It is not so surprising to find calls for unity among Christians in this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation. So has the Archbishop of Canterbury (and earlier, Pope Francis) done in recent remarks. But we should be clear to distinguish between the effects of social upheaval, and the ideas – the doctrines – that were the impetus preceding that upheaval. The Reformation was a massive shift in European society that came about for many reasons. But when it comes to doctrine, it’s clear what motivated the Reformers, and it wasn’t a desire to bring division or schism. If such came as a result of proclaiming the truth, that is not a fault of the truth itself.
Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation spends the first 50-odd pages laying out the case that in the centuries prior to Luther, the locus of salvation had been shifted away from the person of Christ, and to the Church. Looked at in this way, one can reframe the argument that Justin Welby wants to make. Was it not this shift itself that brought division? Was it not a replacement of Christ with the church as the vessel of salvation that brought such division? It is certainly true that the Roman Catholic church has changed massively since those days, but not in the points of doctrine that ultimately animated Luther. Infused righteousness, versus imputed righteousness – this is still Rome’s position. Look in the catechism and you’ll see. “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.” (CCC, 2027). That is vastly different than what Paul says in Romans 5:1 “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is justification as completed act, not as aspiration or potentiality.
It’s not quite as simple as “moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another”. When people behave badly toward one another, that is something to be repented of. But it’s not a matter of misunderstanding that explains the differences between justification by faith and its alternatives. These are deeply held doctrinal convictions, founded on scriptural exegesis, not tradition. On the part of evangelicals, these cannot be compromised without a fundamental redefinition of the gospel itself.
I concur with Archbishop Welby that unity should be sought with those who name the name of Christ; we should repent of our sins and failures, but the clear proclamation of justification by faith is no failure.