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In ipsa fide Christus adest - Interview with the Bishop of Helsinki Eero Huovinen on Justification.


Said Luther. In the faith itself Christ is present. "Because Christ is our righteousness, we are not only declared righteous but we are also made righteous".

Interview with the theologian Eero Huovinen, Lutheran Bishop of Helsinki by Niels Christian Hvidt and Gianni Valente

Finland"s Eero Huovinen is one of the most appreciated and respected theologians in the Lutheran world today. Until the 1970s, he had held various positions at the Theology Faculty of the University of Helsinki, subsequently becoming Professor of Dogmatics and Faculty Dean. In 1991 he was consecrated Bishop of Helsinki. Married with two children, his published works include studies on the writings of Martin Luther on baptism and an idealistic-type analysis of the theological writings of Hans Küng. Huovinen took part in the various phases of theological dialogue leading to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. A member of the text"s drafting committee, he also monitored the document"s acceptance within the Protestant world itself.

Does the Joint Declaration between the Catholic Church and Lutheran Churches on the Doctrine of Justification really represent substantial consensus between Catholics and Lutherans on the truths of justification, or only on some of these basic truths?

EERO HUOVINEN: Discussions concerning the Church"s doctrine will never and should never - in this world - be completed. As human beings and as Churches we are always on the road and on a journey towards eternity and perfection. Theology needs to remember that its basic character is that of theologia viatorum, theology of sojourners. In the Joint Declaration, the Churches have committed themselves to carry on discussions on this core question of the Christian doctrine. So we have not as Churches arrived at the terminus of the bus route but at an important stop on the way. The significance of the signing of the Joint Declaration is that the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Churches now, for the first time after the Reformation, officially commit themselves to a common understanding of the faith. Common doctrinal discussions have been conducted since the 1960s after the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, but now for the first time the Churches officially and according to their own decision-making procedures commit themselves to a common understanding. Previous dialogue documents have been important in the sense that they have prepared the way to the Joint Declaration. The Joint Declaration gives expression to a consensus on the basic truths of the doctrine of justification. On one hand this means that there are still differences of language between the Churches, for example, of theological expression and of emphases in the doctrine of justification. These differences call for further dialogue, as is openly stated in the document (Paragraphs 40, 43). So the consensus is not perfect. On the other hand the consensus is "substantial". It concerns the most central questions of the Christian doctrine, that is, how "by grace alone, in faith in Christ"s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works" (Paragraph 15). This agreement has been called "a differentiated consensus". The consensus is not perfect. Differences remain. But we believe that the remaining differences do not destroy the consensus we have. We have reached a common understanding on such essential truths of our common faith that this consensus can bear the remaining differences. Here apply the wellknown words of Pope John XXIII cited also by John Paul II in Ut unum sint: "What unites us is much greater than what divides us". Throughout the process, what were the objections raised by Lutheran theologians and ministers? What points did they focus on?

HUOVINEN: It was not easy for either side to approve the Joint Declaration. After the separation of almost half a millennium one must not be surprised that discussions raise disagreements, which are difficult to overcome. For the Lutheran part, there are many difficult questions. Firstly, we believe that the doctrine of justification is the center of the Christian faith, the articulus stantis et cadentis Ecclesiae. In what sense could the doctrine of justification be a criterion of the faith also for the Roman Catholic Church? How do other doctrines, such as sacraments, ministry and primacy of the Bishop of Rome, relate to the doctrine of justification? Another central question to us Lutherans has been whether we are saved not only "by grace alone", but also "by faith alone". Do sinners have a free will and are we able to cooperate in salvation, or do we completely depend on the grace of God? In the course of discussions, other critical questions were also raised. On the Catholic side, objections of a certain authority were raised about the Lutheran conception explicated in the Joint Declaration of the baptised person as simul iustus et peccator, righteous and sinner at the same time. How was this objection overcome? Are the clarifications and distinctions contained in the successive documents (Official Common Statement and Annex) sufficient?

HUOVINEN: The doctrine of sin has only in recent years become the object of dialogue between our Churches. For this reason, it is understandable that in the process of the Joint Declaration much work has been needed precisely on this issue. I can well understand that on the Roman Catholic part there have been questions about the relationship between the Lutheran doctrine of simul iustus et peccator and the classical Catholic doctrine of sin. Last summer it was stated in the Response of the Catholic Church that "it remains difficult to see how in the current state of the presentation given in the Joint Declaration, we can say that this doctrine on "simul iustus et peccator" is not touched by the anathemas of the Tridentine decree on original sin and justification" (Response of the Catholic Church, June 25 1998, Clarifications, 1). In the course of last winter there was, however, the willingness to search for such a common understanding of sin that would make it possible to declare that the doctrinal condemnations do not apply to the present partner. The Annex of the Official Common Statement admits that "the concept of "concupiscence" is used in different senses on the Catholic and Lutheran sides" (Annex 2, b). Despite the differences involved here, we nevertheless believe to have reached a sufficient degree of consensus on the question of the sense in which the justified person continues to be both righteous and sinner. It is clear that this consensus is sufficient, but at the same time it is an evolving consensus which still needs to be deepened. The controversy over the simul iustus et peccator does not seem to be a marginal one. If the baptised man is simul iustus et peccator, this would seem to mean in practice that grace does not bring about any real transformation. It is as if grace remained a mere cover for man"s sin. Is this really the conception of justification expressed by the formula simul iustus et peccator?

HUOVINEN: The question about the relationship between sin and grace is a most central one not only theologically but also existentially in our spiritual life. Every one of us hopes to be transformed and renewed in one"s life. Even during the Reformation, the disagreement did not concern the question of whether renewal takes place in the Christian or not. The difficulties concerned, rather, the basis of justification and the relationship between justification and renewal. When the Lutherans taught that the human being is saved "by faith alone", they thought that we were saved without our own works and without our own merits. Nor is the faith a choice or work by the human being but a work of God. For the sake of Christ God declares and makes the human being righteous. When the Lutherans have talked about "being declared righteous", they have been concerned not to let any change which happens in the human being become basis of justification. For this reason, the Lutherans have had a critical attitude towards the medieval doctrine of habitual grace. If grace becomes something "habitually" owned by the human being, this can lead to an understanding that the justification would not happen "by grace alone". The Lutheran doctrine of declared righteousness does not mean that the effects of the grace of God in the human being are denied. The Letter of Jacob is also word of God! When God declares the human being righteous, he also begins his renewing work. The Lutherans, especially at the end of the 16th century, thought that the renewal of the Christian was a consequence of one"s first having been declared righteous. In recent years particularly, Finnish research on Luther"s theology has emphasized that the essence of the righteousness of faith is Christ"s righteousness. Luther"s expression says this in a concise way: "In ipsa fide Christus adest. In the faith itself Christ is present". The faith not only has Christ"s work as its object, but in the faith Christ is present. Christ is not only "outside" of us, but comes "in" us. Through faith, Christ lives in the human being. Because Christ is our righteousness, we are not only declared righteous but we are also made righteous. The Annex of the Official Common Statement talks about this in a biblical language: "We are truly and inwardly renewed by the action of the Holy Spirit, remaining always dependent on his work in us. "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (II Corinthians 5, 17). The justified do not remain sinners in this sense". At the end of his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul stresses that he dares only speak of what Jesus Christ has done (cf Romans 15, 18-19). If grace were not to bring about real change, then no real witness could be given to Jesus Christ in history. All one could do would be verbal testimony, nominal. One could merely talk about Jesus Christ, not show what Jesus Christ brings about today ...

HUOVINEN: The Lutheran Church has always wanted to believe that the word of God is not only "verbal" or "nominal" by its character. In the same way as the word of the Creator in the beginning of the world was a creative word, the justifying word of God continues to be a creative word, which not only calls the sinner to a new life but also gives a new life. The word of God is not only information about something, which happens elsewhere, but an effective word in the midst of our lives. The word, which we proclaim, is not only words, but the Word, Christ himself. When speaking about the effects of the word of God, Luther often took the example of the awakening of Lazarus. Christ shouted to Lazarus, who had been dead for four days and already smelled: "Come out!" And Lazarus "heard" and came out! What a creating and effective word of Christ! At the beginning of the century, the French poet Charles Péguy saw the drama of modern Christendom as its failure to recognize "the mystery and workings of grace". Christianity was thus reduced to the level of a religion for the middle classes ...

HUOVINEN: The rationalistic heritage of the Enlightenment has had a strong effect on Western thinking, perhaps more on Protestantism than on Catholic thought. It would be an important task in the field of history of ideas to analyze what kind of philosophical notions have had an influence on the Christian faith during the past two centuries. I often ask myself whether we have unconsciously adopted rationalistic or idealistic ways of thinking, which then influence our understanding of the content of the Christian faith. We should free ourselves of prejudices and have intensive collaboration between philosophers and theologians. One crisis of the Christian faith concerns our approach proper to the mysteries of faith. On one hand, I do not want to have a return to any naive faith in miracles. On the other hand I ask whether, nowadays, we are so entirely caught up by faith in science and reason that it does not leave even a theoretical possibility for the mysteries of God. Life itself is already so great a secret that humankind cannot fully comprehend it despite all the technological progress which has taken place. Why, then, not be open to God"s mysteries? If no room is left for God"s mysteries, the Christian faith is easily rendered a generally human system of morals, some kind of civil religion, or an existential humanism. Both alternatives can give human beings new impulses, but do they satisfy our real and deepest fundamental questions? If, for Lutherans, salvation is brought about by faith alone understood as interior assurance of salvation, isn"t there the risk of reducing that same faith to the level of psychological construction, a sentiment construed and possessed by man, instead of being recognition of an objective fact? According to the historian Jedin, the Council of Trent by denouncing the danger of reducing the faith to a man-made psychological assurance, had expressed the most prophetically illuminating judgment on all modernity ...

HUOVINEN: Lutheranism never wanted to conceive faith only as an internal movement of soul or a psychological state of mind. The assurance of salvation was based on the word of God and on the certainty of its promises. So the assurance of salvation does not mean that the individual is personally, subjectively convinced, but that he puts his trust in the means of grace, the word of God and the sacraments, which are outside himself. Luther wanted in a particular way to emphasize the importance of the sacrament of baptism when talking about the assurance of salvation. I think he was very much to the point when he said: "Our theology is certain because it poses us outside ourselves. Theologia nostra certa est quia ponit nos extra nos". Luther was critical towards an understanding of Christian doctrine which based the faith too much on psychological realities. He wanted to base the faith on something entirely objective: the word of God and the sacraments. Modern Christianity suffers from an approach which too narrowly centers on the subject. This approach can be rationalistic as in the Enlightenment - or experiential as in the diverse philosophical versions of Romanticism. Actually, I often have the feeling that this concentration on the individual has strengthened its influence in recent years, both in neo-liberalistic economic thinking and individualistic conceptions of culture. But this is not the opinion of Luther! The doctrine of justification and the Joint Declaration could serve as transformative factors: the human being is not the center of the world. For centuries, the undivided Church administered the sacrament of penance as the act proper by which the baptised who have lost grace because of sin may again be justified. This sacrament, as distinct from the sacrament of baptism, allows people to recuperate their lost righteousness. What place does the reformed perspective give to this sacrament?

HUOVINEN: The relationship between the sacraments of baptism and penance is a doctrinal issue which the Churches have discussed to only a small degree. Luther stressed the unique and sufficient character of baptism. He was even able - to use Catholic terminology - to say that baptism is a character indelebilis, a mark which cannot be deleted. A person who falls away from the grace of baptism and metaphorically drops off the boat of baptism needs no new grace nor any other "log" beside the boat of baptism. Renewal through confession means returning every day to the grace of baptism. On the basis of his understanding of Christian life, Luther wanted to appreciate the sacrament of penance, too. It was clear to Luther that confession was an essential part of Christian life. He said: "When I exhort you to go to confession, I exhort you to be a Christian". That is why the Lutheran confessional writings conceive the confession and absolution of sins as the third sacrament in addition to Baptism and Eucharist. There remains for the Churches much to discuss and learn to mutual advantage about the relationship between baptism and penance. The Danish Lutheran Church is one of the few Lutheran Churches which will not sign the document. One of the principal objections to it in Denmark is that it addresses questions of ecclesiastical policy and not ecumenism. What is your opinion?

HUOVINEN: Some Lutheran Churches have raised critical questions of whether consensus has really been reached on the basic truths of the doctrine of justification. Some of these Churches also hope the doctrinal condemnations could be declared non-applicable in any event. I believe and hope that these Lutheran Churches may also walk hand in hand with the great majority of Lutheran Churches. What, exactly, will the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Communities be signing their names to?

HUOVINEN: The signing primarily confirms the Joint Declaration, to which the Official Common Statement and its Annex are appended. We could say that these additional documents lead us to the reading of the Joint Declaration itself. The theological document proper is the Joint Declaration, and the Official Common Statement and its Annex clarify the nature of the Joint Declaration"s approval. I think that we should avoid generating artificial tension between these documents. It is all a matter of process, a journey with which we want to proceed to a visible unity. The date and place of the signing are symbolic in positive way. It will take place in Augsburg, which is a very important town for Lutherans because the main confessional document of the Lutheran Reformation was produced there. It is a sign of mutual reconciliation that we will gather there. The signing takes place on October 31, which is the feast of the Reformation for Lutherans and All Saints" Eve for Catholics. In the opinion of some Lutherans, the Joint Declaration has caused problems in the Lutheran world. Lutherans usually believe themselves to be in agreement on what they have always considered to be the most important doctrinal truth, that of justification by grace alone. Now one notes that Lutherans themselves are in disagreement when it is a matter of explicating what this really means, especially as regards the relationship between favor Dei and gratia infusa. Is there really only one Lutheran doctrine of justification?

HUOVINEN: It is really no secret that there are different theological emphases both on the Lutheran side and on the Catholic side. I remember how, when I was just beginning my theological studies, the Catholic Church was described as a complexio oppositorum. Also today there is discussion about the tension between the universal Church and the local Churches in the Catholic Church. It is possible that the diversity is still greater among the Lutheran Churches. There are different emphases on the doctrine of justification, too. Gratia infusa, by the way, is by no means as foreign an idea to Luther as many Protestant studies have often claimed. Luther also employs this notion in a positive way even if he gives it a personal kind of content. Here, too, we would need a thorough analysis of the theological sources of the Reformation. It may be that the main temptation for us Lutherans in modern times is the individualism to which I made reference earlier. Luther was not an individualist himself - on the contrary! But in today"s Protestantism there are individualistic tendencies which can be traced back to the Enlightenment. Sometimes one gets the feeling that every individual wants to formulate his own version of justification which suits his personal taste. I think that we Lutherans need a somewhat greater sense of community and more willingness to deepen ourselves in the roots of our faith. The Christian faith is a historic religion with its own points of departure. If we want to preserve our identity, we cannot create a new Christianity. Let me conclude by expressing my sincere gratitude for this opportunity to respond to the substantial and theologically learned questions put to me by 30DAYS. I hope that, through this dialogue, we may contribute together to the efforts to make the common faith, which unites our Churches, better understood in our time.

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