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Real unity first and foremost a work of God

By Kiply Lukan Yaworski


Dr. David Guretzki (left) presented a public lecture on justification and Evangelical-Catholic relations May 15 at Forest Grove Community Church in Saskatoon, with Dr. Brett Salkeld, theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina, giving a response. (Kiply Yaworski photo)

SASKATOON — A public lecture on the doctrine of justification was held May 15 at Forest Grove Community Church, organized by the Saskatoon Evangelical-Roman Catholic dialogue as part of celebrations to mark the end of their five-year dialogue process and the start of a new commission for common witness and service.

Dr. David Guretzki of Briercrest Seminary presented “Justification and the Unity of the Churches: A Lecture on Evangelical-Catholic Relations,” with Dr. Brett Salkeld, archdiocesan theologian for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, offering a response.

Recently appointed vice-president of the Evangelical Council of Canada in Ottawa, Guretzki has also been a member of the national Evangelical-Catholic dialogue, where he got to know the late Archbishop Daniel Bohan of Regina — to whom he dedicated the May 15 lecture. Guretzki also gave the reflection at a joint worship service May 16 at the Cathedral of the Holy Family to launch the new Evangelical-Roman Catholic Commission for Common Witness in Saskatoon.

Different understandings about justification — or being made right before God — have long been cited as a central reason for the split between Catholics and Protestants over the past 500 years, but the picture is more nuanced than many realize, Guretzki said during the two-hour presentation.

Guretzki summarized the historical significance of the place of justification, the actions and understanding of reformer Martin Luther, and the roots of Evangelical Christian understanding of the doctrine. He also described a largely overlooked short period of time in the early Reformation period when Catholics and Protestants reached a consensus on justification, said Guretzki.

Generally speaking, for Catholics, justification is the “impartation of righteousness — it is putting something real and actual there, that was not there before,” while for Protestants, justification is the “imputation of righteousness — in reckoning on behalf of another, with a righteousness which is not our own: that is the ‘alien righteousness’ of which Luther and Calvin both spoke,” he explained.

“The Protestant teaching was that God accepts us as righteous (what Protestants understand as justification) because Christ’s righteousness is reckoned or imputed to our account. That is, we are acceptable to God, not because of anything we have done, or even because of the change that God brings about within us, but because of what Christ has done for us on the cross,” while the Catholic teaching is that justification is about God “changing us by the Holy Spirit and thus making us acceptable to himself. At baptism/conversion we are transformed within by the grace of God that brings about within us an inherent (or imparted) righteousness.”

The difference “reflects a fundamentally different way of looking at how God relates to the world and to us as humans,” Guretzki suggested.

However, this division came only after a largely overlooked short period of time in the early Reformation period, when Catholics and Protestants came to a significant consensus on justification, said Guretzki, pointing to an article of agreement from the Regensburg Colloquy held in Cologne in 1541 as “an amazing synthesis of Catholic and Protestant concerns.”

It was a short-lived agreement: although John Calvin approved of the synthesis, Martin Luther did not, and when the Council of Trent came along five years later it included the Catholic Church’s decree on justification in 1547, which was firmly anti-Lutheran.

“It is my hope that we at least get a sense that disagreement between Catholics and Protestants on justification wasn’t just a straight line from Luther,” said Guretzki, connecting the early consensus of Regensburg to the historic joint declaration on justification of 1999 between Lutherans and Catholics.

Guretzki also argued that Evangelical-Catholic relations would benefit from focusing on the actual experience of justification, rather than simply on the doctrinal formations about it.

“Most of us can point to an event or an experience where we knew, felt, or sensed the overwhelming mercy or grace of God in our lives despite our sinfulness and our failures,” he said. “We can point to that experience of knowing the reality of God’s grace and the reality that our sins are forgiven, despite the fact that we are powerless to do anything to change it ourselves.”

Doctrine matters, but sometimes “words can sometimes mislead us in very grave and dangerous ways,” Guretzki said.

“As important as the framework of the doctrine of justification is, it is secondary to the primary reception and the spiritual knowledge that can’t always be expressed in language of this divine action of justification by our God; it is evident to me and I hope to you that we should contemplate the extent to which we are speaking of a common experience and something wonderful wrought by God: the justification and forgiveness of the sinner by a merciful and just God.”

He pointed to St. Augustine’s distinction between the res and the signa, saying, “Let’s keep working hard to clarify our language and our doctrine (signa) on justification, but let us also take to heart that perhaps Roman Catholics and Evangelicals might be speaking of the same thing (res) using different language.”

He called on Catholics and Evangelicals to “extend a significant level of grace toward one another” and celebrate that both are grasping after words for the same thing: “the same individual and corporate experience of the God who extends his forgiveness to those who humbly come to him in the midst of their sinfulness and their failure.”

Guretzki then moved from the academic and the theological into the spiritual, by offering a reflection on the biblical substance of the doctrine of justification that both Catholics and Evangelicals recognize: the parable of the Pharisee and the publican from Luke 18:9-14, which Jesus Christ addressed “to some who were confident of their own righteousness.”

Many among both Evangelicals and Catholics are confident that they are right, noted Guretzki. “When it comes to the doctrine of justification, we are all pretty confident that we all have it right. Evangelicals don’t understand why Catholics would want to throw meritorious works into the mix — we Evangelicals just say we are justified by faith, not by works. And Catholics can’t understand how Evangelicals only want to focus on forensic righteousness without addressing the corruption in our lives. Catholics may well say to Evangelicals, ‘What good is justification if it is just a legal fiction and makes no difference to the corruption of your soul?’ ”

The parable Christ offers is precisely addressed to those who are confident in their righteousness, Guretzki reminded his audience.

“Jesus goes on to tell us about the Pharisee and his prayer,” he said. The Pharisee starts his prayer by telling God what he is not — not like other people, not like the tax collector. “To say, ‘I’m glad that I am not like them’ is already good evidence that we are unaware of who we really are,” he said. “It is already a sign that we are blinded to our own weakness, and indeed our own sinfulness.”

The Pharisee goes on to make a positive statement based on what he has done, his good deeds and obedience to the law. “We can agree that what the Pharisee assumes as the basis for his justification is misplaced,” Guretzki pointed out. On the other hand, the prayer of the publican reveals the very substance of the doctrine of justification — “God have mercy on me, a sinner” — with Jesus affirming that it was this man who went home justified before God, and not the self-righteous Pharisee.

“We must first and foremost affirm: justification is the action of God at work in us, doing and accomplishing something in us; it is first and foremost something that God and God alone can do, even if it is we humans who ultimately benefit from it. God alone justifies. God alone makes right. God alone makes righteous.”

Guretzki proposed that a common confession of our need for God’s mercy should be the starting point of common witness and service by Catholics and Evangelicals.

“What if the world saw churches — Catholic and Evangelical — together crying out for God’s mercy on them?” he asked. “Too often the world thinks that the church wants to pull judgment down on them, on the world. And even when viewed more positively it is assumed that the churches exist to ask mercy for the world, on the sinners in the world, as if the need for mercy had been outgrown by the churches. What if the world saw churches — Catholics and Evangelicals — crying out for mercy on us sinners?”

Unity between Catholics and Evangelicals exists completely outside anything they can do or accomplish together; rather, it exists on the solidarity of brokenness and sin and on the power of God’s grace and mercy, Guretzki said. “There is only one true basis for unity, and that is the Triune God,” he stressed.

“We must beware of capitulating — whether subconsciously or unwittingly — to the notion that there is something that we can do to bring about the unity of the churches. God alone is God, and Jesus Christ alone is Lord and head of the church, and the Spirit alone is the Holy Spirit of our communion.”

Unity will not come from “lowest common denominator ecumenism,” from some form of “non-doctrinal common service,” from polite tolerance, nor from seeking common secular goals or shared political policies, Guretzki said. “The real theological unity of the church is first and foremost a work of God.”

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