Catholics and Lutherans: Is there a Fundamental Difference?

(This is Neil) I tend to read the reviews in Modern Theology electronically, a year late. In the July 2008 issue, the Lutheran ecumenist Michael Root reviews a book by the Dominican theologian Charles Morerod. Fr Morerod apparently wishes to argue that there is a “fundamental difference” (Grunddifferenz) between Catholic and Lutherans on justification, based on Luther’s adherence to a mistaken “philosophical theory of causality.” Basically, for Morerod, Luther sees divine and human action as mutually exclusive. Professor Root finds this unconvincing.

Along the way, Root makes some important points, not just concerning ecumenical theology (or Morerod’s book), but theology in general:

1. First, as Root writes:

Any adequate presentation of the saving work of God’s grace as understood within the Augustianian tradition requires some sense of God moving the self without violating the integrity of the self’s own action. Only thus can the faith (or hope or love) of the justified be both their own actions and also gifts of grace. [The Anglican priest and theologian] Austin Farrer, who thought about these issues as deeply as anyone in the last hundred years, used the term “double agency” to describe this relation. Divine and human agency coincide, with decisive priority belonging to the divine agent. If some such notion is not presupposed, then one is forced into unacceptable alternatives: either divine agency removes all human participation in salvation or human agency makes a contribution to salvation independent of grace. What is needed is some sense of God and creatures operating on different levels of being, so that their agencies do not compete in a zero-sum game.

So we can say that any theology, whether Protestant or Catholic, that proceeds to ignore or reject “double agency” will end up making problematic assertions.

2. Luther, Root says, considers justification to be pure gift. But he does not otherwise reject “double agency.” Even in his Bondage of the Will, Luther writes, “[God] does not work in us without us, because it is for this he has created and preserved us, that he might work in us and we might cooperate with him, whether outside his Kingdom through his general omnipotence, or inside his Kingdom by the special virtue of his Spirit” (my emphasis).

3. Consequently, Luther does believe that the sacraments communicate saving grace (when received by faith).

4. Luther’s main concern is not some “philosophy of causality.” He is concerned to say that the only righteousness that avails before God’s judgment is the righteousness of Christ. This means that his main concern is not philosophical at all, but soteriological.

Root has written elsewhere that the specific issue has to do with whether good works can merit eternal life:

Aquinas and the Council of Trent affirm merit as an eschatological concept: eschatologically there will be a true fittingness between eternal life as the end of the movement of grace and the human creature as moved by a grace that does not violate its intrinsic nature as agent. The Reformers, however, feared merit as a practical-ethical concept, as a concept that would underwrite a quid pro quo approach to the Christian life.

We might here suggest, with Root, that Lutheran theology is written from a perspective sometimes found in Catholic saints, one of self-forgetfulness. Thus Thérèse of Lisieux:

After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself (see the Catechism 2011).

I’d like to ask: Should all Catholic theology be written from this perspective? What might that mean? What would be lost?

5. Regarding ecumenical methodology, Root reminds us that we must distinguish between a relativistic denial of truth claims and a degree of relativism towards the particular language in which those truth claims are affirmed. This is an important distinction.

6. Also regarding ecumenical methodology, Root worries that the assertion of “fundamental differences” between Christian traditions often means that the “fine grain of particular disputes is lost.” This is very another important point, I think.

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Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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8 Responses to Catholics and Lutherans: Is there a Fundamental Difference?

  1. Liam says:

    “Should all Catholic theology be written from this perspective? What might that mean? What would be lost?”

    Excellent question, which I will not answer directly because it implies that one could attempt to be ahistorical, which is not plausible to me.

    I would instead like to note that Catholic (ie Roman) theology might be characterized as overly responsive, which will likely strike people who in the past generation have been concerned with questions of sexuality and gender as hilariously inapt. Yet. Over the centuries, the Roman approach has generally been to respond to questions and issues that get raised by providing more and more detail. And of course what’s said outside the confessional tends to be written down and preserved, almost like the development of English common law in that one respect. I am not sure that is as true in the Eastern and Oriental Churches. In short, Rome has baggage because we want it to carry the bags for us.

    Thus, your very elevated and noble suggestion inspired by St Therese might have the unintended effect of being less responsive at a pastoral level over time.

    Anyway, that’s what immediately comes to my mind when I consider this issue from a great distance. Which doesn’t mean it’s worth much.

  2. Liam says:

    Lest I have another thought that goes unexpressed, perhaps the door to this is related to Pope John Paul II’s exquisite idea of the Marian dimension of the church preceding the Petrine dimension?

  3. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    I understand what you have said about the development of certain Catholic intellectual traditions in a manner similar to English common law. (One example, I suppose, would be casuistry.) I must confess that I’m not sure how writing theology from the perspective of “forgetfulness of self” (properly understood) would result in the church being “less responsive.” Could you elaborate?

    Now, Michael Root does suggest that the Catholic can ask some difficult question about the Lutheran “forgetfulness of self”:

    Even in an existential theology, is a second level of self-forgetfulness needed, in which the self contemplates self, not to mount a claim to its own righteousness, but to praise God’s work? Does the praise of God require a sort of God’s eye view of the self, so that the self may also be included in the things for which thanks is given to God?

    Regarding Pope John Paul II’s idea of the precedence of the Marian dimension of the church, I would agree that 1) Mary is a “type” of the Church (see Lumen Gentium, 63) and 2) the institutional dimensions of the church are in service of the holiness of her members. I don’t know what John Paul II’s idea adds to this. Furthermore, I don’t know if the distinction between “Marian” and “Petrine,” and the close association of the “Petrine” with the institutional aspects of the church, bear exegetical scrutiny.

    Thanks, as always, for writing.


  4. Liam says:


    I guess I understood the idea of forgetfulness of self (communally) in theology as implying that it would tend to dampen the dwelling on second- or third-order issues (as you or I might see them) that often act as baggage that impedes ecumenical unity. If my understanding is correct, my response was based on the realization that people over time have a tendency to ask questions about lower-order issues and may experience the perennial Catholic “you’re not asking the right question” as unresponsive and non-pastoral. That would not make their perspective “correct”; I am merely underscoring the enduring aspects of human nature that tend to drive us away from this forgetfulness of self at different levels.

  5. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks. I think that you may be right. But isn’t this just a reminder that we must be realistic and patient?


  6. Liam says:


    I suspect unrealistic and patient is more like it!

  7. Pingback: Simul Iustus et Peccator: Should it Divide Us? « Catholic Sensibility

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