Heart Speaks to Heart

Are theological disputes an unaffordable luxury as a generation is lost?

As part of the ‘500 Project’ we have asked a range of contributors from across the spectrum to stimulate and challenge our thinking. We won't always agree with all they write, but that’s the point. This piece is by Brett Lockhart QC, who for many years attended the Presbyterian Church and is now on a senior lay figure in the Catholic Church.

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If justification was not the only issue that the theses nailed to the Wittenburg door addressed, it certainly transfixed the Fathers at the Council of Trent, who devoted 16 chapters and 33 canons to the subject.

What if the definitions agreed between Philip Melancthon and Cardinal Contarini at the Colloquy of Regensburg in 1541 on justification had been accepted by Rome and Augsburg? The fissure that had emerged at Wittenburg soon developed into a chasm as points of agreement were ignored and, Councils and Confessions, replete with mutual anathematisation, were defined by way of hard and fast dividing lines. Such tendentious summaries laid the foundation for centuries of division that scandalised Europe and shattered Christendom.

It was not until the 20th century when Karl Barth and Karl Rahner reframed the question of justification that the irenic spirit of Regensburg finally re-emerged. By 1999, the Lutherans and Catholics felt free to remove the anathemas. Martin Luther has been rehabilitated from the perception of Catholics as “a heretic who destroyed the unity of the Church and endangered countless souls” to a man who intended to “renew the Church not divide her.”

It was literally and semantically the introduction of grace, which began to unravel the Gordian knot. Serious questions remain, particularly on ecclesiological issues, but is it not the time to acknowledge that. If mutual anathematisation is annulled, time is now of the essence in our quest for a greater understanding? We have entered a new post-Christian era in Europe, where truth is relative and experience definitive. The future, as presciently observed, by Reformed theologian J.I Packer in the 1980’s, is between those who accept the historic creeds and those who do not. With secularism rampant in Europe, our internecine disputes may appear as an unaffordable luxury as a generation is lost to Christ.

The Evangelical Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission reminded us in 1994 that

“the walls of our separation do not reach to heaven itself.” In the spirit of John 17, are we not compelled to reflect again and with greater intensity on the hierarchy of truths in the Christian religion?

Cooperation on many social issues has forged friendships and opened new possibilities that few imagined twenty years ago. Even in Northern Ireland, where the fault line in the Western Church runs deepest, quiet conversations and the discovery of shared values have inspired new reflections. Our quest for truth and love for God’s Word has not weakened, but perhaps our understanding of His grace has widened.

In this era of challenge and difficulty, I am reminded of John Henry Newman’s motto Cor ad Cor Locquitur – Heart speaks to Heart. Newman reminds us that however we communicate, what we say should come from the heart, the fruits of a moral life lived in communion with Christ.