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Scripture, no longer a divider of Christians


Catholic News Service

Future church historians will explain to my great-grandchildren how an age of dialogue arose during the 20th and 21st centuries, displacing the hostile, suspicious age of polemics that for 400 years shaped relationships between Catholics and members of the Reformation churches.

Divided Christians during the age of polemics shied away from examining faith together or remembering that Scripture constitutes a shared treasure.

The Bible became a point of contention.

Martin Luther, known as the Reformation’s 16th century founder, taught that Scripture is the paramount standard for church teaching. The Reformation maxim “Scripture alone” (“sola Scriptura”) came to reflect this conviction.

Catholics and Luther’s followers increasingly found themselves at loggerheads over this. While Catholics insisted that church tradition and Scripture must work hand in hand, Luther’s followers feared that tradition coupled with church authority risked abuses.

Defensive oversimplifications and misunderstandings peppered the age of polemics. Ordinary Catholics and Lutherans for centuries knew little about each other’s beliefs.

Some Catholics suspected that Luther’s accent on Scripture fostered an arbitrary, individualized faith. Some Lutherans doubted Catholics ever heard or read Scripture.

But let’s fast-forward to later times when dialogue and efforts to understand the Reformation and Counter-Reformation more accurately began opening windows in the walls dividing Christians.

Consider the 1999 Catholic-Lutheran World Federation Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. How did Catholic-Lutheran dialogue leaders manage to agree for the most part that little divided them in Luther’s teaching that God saves Christians through faith and not through merit on their part?

Moreover, this dialogue largely agreed that Christians naturally should express Christian faith through good works.

Lutherans and Catholics “together listened to the good news proclaimed in Holy Scripture,” the declaration explains. This led to a “shared understanding.”

So, divided Christians in the age of dialogue did something they tended not to do in the age of polemics: listened together to Scripture.

Here the Second Vatican Council was hugely influential among Catholics. Its 1964 Decree on Ecumenism welcomed the “love and reverence” for Scripture witnessed among other Christians. Its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation stressed that Scripture must nourish and regulate all Catholic preaching.

Scripture study groups popped up in Catholic parishes everywhere after the council.

In 1983 the international Roman Catholic-Lutheran Commission acknowledged that “elements of Luther’s concerns” are reflected in Vatican II’s documents, including his emphasis on Scripture’s “decisive importance” for church life.

Together with gratitude for Luther’s contributions, the statement said that Lutheran churches today are “aware of his limitations in person and work.” In citing Luther’s important strengths, it noted how he “directs us to the priority of God’s word.”

Not every troublesome question for Christians of differing denominations is confined yet to history’s annals. Pope Francis and Bishop Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, prayed in a 2016 joint statement for healing of “the memories that cloud our view of one another.”

But these leaders affirmed that “while the past cannot be changed, what is remembered and how it is remembered can be transformed.”

(Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.)

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Martin Luther significantly influenced German hymnody. Contemporary Catholics would recognize and be able to join in song to hymns such as “A Might Fortress Is our God” and “Away in a Manager.”

Luther had a lifelong love of music. Born in to a musical family, he learned to play the lute and to write tablature, a form of musical notation, and he understood both the theory and practice of music. As an Augustinian monk, he learned the musical form of the Book of Psalms and the hymns in the Liturgy of the Hours.

Luther once said, “I have always loved music; I would not for any price lose my little musical power. It drives away spirit of melancholy, as we see in the case of King Saul. By its aid a man forgets his anger, lust, and pride, and expels many temptations and evil thoughts.”

Luther’s hymns express his theology. The simple lyrics made the Gospel visible and accessible to worshippers in their churches and homes. He composed more than 30 spiritual songs, setting the Psalms to music, adapting Latin hymns and translating Latin text into German.

“Music is a gift of God; it awakens and moves me so, that I preach with pleasure,” Luther said.