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500 years ago

03 November 2017

“AS SINNERS our new life is solely due to the forgiving and renewing mercy that God imparts as a gift and we receive in faith, and never can merit in any way. Therefore the doctrine of justification, which takes up this message and explicates it, is more than just one part of Christian doctrine. It stands in an essential relation to all truths of faith, which are to be seen as internally related to each other.”

So says, in part, the joint declaration on justification signed by the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran World Federation, and other Reformation Churches, and endorsed in a resolution by the Anglican Consultative Council to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It goes on: “Lutherans and Catholics share the goal of confessing Christ in all things, who alone is to be trusted above all things as the one Mediator . . . through whom God in the Holy Spirit gives himself and pours out his renewing gifts.”

This declaration as a whole gives the lie to those who discount ecumenical dialogue: it has been vital in creating a benign context for commemorating the world-changing events set in train by an extraordinary personality. Few scandals in the history of Western Christianity are greater than the hatred and horrors that ensued upon Martin Luther’s challenge to the status quo. In the 16th century, this thread of doctrine was capable, once pulled, of unravelling the entire fabric of medieval Christianity, not least the power of the priest and the relation of pope and prelate to prince and people. It proved to be a powder keg. But from roots in neglected New Testament teaching new life surged, with the aid of printing, new intellectual freedoms, and a new sense of what it meant to be the laity, which in the 20th century, after a period of reaction, Rome’s Second Vatican Council was finally able to appropriate in its own style.

But, as in all revolutions, the Reformation led to new tyrannies by those who had overturned the old, or others to whom they turned to effect their aims. There was the legacy of Erastianism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism which bore its evil fruit in 20th-century Germany; fresh distortions of the gospel — new shibboleths and superstitions — and of morality, especially economic; and forms of individualism and sectarianism as errant as the old clericalism. It is slow work for Churches to grow into all truth together when their vision is encrusted by the polemic of centuries. The English still tend to see doctrine through the polarising filter of popular controversy of the century after RC emancipation in 1829, and thus to give Anglicanism’s own modern international dialogue with Rome less than its due. Its work has been called “getting behind the Reformation”. That remains crucial to the next stage, which is getting beyond it.

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