Finding a ravine between Paul and Luther does not drain the power from justification’s judicial talents. Two aspects of the doctrine, common to most Lutherans if not Protestants generally, have determined ecclesiology. Both contain considerable ambiguity. The first is the description of the act of justification itself. Whether it is God alone who justifies or God because of Jesus’ death or some other combination, justification excludes human acts. True enough as it is when considering the one justified, the problem emerges when it extends to include all human beings. When we ourselves are justified are our fellow human’s acts excluded? The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) refers to the justified as the baptized and in so doing raised the ire of many Lutheran critics. It raised eyebrows not because the justified are baptized who have faith but because the consensus included reference to baptism at all. The thorn here grows from an invocation of the straightforwardly human act of baptism. Some theological proposals describe baptism as a two-floor event in which the human action occurs on the ground level and God’s act of baptism, the one that counts, occurs on the second level on a floor on which human beings cannot tread or act. This idea itself, strengthened in modern theology, of course denies much of Luther’s own theology of baptism. Other examples beside baptism would serve just as well; other human acts such as preaching, absolution, witnessing, singing, serving, and countless more all serve the ministerial act of the church in announcing the gospel. But this confusion that results from this aspect really points to a greater trouble looming in the application of justification to ecclesiology.
The second aspect of the doctrine really is the reverse of the first. Since no human act may justify, then God alone justifies. But when God’s acts are separated in such a way from human ones, then the deeper difficulty of God’s being-in-time comes straight to the fore. If God is timeless and does not change, then God’s actions cannot be timely. They cannot extend over a period of time as human acts do, or even as historical beings or things do. I, presumably, have extension in this world. I take up a certain amount of vertical space and less horizontally. Therefore, I may be bumped into, addressed, or stopped on the freeway. I also have an historical extension. There are things I have done and places I have been that sort of are “there.” If God is immune to time than neither of these sorts of extensions, and many more, do not apply to God.
When this thinking comes to rest in the act of justification, enormous problems surface. All of them represent paths taken by theology to compensate. All of them somehow demand that the human and malleable world make up for the distance between God and the world. The first of these problems develops in the picture. Since God cannot be in a place or cannot address you in any way, only the moment will suffice. Hence, existentialism. Or secondly, a special class of human acts will provide the way to mimic God’s unchanging eternity. Here lies the older Roman Catholic reliance on a special ministry as well as all the lauds given to faith by Protestants. The latter human act of faith as a miracle obliterates the difference. Or, thirdly, the death of Jesus is identified as that “moment” where God and the world intersect. There, the world must be “called back to” the death of Jesus. We accomplish this through the means identified in the second set of problems, the miracle of ministry or the sheer act of faith. Finally, this means that nothing of the things of God really ever come to us. Even in Jesus’ death “back there” we are still separated by time and space from that death. Thus, the final problem really is the problem of human despair.
The solution involves much more than to argue that God’s presence is what justifies. And here lies the proper connection between justification and ecclesiology. The way in which that presence comes is the coming of God in the very human acts of speaking and gesturing. Here is no superhuman act of faith or ministry but rather the coming of God who is not alien to our life or our time or our space. All of these things are part of God’s life and God comes to address in the living here and now.
Many Lutherans do speak in this way. However, they are quick to fail in the second part, to note that such theologomena do not oppose such notions as the constitutive role of the ordained ministry for the church, the invigoration of the episcopacy, the ‘sacrifice of the mass,’ and still other areas that cause difficulties. All of these are ways in which the cross of Christ comes to and God himself pitches a tent among us. All of these are ways that require us to overcome the problems posed by “excluding human act” and “God alone.” Each of these requires a human act. Each of these requires a God who can act in time.
This does not of course address all the ways in which justification does or may function to “judge doctrine.” But this proposal does give an account that coheres with JDDJ and presumably therefore provides an opening for a Lutheran-Roman Catholic ecclesiology that, hopefully, “agrees in the basic truths” and whose remaining differences are permitted, enjoyed, and explored in ecumenical peace and koinonia.