Narrowing a major divide that has separated Roman Catholics and Lutherans since the 16th century, the United States’ largest Lutheran church on Tuesday endorsed a joint declaration on how humans are saved from eternal damnation.
Both churches called the move a major ecumenical step on the eve of a new millennium as leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America overwhelmingly approved the declaration on a 958-25 vote in Philadelphia.
“Tell a 70-year-old hard-core confessional Lutheran like me this would happen in my lifetime, and you’d have a tough sell making me believe it,” the Rev. Franklin Fry of Summit, N.J., said during the debate. “But it’s happening, and the Holy Spirit is taking my breath away.”
Although the theological arguments may seem irrelevant or trivial to some, differences between the two churches over the doctrine were a pivotal cause of Martin Luther’s break with Rome in the arly 1500s and the ensuing Protestant Reformation that changed the face of Christianity and the history of Western civilization.
At the height of the 16th century conflict, the two churches issued condemnations of each other. Lutherans held that a person is saved only through the grace of God, while Catholics placed as much emphasis on the mediation of the church and the good works of its members.
The vote came came just a day after the 5.2 million-member church approved historic unity accords with three Protestant denominations.
The unity accords call for shared Communion and clergy between the Protestant churches. In contrast, the Lutheran agreement with the Catholic Church is of a theological nature and does not integrate the two denominations.
The U.S. Lutheran denomination is the second Lutheran church to approve a joint declaration with Catholics. Earlier this year the Church of Sweden backed the plan. By the middle of next year, the remaining 121 churches in the Lutheran World Federation representing 57 million of the world’s 60 million Lutherans are expected to vote. The Vatican is reviewing the statement.
The Joint Declaration on Justification has been described by Pope John Paul II as “a moment of grace.” In Christian theology, justification means that God forgives people and saves them by their faith.
Both churches have agreed that the old condemnations no longer apply. But it has taken more 480 years to settle what have been until now intractable differences.
The declaration has been negotiated by a joint panel of Catholic and Lutheran theologians over 30 years.
The statement, however, does not end all differences between the two churches over justification. But it does declare that there is sufficient agreement on the basic doctrine that remaining differences are no longer “church dividing.”
Basically, the declaration declares that both churches agree that humans are saved from hell by the grace of God alone through belief in Jesus Christ, and not by anything humans can do on their own, including good deeds. But they also agree that good works flow from such salvation.