Word and Faith in the Formation of Christian Personhood «coram Deo»

Gerhard Ebeling’s Rejection of the «Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification»

by Scott A. Celsor (Author)
©2016 Monographs X, 185 Pages
Series: Ecumenical Studies, Volume 1


By the end of the twentieth century, ecumenism’s deteriorating state had become evident. This deterioration can be attributed to many causes, however, the erstwhile German ecumenist Dr. Gerhard Ebeling’s rancorous, public debate among theologians in Germany in 1998 over the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification remains a contributing factor in its decline.
Through an investigation of Ebeling’s systematic theology and his lifelong examination of the theology of Martin Luther, much of which is based upon German texts not translated into English, Scott A. Celsor identifies the hermeneutical and ontological concerns at the heart of Ebeling’s objection to the Joint Declaration. Consequently, this book provides scholars with ardent historical insights into the bitter, public debate in Germany over the Joint Declaration in addition to critical insights into the hermeneutical and ontological objections that some evangelicals still lodge against it.
This, along with the accompaniment of an extensive bibliography dedicated to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, make this text an ideal, advanced introduction for graduate seminars on ecumenism, the doctrine of justification, and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification as well as philosophical theology in general.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One: The Adoption and Reception Process of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification
  • 1.1 Who is Gerhard Ebeling?
  • 1.1.1 Biographical Overview of Gerhard Ebeling
  • 1.1.2 An Overview of Ebeling’s Theology
  • 1.1.3 Ebeling’s Ecumenical Theology
  • 1.2 Statement of the Problem and Thesis
  • 1.3 Method of This Study
  • Chapter Two: Ecumenism, Church, and Doctrine: The Broader Context of Ebeling’s Hermeneutical Theology
  • 2.1 The Task of Ecumenism, According to the “Foreword” of Ebeling’s The Word of God and Tradition
  • 2.2 The Church and Its Functions, According to Ebeling’s Dogmatik des christlichen Glaubens
  • 2.2.1 Ebeling’s Understanding of the Nature and Foundation of the Church
  • 2.2.2 Ebeling’s Understanding of the Life and Function of the Church
  • 2.2.3 The Basis for the Unity of the Church, According to Ebeling
  • 2.3 Proclamation as Interpretation, According to Ebeling’s The Problem of Historicity in the Church and Its Proclamation
  • 2.4 The Church and the Role of Doctrine, According to Word of God and Tradition and Word and Faith
  • 2.4.1 The Word of God and Church Doctrine, According to “Word of God and Church Doctrine,” in Word of God and Tradition, pp. 160–180
  • 2.4.2 The Relationship Between the Church and Church Doctrine, According to “The Significance of Doctrinal Differences for the Division of the Church,” in Word and Faith, pp. 162–190
  • 2.5 Ecumenism, Church Doctrine, and Hermeneutics: A Summary
  • Chapter Three: The Doctrine of Justification, According to Gerhard Ebeling: A Study in the Hermeneutical Anthropology of Martin Luther
  • 3.1 Ebeling’s Rejection of Scholastic Theology and Anthropology
  • 3.1.1 Luther’s Identification of Nature and Sin, as Found in Ebeling’s Lutherstudien II.3, Ch. 51, “Die Grunddifferenz zur Scholastik (Th. 31)”
  • Luther’s Rejection of the Scholastic Categories of Nature and Grace, and Their Replacement with Law and Gospel
  • The Effects of Sin upon Human Language
  • 3.1.2 Luther’s Dispute with Scholasticism over the Doctrine of Original Sin, as Found in Ebeling’s Lutherstudien II.3, ch. 46, “Die menschliche Natur nach dem Fall (Th. 26)”
  • 3.1.3 Summary
  • 3.2 Ebeling’s Hermeneutical, Anthropological Method, According to Lutherstudien
  • 3.2.1 Luther’s Hermeneutical Turn and the Corresponding Problem of the Natural, as Found in Ebeling’s Lutherstudien I, “Die Rolle der Hermeneutik in Luthers Theologie,” and “Das Problem des Natürlichen bei Luther”
  • 3.2.2 The Ascendancy of Person and Word over Nature and Work, According to Ebeling’s “Luthers Wirklichkeitsverständnis”
  • 3.2.3 The Relationship of Christology and Anthropology, as Found in Ebeling’s Lutherstudien II.3, Chapter 41, “Das Verhältnis von Christologie und Anthropologie”
  • 3.2.4 Summary of Luther’s Anthropology, According to Gerhard Ebeling
  • 3.3 Ebeling’s Understanding of the Doctrine of Justification, According to his Lutherstudien
  • 3.3.1 The Relationship of Justification and Anthropology, According to Ebeling’s Lutherstudien, II.3, Chapter 55, “Rechtfertigungslehre und Anthropologie,” and Chapter 56.2, “Der homo iustificandus nach den vier causae”
  • 3.3.2 The Relationship of Divine Faith and Human Action, According to Ebeling’s Lutherstudien, II.3, Chapter 62, “Cooperatores Dei”
  • 3.3.3 Summary of Luther’s Understanding of the Relationship Between Anthropology and Justification, According to Gerhard Ebeling
  • Chapter Four: The Hermeneutical Justification for Gerhard Ebeling’s Rejection of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification
  • 4.1 Paragraph 1—The Expectations for the Joint Declaration
  • 4.1.1 The Essence of Christian Reality
  • 4.1.2 The Life and Function of the Church
  • 4.2 Paragraphs 2 and 3—Justification by Faith, Through Grace
  • 4.2.1 Analysis of the Texts
  • 4.2.2 The Theological Justification for Ebeling’s Rejection of the Joint Declaration’s Teaching on Justification by Faith and Through Grace
  • 4.3 Paragraph 5—The Life of the Church and Ecumenism
  • 4.3.1 Analysis of the Texts
  • 4.3.2 The Theological Justification for Ebeling’s Rejection of the Joint Declaration’s Call for Continuing Talks on the Nature and Function of the Church
  • 4.4 Conclusion
  • Chapter Five: The Legacy of Gerhard Ebeling’s Hermeneutical Theology upon the Reception of the Joint Declaration and the Future of Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogue
  • 5.1 The Continuing Objections of Mark Menacher
  • 5.1.1 Ebeling’s Influence upon Menacher
  • 5.1.2 Textual Examination
  • 5.2 The Objections of Gerhard Forde
  • 5.2.1 Ebeling’s Influence upon Forde
  • 5.2.2 Textual Examination
  • 5.3 Summary of the Continuing Objections
  • 5.4 Concluding Remarks
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Bibliography on The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification
  • Series index

← viii | ix →


First of all, I want to thank the late Dr. Ralph Del Colle of Marquette University, my director, for making many helpful suggestions and for guiding this study through the process to a successful completion. I also want to thank Dr. Robert Jamison, Associate Professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures, Marquette University, not only for kindly offering his time in reviewing and, in a few rare cases, preparing the German translations of Ebeling found in this study, but for also offering me his support throughout this process. I also want to thank Prof. Dr. Markus Wriedt of Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, for his guidance in understanding the background to German discussions on justification. Furthermore, I want to thank Fr. David Coffey, the Fr. William J. Kelly Chair in Theology, Marquette University, emeritus, for assisting me in the translation of a few Latin passages. His advice was always appreciated. And finally, I want to thank my wife, Donna, and my two children, Victoria and Catherine, for being especially patient and supportive during this process.

Permission Acknowledgments

Grateful acknowledgments are made to the following for permission to reproduce copyrighted material: ← ix | x →

All Scripture quotations, unless part of a direct quotation from a text by Gerhard Ebeling or Martin Luther, are taken from the NRSV.

← x | 1 →


The Adoption and Reception Process of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification


On October 31, 1999, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (hereafter, Joint Declaration or JD) was signed by the Lutheran World Federation (hereafter LWF) and the Roman Catholic Church in Augsburg, Germany. The JD claims to present in paragraph 15 a consensus on the basic truths of the doctrine of justification:

In faith we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God…Together we confess: 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.1

Yet, the Joint Declaration admits that not all differences have been rectified, but it relegates them, in paragraph 40, to “…differences of language, theological elaboration, and emphasis in the understanding of justification,” and so affirms the basic truths of the agreement, because these differences “…do not destroy the consensus regarding the basic truths.”2 Moreover, the JD commits the dialogue partners to continue clarifying the remaining questions, so as to influence the life of the church; paragraph 43 reads:

Our consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification must come to influence the life and teachings of our churches. Here it must prove itself. In this respect, ← 1 | 2 → questions of varying importance still need further clarification. These include, among other topics, the relationship between the Word of God and church doctrine, as well as ecclesiology…and the relation between justification and social ethics…The Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church will continue to strive together to deepen this common understanding of justification and to make it bear fruit in the life and teaching of the churches.3

The reception of the Joint Declaration could best be described as uneven. Michael Root calls it a watershed in the history of Lutheran ecumenism, because “…the JD represents for them an ecumenically adequate consensus on justification.”4 Harding Meyer affirms it as “…a ‘decisive step in the overcoming of the division of the churches,’” although he recognizes that the JD does not mean the establishment of Lutheran-Catholic ecclesial fellowship. It has also had some success in the practicalities of bringing the two communions closer. On the fifth anniversary of the signing of the JD, the monthly Lutheran World Information (LWI) was dedicated to celebrating its significance. As some of its notable practical successes, it mentioned that increased cooperation and contact between the communions led to the joint construction of a church building in Australia, a joint struggle for human rights in Argentina, and the presence of a Catholic bishop at a Lutheran synod in Florida.5 In the tenth anniversary issue of LWI, Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the LWF, mentions that the JD has led to a new quality in Lutheran/Catholic relations; “walls of separation, isolation and imprisonment are broken down.”6 And it has furthered discussion among scholars and church officials on ecclesiology and the Petrine ministry.7

It has also had its share of setbacks, however. In this same fifth anniversary issue of the LWI, Walter Altmann, president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil, says that the Joint Declaration is reason to celebrate, but the recent issuance of Dominus Iesus by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (hereafter CDF), the papal encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, and the issuance of indulgences for the Jubilee Year of 2000 have caused “disillusionment and confusion” within the Lutheran-Catholic relations, and so “…they seem to destroy any practical hope that the JDDJ’s signing could pave the way toward new examples of mutual acceptance.” In his judgment, “the hopes expressed in the JDDJ have still not materialized.”8 Moreover, this issue’s list of practical effects at the local level is disappointing. Even though it has had its share of positive effects, they were actually quite few, and when combined with the fact that it mentions the JD has had very little effect in the lives of churches in South Africa, the Philippines, and Austria, the overall picture of the reception of the JD five years out is somewhat disappointing.9 And the tenth anniversary issue of LWI is peppered with voices of admonishment, urgency, and regret from Catholic ← 2 | 3 → officials over its lack of progress. For example, Roman Catholic Bishop Walter Mixa says, “To be honest, we have to admit that we still have a long way to go until all differences in faith have been worked through. Let’s get moving.”10 And Karl Cardinal Lehmann “…expressed his regret that in some respects the JDDJ had so far not led any further, ‘because it has not been further deepened, implemented and thus made spiritually fruitful.’”11

But, if the reception of the Joint Declaration can be described as uneven, its drafting and adoption process can be described as troubled or rocky. In his article, “Der Streit um die ‚Gemeinsame Erklärung zur Rechtfertigungslehre,‘” Johannes Wallmann gives what is perhaps the most detailed, although not unbiased, account of the history of the rancorous German debate over the adoption of the Joint Declaration to be found. Wallmann’s account of this debate traces its earliest stage to the largely ignored 1991 critical analysis of the text “Lehrverurteilungen—kirchentrennend?” by the Göttingen theological faculty.12 This, according to Wallmann’s account, along with the ongoing, clandestine negotiations between the two churches on the text of the JD, beginning in 1995, created a climate of anxiety in certain circles. This anxiety finally “ignited” in the fall of 1997 with the appearance of two works: Eberhard Jüngel’s “Um Gottes willen—Klarheit!” which critiqued the feasibility of paragraph 18 of the JD’s interpretation the doctrine of justification as “an indispensable criteria” for the guidance of the church; and Ingolf Dalferth’s especially sharp article, “Ökumene am Scheideweg,” which questions the “differentiated consensual” method of the JD and the final compatibility of Lutheran and Catholic understandings of justification.13 This was followed by a whole series of somewhat troubled church synods and bishop’s meetings in Germany over the language and acceptance of the JD.14 Into this fray, then, stepped the noted, aging theologian, Gerhard Ebeling.

According to Wallmann, Ebeling’s part in this debate began during a reception for him on the evening of December 10, 1997, after he had been awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Tübingen. During the reception, Ebeling became quite insistent that “the voice of academic evangelical theology must be loud” in its rejection of the Joint Declaration.15 Eberhard Jüngel then gathered a small group around him in order to determine how Ebeling’s advice might be made effective. It was decided that a short letter listing the deficiencies of the Joint Declaration would be composed and circulated among evangelical theological faculties for signatures. This letter (hereafter called Letter of Protest) would then be sent to the various synods that were still debating the acceptance of the JD. This letter was entrusted to a small circle (Albrecht Beutel, Karin Bornkamm, and Reinhard Schwarz), headed by Wallmann himself, who would draft the letter and send it to Ebeling in Zürich for final editing.16 By October, 1999, a revised form of ← 3 | 4 → this letter had been signed by over 250 theologians.17 This was, perhaps, the most serious attack on the Joint Declaration, because it opened a whole new phase of the debate, a debate that grew very rancorous. Yet, what is not quite clear is why Gerhard Ebeling felt impelled to urge Evangelical theologians to become collectively assertive in voicing their objections to the JD and sign the letter of protest.

1.1  Who is Gerhard Ebeling?


X, 185
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (January)
sistematic theology christlicher Glaube Dogmatik Martin Luther ecumenism
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. X, 185 pp.

Biographical notes

Scott A. Celsor (Author)

Scott A. Celsor received his PhD in religious studies (systematic theology) from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is currently Adjunct Instructor for Religious Studies in the Department of History, Political Science, and Religious Studies at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He has published several articles and translations for various scholarly journals, such as Lutheran Quarterly, Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Philosophy and Theology, and Horizons in Biblical Theology.


Title: Word and Faith in the Formation of Christian Personhood «coram Deo»
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