Pope Benedict XVI and Reformed Evangelicalism
One of my earliest memories of John Paul II was as an undergraduate at Haverford College in the fall of 1980. I was taking a brilliant course on "Luther and the Reformation", taught by a wonderful Lutheran theologian of deep piety. John Paul II was visiting Germany during the anniversary of the Augsburg Confession--the great Lutheran doctrinal charter--and declared that justification was based on faith apart from human merit. This made a deep impression on the professor and on me; and it left me as a young evangelical deeply convinced that real differences between Rome and the evangelicals lay elsewhere than on the issue of justification.
The 1990s lead to a series of agreements between Catholics and Protestants designed to bridge this traditional gulf between Christians. In 1998 "The Gift of Salvation" by American Catholic and evangelical theologians affirmed a consensus on salvation: "We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide)." Although unofficial, it nonetheless reflected beliefs widely shared among both Catholics and evangelicals.
The Joint Declaration on Justification in 1999 was an official document of the Catholic Church; written with the Lutheran World Federation, and signed by Cardinal Ratzinger. Here the Catholic Church formally affirmed "justification by faith alone"--"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" (JD 15). "Justification takes place by grace alone (JD 15 and 16), by faith alone, the person is justified apart from works (Rom 3:28, cf. JD 25)." (Annex 2C)
Although these documents had broad support among both Protestant and Catholic theologians, some theologians in both traditions had concerns. In North America, Calvinists connected with the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE) were vocal in their critiques. I consequently have been very interested in the reaction of the new generation of Reformed theologians to the rise of Ratzinger to the papacy--the man who has been the key figure in the Catholic Church's current affirmation of sola fide (faith alone).
Al Mohler of ACE seems encouraged by the Ratzinger papacy (20 April 2005), but is reluctant to see progress on the issue of justification by faith alone: "Like the church he served, John Paul II rejected justification by faith."--a line that clearly reflects Mohler's deeply held views, but which is not easy to reconcile with John Paul II's express statements to the contrary.
Michael Horton, a former leader of ACE, has a must-read look at Pope Benedict XVI: he goes through Ratzinger's writings offering a superb list of Ratzinger's greatest hits. This is absolutely the place to go for a one-stop list of Ratzinger quotations on myriad topics. My favorite is Ratzinger on the modern notion that we don't have time to pray: “Well, this uncontested but significant ‘sacrifice’ [daily prayer] has been replaced by TV-viewing until well into the night”!
We can hope that Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate will see a further engagement on these issues, and a more deeply spread agreement on the gospel common to evangelicals and Catholics alike.