And this in the midst of a presidential race that is utterly remarkable, pitting Donald Trump, of all people, against Hillary Clinton, of all people. It has been a wild several months, and with days left before the election, we have grown to expect strange new twists each day.
Two years ago we could scarcely have foreseen the possibility of the Cubs ever breaking the curse, and this presidential race is a phenomenon unlike anything I can remember.
So this seems also a fitting year for the Pope to come out and praise Martin Luther when visiting Sweden the other day. He actually said that the doctrine of justification “expresses the essence of human existence before God,” though he didn't say anything about what he meant by that. And granted, this comes from Frank the Hippie Pope (a brilliant moniker from Rev. Hans Fiene), who routinely manages to say things that leaves the curia scrambling in damage-control mode. But still, it is unprecedented that the head of the Catholic Church should speak in such glowing terms, even beyond the sentiments of his predecessor, about Martin Luther. Wasn't he excommunicated, after all, and his books burned?
Actually, I'm troubled. There was at this gathering an ecumenical prayer service that stressed, among areas of agreement, the need to work for world peace and justice. These strike me as code words, in a way, for an agenda of social reform that is generally bereft of, and sometimes inimical to, the doctrine of the Gospel as we know it. Mention was also made of the importance of being welcoming to immigrants, which, while on the surface sounds just like what Christians ought to do, seems to have politically leftist overtones in harmony with those who are pushing for open national borders. I might not be so cynical were it not for the fact that these matters were brought up in the very context of Martin Luther and justification. At the least it's anachronistic, and at most a gross misrepresentation of things that mattered to him.
I'm also reminded of the agreement that was reached in 1999 when representatives of Rome met with Lutherans and produced a joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, in which it was agreed that "by grace alone, in faith and in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit" (DDJ 15), but at the time I wryly noted, as did many others on both sides, that this was really nothing new, since it did not change either position. Both sides have always agreed that grace alone is the force behind salvation; where they have not agreed is whether or not we may speak of a kind of merit (meritum de condigno is the official term, I believe) that proceeds from grace and enables us to believe: an intervening merit, in a way, between grace and faith. For Luther all talk of merit is out of the question in connection with justification. Not so for Rome, if one carefully parses.
But I don't think anyone involved is thinking too seriously about justification at all.
In any case, this ecumenical fervor that is making "Lutherans" excited about the prospect of a future reconciliation with Rome is actually coming from Scandinavians allied with the likes of such Lutheran World Federation, which is, shall we say, not known for confessional integrity.The Lutheran Church of Finland has actually persecuted confessional Lutheran Pastors in Scandinavia, as Gottesdiensters may well remember.
So if we indeed are, as the pope put it, to move past "controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another,” then perhaps I may be forgiven if I am led to wonder whether he means moving away altogether from such things as the matter of justification by faith, and on to the the "more important" matters that ecumenical leftists like to talk about. And if this is true, then those of us who might object will quickly be dismissed as being still bound to "fear or bias with regard to the faith which others profess with a different accent and language.”
If the year 2016 is curious, the year 2017 may be curiouser and curiouser, not least because it marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I would not be surprised to see, though I hope I do not see, the emergence of a feigned rapprochement that will leave us who seek a genuine doctrinal unity not only disappointed, but cast aside and even persecuted. It has already happened to some.