I am in the habit of describing myself as “a Lutheran in communion with the Bishop of Rome”. To be Lutheran, and yet to be Catholic, was the dearest of my wishes long before I entered into that communion. Yet, as a Catholic, much of what I held and understood to be “authentically Lutheran” has had to undergo some necessary modification.
This means that, like Luther, much of my personal spirituality has remained essentially dialogical. I continue to embody in my own self much of what was “paradoxical” in Luther’s spirituality. I find myself continuing to affirm a great deal of Luther’s spiritual insights, because there is something very real and honest about the very nature of his spirituality. In particular, I continue to embrace the Christocentricity of Lutheran spirituality, the emphasis on the theology of the cross, and the concommitant emphasis on the “hiddeness” of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. For my own part, I rejoice to find exactly these themes reflected in the teaching of Joseph Ratzinger, now gloriously reigning as Pope Benedict the XVIth.
But perhaps the one emphasis of Lutheran spirituality that remains with me most strongly is the doctrine of “simul justus et peccator”. Here is where the paradox comes into play. Because on the one hand, it is precisely this point in Lutheran spirituality which is most at odds with post-Reformation Catholicism (as can be seen from the difficulty this phrase caused for the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999), and on the other hand it is at the same time an undeniable reality that I experience in my own faith journey on a daily basis.
I mention all this, because in recent days I have found two helpful articles on the matter, which have assisted me to see the way forward in understanding how Luther’s “simul”-insight and the Catholic understanding of salvation can be squared.
The first was in an article that was sent to me by the excellent Dr William Tighe, an occasional commentator and regular reader of this blog. Dr Tighe often contributes to the pages of Touchstone Magazine, and regularly sends me articles from the archives of this magazine which he believes will interest me. He hit the nail on the head recently with this one: Getting Justification Right, a review essay by S. M. Hutchens. Hutchens points out that the “simul” is true and in accordance with Scripture only if we take the “peccator” to be Adam and the “justus” to be Christ. We are Adam being incorporated into Christ, just as Christ became Adam upon the Cross. Thus, in Christ, we are Adam becoming Christ. We are “peccator” becoming “justus”.
To this must be added the final “Public Square” column of Fr Richard John Neuhaus, published posthumously in the February edition of First Things. Neuhaus knew he was dying as he wrote this column. I take it as very significant therefore that he revisited what he (like me) must have always seen as the most significant “dialogue” in his life – the inner personal dialogue between his Lutheran roots and Catholic identity.
His occasion for such a revisitation is an chapter in a book by Gilbert Meilaender, a most excellent Lutheran theologian, called “The Freedom of a Christian”. (Nb. Pastor Fraser has been reading this book recently). The chapter in question is entitled “Hearts set to obey”, a phrase taken from the classical seventh century “collect for peace”, included in Lutheran and Anglican versions of Evening Prayer.
You can read all of Neuhaus for yourself (if you have a subscription for First Things – if you don’t, pay up now for your online subscription – it’s very cheap for what you get). But here is the relevant paragraph to my current discussion:
Grace, says Meilaender, is not only the “imputed” righteousness of Christ but the “imparted” possibility to live and grow in his righteousness. Grace is not only “pardon” but also “power.” Meilaender concludes by returning to that seventh-century collect in Evening Prayer: “We should pray God to put an end to the simul, that our hearts may be set to obey. The command of God, which calls for our obedience, comes to us day by day as the command of the One whose grace has been revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. And because that is true, because we must say ‘Amen’ to him, we should listen for the promise in the commands of the Decalogue: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. You shall become a child who loves the Father, a bride eager to greet her bridegroom, a creature who loves the Creator from whom comes life and every good thing. . . . All this you shall be. And to trust that promise—the promise that we shall become people whose hearts are set to obey God’s commandments—is both our duty and delight.”
I know myself to be a sinner. I also know that by God’s grace – which is power as well as pardon – I will become a saint. I am not so confident that will be achieved this side of the grave, although if I am truly confident in the power of God’s grace, I must allow that this is possible for God (Matt 19:26). Yet I work out my salvation with fear and trembling in this hope: that there will be “an end to the simul” and God’s power will be “made perfect in my weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).