Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Methodists Justified?

(And here we thought they were sanctified. Our mistake.)

Amid the Anglican sturm und drang of recent weeks, a major piece of ecumenical news may have gone unnoticed. The World Methodist Council has entered into serious discussions regarding the possibility of signing onto the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, ratified by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation.

The JDDJ is one of the most potentially important agreements in the history of modern church relations. It articulates a shared set of convictions regarding one of the core doctrines of the Reformation -- thus showing light at the end of the schismatic tunnel. While it doesn't end the separation of the churches, not by a long shot, it helps us to believe that unity is possible.

Methodist participation in JDDJ may pose an interesting challenge to Lutherans -- and perhaps to some highly-placed Romanists as well.

Unlike Lutherans and Roman Catholics, Methodists don't have a clearly-delineated set of doctrines. (After all, they are a breakaway Anglican sect, and clear doctrine really isn't the done thing in Canterbury.) Regarding justification, they generally seem to follow James Harmenzoon, or Arminius, the 17th-century Dutch theologian who created a scandal within European Calvinism by emphasizing the ability of human beings to respond to God's grace. To the arch-Augustinianism of the Reformed, this sounded like works righteousness. Arminianism was declared heretical by the Synod of Dort.

Among Anglicans, a form of Arminianism prospered -- with Laud and his collaborators -- which was sometimes regarded as crypto-Romanizing. That's not entirely accurate, but from the position of traditional Protestantism, it makes sense -- "Rome preaches works, so do the Arminians, they must agree with each other."

Lutherans had already experienced a number of similar controversies, mostly under the historical heading of "synergism," or "working together with God." And, like the Reformed, the Lutherans came down more-or-less solidly against the idea. In both cases, St. Augustine was the theological authority.

Anyhoo -- if JDDJ is broad enough to include an Arminian understanding of justification, some wind may be taken out of the Lutherans sails. We've been patting ourselves on the back for getting Rome to agree with us on the articula stantis et cadentis; now it will be obvious that they never did. Quelle surprise.

More interesting, however, will be the reaction within the Vatican itself. Highly placed theologians -- Cardinal Kasper and the Pope come to mind -- are Germans, with an Augustinian orientation. Will a Methodist understanding of JDDJ be entirely welcome to them? Or will it subtly undermine their own positions with regard to some of their compeers? Odds are, we'll never know -- that sort of gossip rarely gets far outside the sanctuary. But let's keep one ear sharp, just in case.

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