Ecumenical Reflections on the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Simul Justus et Peccator Controversy

By Mshanga, Vitalis | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Ecumenical Reflections on the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Simul Justus et Peccator Controversy


Mshanga, Vitalis, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


Introduction

One of the most controversial and divisive issues between the Lutheran and the Roman Catholic traditions, no doubt, is the teaching that the justified is simultaneously righteous and a sinner. This has traditionally come to be referred to as the simul iustus et peccator (hereafter, simul). Upon closer examination, however, the issue behind this teaching is in fact much more complicated than the formula suggests. In any case, the simul can be seen as the core of the ecumenical debate on justification, because to it all the other controversial issues on justification return. Therefore, this study is an attempt to contribute to the simul debate in a bid to break open the ecumenical impasse on this particular issue. It is perhaps important to indicate that there are many complex issues surrounding the simul question. However, it is not my intention to solve all the problematic issues around the simul. On the contrary, I would like to set a modest goal by focusing on concupiscence as one of the problems.

The question that lurks at the background of this essay is how the simul could be viewed in a bid to attain visible unity of the churches without ignoring the concerns of either tradition. In answering, I shall ultimately argue that disagreement between the two churches may be overcome when the simul is seen as a theologoumenon, by which I mean a theological opinion that could be formally accepted by the two churches, although each of them might consider the content of the statement differently. (1) Such a theologoumenon, however, should not in any way undercut the basic truth of the normative Christian faith.

Undoubtedly, understanding the simul as a theologoumenon could resolve the simul controversy, thus safeguarding the unity of the churches without trivializing the concerns of either church. Needless to say, as Peter De Mey has argued, such unity is "the fruit of the salvific death of Christ Jesus, but it will also require of our churches a discipline of self-sacrifice." (2) This self-sacrifice involves accepting as legitimate the theological opinion of the other church. In this regard, it is not the purpose of this essay to make statements of value as to which side is right and which one is wrong on this complex issue. Rather, its goal is to indicate how the two traditions understand the simul differently and how the conception of the simul as a theologoumenon could help dispel doctrinal tensions and strengthen the unity of the churches.

1. Background of the Simul Teaching

The simul doctrine, like any other doctrine, has a specific background and practical reference to the quest for Christian unity, Informed by this fact, this essay will proceed in four steps: First, I will offer brief background information about the idea that a Christian is at once righteous and a sinner. Second, before turning to the teaching of Martin Luther (1483-1546) regarding the simul, I will briefly analyze the position of Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Third, I will present a brief survey regarding how the simul has been handled in Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues. Fourth, l will offer a contribution to the simul debate. Finally, I will end the study with some concluding remarks.

As a preliminary remark, I note that the teaching that a believer is at once justified and a sinner is hardly the creation de novo of Luther, having been articulated first by Augustine. In this regard, Luther himself asserts: "I am neither the first nor the only man to say this [simul] since the Apostle. For St. Augustine: 'All sin is forgiven in baptism, not so that it no longer exists, but so that it is no longer imputed."' (3) Nevertheless, although Augustine is believed to have begun the simul teaching, Luther is considered the main defender because he taught and wrote radically about it. The simul teaching was an attempt by Luther and the Reformers to articulate the relationship between the most righteous God and utterly sinful human beings. …

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