From Conflict to Communion

Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017, 4th edition

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The Lutheran World Federation
  • Berlin, Germany: 
    Evangelische Verlagsanstalt
    , July
     112 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What a difference one hundred years can make! A century ago, the animosity between Lutherans and Roman Catholics was encapsulated in the 1904 work of Heinrich Denifle, Luther and Lutheranism. Denifle claimed, among other things, that Martin Luther’s immorality was the real source of his doctrine. However, new readings of Luther in the Roman Catholic world emerged as the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965 CE) opened Rome’s windows to the ecumenical world. Following the fifty subsequent years of Lutheran and Roman Catholic dialogue, a new view of Luther and Lutheranism has emerged. This book reflects upon the fruit of this dialogue, while giving insight into the divisive issues of the 16th century and how these issues have been revisited and addressed by modern scholarship. First published in 2013, the fifth edition contains supplemental material, including a chapter on how baptism provides the basis for Roman Catholics and Lutherans to jointly commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation’s beginnings. Also added is a chapter on five ecumenical imperatives, and the litany and background to a Common Prayer Litany for the ecumenical observance of the Reformation.

While this book is immediately helpful for documenting the formal international conversations addressing specific Lutheran and Roman Catholic theological matters, it is also a valuable resource for anyone interested in a succinct overview of the history and theology of the Reformation. Its concise overview, in chapter 2, of contemporary research into the late medieval period, along with renewed Roman Catholic thought about Luther, aptly sums up the grounds for conflict and the possibilities for a new rapprochement. This, along with the next chapter, which contains a historical sketch of the Reformation and the Catholic responses to it, makes this resource most helpful for church history survey courses. Likewise, chapter 4 provides an equally succinct, yet precise summation of the basic themes of Luther’s thought, as it affects the Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogue. Explicit attention is given to monastic and mystical theology, justification, the eucharist, ministry, and scripture and tradition as sources of authority. 

Many of these themes have been the focus of the formal international dialogues between these two parts of the body of Christ, so it is not a surprise that they are highlighted here. The Lutheran teaching of “simul iustus et peccator” (simultaneously sinner and justified), which was flagged in the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification as a topic needing further clarification, is one of the more interesting highlighted subsections in the discussion on ministry. Equally important, there is a brief section on future matters that need conversation among these church bodies, the most important being the understanding of the church. However, even this topic for future discussion is helpfully couched in terms of its relationship to the Gospel. Also helpful for discussion in ecumenical conversations today are the five ecumenical imperatives that are noted in chapter 6. From Conflict to Communion provides an excellent explanation of why the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation needs to be commemorated, rather than celebrated.

For those seeking brief, clear, yet nuanced explorations of the history of the Reformation and the theological differences between the Roman Catholics and Lutherans, this resource is invaluable. Missing, however, is any discussion of the social and cultural factors contributing to the Reformation of the 16th century which are obstacles in ecumenical conversations today. Also, From Conflict to Communion reveals that some substantial differences between the Roman Catholics and Lutherans still exist. Most obvious is the unequal status of the two participating church bodies. The Roman Catholic Church is consistently referred to as simply the “Catholic” church. Since “catholic” means “universal,” the nomenclature used in this document implies that the Catholic Church is the universal church, while the Lutheran church is a particular expression of church. This reflects Benedict XVI’s views that the protestant churches were “expressions of the church” or “ecclesial communities,” without having the fullness of church. 

It would have been much better if the particular descriptor of “Roman” would have been consistently paired with the universal descriptor of “catholic,” in this document, even if it seemed redundant. To use only the term catholic thus overlooks the reality that even the Roman Catholic Church is a particular Latin, or Western expression of the church universal. Perhaps it would have been better, in this context, to use the terms Roman Catholic and Lutheran Catholic as ways of expressing the particular manifestations of the church catholic. This nomenclature is an “elephant in the room” that will have to be addressed in future dialogue. Despite this caveat, however, this small book provides an excellent summary of the history of Roman Catholic and Lutheran relationships and the theological challenges they face. It is most appropriate, then, that the last section of the book provides a litany for use in joint Roman Catholic and Lutheran commemorations of not just the Reformation, but of the ongoing dialogue between two important Christian church bodies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gordon A. Jensen is William Horden Chair of Theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

The Lutheran World Federation is a global communion of 145 churches in the Lutheran tradition, representing over 74 million Christians in 98 countries. They strive to put their faith into action.


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