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Once More With Feeling

Posted by on in Friends
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It's the day after Reformation Day. All the Luther and Calvin costumes are at the dry cleaners; the left-over party treats have been taken to the office; the post-Protestant hangover has set in. It's as good a time as any to take a second look at what really divides us from our Roman Catholic friends, family, and neighbors. After all, Pope Benedict seems to have a soft spot for the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther--maybe we're not so far apart after all?

At least one ELCA Lutheran thinks so and asked plaintively at the First Things blog why he couldn't receive communion at the local parish church. In response, Anthony Sacramone detailed a few of the outstanding issues that still divide Lutherans (and the Reformed) from Rome. Here's a preview:
Let’s cut to the chase: would the Roman Catholic Church today accept as doctrinally true the Lutheran teaching of the alien righteousness of Christ, of the great exchange of His righteousness for our sin, of our sanctification as being in Him, even though we are called to good works — but for the sake of our neighbor and not in aid of increasing our justification? If not, again, who are these Lutherans Reverend Saltzman is talking about whose differences with Rome are now of little significance?

Do these Lutherans now accept the existence of a Treasury of Merits? Or has Rome admitted that this was a bankrupt medieval invention and is now, in the interest of ecumenicity, disposable? Have indulgences, the flashpoint of the Reformation, also become irrelevant?

I ask this honestly: what is the true nonnegotiable here?

Let’s discuss the papal office for a moment: Was Pope Urban II Infallible, “evangelically understood,” when he declared, in regard to the First Crusade:

"If anyone who sets out should lose his life either on the way, by land or by sea, or in battle against the infidels, his sins shall be pardoned from that moment. This I grant by right of the gift of God’s power to me."

Did the bishop of Rome have this authority? Urban II is addressing men who are off, he hopes, to kill the enemies of the Faith and to retrieve stolen property. Is this the true nature of the power of the keys as described in the Gospel of Matthew? Does this notion of dying in a holy war and going straight to Paradise sound familiar?

Here’s another question: Does the pope have this same authority today—to proactively forgive the temporal punishment for sins that would otherwise send someone to Purgatory (or to a purgative state), thus promising them a straight ticket to heaven in the event they died trying to kill someone else? I’m not interested in whether or not it is likely to be exercised in this day and age, nor whether the Muslims in the 12th century invited this response for overrunning the “Holy Land.” I’m only interested in whether Benedict XVI, by virtue of his office, has this authority, given him from Christ.

Whether the pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals is inextricably tied to how justification is construed. The same can be said for the nature of the Eucharist, and the priesthood.

What is the wedding garment without which no one enters the wedding feast of the King? Is it something of our own, dry-cleaned, purified, and bleached? Or is it the gift of Someone else? Is it something we do to ourselves, by aid of grace? Something we endure, in the sense of suffer? Or is it something we receive, like the Eucharist, from Another?

For some, the alien, imputed righteousness of Christ is a legal fiction, and Luther’s image of the dunghill covered with snow is usually cited as evidence. And yet these same Christians have no problem with the transfer of the supererogatory merits of the saints to the accounts of the properly disposed.

The merits of Christ’s sacrifice transferred to the sinner, as a sinner, is a fiction, but the merits of Josemaria Escriva transferred by dint of papal proclamation — that’s real.


The issue remains the same today as on October 31, 1517.

The entire thing is worth reading.


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  • Very interesting. I'm wondering if the White Horse Inn blog staff has any thoughts on this post by Chris Castaldo on the way that Roman Catholic theology reinterprets past pronouncements as its method of changing without changing:

    I'd love to see a response to this piece. Thanks for the passing on the original link!

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  • Amen! Honestly, if this Lutheran doesn't view any sigficant differences between him and Rome on all the issues he cited (except women's ordination *gak*), why on earth is he a Lutheran? Shouldn't he repent of being part of a schismatic church and return to Rome? If there's nothing to protest, why be a Protestant?

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  • [...] Once More With Feeling  White Horse Inn Blog [...]

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  • Guest - Dave Sarafolean


    Funny you ask about that article. I just finished R. Scott's Clark's post on it. Enjoy!


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  • Guest - Jane Gootherts

    I have journeyed as a Christian for 38 years in many denominations while hearing about this division in the Body of Christ. I have studied the history of this division from many sides. I have learned the language each side speaks and understand our language gap.

    Jesus prayed in John 17 for himself, for his Apostles and for us the believers to come. His prayer was for us to be one just as He is one with His Father so that the world would know that God sent Jesus to save the world. Our unity has a consequence. Paul tells us to be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace...one Lord, one faith,one baptism, one God and Father of us all.

    How can this happen with man? Impossible but ALL things are possible with God. I am striving to be the answer to Jesus' prayer not the problem. I became Catholic in 2010 and now embrace all the Body of Christ. Father God, bring Your reconciliation to the family of God. Shalom!

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  • Guest - Steve Dal

    I think we need to get over the Catholic/Protestant 'thing'. Seriously. Biblically Catholicism has holes in it (the Doctrine of Mary etc) but so does Protestantism (James 2:24 'You see a man is justified by works and not by faith alone'. Luther's addition of 'alone' in Romans 3.28 etc etc) Sometimes I think Luther and Calvin enjoy the deity of Christ amongst waring Protestants. God is not a Calvinist or a Catholic. I wonder about the coming generations who could not care less about this discussion. That's been my experience over 35 years. Neither do the people in rural India where I work. This ongoing diatribe is dead and seems to be something 'enjoyed' by people who have the privilege of being born in affluent countries.

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  • Guest - Mark Green

    Steve. Interesting that you should think those in rural India could care less about the discussion. Au contraire. This issue is the heart of what I have been encouraging pastors and missionaries in India for the 16 years I have been living in and visiting this wonderful country. The heart of the gospel is that Christ alone is the basis of any salvation for anyone anywhere. Glossing over the differences between what the Bible teaches and what Rome espouses does not help your friends in India no matter how long you live there. I write this from India where local pastors are being equipped to know what they believe and why they believe it. Advocating for a position that purports to stand "peacefully' between the works based righteousness of Rome and the freedom found in the gospel of Christ (i.e., Romans 1.16-17)is not only unhelpful, it also minimizes the great men and women of India who have literally given their lives so that their colleagues might know the good news. We preach Christ crucified and risen again and that this selfless act of love by Christ has paid once for all that which is required to be clean and completely justified in the sight of a holy God. The works righteousness of Rome (or Hinduism, for that matter) helps no one. "And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness."(Romans 4:5 ESV)

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