Yale Divinity School
November, 6th, 2018
I hope you allow me to speak personally. As many other Lutherans, my spiritual path in my youth was pietistic and low church oriented. These two emphasis dominated me personally, but also in wider scope the ecclesial environment in Finland. I guess the situation in general was the same in the motherland of the Reformation, in Germany, and in some extent among the Lutherans in United States as well.
When one looks at the photos of the first assemblies of the Lutheran World Federation in 1940ties and 1950ties, the participants are dressed in black talars and they look very pious – and almost all are men.
I’m not not going to analyze the historical roots of the different modes of Lutheranism. It might be, that some features we regard as Lutheran, come from Enlightenment and pietistic awakening movements, not so much from the original theology of Martin Luther.
For me the personal possibility to study both Martin Luther and the Catholic theology has been a deep ecumenical journey of discovery. Surely I’m aware about the controversies between the churches. I’m not trying to simply marry Luther and the Pope. Luther spoke critically about the head of the Catholic church as an Antichrist and on the other hand the Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther.
Despite of these historical facts and difficulties I’m sure that behind these struggles there is a broad, profound and solid common understanding of the Christian faith.
During my life I have tried to follow the words of pope John XXIII. ”The things that unite us are greater than those that divide us.”
In this spirit we have in the international Lutheran – Roman Catholic Commission on Unity formulated some imperatives for the discussion on the grass root level. The first of these imperatives says:
”Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.”
What are the gifts I have received from the Catholic church and theology?
Firstly, I have learned a lot from the classical character of the Christian faith.
In the end of 1990ties I had the privilege to follow and participate in the process of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. For me it was a touching experience to cooperate with the famous German bishop and theologian Paul-Werner Scheele, when we together wrote the central Trinitarian and Christological paragraph of the Declaration. I quote only shortly:
“In faith we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God. The Father sent his Son into the world to save sinners. The foundation and presupposition of justification is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Justification thus means that Christ himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father. Together we confess: 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.”
The first gift from the Roman Catholic Church for me is, how deeply we share the classical Trinitarian and Christological character of our Christian faith. More important than my personal faith is what the Triune God has done. God and his grace come first. God is stronger than my faith. We people are only receivers. Jesus Christ is more powerful than my piousness.
Historically it is important to remember our common roots in the Early Church. Luther and Reformation did not establish a new church. The continuity of our common tradition is important. The basic character of the Lutheran doctrine is not in the Enlightenment, neither in Pietism, not in Luther, but in the faith of the Apostles and in the faith of the Early, undivided church. That is the first gift I have been able to study deeper in the dialogue with my Catholic friends, sisters and brothers.
Secondly, in the dialogue with Catholics I have had the possibility to understand deeper, what is the spiritual character of the Church.
The Church is not only a human entity among other social institutions, it is not only an assembly where we people decide what we should believe or not. The church is not an organization among other human groups.
Yes, the church has a worldly and temporal side. Yes, we have to practice the classical virtues in the common life. Yes, we have to promote justice and love in the everyday life.
But the church is more than our best human ideas and efforts. It is the place and where God is present among us, where Christ gives birth to new members of his flock.
The church is both human and divine, following her Master, Jesus Christ, who truly was both human and divine. The difference was that He was human without sin, we not.
This is the background, why I’m not anymore afraid to say that the Christian church has an sacramental character. The church is a visible gift to all people. According to my opinion this is also good Lutheran theology.
Surely, I do not agree with my Catholic colleagues about all what they say about the church. If we Lutherans sometimes not appreciate the church enough, I ask, whether the Catholics appreciate the church too much. The small low church boy still lives in my heart.