Justification by Faith:
Do Catholics and Lutherans Agree?
When the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church signed the Joint Declaration on the
Doctrine of Justification in 1999, I was inclined to be optimistic. I felt,
like many others, that a great ecumenical victory had been achieved. It mirrored
my own interpretation of the differences; I had been a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor,
and was influenced by dialogues such as this to think more positively of
Catholicism, and, then, to become Catholic. In 1999 I was working for a major
archdiocese. As time
went by, however, I grew more pessimistic, especially as this agreement was
ignored by Catholics and criticized by Lutherans who were not part of the
negotiation. Here are a couple of different reflections I wrote several years
An Optimistic Assessment (1999)
In the summer of 1998,
the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church announced the approval of
an historic Joint Declaration on the
Doctrine of Justification. It seemed that the
issue that had sparked the Reformation had been resolved. But then came a series
of events that kicked up some dust and left people wondering what, if anything,
had actually been accomplished. It began when Cardinal Edward Cassidy held a
press conference to announce the Vatican's acceptance of the agreement. But
along with the acceptance came a "response." Lutherans were caught off guard.
Some things in the response made it seem as if Cassidy was calling into question
the very agreement he had helped to craft. He insisted later that this was not
the case; rather, he was just explaining for Catholic readers what the document
itself meant by acknowledging that there were still some issues to be worked
Unlike some ecumenists, I was not troubled by this turn of
events, which I thought to be a simple
distraction which would soon be resolved. I was, however, troubled by a paper coming from a different
direction. A self-styled "Catholic apologist" named Robert Sungenis sent out a
paper to some friends in which he gave his opinions on the subject. One of those
passed it on to me for my thoughts. Sungenis had achieved some
certain circles of conservative Catholicism because of a couple of books he had
written (including Not by Faith Alone: The Biblical Evidence for the
Catholic Doctrine of Justification [Santa Barbara: Queenship, 1996]).
Sungenis left Catholicism as a teenager and wandered for the next eighteen years
through various fundamentalist sects. He graduated from Westminster Theological
Seminary in 1982, and returned to Catholicism ten years later. [He has since
followed a path into "Traditionalist" Catholicism, and has written bizarre
papers advocating a geocentric cosmology and
critique of the "Joint Declaration" reveals both his fundamentalist
Reformed background and his
apologetic agenda. Sungenis does not wish to dialogue with Lutherans—he simply
wishes them to agree with Tridentine formulations.
My own background is important for understanding my own
response. I was a Lutheran pastor, and was drawn to Catholicism by its truth and
beauty. And yet I don't see the need to reject my past. I do not see my conversion to
Catholicism as a repudiation of my Lutheranism, but as its completion. I do not
feel the need to be constantly finding fault with the Reformers. That is not how
we will come to the goal for which Jesus prayed, "that they may all be one."
The Sungenis paper revealed a number of serious misconceptions about
the Joint Declaration, the process by which it was produced and the teachings of
First and most important, Sungenis failed
to realize that this is a "JOINT Declaration," prepared by Catholic and Lutheran
theologians, which builds upon earlier American and German agreements. The
Vatican has been involved in the process for a long time, and this final draft
was circulated to the member bodies of the LWF only after a prior draft had been
submitted to the Vatican. Sungenis, however, referred to the document by such
descriptions as: "The Declaration on Justification as Formulated by the Lutheran
World Federation," "the formulation on Justification recently published by the LWF," the "LWF's formulation," "the formulations on Justification recently
proposed in Geneva by the LWF," "the LWF's statements on justification," "the
Second, this fundamental misconception as
to the nature of the document has important consequences for how we evaluate the
statement by Cardinal Cassidy noting the Vatican's acceptance of the document.
Sungenis saw the document as a LWF proposal to Rome, with Rome accepting part
but firmly standing by the Tridentine formulations. But in light of the
document's true nature as a "Joint Declaration," prepared over many years by
Lutheran and Catholic scholars, with repeated input from the Vatican, Cassidy's
remarks must be taken for what they claim to be: clarifications for Catholics of
points named by the document itself as issues which still need to be
discussed—but these clarifications do not detract from the fact that this is a
Third, Sungenis does not have an adequate
understanding of Lutheran theology and history. And this is what I want to spend
the most time on. Because of his book, Sungenis is seen by some as an expert on
the Reformation. His comments on Luther and Lutheranism are accepted as accurate
by his readers. After all, his defenders say, "He was a Protestant; shouldn't he
know what Luther was about?" No, he was Reformed. And Lutherans have always seen
some radical differences between the Lutheran approach and that of the Reformed.
Both Reformed and Catholics have accepted a caricature of
Luther that Lutherans would not recognize. The caricature is best summed up by a
rather unpleasant image that is often used by non-Lutherans (but which few
Lutherans have ever heard of). In this metaphor for the Christian life,
justification is compared to a sprinkling of snow on a pile of dung. We are the
dung—horrible, smelly, corrupt, with no redeeming qualities. A light dusting of
snow (the imputed righteousness of Christ) makes us appear to be something we
are not. But the snow cannot change the dung.
The word of God in this caricature is a fiction—it says we
are something that we are not.
The word of God in this caricature is disembodied—it does
not need preacher or church or Baptism or Eucharist. In fact, these things are
assumed to be hindrances rather than helps to the Christian.
But are they the views of Luther or of Lutheranism?
No, they are not.
To understand Luther, you first have to realize that he
was not a systematic theologian. This is one of the ways in which he differs
from Calvin and the Reformed school, which wanted to construct a theological
package in which everything fits together nicely. Luther was, first and
foremost, a Biblical scholar. He tried to understand the text, as written, even
if it didn't always harmonize precisely with what another text says. Second,
Luther was a person for whom questions of spirituality were primary. He didn't
want to understand the abstractions of an ordo salutis—he wanted to have
his inner turmoil (Anfechtung) eased. The primary question for Luther
was, in the face of personal doubts, and the assaults of the world, the flesh,
and the devil, where does one turn for assurance of acceptance with God? And the
answer for Luther was simple—you cling to the external Word. You do not count
your "Brownie points," you do not measure your success, you do not stack your
indulgence certificates, you do not evaluate the quality of your experience or
weigh your doubt against your faith. You cling to the Word of God in Christ.
As noted in the Augsburg Confession, art. 4,
It is also taught among us that we cannot
obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God by our own merits,
works, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become
righteous before God by grace, for Christ's sake, through faith, when we
believe that Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven
and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and
reckon this faith as righteousness, as Paul says in Romans 3:21-26 and 4:5.
This justification is not something that happens once at
the beginning of the Christian experience. Rather, it is a Word constantly
spoken to us. AC 5:
To obtain such faith God instituted the office
of the ministry, that is, provided the Gospel and the sacraments. Through
these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and
where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.
We see Luther's understanding of Justification most
clearly in his teaching on the sacraments, especially Baptism. From the Small
Baptism is not merely water, but it is water
used according to God's command and connected with God's Word. . . . It
effects forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants
eternal salvation to all who believe, as the Word and promise of God declare.
. . . [Baptism] signifies that the old Adam in us, together with all sins and
evil lusts, should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance and be put to
death, and that the new man should come forth daily and raise up, cleansed and
righteous, to live forever in God's presence.
From the Large Catechism:
[Baptism] is not simply a natural water, but a
divine, heavenly, holy, and blessed water—praise
it in any other terms you can—all
by virtue of the Word, which is a heavenly, holy Word which no one can
sufficiently extol, for it contains and conveys all the fullness of God. From
the Word it derives its nature as a sacrament, as St. Augustine taught, 'Accedat
verbum ad elementum et fit sacramentum.' . . . Our know-it-alls, the new
spirits [the Reformed and Anabaptists] assert that faith alone saves and that
works and external things contribute nothing to this end. We answer: It is
true, nothing that is in us does it but faith, as we shall hear later on. But
these leaders of the blind are unwilling to see that faith must have something
to which it may cling and upon which it may stand. Thus faith clings to the
water and believes it to be Baptism in which there is sheer salvation and life
. . . .Now, these people are so foolish as to separate faith from the object
to which faith is attached and bound on the ground that the object is
something external. Yes, it must be external so that it can be perceived and
grasped by the senses and thus brought into the heart, just as the entire
Gospel is an external, oral proclamation. In short, whatever God effects in us
he does through such external ordinances. No matter where he speaks—indeed,
no matter for what purpose or by what means he speaks—there
faith must look and to it faith must hold....To appreciate and use Baptism
aright, we must draw strength and comfort from it when our sins or conscience
oppress us, and we must retort, 'But I am baptized! And if I am baptized, I
have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and
Luther also had continuing appreciation for confession. Contrary to Sungenis' contention that this is "a sacrament
which Luther shunned and ridiculed," Lutheranism in fact held that "private
absolution should be retained and now allowed to fall into disuse" (AC 11).
Luther's Small Catechism, used by every Lutheran denomination for
catechesis, has a section on how to teach people to confess (and an order for
private confession and absolution is in the worship books of all Lutheran
Confession consists of two parts. One is that
we confess our sins. The other is that we receive absolution or forgiveness
from the confessor as from God himself, by no means doubting but firmly
believing that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven.
This "third sacrament" "is really nothing else than
Baptism," Luther elaborates in the Large Catechism.
Baptism remains forever. Even though we fall
from it and sin, nevertheless we always have access to it so that we may again
subdue the old man. But we need not again have the water poured over us. Even
if we were immersed in water a hundred times, it would nevertheless be only
one Baptism, and the effect and signification of Baptism would continue and
remain. Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to
Baptism, to resume and practice what had earlier been begun but abandoned . .
. . Thus we see what a great and excellent thing Baptism is, which snatches us
from the jaws of the devil and makes God our own, overcomes and takes away sin
and daily strengthens the new man, always remains until we pass from this
present misery to eternal glory. Therefore let everybody regard his Baptism as
the daily garment which he is to wear all the time. Every day he should be
found in faith and amid its fruits, every day he should be suppressing the old
man and growing up in the new. If we wish to be Christians, we must practice
the work that makes us Christians. But if anybody falls away from his Baptism
let him return to it.
And this, again, is through confession and absolution.
Luther had a problem not with the sacrament, but with it being seen as a coerced
If you are poor and miserable, then go and make
use of the healing medicine. He who feels his misery and need will develop
such a desire for confession that he will run toward it with joy. But those
who ignore it and do not come of their own accord, we let go their way.
However, they ought to know that we do not regard them as Christians . . . .
If you are a Christian, you should be glad to run more than a hundred miles
for confession, not under compulsion but rather coming and compelling us to
offer it. For here the compulsion must be inverted; we must come under the
command and you must come into freedom.
[Note: See Reconciliation—Lutheran and Catholic,
which I wrote in early 2002.]
As I've already said, Sungenis dismisses Luther's
understanding of Justification by referring to the "snow on dung" canard. Funny
thing about that quote—despite years of Lutheran seminary education, and
experience as a pastor, and the reading of umpteen volumes of Luther's Works, I
have never come across that quote in print, nor have I ever heard it from the
mouth of a Lutheran. Yet it is a favorite of Luther's critics. I asked renowned
Luther scholar Eric Gritsch about this, and he replied that it does exist
somewhere in one of the "Table Talks" (after dinner ramblings written down by
Luther's students—not reliable sources for Luther's thought), but even he
couldn't give me a reference.
Does this statement really reflect Luther's understanding
of the Word? Is the Word something that has no more effect on us than snow has
on a dung-pile? Not at all, as can already be glimpsed in what has been cited
above about Baptism. Luther's best explanation of the Word's power comes in his
commentary on Genesis (LW 1:17, 21-22):
...[I]n the beginning and before every creature
there is the Word, and it is such a powerful Word that it makes all things out
of nothing. . . . [T]he words 'Let there be light' are the words of God, not
of Moses; this means that they are realities. For God calls into existence the
things which do not exist (Rom. 4:17). He does not speak grammatical words; He
speaks true and existent realities. . . . We, too, speak, but only according
to the rules of language; that is, we assign names to objects which have
already been created. But the divine rule of language is different, namely:
when He says: 'Sun, shine,' the sun is there at once and shines. Thus the
words of god are realities, not bare words.
But to return to what I began by saying—Luther argues that
when we are troubled by doubts, or tempted by the devil, we are not to look at
the effects of the Word, but to the Word itself. Likewise in Luther's
epistemology, we do not trust the results of reason, but cling to the revealed
Word—the Word and the Sacraments are the "coverings" by which we can apprehend
God as he wishes to be apprehended.
Those who want to reach God apart from these
coverings exert themselves to ascend to heaven without ladders (that is,
without the Word). Overwhelmed by His majesty, which they seek to comprehend
without a covering, they fall to their destruction. (LW 1:14)
Sungenis makes much of Luther's denial of free will in his
dispute with Erasmus. Contrary to Sungenis, Luther did not get this from
Wycliffe and Hus, but from Augustine, who got it from Paul, the Prophets, and
the Psalms. God is in control of human history and all of creation. Nothing
happens apart from him. This affirmation of God's omnipotence is what gives rise
to "the problem of evil." If we deny God's power, ala the process theologians,
why should we trust him? But if we emphasize that sovereignty, ala Calvin, why
should we exert any effort at all?
Now Luther, in Bondage of the Will, is arguing
with Erasmus as a humanist, an optimistic believer in the goodness and
possibilities of the human creature. He also has in mind the nominalist
theologians of the via moderna, who imagined that man could, apart from
grace, take the first step toward God (facere quod in se est). Luther
exalts God's sovereignty to humble the arrogance of those who would try to pull
themselves up by their own bootstraps.
But when Luther in that same book turns to pastoral
application, his tack is very different. He says that this "hidden God" (Deus
absconditus) of predestination is not the "revealed God" (Deus revelatus)
of the Gospel. Worrying about the hidden God can drive one mad—we need to cling
to the Word.
God must therefore be left to himself in his
own majesty, for in this regard we have nothing to do with him, nor has he
willed that we should have anything to do with him. But we have something to
do with him insofar as he is clothed and set forth in his Word, through which
he offers himself to us and which is the beauty and glory with which the
psalmist celebrates him as being clothed....Diatribe [Erasmus], however,
deceives herself in her ignorance by not making any distinction between God
preached and God hidden, that is, between the Word of God and God himself. God
does many things that he does not disclose to us in his word; he also wills
many things which he does not disclose himself as willing in his word. Thus he
does not will the death of a sinner, according to his word; but he wills it
according to that inscrutable will of his. It is our business, however, to pay
attention to the word and leave that inscrutable will alone, for we must be
guided by the word and not by that inscrutable will. (LW 33:139-140)
Now this is an explication of Luther's understanding of
Justification and the Word that I think all Lutherans will recognize. It has
nothing to do with whether one is a "conservative" Lutheran or a "liberal"
Lutheran. Here Sungenis misunderstands Lutheran history. Lutheranism was a broad
movement of evangelical reform; it was united not by allegiance to a person, but
by its confession, the Augsburg Confession of 1530. Though there are many
more confessions in the 1580 Book of Concord, this is the only one which
has been accepted as a norm (a "normed norm" under Scripture, in Lutheran
parlance) by all Lutherans. Luther's Small Catechism has also had
universal acceptance as a catechetical tool. The Apology of the Augsburg
Confession would probably be next, as an explanation of what the confessors
meant. The Formula of Concord, however, was an agreement to settle German
controversies. It's scholastic distinctions have been very important to certain
German Lutheran groups, especially those whose origins lie in disputes over
state enforced unions with Reformed churches—but the Formula of Concord
has not had as much influence on the thought of Scandinavian Lutheranism. And
they are no less Lutheran because of it.
A final question—must simul justus et
peccator be seen as contrary to Catholic thought? Sungenis thinks it is,
and, admittedly, Cardinals Cassidy and Ratzinger seem inclined to agree. But I
would raise the question of how are we to understand that phrase. And I think
most Lutherans have understood it differently than most Reformed. For Reformed
Christians, I think simul justus et peccator does imply a "snow on dung"
mentality. And this is what Cassidy is assuming that it means, and this is why
he says it is still covered by the Tridentine anathema. Here is where the
difference between the Lutheran and the Reformed approach is crucial. Luther
that Reformed theology was essentially a revival of Nestorianism; this becomes
clear in the Eucharistic controversies—for the Reformed, the human and and the
divine must be kept separate; "the finite is not capable of the infinite." The
Word of God, coming at us from the outside, can't really penetrate. But as I've
noted, the Lutheran concern is more pastoral and existential, not philosophical.
It clings to the external Word despite the misgivings of our subjectivity. It
affirms, as in Luther's Genesis commentary, that the Word of God does transform,
If we look at it in this light, we can find ourselves
asking whether Luther's concern is really different from what Vatican II
affirmed in Lumen Gentium 8:
The Church, however, clasping sinners to her
bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the
path of penance and renewal. The Church, 'like a stranger in a foreign land,
presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of
God,' announcing the cross and death of the Lord until he comes (cf. 1 Cor.
11:26). But by the power of the risen Lord she is given strength to overcome,
in patience and in love, her sorrows and her difficulties, both those that are
from within and those that are from without, so that she may reveal in the
world, faithfully, however darkly, the mystery of her Lord until, in the
consummation, it shall be manifested in full light.
In our struggles, are we to be discouraged by our
failings, or the failings of others in the Church? Are we to be set back by lack
of progress or the taunts of the devil? Or are we to rest in hope, faith and
love in the arms of the one who died for us?
Like a blind man [the Christian] must lean on
dark faith, accept it for his guide and light, and rest on nothing of what he
understands, tastes, feels, or imagines. All these perceptions are a darkness
that will lead him astray. Faith lies beyond all this understanding, taste,
felling, and imagining.
If the author of those words, St. John of the Cross, can
be a doctor of the church (Ascent of Mount Carmel 2/4/2), must Catholics
automatically dismiss and reject all talk of "faith alone" or simul justus et
The question that the Lutheran and Catholic theologians
grappled with in coming up with their "JOINT Declaration on Justification by
Faith" amounts to this: Did Luther or Lutherans ever mean by these things what
Trent and Catholic apologists thought they meant? Can we arrive at a common
understanding of justification based not on polemics but on our joint study of
scripture? The process they followed was marked by faith and humility, and was
carried on in dialogue and communication with the Vatican. It was not a
formulation of liberal Lutherans which was presented out of the blue to the
Vatican for its opinion. As such, it does represent an historic agreement of
lasting importance to both Lutherans and Catholics.
A Pessimistic Assessment (2004)
From the beginning, there have been both Lutherans and
Catholics who doubted the "Joint
Declaration on the
Doctrine of Justification" was
really the breakthrough it claimed to be. I was not one of them.
Re-examining the criticisms, though, I am beginning to think the
critics raised some important points. All acknowledge that there
are positive things to say about the agreement; but all likewise
agree that key points are left unsettled.
It is interesting that Catholic and Lutheran critics point to
the same issues, and these include the following:
- Can we speak of the Christian as simul iustus et
- Is Justification the
articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, or one
criterion among others?
- Is Justification
forensic or transformative?
- Is grace divine favor or infused?
- Is original sin eradicated or not?
- Is concupiscence sin or not?
- Is Justification
located in Christ or in us?
If the agreement says, in the end, that we haven't come to
agreement on any of these issues, can we really say it is an
And what about how we apply
Justification as a criterion? The JDDJ left untouched
issues like purgatory, indulgences, merit, the Mass as
sacrifice, and the invocation of the saints. Avery Dulles ["On
Lifting the Condemnations," Dialog 35 (Summer 1996):220]
asked what it would mean to say such issues are not
Does it imply that Lutherans may today teach and hold the
doctrine of Trent and that Catholics are free to teach and
hold the positions of the Book of Concord on the disputed
points? If such freedom does not exist, the issues appear to
stand in the way of full communion
For more on these issues, see the initial
The JDDJ in Confessional Lutheran Perspective, as well as
Official Common Statement and
The "Common Statement" makes the point that "it becomes clear
that the earlier mutual doctrinal condemnations do not apply to
the teaching of the dialogue partners as presented in the
Joint Declaration." But
neither Lutherans nor Catholics bind themselves to the
formulations of the JDDJ; Lutheran clergy are bound to the
Lutheran Confessions, Catholics to Church definitions.
The "Annex" touches on many of the divisive issues summarized
above, but it does so without defining terms, often by simply
placing Catholic understanding alongside Lutheran.
The consensus claimed by the
Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is simply
stated: "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." But is that enough? Does that
answer the question?
A More Pessimistic Assessment (2007)
In May 2007 much was said on Catholic and Protestant blogs
alike about the reversion to Catholicism of former evangelical
theologian Francis Beckwith. Beckwith said he would remain a professor at Baylor, but resigned as head of the Evangelical Theological Society. That group's executive committee issued a statement on his move, basically affirming that he made the right move in resigning, since he no longer holds to key beliefs that separate evangelicals from Catholics.
In an article a Q&A in Christianity Today,
Beckwith said the issue of justification was an important one. That's what I said, too, at the time of my entry into the Catholic Church. I, like Beckwith, believed that Lutherans and Catholics had resolved the critical issues. It was naive wishful thinking on my part; I should have paid more attention to serious Lutheran critiques of the JDDJ, including that offered by the LCMS. The JDDJ was an agreement between select theologians of liberal Lutheran churches (not confessional Lutherans) and select Catholic theologians, of whom Joseph Ratzinger played an important role. It was signed with great ceremony in 1999, with ceremonies in Augsburg and in other cities around the world, including Houston. It was discussed thereafter by some scholars, but promptly forgotten by most others. Both the Lutheran bodies that approved it and some Catholic leaders pointed to it as an example of ecumenical victory. But then nothing was done with it. It became one more document on the shelf, just as justification has always been one doctrine among others adhered to by Catholics.
The Joint Declaration was a capitulation by Lutherans to Catholic teaching. It affirms both Lutheran teaching and Catholic emphases--and that is the capitulation. Lutheranism was always clear on what justification is and how it differs from Catholic teaching--Lutheranism always emphasized justification was a declaration, something extra nos, something residing in the person of Christ and always perfect in him. Catholicism always said it was both forgiveness and renewal, forensic and effective, outside of us and within us. Catholicism could always include the Lutheran points as part of its teaching, so it was Lutheranism that had to expand its teaching in order to come to agreement with the Catholic Church.
In 2004 I began to reflect critically on my overly optimistic interpretation of the JDDJ
and posted the following on my blog:
Most of the concessions or attempts at consensus in the JDDJ were possible in the 16th century. Various Catholic and Lutheran theologians sought to find ways of speaking that were more acceptable to the other. Martin Chemnitz, the most important early Lutheran theologian after Luther himself, acknowledged these efforts in his locus on Justification in his Loci Theologici (published posthumously in 1591).
We do not ... dispute in this article as to whether contrition ought to be present in those who are to be justified, nor that some change in the mind and will, or renewal or new obedience, ought to follow. We have professed with a loud voice that all of these things do take place in a true conversion. Therefore the controversy is not whether these things should take place, are present, or follow.
The point at issue is this: When the mind is terrified by the recognition of sin and a sense of the wrath of God, 1. What is that entity on account of which the sinner, condemned before God's judgment to eternal punishment, obtains remission of sins, is absolved from the sentence of condemnation, and is received into eternal life? 2. What is the instrument or means by which the promise of the Gospel, that is, the promise of grace, mercy, reconciliation, salvation, and eternal life, is received, laid hold upon, and applied?
Later, he answers the question:
The point at issue between us ... is that they teach that the sinner cannot and must not stand in sure confidence that he is in grace and that his sins have been remitted to him--even when in earnest repentance and true faith created in us by the Holy Spirit on the basis of the Word of God he lays hold on the promise of grace and at the same time upon the Mediator Himself, the Son of God who is our righteousness.
I think the 1985 US Lutheran/Catholic dialogue reached closer to the heart of the matter when it declared,
our entire hope of justification and salvation rests on Christ Jesus and on the gospel whereby the good news of God's merciful action in Christ is made known; we do not place our ultimate trust in anything other than God's promise and saving work in Christ (para. 157).
The JDDJ is not as forceful as this.
I noted then the opposing statements (here and here) by various groups of theologians in the US and in Europe, including important ELCA theologians such as James Nestigen, Gerhard Krodel, and Gerhard Forde.
These critics have all pointed out that the teaching of the Catholic Church on many key issues, such as merit, has not changed since the Reformation. Here's what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
2027 No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods.
There is no way that this can be reconciled with Reformation thought. This was the critical issue then. It has not changed. This undergirds other Catholic teachings such as indulgences.
Protestant teaching, on the other hand, sings:
Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfil Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, else I die.
Mr. Beckwith would do better to say he has rejected Reformation teaching, than to suggest that Reformation thought is now compatible with Catholic thought on this critical subject. These are contradictory teachings. They can't both be right.