Back in 1999 there was great rejoicing among ecumenical folks (myself included) when the Joint Declaration on Justification was signed by representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. Almost 20 years later, it’s unclear whether it has made much difference to either ecumenical relations, theology, or the preaching of the gospel. Is that good or bad? I don’t know. Doctrinal agreements of this sort do not appear to have significant ecclesial traction, despite the enthusiasm of those who have invested so much energy and heart into their production. The Churches remain as separated as ever and preaching goes on as it ever has, for good or ill.
Given this failure, it behooves us to return to an essay written back in the late 70s by the Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson: “On Recognizing the Augsburg Confession.” Back then Jens was active in the American Lutheran-Catholic dialogue. He brought to the justification controversy a unique minority perspective. For him the question of justification by faith had little to do with theological formulae and everything to do with the preaching of the gospel. As he puts it:
“We are justified by faith alone” is not a stipulation about the anthropological conditions of justification, but about the special hermeneutical character of the gospel as a mode of discourse: that it must be promise and not exhortation if it is to be the creative word from God that sets lives right. (p. 159)
I have addressed Jenson’s hermeneutical construal of justification in multiple articles, both on Eclectic Orthodoxy and on my old Pontifications blog, and will not rehearse what I have already written. Here I wish to bring attention to one feature that is often overlooked—namely, the difference between “historical faith” and “living faith.”
Catholic theologians responded to the Lutheran assertion of the sola fide (as they understood it) by insisting upon the necessity of charity for justification. They invoked the formula: fides caritate formata, faith formed by love. It’s not enough to simply assent to the teaching of the Church, the Catholics declared. Even the devils believe yet are nonetheless damned (James 2:19). What is needed is personal transformation by grace, lived out in good works. Anything less is not genuine deliverance from sin. The reformers protested: this demand for justifying love generates either self-righteousness or terror. The salvation won by Christ on the Cross is an unconditional gift, and a gift can only be received by faith. As Martin Luther (in)famously translated Roman 3:28: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith alone without the deeds of the law.” And so the controversy continued for 500 years and perhaps still continues, despite the Joint Declaration.
The Reformation sola fide has always been vulnerable to the charges of antinomianism and cheap grace, and tens of thousands of words have been written to rebut the charges, not always convincingly. It is no easy matter to assert the necessity of justifying faith and not make it an anthropological condition for salvation. What precisely is faith and how is it not a work? If I need faith to be saved, how do I acquire it? It’s one thing to be told that my salvation requires giving alms to the poor (that is in my power), but it’s quite a different matter to be told that all I need to do is trust in Christ. How the heck do I do that? Trust is not something that I can just generate on my own. It either happens in the heart or it doesn’t. And my situation becomes dire if I am also told, as both Catholics and reformers rightly informed their hearers, that faith is an unmerited gift of the Spirit. This anti-Pelagian codicil, as Jenson calls it, casts me into the slough of despond. Am I one of the elect upon whom God has chosen to bestow justifying faith or not?
In the course of their defense of the sola fide, the reformers advanced an interesting distinction between historical faith and lively faith:
There is of course nothing wrong with the exhortation to love, even to love because we would be faithful. But if its slogan, fides caritate formata, is made the formula for what justifies, then in its churchly function it becomes a slogan for precisely what the Reformers attacked: a proclamation of Christ that turns into new exhortation and directs people back to their own fulfillment of—in themselves, necessary—moral and religious standards, to find therein the ground of their confidence before God.
If we turn now to the Reformers’ distinction between historical and living faith, we perhaps expect to find a similar pattern, with some personal quality—though perhaps, for example, sincerity instead of love—stipulated as a needed supplement to historical faith. But in fact the CA [Augsburg Confession] makes a wholly different kind of distinction: “historical faith” is apprehension of the mere “history” of Christ; “living faith” is apprehension of the promise made by those histories when proclaimed as done for us. If my faith is merely historical, the problem is not that I lack a personal quality but that the essential point of the gospel has not gotten through to me—perhaps because the Church did not make it. And thus we come to the true function of the Reformers’ distinction. The difference between historical and living faiths is not between two responses to one message, but between the responses to two different messages: “Christ died for the world, and now this is how you get into the result of his death” versus “Christ died and now lives for you.” (p. 159; emphasis mine)
It’s the difference, in other words, between the
gospel proclaimed as conditional promise and the gospel proclaimed as unconditional promise. The former informs the hearer of the facts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and summons him to perform the works he must to save himself. Let’s call this historical faith. As Jenson comments: “The Church’s discourse about Christ becomes merely historical speech about him, lacking any unique existential function, a transfer from one head to another of information which can be possessed without personal transformation” (p. 160). The latter opens the hearer to a life lived trusting and hoping in the risen Christ, now graciously present in Word and Sacrament. This is the lively faith that justifies, not as a condition to be fulfilled but as apprehension of the vivifying promises of the Savior. “Faith is a way of knowing,” explains Jenson, “formally determined by its object, promise” (p. 162).
It all comes back to the right preaching of the gospel. Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant preachers attend: if the unconditional promise is never declared in the name of Jesus, how can there be lively faith?