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…


20 thoughts on “The Papacy or the Doctrine of Justification?

  1. For me, Graham, the question of papacy is a simple one. What is the actual authority? If he is the vicar of Christ, he is no more that than you are in your office of pastor. Is his dictum final authority, even if he disagrees with Scripture (that’s been tried a time or two)? Not for me, any more than if you tried it.

    On the other hand, we have a man in a similar position as Synod President – a smaller body to be sure, but similar in authority – to have some administrative and supervisory authority over us, such as it is. I have no problem with authority of that sort, be it DP or bishop, synod leadership or cardinal by name. As you say, the question is what authority is it? Administrative, or supervisory in doctrinal unity, equalizing personal and traditional and scriptural authority in a person? That’s a lot to work out, and right now the papacy hasn’t worked it out to my satisfaction. Ultimately, if the authority of God’s own Word is held properly, I don’t care who the boss is or what you call him.


    1. Don, you ask some fair questions. And perhaps my article doesn’t really answer the question, that is, who (or what) is the final authority on interpreting the Holy Scriptures.

      Whether Lutherans agree with them or not, Roman Catholics do not believe their teachings are contrary to the Scriptures. While ‘sola scriptura’ is obviously not in play for them, Rome will always use the Scriptures to substantiate their theological positions (just like every other denomination). So, we remain stuck. Who (or what) decides what is the correct interpretation goes unanswered. You? Me? The Synodical President? The Pope? The College of Cardinals? The Councils of the Church? The authors of The Jagged Word?

      Maybe what I should have asked is this: if Rome were to accept the Lutheran understanding of justification by grace through faith, would Lutherans submit to the authority and ecclesiastical supervision of the papacy?


      1. I don’t think the question can be about who has authority to interpret Scripture. I think it has to be who in authority will submit to the authority of Scripture. So far as I can tell, the papacy doesn’t do that. There are many doctrines there with no basis in Scripture at all, unsupported and unsupportable by Scripture, whether they accept it or not. They hold tradition in nearly the same authority as Scripture, in any case. If they submitted to that Scriptural authority, we could discuss it with a hope of concord. If they submitted to that authority, they could not do otherwise than submit to the justification exclusively in Christ, as you said (though with a few unscriptural twists, they might say they already do). I suspect, if that had been their intent, no reformation would have occurred, nor would it have been needed, whatever we called the boss. I couldn’t speak for modern expectations on reconciliation, but the road in a bad direction that has been crossed, will certainly make it necessary to parse every word, whether in appearance of agreement or not.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. If the Catholic Church were to adopt justification by grace alone through faith alone, AND abandon the supreme authority of the Pope in favor of conciliarism, I would personally be much more open to becoming a Catholic (big C).

        If I understand their position correctly, I think the Eastern Orthodox Church has a pretty good grasp of the kind of power that popes traditionally had, and the kind of authority that they would be willing to accept.

        Essentially, it would be acceptable to view the Pope as first among equals and the representative face/head of the Church. It would even be acceptable to grant one man limited administrative power over the church.

        To say, however, that he is THE representative of Christ on Earth, and that he speaks infallibly when he speaks ex-cathedra – these positions not only have zero biblical support, but they have also proven to be incredibly damaging to the church.

        Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely… regardless of whether you carry the title of “pope” or not.


  2. Given the number of times he’s been in error, submission to the papacy seems unlikely. Unless we are defining submission as something different than I remember being raised Catholic. Submission meant confessing the Pope is infallible in all matters theological. Uhm…no.


    1. Catholics have always taught me that the pope on spoke infallibly ex cathedra. That s does not encompass all of doctrine or all papal decrees. For one, I’ll believe Catholic adherence to papal teaching as infallible when I see “conservative” Catholics arguing for social justice and opposing the death penalty.


      1. Try telling any catholic, especially among the clergy, that the pope is wrong about something. That could be fun. And on top of that, everything the pope has said ex cathedra has been entirely unscripturally in error.


      2. I have and I know tons of Catholics who disagree with the pope on many issues, including clergy, even nuns. It is not unpardonable sin in their eyes to disagree with the pope. Even where he has spoke ex cathedra, the worst they believe they earn earn is “time” in Purgatory. Catholics are not under the threat of the ban. If they have any fear, it is in failing to confess and receive absolution. even that is softening with their, now, sacrament of “reconciliation”.

        If anything, because they believe they need to be in the church to receive the grace of God, they simply overlook, ignore, gloss over, even do things they disagree with because being in is more important than being perfect. Catholics are more catholic. Do I agree with this attitude toward truth and would I be concerned for the welfare of others if they grab on to false doctrine? You bet! But to their faith, the church, not every teaching, is the truth because the church is the Body of Christ. It is a different set of assumptions.

        Sure, this is not the Church as we are given in scripture and it departed in this direction awfully early (along with a host of heresies) but we can say that because we see authority only in scripture. We cannot conceive of confessing a church with evolving doctrines and ongoing revelation, Catholics can.


      3. Either the pope’s authority is true, or it is not. If they accept authority and reject it at the same time, they are declaring themselves lawless. They should not accept such things and pretend they don’t matter for the sake of unity, or for the sake of sacramental sanctity. Their behavior denies the certainty of those very important things.


    2. Veronica, I think that’s what Rome would stipulate: submission to the Bishop of Rome on doctrine. That concept doesn’t scare or deter me, if, and this is a big if, there was a renewed focus on the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Rome’s teachings.


      1. If you stipulate the authority of the pope to do what he does, essentially bone-spitting, for the sake of unity or at least a unifying authority, you are doing what you need not do for no good purpose denying God’s word.


      2. I think it also important to note that the Roman Catholic Church does not grant the pope authority concerning any and every doctrine of the faith. Unlike the ELCA, the Trinity is not up for grabs, the Creeds are pretty much carved in stone, by grace./ through faith is solid, the Real Presence stands. While they do grant the pontiff authority to accept or reject the conclusions or advice of councils, popes largely fall in line behind them. Even when speaking ex cathedra, they hear the pope as revealing and affirming, not establishing or creating. We tend to lock our point of view up in the abuses of the 16th century. If we have any real abiding objections, we should aim at Trent. The consistent affirmation of Trent by subsequent councils is, in my opinion, divisive. I truly believe that counter-doctrines were created to supplant theological dialog with reformers.

        We should not be like them, in that regard. Keeping dialog open means understanding Catholicism for what it is and respecting the logical and theological integrity that flows from their hermeneutic. It also means understanding how our theology flows from our hermeneutic and considering how we sound to them. Of course, we sound right to ourselves. But none of our rightness a proof and our underlying assumptions have no outwardly obvious credibility. It is only through the Holy Spirit that we can have faith in our doctrines and their underpinnings. Puts me in awe of Luther and the great gift that God bestowed allowing him to cast off his old assumptions and, in a sense, learn faith anew. I know I have never been in that position.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The way I see it, the Roman church, agreeing to salvation by grace through faith submits to the papacy for just that doctrine. Grace is dispensed by the Church, for Christ’s sake, through the actions of those in the apostolic succession. One sees a pyramid: Christ above, pontiff at the apex, the magisterium spreading below in tiers by the laying on of hands. They, in turn, convey the grace of God through the seven sacraments. A Roman Catholic cannot divorce this order, this structure, from grace. The means of grace, for them, is the church which uses word, sacrament, rite and tradition in the process of conveying grace. For Roman Catholics, Christ’s appointment of his apostles and the historic laying on of hands traceable to these is the authority of the church. It is not the pope who is head of the church, in this view, it is Christ. It is not logical for a Catholic to be loyal to Christ without being loyal to those whom Christ has directly appointed to act in his stead and according to his will.

    Going to Luther’s earliest arguments, we do not find objection to this notion of the church. Rather, we find objection to the church placing worldly impediments to the grace of God, barriers to sacrament, and laying on conditions which contradict the teachings of the historical church and the teachings of scripture. None of this took part rapidly, the church declined into worldly matters and shifted focus. Instead of pointing the Christian to Christ, it assumed the role of pointing the Christian to the church as structure and institution, with the understanding that only the church needed to know Christ to provide a vicarious salvation by rule.

    I think it fair to say that Rome has reformed itself, for the most part, in this latter regard. What remains are certainly questions of authority, subsequent questions of dogma, nature of the church, nature of grace (does it accumulate?), nature sanctification and justification (to Roman Catholics theses are not separable concerning salvation), the role of tradition, works and acts as means of grace. Keeping in mind that scripture is, in the Catholic church, the word of God and a means of grace intended for use by the church, we are pressing a theological argument which, to their ears, transforms a means of exercising authority to a source of authority. I don’t know if this helps the discussion but I do believe a mutual understanding to be critical and would love to get some Catholic comments on my interpretation based on growing up surrounded by Catholics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aren’t they really supposed to submit to Scripture to that doctrine? Grace has been dispensed in Christ, fully and completely. The role of clergy is to administer them as means (not the church as mediator), again, according to the institution of Christ in Scripture. And as far as I can see, historically or Scripturally speaking, apostolic succession does not exist in reality (I suppose if someone could make a convincing argument that Peter has been continuously succeeded by a bishop of Rome, it could be acceptable to someone), nor is it necessary since Christ himself has provided the grace and the favor and the instruments for his forgiveness. Honestly, I don’t get the need to enforce these round-about solutions to provide someone with authority that exists without need.


      1. As I said, if your subscription to scripture is that it is a means of exercising authority, there is no logic in switching that up to be a source of authority. This is the kind of thing that makes for both rich discussion and also points up the difficulty of understanding the other person’s argument. If we simply want to ask “is this God’s word?”, then Lutherans and Catholics, would agree that it is. However, what we take that to mean, are two different things. We, as Lutherans, would not proclaim that the Lord’s Supper, baptism, or absolution are sources of doctrinal authority. Rather, they are the exercise or the authority given to the whole Church.

        The eastern church, while rejecting the primacy of Peter but embracing, with us, that scripture speaks of Peter’s confession, still adheres from earliest days to a physical passing on of apostolic succession. It is easy to cite Paul and Titus, Paul and Timothy. We can even look to the Apostolic Constitutions and see that Paul installed Linus as the first bishop of Rome and Peter installed Clement as the second.

        As Lutherans, we know the apostolic succession as the teaching that comes down to us from the record of scripture. But, if we are going to talk about others or assert our theological arguments, we need to speak in such a way that the other can hear it. So, we need to understand what it is that they hear. To point to something as obvious is not a discussion. Because of differing underlying assumptions, the same words sound different to people of differing beliefs.

        I have sat with bible studies, CS Lewis, Philip Yancey, bits of Chesterton, and found great areas of commonality across denominational lines. At some point of intersection, some true doctrines, form whatever authority we received them, are held in common. Christ builds His Church in spite of us. We should take joy that, as Lutherans, we have doctrinal truth and approach others in confidence because of our confession and teaching.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. HL, sorry this took a day to get to, but maybe it’s worth it.
        I don’t mean to use Scripture to exercise authority. I mean it IS in itself authoritative, by its source and purpose. All authority is of God, sure enough. Still, some authority is exercised through people, and is therefore perfect in its purpose and its duty; but flawed in execution. Any word or deed from any person is flawed by sin’s corruption in body and mind and soul. A word of Scripture in anyone’s mouth is truth and always accomplishes God’s purpose.

        If the pope says something that is his opinion, even from his authority, that’s fine; but it carries those flaws. Still, unless it contradicts Scripture’s direction, it should be adhered to by all under that authority. Catholic tradition carries similar authority by their own willing submission. I have no problem with any of that, if it remains within that authority. The problem comes when something is asserted as truth, to be believed; because then it must only be from Scripture – or at least normed by it, acceptable to its expression of truth. Elsewise, it accepts the potential flaws as truth.

        All too often, assertions are made supposing that kind of “truth” authority, without that test. That makes salvation doubtable, for those under its authority, and is therefore unacceptable to me. Stating as an assertion of truth, for example, that Mary must be eternally virgin or sinless, is specifically not truthful by the Scripture test. Yet it is directed to the RC congregation as truth, because a pope said so ex cathedra. That is within the authority of a pope, but not as given by God’s intent, neither is it normed by the only expression of certainty – Scripture. Therefore I object and cannot say that we are in accord.

        As for apostolic succession – it is patently and provably untrue; even in simple history. If you want to speak as a Lutheran, you might say something about apostolic teaching (or even “Tradition, ” meaning what has been passed down from them), but succession is just fallacy. It is therefore not truth, and is objectionable.

        Why would anyone burden someone with any notion, as truth, when it is uncertain in any testable manner? Express an opinion, yes. Adopt a tradition, yes. But suggest something is truth without any Scriptural assessment? That way leads to potential doubt for God and his word and his sacraments and his church and salvation itself. Not a great idea.


  4. “1996 Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.”

    “2005 Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith. We cannot therefore rely on our feelings or our works to conclude that we are justified and saved.”


    There it is, by grace alone through faith alone,and they have a pope. There is no “submission” that supplants this doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church. Clearly, there is much more to the contest. When we are serving or studying or conversing or socializing or sharing our faith with Christians of other denominations, that has to be the first recognition – we are all Christians and that means we are all in the Church. Regardless of our background, we can pray with and for each other, we can set the tone of our gathering for service or study with a reading from scripture, even if our own preconceptions give different hearing. When we see God’s grace and His hand at work, we all know it and can all point to it, even if we were taught to see it from different angles. Even if we differ on the nature and efficacy of good works, we agree that we are to do them and we agree as to what those are. If anyone asks for the source of our love, mercy, service, each Christian points to Christ. Everyone confesses that Christ died for our sins. everyone believes in the Resurrection. Everyone is Trinitarian. Jesus is True God and True Man.

    The theological arguments will never be won by reason or debate. We live the truth of our faith and leave it to God. In the meantime, there is only one Christ and he is the head of only one Church. Our unity is in Christ. For Catholics, full form is required for perfect unity (and the LC-MS has some parties that want to see us the same way.) The strongest Reformation message we can send to the rest of the Church is one of unfettered Gospel, an open path to God and the free-grace of forgiveness and eternal life. Those who have ears will hear, they’ll get past their preconceptions. No debating, just patience and love.


    1. And in one word we have another sticking point: ALONE.
      Maybe my desire to narrow things down to authority and submission are a bit more complicated!


  5. Hlewis: “The strongest Reformation message we can send to the rest of the Church is one of unfettered Gospel, an open path to God and the free-grace of forgiveness and eternal life. Those who have ears will hear, they’ll get past their preconceptions. No debating, just patience and love.” Yes, yes, and yes.


Comments are closed.