The Hope of Eternal Life


The Hope of Eternal Life—Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue XI. Edited by Lowell G. Almen and Richard J. Sklba. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Lutheran University Press, 2011. 211 pages. Click here.

The eleventh round of Lutheran—Roman Catholic (L-RC) dialogue in the United States began in December 2005 and concluded in October 2010. The final report as entitled above was released on November 15, 2010, and was originally made available for download in Portable Document Format (PDF). Edited by Lowell G. Almen, Lutheran co-chair of the dialogue and retired secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and Auxiliary Bishop Richard J. Sklba of Milwaukee, Roman Catholic co-chair of the dialogue, this novella of Lutheran ecumenical remythologization provides almost interesting reading. A table of contents, a preface, four chapters, four appendices, and two background papers comprise this volume. Appendix Three, by Stephen Hultgren, is included for no discernable reason, and Appendix Four might also be categorized as background information. The latter, “The Intermediate State: Patristic and Medieval Doctrinal Development and Recent Receptions” by Jared Wicks (133–175), is arguably the only useful part of this book. The two background papers proper were presumably incorporated based on author gender (female). Although formally listed as participants on the Lutheran side, Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) theologians Samuel H. Nafzger and Dean O. Wenthe do not appear to have played an active role, other than providing personal, confessional authenticity to the designation “Lutheran” used in the dialogue.

The dialogue’s Preface cites the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds as providing precedent for a study of the hope of eternal life. Notably, however, “The foundation for the discussions and findings of Round XI was established by the ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,’” as “officially received by the Catholic Church and member churches of the Lutheran World Federation on October 31, 1999.” Despite listing numerous, insurmountable ecclesial and social obstacles, the dialogue participants seek the restoration of “full, sacramental communion” between Lutherans and Catholics (7; see also 118, 125–126). To that end, “Round XI offers fresh insights” into the “continuity in the communion of saints, prayers for or about the dead, the meaning of death, purgation, an interim state between death and the final general judgment, and the promise of the resurrection” (8). This review essay examines this dialogue’s claimed foundational use of the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ),” the dialogue’s content and methodology, and finally the biblical and confessional reliability of its conclusions.

Chapter One, “Our Common Hope of Eternal Life,” opens with subsection heading “A. Positive Developments in the Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue in Light of the ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’” (pp. 11–13, §§1–8, hereafter page number(s), § number(s)). The text claims that in Augsburg, Germany, an “ecumenically historic moment transpired” when JDDJ was signed by representatives of the Vatican and Lutheran World Federation (LWF) (11, §1)—except that the “Official Common Statement” (OCS) with Annex was signed instead. “Their signatures attested to the official reception in our churches of the fruit of years of ecumenical dialogue on the topic of justification,...” (11, §2)—except that no LWF member church has approved the OCS with Annex. “The findings, statements of consensus, and even expressions of certain divergent convictions related to ‘The Hope of Eternal Life’ are built upon” JDDJ ¶15 (11, §3)—although Lutheran objections in part to JDDJ ¶15 and its exclusion of salvation by “faith alone” necessitated the drafting of the OCS with Annex to rescue JDDJ from ecumenical purgatory. “The method of the ‘Joint Declaration’ is reflected in this report” (11, §4), which essentially means that Lutherans abandon biblical and Lutheran confessional positions to merit religious congruence with the Council of Trent. Even though “[w]e wrestled with descriptions of the contemporary character of indulgences in Catholic practice, especially in the light of the ‘Joint Declaration’” (13, §7), nonetheless “[t]he ‘Joint Declaration’ affirms that the ‘Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church will continue to strive together to deepen this common understanding of justification and to make it bear fruit in the life and teaching of the churches’ (JDDJ, ¶43)” (13, §8).

That is the foundation for Round XI of US L-RC dialogue. Unfortunately, the JDDJ edifice is worse. Conveniently having misplaced scripture, “... Lutheranism has no widely received doctrinal texts beyond the Book of Concord (with the possible exception of the JDDJ), ...” (19, §23). On topic, in Chapter II under the heading “3. Common Teaching in the ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” this dialogue stresses that in JDDJ the “respective Catholic and Lutheran paragraphs on good works link merit and reward to God’s promise” to be realized “in heaven” as “eternal life,” respectively (53, §108). Propagandistically, the “affirmation that Catholic teaching on justification as presented in the JDDJ does not fall under Lutheran condemnation places Catholic practices of [meritorious] prayers for the dead in a new context,” (107, §251)—which might have ecumenical veracity and meaning if the Lutheran confessions contained condemnations of the Roman Church’s doctrine and if such prayers were not unilaterally considered meritorious. Finally, this “document has pursued a similar method, although not written in the style of the JDDJ. Our discussions of purgatory and prayer for the dead in Chapter III must not be read in isolation from Chapter II, in which we develop our common convictions. Those common convictions form the necessary interpretative context for what we say about traditionally divisive topics” (118, §281). In other words, JDDJ and its application, rather than scripture and the Lutheran confessions, provide the “interpretative context” for the ELCA’s aspired relations with the Roman Church. Opponents of the “Joint Declaration” forewarned that JDDJ might be used in this way, and this dialogue justifies their concerns.

All vacuous JDDJ pageantry aside, the ELCA has a problem. Although “[b]oth Lutherans and Catholics affirm that the justified who die in faith will be granted eschatological perfection” (whatever that means) and although “[t]he justified in this life are one in Christ with those who have died in Christ” (12, §6), unfortunately ELCA Lutherans are neither perfect enough nor dead enough either to merit or to be granted “full, sacramental communion” with the papal church. How can one earn such favor?

To understand this dialogue’s role in the ELCA’s pursuit of reintegration into the Roman fold, two issues are at stake. First, JDDJ is wholly undermined by Canon 30 of the Council of Trent’s Decree on Justification, and subsequently by catchall Canon 33, in that Canon 30 condemns (anathematizes, curses) those who do not accept purgatory. Thus, contrary to JDDJ’s stated goal and claimed achievement, the sixteenth-century condemnations of Lutherans by the Vatican in this decree still apply, and the ecumenists’ foil to slay the justification dragon barring a Protestant return to Rome is itself foiled. Second, it would be nigh on impossible for the Vatican to celebrate Luther’s Ninety-five Theses against indulgences with the Lutheran World Federation in 2017 if the Vatican had nothing to celebrate. Therefore, ways must be found for latter day Lutherans to recant what Luther would not. These goals account for the retrograde state of the content and the methodology of The Hope of Eternal Life.

In order to minimize objections to this eventual goal, Luther himself, as well as scripture and the Lutheran confessions, must be neutralized, and agreement on “intermediate states” of the dead for whom prayers can be offered, especially in purgatory, must be re-established. Thus, in addition to Lutheranism having “no widely received doctrinal texts beyond the Book of Concord,” except JDDJ, and although the Book of Concord describes Luther as the “most distinguished teacher of the churches which confess the Augsburg Confession” (“der fürnehmbste Lehrer,” see Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche [BSLK], 984, 41), this dialogue surmises,

What is the status of the self between death and resurrection? This question was not a focus of controversy during the sixteenth century, although a few Lutheran theologians (most notable, Luther) were willing to entertain possibilities excluded by Catholic teaching. More recently, the question of intermediate states has been debated within each of our traditions. How these questions are answered affects the discussion of other topics, e.g., purgatory (21, §28).

With Luther safely relegated to a minority position of inconsequential, esoteric views, the ELCA’s ecumenical Pelagianism can continue encumbered. To remove other obstacles on the Lutheran side, the dialogue asserts, “The Lutheran Reformation had no distinctive teaching about death or intermediate states. The Lutheran Confessions simply assume that the souls of the dead exist and are in a blessed communion with Christ” (25–26, §43). Therefore, to fill this void and to feign some sort of parity with Vatican doctrine, “reference will be made to material from particular Lutheran churches, even though they have not received universal Lutheran acceptance” (19, §22). This tactic favors especially those texts and liturgical materials which have been strategically brought into Lutheran “practice” since Vatican II with an ecumenical lex orandi, lex credendi, intention of making a future reintegration into the papal fold as unobtrusive as possible.

In order to propose the notion that purgatory is not “church-dividing,” The Hope of Eternal Life gradually guides its Protestant reader to a dead end. Selected “Common Affirmations” exemplify this as follows: “Our churches affirm that death cannot destroy the communion with God of those redeemed and justified” (35, §59). “Our churches thus teach an ongoing personal existence beyond death, to which our divine Creator relates in saving love” (35, §60). The “interrelation between the general judgment of all humanity on the Last Day and the particular judgment of individuals upon their death…has never been a church-dividing matter between our churches, but does affect issues that have been disputed, e.g., purgatory” (43, §84, italics original). “Hans Martensen, bishop of Sjaelland in the Church of Denmark, thought judgment might be postponed at death for some who might benefit by further time for repentance” (45–46, §91). “Wolfhart Pannenberg, while critical of the concept of purgatory as a distinct, temporally-extended intermediate state, affirms purgation as an aspect of judgment...He develops this view in a discussion of the ideas of Joseph Ratzinger and concludes: ‘There is thus no more reason for the Reformation opposition’” (87, §203). “In light of the analysis given above, this dialogue believes that the topic of purgation, in and of itself, need not divide our communions” (91, §212, bold original). After such preparation for purgatory and despite the qualification that “Lutheran Confessions are uniformly critical of the doctrine of purgatory” (78, §179, the summit has been reached,

270. As with masses for the dead, indulgences appear in a different light when understood within the context of the solidarity of all the justified with Christ and each other. Lutherans in this dialogue have come to see that the intent behind the contemporary practice of indulgences is an expression of an appeal to the mercy of Christ. Whether indulgences do or can adequately embody that intent remains a genuine question for Lutherans. Lutherans also ask whether indulgences are so open to abuse and misunderstanding that their evangelical intent is obscured. Nevertheless, since the practice of indulgences has not been seen as required for communion with the Catholic Church, Lutherans need not adopt these practices for the sake of such communion. Ecumenical rapprochement requires, however, that Lutherans not condemn Catholic teaching about the practice of indulgences as inherently contrary to the Gospel (113–114).

As with all its ecumenical endeavours, this conclusion reiterates the ELCA’s abandonment of Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, which clearly states the sufficiency of the gospel “purely” preached (and taught) as the only foundation for true church unity.

Given the foregoing, it should not be entirely surprising that this dialogue’s use of the Bible and the Lutheran confessions is less than reliable, as an introductory paragraph exemplifies,

This dialogue’s discussion of biblical texts seeks to illumine the scriptural foundations and background of our churches’ respective teachings on the hope of eternal life without completely settling these hermeneutical questions. Judgments whether particular biblical texts adequately ground particular beliefs about heaven, hell, purgatory, etc., often involve judgments on these larger questions. Sometimes our churches have drawn different conclusions from the same biblical texts, e.g., 1 Cor. 3 and Matthew 12:32 (which will be discussed below in a section on purgatory) (20, §26).

Notably, the “dialogue’s discussion” seeks “to illumine the scriptural foundations and background of our churches’ respective teachings” rather than the other way around, i.e., the word being a lamp unto the dialogue participants’ feet. Furthermore, not only uncritically but also unquestioningly, this dialogue repeatedly cites writings from the Apocrypha, particularly 2 Maccabees, as scripture. In other words, this dialogue’s stated methodology precludes the Old and New Testaments from being solely foundational either for the dialogue or for the churches’ respective teachings, particularly regarding purgatory (70–71, §161). In contrast, such scripture did provide the foundation for the Reformers’ confessional critique and rejection of purgatory, which this dialogue readily and repeatedly notes (79, §§181, 182; 82, §191).

Likewise, this dialogue’s use of or reference to material from the Lutheran confessions, taken frequently out of context, is misleading at best. Within the context of this dialogue and its goals, however, such misleading is deliberate, deceptive by design. For example, after describing and quoting Luther’s rejection of purgatory in the Smalcald Articles (SA II, II) as an apparition of the devil (Teufelsgespenst) and idolatry, which one would like (mocht) to discard (or abandon) “even if it were neither error nor idolatry” (Kolb-Wengert, 303), “man es mocht wohl lassen, wenn es schon kein Irrtum noch Abgotterei wäre” (BSLK, 420), this dialogue continues,

The existence of purgatory is not dogmatically denied. Rather, 1) the existence of purgatory is not taught by Scripture and thus cannot be binding doctrine, and 2) belief in purgatory is now hopelessly bound up with unacceptable practices. A belief that could be discussed in principle is concretely objectionable because of its associations (79, §181).

Clearly, Luther’s use of the subjunctive form “would like” (mocht) rather than mag (may), the latter used in both Tappert (295) and Kolb-Wengert (303), indicates what one “would like” to do even if purgatory “were” (ware, again subjunctive) not error or idolatry. This double subjunctive “translated” into the indicative means that purgatory is error and idolatry and thus is not open for discussion, regardless of associations. Whereas the Kolb-Wengert translation of Luther’s subjunctive into an English subjunctive is mechanically correct, it is not meaningfully correct. The Kolb-Wengert translation thus invites this dialogue’s drafters to exploit this mechanical translation as a means to allow Luther to give tacit permission to discuss purgatory stripped of all evils. Meaningfully, however, Tappert has it much more correct: “All this may consequently be discarded, apart entirely from the fact that [purgatory] is error and idolatry.” Confessionally, for both the BSLK and Tappert, the door to discussing purgatory is shut and locked.

Another questionable application of the Lutheran confessions pertains to “meritorious” works and this dialogue’s attempts to harmonize Lutheran and papal positions. With reference to Apology IV on justification (Kolb-Wengert, 171), homogenized for the Council of Trent, this dialogue asserts, “The Apology states that good works, which can only be performed by those who are in Christ, ‘are truly meritorious, but not for the forgiveness of sins or justification. For they are not pleasing to [God] except in those who are justified on account of faith’” (51, §105). This dialogue further states, “In its Decree on Justification, the Council of Trent similarly taught that good works that are meritorious before God are possible only for those in Christ, for the justified.” Thus, the “ecumenical question is the significance of the difference between the Apology’s statement that eternal life is a reward in the sense of a recompense and the Council of Trent’s statement that eternal life is a merited reward” (52–53, §107).

Later, while noting the LCMS’s rejection of such prayer, the dialogue states, “The presence of prayers for the dead in the funeral liturgies” of ELCA hymnals since 1978 “supports a partially shared practice of prayer for the dead [with the Roman Church] and sheds new light on remaining differences on purgatory” (108, §255). Thus, despite differences, ELCA Lutherans and Catholics “agree that such prayer is a good work of the justified. They agree that good works will be rewarded by God in this world and the next, and in that sense can be called meritorious. They agree that prayer constitutes an aspect of penance. They agree that prayer is efficacious; it can truly aid the person prayed for, although that aid does not operate automatically and is always under the will of God” (108, §256). This explains, as per §270 quoted above, why “indulgences appear in a different light when understood within the context of the solidarity of all the justified with Christ and each other,” and thus why Lutherans must “not condemn Catholic teaching about the practice of indulgences as inherently contrary to the Gospel.”

This second example from the Lutheran confessions represents more than exploitable ambiguities in translation. The similar phrasing regarding rewards and “meritorious” works between the Council of Trent and the Apology is possible chiefly because the Kolb-Wengert Book of Concord uses a different Apology. Whereas the quarto edition of Ap IV, 194, standard since 1580, only in a couple lines—almost in passing—describes “good works” as meritoria (BSLK) and “meritorious” (Tappert), the Kolb-Wengert rendition uses the octavo edition instead. The octavo edition omits Ap IV, 194 and elaborately discusses rewards and “meritorious” works in several new paragraphs placed after Ap IV, 257. This elaboration provides ample fodder (39, §72; 50–52, §§103, 105) for the dialogue drafters to conjure confessional congruence, which the BSLK and Tappert, arguably, would not.

According to Kolb-Wengert, “In using this approach, we follow the most recent modern German translation of the Book of Concord” (109) with note 3 referring to the Evangelische Bekenntnisse: Bekenntnisschriften der Reformation und neuere theologische Erklärungen (Evangelical Confessions: Confessional Writings of the Reformation and Newer Theological Declarations). Notably, this collection of Lutheran and Reformed confessional writings was collated by and published for use in the Evangelische Kirche der Union (Evangelical Church of the Union, EKU) and thereafter in the Union Evangelischer Kirchen (Union of Evangelical Churches, UEK) in the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD). In other words, the Apology in Kolb-Wengert is patterned on a translation for use in union churches in Germany. Synergistically, while Kolb-Wengert “unionism” provides a meritorious tool for ELCA ecumenism, the ELCA’s ecumenism again reveals the confessional unreliability of the Kolb-Wengert Book of Concord over against the BSLK benchmark edition used by confessional Lutherans since 1580 (see also Mark D. Menacher, Priesthood, Pastors, Bishops—Public Ministry for the Reformation & Today by Timothy J. Wengert, published in LOGIA: A Journal of Lutheran Theology 19 (Reformation 2010), 48–51).

In short summary, from a biblical and Lutheran confessional standpoint, The Hope of Eternal Life—Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue XI was dead on arrival and does not have a prayer for purgation or for anything else either in this life or in the life to come.

Mark D. Menacher

La Mesa, California