The Papacy or the Doctrine of Justification?

By Graham Glover

Which is more important?

When pitted against one another, who wins? The Bishop of Rome in his role as the Vicar of Christ? Or the doctrine of justification by grace through faith as proclaimed in the Holy Scriptures?

I ask this question because its answer is ultimately what makes one a Roman Catholic or a Lutheran.

I know, I know, there are countless theological differences between Roman Catholics and Lutherans. The fact that our communions remain separated from one another is not the result of disagreeing over only one question. It’s not simply a matter of whether the Pope has final authority over Christian doctrine or whether that doctrine must always be judged against a particular interpretation of what it means to be justified by grace through faith. Or is it? Is this question of authority the only one we ought to be asking? When it’s all said and done, when all the arguments are made and the differences in theology are on the table, isn’t this the only question we need answer? The question of authority. The question of importance. The question of to whom, or to what, Christians should submit.

Consider how the Reformation played out. From Luther to Henry VIII, Zwingli to Calvin, the Anabaptists to the other radicals, each of the particular brand of reformers never capitulated to Rome. They never conceded their arguments to the Pope’s authority. According to the reformers, the Pope is not authoritative on matters of doctrine. To them, especially Luther, the question of authority rests only whether something is consistent with the doctrine of justification.

And yet here we are, 500 years later, with the question of authority still unresolved. Here we are, 500 years later, with a church more divided than ever. Every communion thinks they have it right, that their “authority” supersedes all others. But the fight continues. The debate rages on. And until the question of authority is resolved, so too will the unfortunate results of an internal reformation turned into an external revolution.


After 5 centuries, Roman Catholics and Lutherans still argue over the extent to which Luther’s call for reform was needed. We still disagree over, among other things, Luther’s 95 Theses, [the Lutheran] Augsburg Confession, [Rome’s] Confutation, [the Lutheran] Apology to the Augsburg Confession, [Rome’s] Council of Trent, and recently, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. After 5 centuries, our communions are still unable to resolve the question of authority, all the while talking past one another in our theological disputes. Rome demands submission to the Pope. Lutherans demand submission to the doctrine of justification. And the cycle goes on and on, with the question of authority still lingering.

I wonder though if there isn’t a middle ground. A new type of “via media” that finds a middle way between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism.

Some think the Roman insistence on submission to the papacy and the Lutheran insistence on submission to the doctrine of justification by grace through faith are mutually exclusive. The question: who wins, the Pope or the doctrine of justification, is deciding on one over the other.

But I ask, why not submission to the Pope and the doctrine of justification? Why not both?

Don’t just tell me this office and this doctrine cannot work together. I’m convinced they deserve a renewed chance at cooperation. Don’t default to the argument that Roman authority precludes a Lutheran focus on justification. I think they now have the possibility to compliment one another. Don’t simply read the Lutheran symbols and the decrees of Trent as though they were written yesterday, recognizing instead that 500 years of polemics have left deep scars that cannot be healed or overcome unless we consider something like the radical possibility I’m proposing.

Could it work: the papacy and the doctrine of justification? Why not? And if it did, consider what that would mean for the necessity of continuing the Reformation…