Partners or Protestors?

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his now-famous 95 theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. In his theses Luther remonstrated against the use of relics, usury, simony, nepotism, and the sale of indulgences.

Initiating what in later years was termed the Protestant Reformation, Luther questioned papal authority, the dominant role of the church in society, and most important, the role of the church in defining the conditions of salvation. Through the Scriptures, Luther and other Reformers taught the five “solae”—sola fide (by faith alone), sola Scriptura (by the Scriptures alone), solus Christus (by Christ alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), and soli Deo gloria (to God’s glory alone).

The Diet of Augsburg

Because of the growth of various Protestant groups in the years following Luther’s remonstrance, European society was faced with the dilemma of how to re order society so as to accommodate most of these new religious groups. From the Roman Catholic perspective, such heretical movements did not have the right to exist, and efforts were put forth to curtail, contain, and eradicate them. In spite of such opposition, the Protestant groups grew, and eventually were tolerated as part of the European religious landscape.

In particular, Austria for a time nearly became a dominant Lutheran stronghold. However, the Hapsburgs, after contending with the French and the Turks, “harshly persecuted Protestants and reestablished a Catholic preponderance in Austria,”1 which has continued to the present day.2

In Germany, Lutheranism spread rapidly throughout much of the territory.3 Despite such gains, however, Catholicism regained much of its lost territory through the Counter-Reformation.4 Through the Diets of Speyer I (1526) and II (1529), a compromise was reached that allowed the Catholic Mass to be performed in those areas with a majority Catholic presence, and Lutheran services to be held where Lutherans were the dominant group.5 However, doctrinal differences were so pronounced and distinct between Catholics and Protestants that ensuing conflicts and violence required more than the mere territorial respect offered by the Diets of Speyer I and II. In 1532 the Peace of Nuremberg granted temporary recognition of Protestants as part of the status quo, which was more of a political solution than heretofore. Through subsequent imperial diets and treaties, leading to the Peace of Augsburg (1555), Protestants obtained official and permanent recognition, which inaugurated a religious truce among Catholics and Protestants.6 Thus, the existence of both Catholics and Lutherans required the development of a mutually tolerable environment, which can be noted to the present day.7

Against such an historical backdrop, the modern ecumenical movement has advanced significantly and in an alarming manner to those who value the original Protestant positions. As an ecumenical gesture culminating after several decades of dialogue, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed “The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by Faith” on October 31, 1999 (the same date as the posting of Luther’s 95 theses). In the preamble, paragraph 5, it states, “The present Joint Declaration has this intention: namely, to show that on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.”8 Although the remainder of the document outlines theological aspects of justification and cites biblical references, there are some Lutheran groups, such as the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, as well as former Catholic priest Richard Bennet,9 who oppose the document on grounds that it does not correctly reflect Luther’s theology of justification, and most important, that it does not contradict any of the teachings of the Council of Trent (the Catholic ecumenical council [1545-1563] that condemned the Protestant Reformation teachings, in particular the doctrine of justification by faith).10 Thus, the document more accurately reflects a change in Lutheran theological concepts, rather than any change in Catholic theological teachings.

What has been the far-reaching impact of the Joint Declaration? On July 24, 2006, Catholic News Service reported that the World Methodist Conference, on July 18, 2006, had adopted the document. Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists hailed the unanimous vote as a step that will aid their communities “to work more closely in proclaiming the gospel message of salvation.”11

In February 2014 Tony Palmer, an Anglican priest, spoke about ecumenism to a group of (mostly Pentecostal/Evangelical) ministers in Dallas, Texas. He declared that the Protestant Reformation was over. He used the signing of the Joint Declaration as the basis of his argument. In his speech he was encouraging other Protestant churches to discontinue their “protest” and to work in unison with the Catholic Church.12

Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Austria. While I was there, I dialogued with Oliver Fichtberger, a Seventh-day Adventist Christian minister. Following is part of our discussion regarding the current status of religious freedom in Austria and Germany, in light of the ecumenical movement that has accelerated in recent years.

Q: Since part of the ecumenical movement implies unity of core doctrinal beliefs, what is the history of Sunday laws in Germany and Austria?

A: Currently the possibility of a Sunday law is being discussed on a European level. Seventh-day Adventists are waiting to see its development. In Austria and Germany most stores are closed on Sundays, but basic commodities can be bought. However, I am not as concerned so much with stores being closed on Sunday as I am with other legislation that more directly impacts one’s religious experience, at least for Seventh-day Adventists. Let me explain. Even if one is not allowed to work on Sunday, such as not cutting one’s lawn, it is still not a major problem, because one can always do it at another time. However, Sabbath issues have a more direct impact on SDA members. Sometimes students encounter the challenge that some exams are offered only on the Sabbath, or workers should show up in the office on Sabbath. Fortunately, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is already recognized for its Sabbath observance practices, so the government is working in the church’s favor. Because of religious freedom under the Austrian Constitution, most schools do not require Seventh-day Adventists to take exams on Sabbath. Usually a student needs simply to present a letter from the church to obtain exemption. However, the work environment is different, because there are no laws to protect the employee. Even though the German and Austrian constitutions have religious freedom guarantees, they have no labor law guarantees related to religious freedom. An additional hardship in the field of labor is that it operates much like a market environment. If an employer sees an employee as a good worker, and is willing to invest in him or her, then they will make an accommodation. But if not, then that employer will look for another worker.

It is now 500 years since the Reformation. However, the changed sense of religious identity and impending religious legislation make it seem that time is running backwards in Europe. Even the rapid growth of Islam in Western Europe is a reminder of the dynamic of 500 years ago and makes it more likely that protective religious legislation will continue to blur the Catholic/Protestant identities that were so important during the Reformation.


 1 Lewis W. Spitz, “Lutheranism: An Overview,” in Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), vol. 2, p. 469.

2 According to the 2001 census, 73.6 percent of Austrians identify themselves as Roman Catholic; Protestants ranked at 4.7 percent, Muslims at 4.2 percent, and 12 percent as non-religious (accessed on June 25, 2014, from http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/austria-population/).

3 Spitz, vol. 2, pp. 467-468.

4 Bernard Vogler, “Popular Religions in Germany,” trans. Simone Wyss, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, vol. 3, p. 301.

5 Eike Wolgast, “Protestation of Speyer,” trans. Susan M. Sisler, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, vol. 4, pp. 103-105.

6 Gunter Vogler, “Peace of Nuremberg,” trans. Wolfgang Katenz, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, vol. 3, pp. 162, 163.

7 Statistics for 2008 reveal that each group of Catholics and Protestants were equally represented by 34 percent of the population, Muslims by 3.7 percent and other or no affiliation by 28.3 percent (accessed on June 25, 2014, from http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/profiles/Germany/ Religion).

8 Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church, “The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by Faith,” preamble, para. 5 (accessed on June 25, 2014, from http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_31101999_cath-luth-joint-declaration_en.html).

9 Richard Bennet, “The Roman Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: A Denial of the Gospel and Righteousness of Christ” (accessed on June 25, 2014, from http://www.jesus-is-lord.com/jd.htm).

10 Rev. Paul T. McCain, “A Betrayal of the Gospel: The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” (accessed on June 25, 2014, from http://www.lutheransonline.com/lo/553/FSLO-1361564553-111553.pdf). See also Catholic theologian Robert Sungenis, who notes inconsistencies in the document with historical theological concepts of justification, http://www. christiantruth.com/articles/sungenisjointdeclaration.html (accessed on June 25, 2014).

11 Cindy Wooden, “Methodists Adopt Catholic-Lutheran Declaration on Justification,” Catholic News Service, July 24, 2006 (accessed on June 25, 2014, from http://www.catholicnews. com/data/stories/cns/0604186.htm).

12 Tony Palmer, “Pope Francis sends video message to Kenneth Copeland” (accessed on June 27, 2014, from www.youtube.com/watch?v=uA4EPOfic5A).


Article Author: Ed Cook

Ed Cook has a doctorate in church-state studies from Baylor University, Waco, Texas, where he currently leads in church religious liberty activities.