On October 31, 2017, Christians will mark the 500th anniversary of the posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses on the Castle Door at Wittenberg, Germany, that pivotal opening event of the Protestant Reformation. The Lutheran Catholic Commission on Unity has made a case for an ecumenical commemoration of this significant anniversary. The commission’s report, From Conflict to Communion, proposes a common remembrance of the Reformation by Christian World Communions.
The commission’s proposal comes after many years of scholarly Luther research. It followed five decades of dialogue involving Lutherans and Catholics that have produced renewed commitment to ecclesial unity as grounded in the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The call is predicated on the conviction that the search for visible unity is a joint enterprise.
The work of the International Catholic-Lutheran Commission on Unity was preceded by seven rounds of discussion started in 1965 by partners from the two communions in the USA. This discussion produced the significant 1985 text, Justification by Faith. The agreement arrived at by the Lutheran Catholic Commission on Unity led to the signing in 1999 of a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. In this concordat, Lutherans and Catholics expressed their consensus on the basic truths of the doctrine of justification. This achievement includes the following affirmation: “We confess together: 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 Joint Declaration illustrates what committed and honest dialogue can accomplish.
If, at the time of the Reformation, respectful dialogue in the service of truth marked the discussion of controversial doctrinal issues, how different the church might be today! The renewal of the church in the truth of the Gospel might not have been so badly scarred by the specter of disunity. As we approach a significant Reformation anniversary date, shall we not affirm that it is only through genuine exchange that we can narrate our stories in fresh ways that benefit from frank discussion, deep reflection and the purification and healing of memories?
Nearly 100 years ago, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber reminded us that no one enjoys an existence that is separate and isolated from a relationship with others. Human beings exist as social creatures and the exchange of ideas among them becomes potentially transformative when, in their encounters, each participant is objectively valued.
The Judeo-Christian faith teaches that every human being is created in the image of God and so has inherent dignity and inalienable worth. Because of this, when people engage in authentic dialogue, their acknowledgement of the infinite value of each other leaves no room for domination, paternalism or manipulation. Instead, they reach out to each other graciously and respectfully. In this perspective, conversation between Christians does not reflect one-sided transfer of information. Instead, it finds expression in genuine encounter with another, marked by the free exchange of ideas and by listening and speaking that is grounded in the determination to learn from the other. True dialogue aims at more clearly understanding oneself, one's beliefs and one's ways and offering the partner a similar opportunity.
God models for us the importance of dialogue through the mystery of the Incarnation. In the coming, life, death and resurrection of God’s Son, we encounter the God who enters into relationship with us. We discover that it is in authentic self-giving that we truly discover ourselves and others and we realize the potential for transformation.
When Christians and churches engage in constructive discourse, they need to bear in mind the resources supplied by a theological anthropology that is thoroughly informed by biblical teaching. They do not harbor caricatures of the other. They begin by presuming that friendship with Jesus is a shared gift that each partner possesses and, in this spirit, they are able to seek consensus without sacrificing truth.
As we think about how appropriately to mark the upcoming anniversary of the Reformation, the values expressed in Ubuntu will support a positive outcome to our bilateral and multi-lateral encounters. With this approach, we are able to discuss our profound differences and generate more light than heat. In this spirit, we will further the church's mission to serve as a sign and instrument of the unity God in Christ wills for the whole creation.