Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Soteriological Issues in the 1999 Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification: An Orthodox Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Soteriological Issues in the 1999 Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification: An Orthodox Perspective

Article excerpt


In this essay I have limited my reflections mostly to Lutheran-Orthodox issues, because significant progress has been achieved in the dialogue between these two denominations, particularly with regard to their two fundamental soteriological images, justification and deification, respectively. I will also try to see how the Joint Declaration (1) can further help Lutherans and Orthodox to advance toward a fuller communion.

Lutherans and Orthodox on Justification and Deification

In recent decades an issue widely debated between Lutherans and Orthodox has been that of the meaning of justification and deification as the core soteriological images in the two denominations. Justification, as the theme of the N.A.A.E. conference confirms it, has also been the main topic discussed between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, almost since they resumed the dialogue. Regarding justification, recent scholarship has stressed the widespread degree of doctrinal pluralism and uncertainty relating to the doctrine on the eve of the Reformation; the general issues that related to the doctrine of justification were the subject of continuing discussion within late-medieval Catholicism. (2)

Nevertheless, as the Joint Declaration clarifies, a message of justification is already present in the Bible. After reference to texts relevant for the doctrine of justification in the Hebrew Scriptures (8) and the Gospels (9), the Joint Declaration indicates that the most important text is Paul's Letter to the Romans. Rom. 3:23-25 in particular states that justification of sinful human beings is effected by God's grace through faith. This is also the text that came into prominence during the Reformation period.

Contemporary biblical scholarship acknowledges that Paul's most frequently used image to refer to the salvation in Christ, "justification" (dikaiosune), is drawn from Paul's Jewish background and denotes a societal or judicial relationship, either ethical or forensic (that is, related to law courts; see Dt. 25:1). The righteous or upright person (dikaios) came to refer usually to one who stood acquitted or vindicated before a judge's tribunal (Ex. 23:7; 1 Kgs. 8:32). Jews also tried to achieve the status of "righteousness" or "uprightness" in the sight of Yahweh the Judge by observing the rules and regulations of the Mosaic law (see Ps. 7:9-12). When Paul says that Christ has "justified" humans, he means that Christ has brought it about that they now stand before God's tribunal acquitted or innocent. The characteristically Pauline contribution to the notion of justification is his affirmation of the gratuitous and unmerited character of this justification of all humanity in Rom. 3:20-26.(3)

What I want to illustrate by using the latest biblical insights into the notion of justification is that this notion had a forensic character even for the ancient Hebrews. This holds true despite attempts by some Orthodox and even Lutheran theologians to dismiss the forensic and extrinsic characters of this notion and to attribute them only to medieval and Reformation developments. (4) For example, in critiquing Luther's view of justification, Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky wrote: "For Luther 'to justify' meant to declare one righteous or just, not 'to make' righteous or just-it is an appeal to an extrinsic justice which in reality is a spiritual fiction."(5) Lutheran theologian Paul Hinlicky has noted that "justification" has been "maligned as a 'law-court metaphor' that traps theological thought in legalism," but he emphasizes that this "law-court metaphor comes from Israel's prophets" themselves.(6)

As it has been noted time and again in recent scholarship, Orthodox have tended to emphasize the notion of deification or divinization (theosis), as the choice image expressing salvation, at the expense of that of justification. Deification is a doctrine based on 2 Pet. 1:4: "Thus [Jesus] has given us. …

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