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“Lutherans and Roman Catholics are putting a centuries-old dispute behind them. The Lutheran World Federation has approved a joint declaration with the Catholic Church saying that people become justified before God by faith alone, not by good works. The federation, which represents most of the world’s 61 million Lutherans, announced its approval of the document June 16 in Geneva, Switzerland.

‘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 receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works,’ the 45-paragraph statement says in a key passage.

The doctrine, known as justification or ‘faith vs. works,’ has been the key point separating the two traditions since Martin Luther broke with Rome in the 16th century. Luther, a Catholic monk, and his followers said that what the church taught them, that people could earn their salvation through good works, was unbiblical. Salvation could only be the gift of a gracious God, Luther said. At the time, the church was selling indulgences as a means of attaining salvation, and using the money to construct cathedrals.

The dispute caused Luther to challenge Catholic teachings and practices by posting 95 theses on the door of a church in Wittenburg, Germany. That led to the division of Europe into Catholic and Protestant camps, which condemned each other’s theology.

The Vatican has indicated that it will affirm the Roman Catholic-Lutheran ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’ in the near future. A joint signing ceremony was held October 31 in Augsburg.

In addition to substantially agreeing on the doctrine of justification by faith, the joint declaration declares that condemnations the churches have leveled against each other since the 16th century no longer apply. Some differences regarding the understanding of justification remain, but they are not substantial enough to warrant the condemnations, the document says.” (RNS)

Where is Luther when we need him?

Theological education is stranger than it used to be

One of the saddest results of the conservative resurgence in the SBC the last 20 years has been the unmasking of many of the “old guard” who are now pursuing their careers in other arenas. With denominational restraints thrown off, new lows continue to be reached by those who formerly received their salaries from Southern Baptist churches. If there is still any doubt about whether or not there were doctrinal problems in the SBC which needed to be corrected when the inerrancy movement began in 1979, the following statements from a former professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary should resolve them. They are excerpted from “Not Instruction, but Provocation: Doing Theology at a New Divinity School,” the Inaugural Convocation Address by Bill J. Leonard, Dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School, delivered October 12, 1999.

Half the literary preachers in this town are A.B’s, Ph.D.’s, D.D.’s, LL.D.’s and A.S.S.’s. Baptists remain suspicious. As an old Baptist once told me: “We don’t care much for an educated ministry, we saw what it did to the Presbyterians.”

Aware of, but (mostly) undaunted by such concerns, Wake Forest University began plans for a new divinity school over a decade ago. Its mission is as follows. First, this is a school of the university; a community of scholars inside a broader community of scholars, providing perspectives which theological education can bring to scholarship, spirituality, and ethics for and with the university at large. Second, this divinity school prepares ministers for churches. The students in this first class speak of their desire to serve churches as Christian ministers. The forms of that ministry will vary, but most know they will be involved in preaching, teaching, counseling, praying with, and guiding congregations or their extended ministries in the church and the world. Third, the divinity school prepares ministers to respond to basic issues of life and death, pain and struggle, joy and celebration in faith communities where many of the old structures, resources, and identities are in “permanent transition.” Fourth, a diverse full-time and adjunct faculty facilitates formation for ministry.

The Divinity School is a strange mix, you must admit. One observer described our faculty as composed of “two feminists, a monk, a controversial expert on religious liberty and two battle-scarred Baptists.”

Pluralism means to many unexpected and “non-traditional” practices. I know Pentecostals who wear clerical collars and elect their own bishops. I also know some people who refer to themselves as Pentecostal Presbyterians, two words no one ever expected to go together. I know one Alabama pastor who preaches in Reeboks every Sunday. He says he tried Nike but he just couldn’t feel the Holy Spirit in the same way.

Three years ago an African-American woman who grew up in Winston-Salem asked me if accepted, would she be welcomed for what she would bring to this divinity school. Tonight she sits here as a part of our entering class. Three years ago a lesbian woman asked me if accepted would she be welcomed for what she would bring to this school. Tonight she sits here as part of our entering class. Last week at a gathering of students another woman expressed thanks for the acceptance and welcome she has received at this new school. She was not sure it would be so since she is different from the other students. She is 74 years old. These three women and their other sister and brother students are welcomed. They are here because of their sense of call, a non-discrimination policy extraordinaire, excellent references, and fine grade point averages. Every one of them is a provocateur extraordinaire. They are shaping this school toward the future through the pluralism of their “voices.”

Baptist-Jewish Forum applauds inclusivism

A Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leader rejected the exclusive nature of the gospel during a Baptist/Jewish relations forum October 21 in Louisville, Ky. The forum, sponsored by the Kentuckiana Interfaith Community, featured Ron Sisk, pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville and former CBF Coordinating Council member. He was joined by panelists Carey Newman, former professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Seminary, and Rabbi Joe Rapport, who serves The Temple in Louisville.

“I certainly don’t believe that any one tradition has an exclusive corner on God,” said Sisk. “I would never limit God’s salvation to those who share my own perspective or my own understanding. I would respect the traditions of others, both Christian and non-Christian, for the truth which they reveal. I would say Christ’s spirit operates in places where Christ is not named or known.”

The Jewish prayer guide which was issued by the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board provoked the gathering of the forum. About 150 people attended the forum at Broadway Baptist Church, which is dually aligned with the SBC and CBF.

Sisk repeatedly objected to the biblical standard of an exclusive gospel, which means that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. He espoused a belief in “the cosmic Christ” who he said “goes beyond any name or any theology or any community and is found at work in the same way” that the universal God of Judaism is at work.

“To the degree that a person’s life puts them into touch with that spirit of Christ, they have a relationship with God as genuine as my own,” Sisk said. (BP)