs to me that in contrast JDDJ will be honored with an anniversary but it is not the same kind of document and its impact has yet to be felt -- in part because no one is really comfortable with the end result of what both sides say.

It occurs to me that when Lutherans dialogue with other Christians, we need to be the best Lutherans we can be at the dialogue... and we had better expect the same from those who sit across the table. For agreement to last it must be forged from the honest confrontation of what is not agreed. And then, perhaps, under the power of Scripture's light and within the realm of the catholic teaching tradition of the Church, we may just find that elusive agreement. But it will definitely NOT come from trying to be somebody other than we are when we sit at the conference table with our ecumenical counterparts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Two key words at the end of your post: HONEST, and CONFRONTATION. You stated the missing key in only two.