By KATHY SCHMUGGE
COLUMBIA — For those who have prayed for Christian unity, the LARCUM (Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, United Methodist Alliance) Conference held on Sept. 29 was a sign that God has been listening. Taking place at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, the young and well-respected Lutheran theologian and author, Dr. David Yeago, sang from the same sheet of music as the older, well-established Catholic theologian and author, veteran to ecumenism, Cardinal Avery Dulles. Not only were they joined in song during a service of word and prayer honoring St. Michael and all angels, they were together in their positive and optimistic impressions of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), the theme of this year’s conference.
Nearing the second year anniversary of the signing of the JDDJ on Oct. 31, 1999, in Augsburg, Germany, the speakers unpacked this 60-page theological document that marks a coming together on the very day the Western Church split in 1530.
Although the declaration has its limitations, for example, it does not include all aspects of justification and is not an authoritative magisterial statement binding its respective communions, it does send a profound message to the world, “Lutherans, Catholics and others can speak together.”
“The common action at Augsburg has very broad ecumenical implications since the theme is of interest to Christians of every tradition,” said Cardinal Dulles, advisor to the Committee on Doctrine of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, associate fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington and professor of theology at Fordham University. Cardinal Dulles, who was recently appointed a cardinal, has had powerful influence and interest in the ecumenical movement and has led several ecumenical projects and served as an advisor to many key organizations.
“Since the disagreements have impeded the church’s missionary effort, progress toward agreement will contribute to a ‘new evangelization’ for which the present pope has been calling,” added Cardinal Dulles, who as a convert of more than 50 years brings a meaningful perspective.
Many people traveled great distances just to hear what Cardinal Dulles, who is seen as a great unifying force in the church, had to say about the joint document. Anthony Collins, from St. Anne Church in Sumter, said, “Cardinal Dulles has a gift for putting traditional ideas in a different language so it doesn’t sound the same, but it still means what it always meant.”
A parishioner from St. Mary Help of Christian in Aiken, Charlie Mudge, had waited more than 50 years to meet this famous priest, son of the former secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Mudge, also a convert, was impressed how this well-educated man gave up position and wealth to become a Jesuit priest. He hand-carved a special walking staff for the cardinal upon their meeting.
Cardinal Dulles explained that the “heart of the joint declaration” is found in paragraph 15, “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work, and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and received the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” He said that the ideas found in this statement, clearly taught in Scripture, have never been disputed by Luther and other sixteenth-century Protestants, “… but the theological climate in the sixteenth century did not lend itself to common statements …” as it does today.
On of the most profound moments of the conference was when the next speaker, the well-respected theologian, Yeago, professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran Seminary in Columbia, said “My response will not take a point by point rejoinder to Cardinal Dulles’ paper; instead, I want to supplement it.” In his talk he explored “the theological background of the problem of justification” and examined the reception of the JDDJ from a Lutheran perspective.
“I want to suggest that the reception of the JDDJ is contributing to very large shifts and realignments going on now in the Lutheran world and in the Protestant world generally. These are not taking place on the surface, where everyone notices them; it is more like the gradual movement of tectonic plates beneath the earth’s surface, gradually repositioning the continents,” said Yeago, who sees “our shared Augustinian heritage as a basis and resource for continuing discussion.”
With different accents, the speakers not only showed how far the churches have come in agreement but how hopeful things looked for a united future as they work through matters that may one day be seen as “theological differences” and not “church-divisive.” Cardinal Dulles concluded, “Without the slightest compromise in matters of truth, Christians of different traditions must seek ways to proclaim together this central article of faith. ”