Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Justification in Literature: The Witness of Two Russian Masters

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Justification in Literature: The Witness of Two Russian Masters

Article excerpt

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.

--Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, no. 15 (1)

On Sunday, October 31, 1999--celebrated by Roman Catholics as the Eve of All Saints and by Lutherans as Reformation Day--representatives of the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation met in Augsburg, Germany, to sign and celebrate a historic agreement, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ). This common document represented the fruit of many years of theological dialogue regarding what had been widely considered to be the defining cause of doctrinal dissensus since the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation and the Council of Trent: the doctrine of justification. Certain "elucidations" and "clarifications" to JDDJ were put forward by the Vatican, calling into question the integrity of the consensus claimed in the document. On the Lutheran side, the dissenting voices of some respected theologians received wide publicity (especially in Germany), despite the overwhelming approval of the statement by the member churches of the Lutheran World Federation. Nonetheless, the agreement was hailed as a monumental sign of ecumenical progress within the churches and by the wider public. Time magazine, for example, touted the impending agreement in its "Religion" section under the title "A Half-Millennium Rift," subtitled "Lutherans and Catholics reach agreement on the issue that once split Western Christianity in two." A cartoonish rendering of a Michelangelo-esque near-touching of hands featuring Martin Luther and Pope John Paul II accompanied the article. (2)

The "reception" of JDDJ, the process by which the churches practically "receive" this newly claimed doctrinal consensus into their own everyday life and ministry, is hard to gauge. Nearly fifteen years now since the official agreement was first made public prior to its signing, the ecumenical climate has certainly cooled and, at least during the current papacy of Benedict XVI, shows no signs of heating up again soon. But, as the publicity of the historic signing has long since receded, it seems all the more timely to take up JDDJ's own encouragement to pursue together "questions of varying importance which need further clarification" in the commitment "to strive together to deepen this common understanding of justification and to make it bear fruit in the life and teaching of the churches" (no. 43). (3)

It is in response to this call for clarification and a deepened common understanding of justification that I offer the following reflections occasioned by two short works of literary art. In my pastoral experience of preaching, teaching, and ecumenical leadership, I have found these fictional stories to be rich resources in making meaningful and accessible a doctrine of the church that, while judged foundational, a "touchstone," and even an "indispensable criterion" of the churches' teaching, is often neglected because judged too arcane and abstract to be popularly understood. Anton Chekhov's "The Beggar" (4) and Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyitch," (5) roughly contemporary stories of more than a century-and-a-quarter ago, artfully depict two different "poles" of the doctrine of justification in story form.

I present this "narrative hermeneutical" reflection on the doctrine of justification using these "bookend" stories in order to demonstrate the truth of JDDJ's contention that not only are "remaining differences of language, theological elaboration, and emphasis in the understanding of justification ... acceptable" (no. 40), but they are also complementary and even catalytic in moving to a fuller appreciation of this crucial teaching of the church within our churches. It is telling that these stories were written by authors whose upbringing was within the Russian Orthodox Church, which, to this day, evidences little interest in the formal doctrine of justification by faith, which is considered a teaching peculiar to the "Western" churches. …

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