In 1967, when Joseph Ratzinger was a thirty-nine-year-old professor at Tübingen, he was the guest of honor at a doctoral colloquium held in Basel by Karl Barth. The topic for discussion was the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei verbum). Barth and his students devised two main questions for their distinguished visitor. Both concerned how, according to the council, the transmission of the Gospel was dependent on the church. 

From a theological standpoint, was it really true, the Protestants wondered, that the Gospel depends on the church if it is going to be preserved and actualized, as suggested by the wording of the dogmatic constitution? Weren’t matters really the other way around? Wasn’t it really the church that depends on the Gospel—if the church is to be truly apostolic? In other words, didn’t ecclesial life and witness always need to be tested against the living word of Scripture? And didn’t that word remain sovereign as a critical norm over against the church and its traditions? The priority of the Word over ecclesial tradition was a traditional Protestant concern.

The second question sharpened the first one to make it more concrete. How exactly did the church safeguard the Gospel’s transmission along with the church’s ever-increasing insight (as was supposed) into revealed truth? In particular, did the formation of “tradition”—the ecclesial process of reception and elaboration—really depend on the juridical-historical succession of bishops? How were the bishops, and in particular the magisterium, related to the work of the Holy Spirit? Weren’t they subject to the Holy Spirit, or was the Holy Spirit actually subordinate, in effect, to them? For the Protestants, the hierarchy’s perceived encroachment on the Spirit was another traditional concern.

In retrospect the encounter between Ratzinger, the future pope, and Barth, the twentieth century’s leading Reformational theologian, seems more significant than might have been evident at the time. As far as I know, we have no record of Ratzinger’s reflections on the occasion. However, according to one of Barth’s students, Eberhard Busch, who attended the colloquium, Barth was impressed by the eloquence and precision of Ratzinger’s ad hoc replies. After listening to him at length, Barth intervened only once. Why, he asked, didn’t Ratzinger mention the role of the Holy Spirit more explicitly in his remarks about the richness of tradition in the Catholic Church? (There is much about the Spirit in the dogmatic constitution.) And why should the authority of “tradition” still loom so large for Catholicism? Wasn’t there perhaps a certain “fear” of the Holy Spirit, and therefore of real change, in the Roman Catholic Church—change in accord with the Gospel? (Busch thought Ratzinger might have been a bit rattled by this intervention.) Barth concluded that despite large areas of agreement between Catholicism and the Reformation, no one should be deceived that ecumenical unity was just around the corner. We are still waiting, he stated, for the one apostolic church.

We can well imagine that Ratzinger might have had his own counter-questions for Barth and the colloquium, though at the time they apparently went unexpressed, perhaps out of politeness. Without an authoritative magisterium, Ratzinger might have wondered, who speaks for the Reformational churches? If hierarchy is the problem, what are we to say about Protestant “anarchy”? Are we not faced with a cacophony of Protestant voices, each with its own claim to be authoritative? Doesn’t the Holy Spirit sometimes operate in and through established ecclesiastical structures? Or is the Spirit’s work always freewheeling and charismatic? Again, doesn’t the living Word operate in and through church traditions, or is it always beyond and over against them? Laxity could hardly be the antidote to rigidity.

If hierarchy is the problem, what are we to say about Protestant “anarchy”?

We thus arrive at one of those points where Catholicism and the Reformation are still at odds. Whereas the Reformation regarded the church as strictly under the authority of the apostles, Catholicism saw that authority as operating in and through the episcopate, and of course especially the magisterium.  As we read in Donum veritatis, an instruction signed in 1990 by Cardinal Ratzinger, in his capacity as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

When the magisterium of the church makes an infallible pronouncement and solemnly declares that a teaching is found in Revelation, the assent called for is that of theological faith. This kind of adherence is to be given even to the teaching of the ordinary and universal magisterium when it proposes for belief a teaching of faith as divinely revealed. 

This instruction contained an implicit answer to questions posed by Barth’s colloquium to Ratzinger.

The Reformation regarded the apostolic office as non-transferable and unique. Discontinuity between “apostle” and “bishop,” as offices in the church, was therefore pronounced. The Reformation did not deny that Christian doctrine could “develop” in an authoritative way, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Ecumenical councils like Nicaea and Chalcedon were a case in point.  Nevertheless, the Reformation wanted to distinguish more sharply than did Catholicism between developments that brought out the necessary implications of apostolic teaching, as scripturally attested, and dogmas that would substantially add to it. It was not in dispute that Scripture was the norma normans non normata (“the norm of norms not normed by anything else”). For the Protestants, however, the church could not go materially beyond Holy Scripture, because the apostles retained priority over tradition, imposing limits on doctrinal development.

Within those limits the Reformation generally agreed with Catholicism. It accepted, for example, the articles of the Creed, the Christological dogmas, the divine foundation of the church, the general inerrancy of Holy Scripture, and such ethical matters as the grave immorality of murder. (It could be argued that when it comes to modern warfare, neither the Reformation nor Catholicism has gone far enough on this score.) For the most part, however, the Reformation drew the line when it came to sticking points like the Marian dogmas, the Real Presence, the sacrificial nature of the Mass, and the primacy and infallibility of the Roman pontiff. 

It is the Marian dogmas that still seem to pose some of the greatest obstacles to unity for the Reformation. The historically divisive eucharistic and papal questions have perhaps inched closer to resolution, as seen in the deliberations of ARCIC (the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission). In my book The Eucharist and Ecumenism (2008), I suggested that on such matters—the Eucharist, the papacy, Mary—much depends for Protestantism on future rapprochement between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Since Orthodoxy and the Reformation arguably share a vital common front in important respects, ecumenical progress between the Catholics and the Orthodox could have profound repercussions. At this time of the Reformation’s five-hundredth anniversary, perhaps the most important contribution the Vatican could make toward advancing Christian unity with the Protestants would lie in the Orthodox direction.

Like many Protestants, Karl Barth worried about the Marian dogmas as a prime obstacle to ecumenical unity. In line with the Reformation, he strongly denied that human beings could cooperate in their own redemption. Revelation and reconciliation, he urged, were “irreversibly, indivisibly, and exclusively God’s work.” It is perhaps not unimportant that the “immaculate conception,” the dogma that Mary was born without original sin, has not been robustly embraced by most Eastern Orthodox. Nor was it endorsed even within Catholicism by such seminal theologians as Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas. Whether some form of confessional pluralism within a broader but fundamental unity can be achieved in this area remains an ongoing ecumenical challenge.

Disputes like these pose questions about the limits of diversity and dissent. Although Ratzinger did not press the role of the magisterium in his early encounter with Barth’s seminar, he adopted a fairly hard line later on. In Donum veritatis we read: “The freedom of the act of faith cannot justify a right to dissent.” Not even the obligation to follow one’s conscience would justify dissent from the magisterium. Such dissent is said to threaten the theologian with estrangement not only from the church but also from Christ. Eastern Orthodoxy seems willing to allow more room for conscientious disagreement on such questions. 

Nearly a thousand years after the Great East-West Schism, and five hundred years after the Reformation, no one seems to know how to reconcile unity with freedom.

It was Georges Florovsky, the great twentieth-century Orthodox theologian, who posed the dilemma most sharply. Catholicism, he quipped, meant “unity at the expense of freedom,” whereas Protestantism meant “freedom at the expense of unity.” (He touchingly believed Orthodoxy showed how both could be achieved in practice.) Ratzinger’s hardline view about the magisterium would seem to bear Florovsky out about Catholicism. How much wiggle room for dissent is still left?  Lacking anything close to a magisterium, on the other hand, the fissiparous history of Protestantism shows, in a way well beyond the ken of Barth’s colloquium, what can happen without one. According to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there are roughly forty-three thousand Christian denominations in the world today. That was up from five hundred in 1800 and thirty-nine thousand in 2008. By 2025 the number is expected to rise to fifty-five thousand. Even if we cut these numbers by a factor of ten, as some would have us do, they are still staggering. Nearly a thousand years after the Great East-West Schism, and five hundred years after the Reformation, no one seems to know how to reconcile unity with freedom.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, Pope Francis, and Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and all of Greece (CNS photo / Paul Haring)

I want to turn for a moment to the Reformational doctrine of justification by faith, the idea that our salvation is solely the result of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and cannot be attributed in any way to our own efforts or “works.” It was this doctrine, of course, that sparked the Reformation, and it was this doctrine that the Reformation found at the heart of the Gospel and the apostolic tradition. Nevertheless, although ecumenical progress has been made, it is an open question whether the issue has yet to reach a sufficient resolution. I register this demurral despite my respect for the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” (JDDJ) as signed in 1999 by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church. I am happy to note that in July 2017 the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) finally affiliated with the JDDJ, and that I played a role in drafting the WCRC signing statement. Although I regard the JDDJ as an ecumenical milestone, I remain uncertain about how much it has achieved.

According to JDDJ the “remaining differences” between the Lutherans and the Catholics on justification are “tolerable” (tragbar). Presumably this means they ought not to be regarded as church-dividing. Needless to say, during the sixteenth century the Reformers would have regarded all such “remaining differences” as conflict-ridden, and it is not clear whether they are overridden in JDDJ by anything more than ambiguous language. For example, one standard Roman Catholic objection to the Reformational doctrine of justification has been that it is too “extrinsic” and therefore “nominalistic.” Isn’t the “imputation” of Christ’s righteousness to the believer little more than a “legal fiction,” since it did not make the believer inherently righteous before God? The believer remained a sinner in some deep sense, even if the power of sin was broken in the Christian life. How believers could be declared “righteous” on account of Christ while still remaining “sinful” in themselves remained unclear. The Reformational doctrine seemed threatened with incoherence.

Although it would take a long disquisition to sort these matters out, a few general remarks may be in order. As far as I can see, the historic controversy about justification has been overdetermined by trying to account for too much within an essentially juridical or forensic frame of reference. While courtroom metaphors and concepts have their place, there are limits to what they can accomplish in elucidating the mystery of salvation. When they are not supplemented and held in check by other scriptural metaphors and concepts, the results can only lead to distortion. This observation would pertain as much to defenders of the Reformation as to its critics.

Let me suggest that courtroom metaphors are counterbalanced in Scripture by at least three other conceptual domains: the royal, the apocalyptic, and the priestly/cultic. None of these perspectives is sufficient in itself, and they are brought to bear eclectically (not systematically) in the course of scriptural argument. It is of some interest that each of these perspectives sees removal as the solution to the problem of sin—whether by defeat (royal), destruction (apocalyptic), or expiation (priestly/cultic), whereas from a forensic standpoint the solution is punishment.

If I am not mistaken, the Reformational doctrine of justification was implicitly based as much on priestly/cultic modes of thought as it was on forensic metaphors and concepts. The priestly/cultic modes of thought were often overshadowed, however, even in the minds of the Reformers, by legal ideas of retribution, condemnation, and punishment. Sorting out the forensic elements from the priestly/cultic elements, and placing the two modes of thought in their proper scriptural relationship—with and beyond the Reformers—could lead to greater ecumenical understanding.

Broadly speaking, some differences between forensic and cultic elements, as attested in Scripture, might be sorted out as follows. Whereas a forensic focus is individualistic, a priestly/cultic focus, as evident in Passover and Yom Kippur, is corporate or communal. The juridical logic of the courtroom leads to sin’s condemnation, the rejection of the sinner with the sin. The logic of cultic sacrifice, by contrast, aims at sin’s removal or displacement, so that the Israelites could be spared despite their sins. The logic of the courtroom rests on retributive justice, according to which offenses receive their just deserts, with little or no room for mitigation. The logic of sacrifice in the religion of Israel, by contrast, though drastic, is ultimately merciful, so that the Israelites could be restored to God beyond what was otherwise deserved. In short, the difference between the two systems is arguably the difference between retributive and restorative justice.

This account is very compressed, and much more would need to be said to round things out. The core intuition of the Reformation, however, was that Christ took our sin and death to himself so that we might receive his righteousness and life. The double transfer here—from us to Christ (sin and death) and from Christ to us (righteousness and life)—cannot be accounted for within the logic of the courtroom, nor yet even within that of common morality. It can only make sense, when typological allowances are made, within the strange and jolting logic of a ritual sacrifice like Yom Kippur. (See for example Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra’s The Impact of Yom Kippur on Early Christianity. Also Stephen Finlan’s The Background and Content of Paul’s Cultic Atonement Metaphors.)

For the Reformation, a judicial end (the just condemnation of sin) was accomplished by ritual means. It was, in effect, accomplished “sacramentally,” and therefore “effectually,” by Christ in our place so that divine mercy to lost sinners might prevail. The double transfer was thought to involve a ritual “exchange” (admirabile commercium). Two things happened at once: an innocent One took the place of the guilty many (“substitution”) while the sins of the many were removed (“expiated”) by the blood (the “atoning sacrifice”) of the innocent One. Christians were thought to receive this innocence (or “righteousness”) in union with Christ by grace through faith, apart from their merit or works. The whole point of this strange transaction was to avert punishment while graciously extending mercy.

The Reformation found the mystery of this “double transfer” or “wondrous exchange” expressed in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sakes he made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” These words have been studied with an eye toward the history of their interpretation by Stanislas Lyonett, SJ. As I read his results, neither the medieval scholastics nor the post-Reformation Protestants were able to escape from being dominated in their exegesis by the forensic categories of the Latin West, while to some extent the same was also true of the Protestant Reformers themselves.  

Like a good Reformational Protestant, Barth believed that the Scripture principle was enough for the church to be preserved and renewed in spite of itself through many toils and snares.

It was the Greek fathers, beginning with Origen, who consistently approached this verse not with a forensic mindset but implicitly with priestly-cultic categories to hand. Being largely innocent of the West’s forensic approach, the Greek fathers had little problem with the substitutionary idea. In Cyril of Alexandria and Gregory Nazianzen, moreover, intimations of “objective participation” in Christ (another relatively cultic, non-juridical idea) can also be detected in a way that might begin to counteract Catholic worries about the “legal fictions” resorted to by Protestantism. Greater rapprochement with the Eastern Orthodox along with renewed attention to the cultic atonement background of much New Testament soteriology would seem to hold ecumenical promise for the excessively juridical and moralistic mindset of the Latin West, whether Catholic or Protestant. 

Surely, ecumenical progress will continue to depend, as it has at least since Vatican II, on a renewed inter-confessional study of Scripture. Like a good Reformational Protestant, Barth believed that the Scripture principle was enough for the church to be preserved and renewed in spite of itself through many toils and snares. As he observed when looking back on the Hitler period, “When nothing was left for the church, the one Word of God who is called Jesus Christ remained.” Nevertheless, as Ratzinger realized, it is hard to see why the Scripture principle should rule out an essential role for the ordinary and universal magisterium. At the same time, however, the Eastern Orthodox might wonder, for their part, whether the Protestants are often too lax while the Catholics are often too rigid. 

Meanwhile, on the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, it is worth remembering that the various communions are not always as far apart as they may seem. A figure like Isaac the Syrian from the seventh century can sound, for example, like a forerunner of the Reformation:

We are justified by what is from God and not by what is ours. We inherit heaven by what is from Him and not by what is ours. It is said: Man is not justified before God by his works; and again: Let no one boast in works but in the justice which is from faith. This justice, then, Paul says is not from works but only from faith, that is in Jesus Christ.... One is redeemed by grace and not by works, and by faith one is justified, not by one’s way of life.

And then there is always Thérèse of Lisieux:

After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven.  I want to work for your love alone.... In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself. 

George Hunsinger is McCord Professor of Theology at Prince-ton Theological Seminary. He was an official delegate to the Catholic-Reformed International Dialogue (2011–2016). Among his books is The Beatitudes (Paulist Press). Funding for this article was provided by the John Garvey Fund, established to carry on the work of the longtime Commonweal columnist.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the October 20, 2017 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.