Here we go again. Yet another promising Lutheran has just gone over to Rome. Robert C. Koons is professor of philosophy at the University of Texas. His department is the home of such distinguished scholars as Richard Sorabji and J. Budziszewski, company no doubt conducive to a stimulating intellectual climate. Koons’ numerous publications on logic, causation, science, and metaphysics have earned deserved recognition, including the Arlt Prize from the Council of Graduate Schools for his 1992 book, Paradoxes of Belief and Strategic Rationality .
While strictly a philosopher by profession, Koons is no slouch when it comes to theology. Just under a year ago, he published on his website a ninety-page personal study he had undertaken to work through the doctrinal differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. The study is refreshing for its clarity, charity, and good sense. Having been raised a good Missouri Synod Lutheran, Koons is well situated to articulate sound confessional teaching in congruity with the self-understanding of the Lutheran confessions. At the same time, Koons avoids the false characterizations that commonly typify many representations of Roman teaching.
The bulk of the study is taken up with the question of justification. Koons deftly unravels some of the terminological confusion behind the impasse between the two communions, a fact not sufficiently appraised in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification of 1999. Citing the ambiguities of the said declaration, Koons carefully examines what the terms faith and love mean to Lutherans and Roman Catholics respectively. Luther and the confessions often speak of faith very much in terms of what Roman teaching would indicate by love or hope . For example, love, according to the Roman Catholic view, is essentially a unifying power. It is that by which one adheres, clings, and joins oneself to another. Isn’t this what Lutherans mean by faith? But then this question arises: When Lutheran theology excludes "love" from justifying faith, what in fact is being excluded?
Yet Koons is not so naïve as to think that no more is at stake than mere style. Substantial differences are imbedded within the two accounts. His question is, Are they church divisive? Koons’ analysis of the Lutheran teaching on forensic justification raises a host of pressing questions about the claims of Lutheranism to be more than just corrective but truly catholic. How is it that a teaching so strongly incarnational in principle is so pervasively idealist and nominalist in practice? Just how does Lutheran theology go about describing justification from the point of view of what happens bodily, in this or that person?
Of course, conceptually, it is right, even necessary, to insist on a strict distinction between justification and sanctification. Even Cyril of Alexandria could have said the same about the two natures of Christ¯in the abstract! But concretely, is it possible to draw such a hard and fast line? True enough, Lutheran theologians have always admitted that the distinction between faith and works is more logical than temporal. Perhaps Koons overstates the narrowness of the Lutheran position when he represents the confessions as teaching that "no active cooperation by us is involved" in our eventual transformation. Whatever might be said in actual Lutheran preaching, however, the Formula of Concord explicitly asserts a necessary synergy between the regenerate will and the operations of the Holy Spirit. To refuse to cooperate is effectively mortal.
Be that as it may, one cannot help but think Koons is on the mark when he alerts us to the virtual gnosticism in the Lutheran position, at least as it is commonly stated and practiced. Recall Augustine’s famous line: While God created us without us, he doesn’t justify us without us. But it is precisely creatio ex nihilo and Christ’s resurrection from the dead that Lutheranism fastens onto as parallels to God’s act of justifying sinners. I am not denying the fitness of the analogies. After all, they are Pauline (Rom. 4: 17). But once again, what would happen if we tried to read them "bodily" or, as it were, "from below": Who or what is justified, and to what end?
Similar concerns arise when one considers the insistence in forensic justification on all the real changes taking place coram Deo (before the face of God). Here again, Lutheran teaching is liable to tend toward abstraction. But where else is coram Deo except in the concrete means of grace: baptism, absolution, the sacrament of the altar? Locating our righteousness outside ourselves¯in the Christ personally present and active in those means¯is fine. Koons observes that epistemologically and phenomenologically speaking, this emphasis is entirely accurate: imputed righteousness "is not introspectible or internally ‘feelable.’" But in order to save, the means of grace must still intersect with real people with real bodies and intellects and wills. Surely it must be admitted that somehow we are involved, unless one approves of a gnostic disdain for the natural, creaturely order.
Koons has some salient points to make on sola scriptura as well. In Lutheran teaching, each individual believer is obliged to attach him- or herself to an orthodox congregation, using Scripture alone as an evaluative norm. But this, says Koons, is "an impossible burden." In contrast, "on the Roman Catholic view, the individual believer can recognize the true church, not only by examining its doctrines one by one, but also by investigating its historical connection (via a physical and social chain of transmission) to the apostles." Koons does not want to his readers to escape their individual responsibility. His point is simply that doctrinal fidelity cannot be separated from institutional unity as a mark of catholicity.
For all its charity, Koons’ study is not wholly uncritical of Roman doctrine and practice. But his conclusions clearly have him coming down on the far bank of the river. His difficulties, in the end, seem to have less to do with what Lutheranism affirms and more to do with what it denies. Significantly for Koons, the doubts first began when he started reading the Church Fathers. In them he found that faith is never alone, nor is Scripture rightly interpreted apart from the rule of faith and its authorized teachers. And in one respect, Lutheranism denies neither of these points. Which is why, I guess, Koons saw no obstacle to renewing fellowship with Rome.
But speaking of the Fathers, I am still reminded of a hypothetical situation proposed in the fourth century by John Chrysostom, precisely to address the problem of ecclesial division. Suppose a new convert were to approach you, wanting to become a true Christian, but is confused and scandalized by the multitude of Christian denominations. "Which teaching shall I choose?" he asks. "There is so much fighting and faction among you!" To this, the Golden Mouthed Orator would have us respond with what to me seems like a singularly Lutheran-sounding answer: "Those that agree with the Scriptures are the true church. Those that fight against the Scriptures are not."
Adam G. Cooper is a pastor in the Lutheran Church of Australia and the author of The Body in St. Maximus the Confessor: Holy Flesh, Wholly Deified . His article "Redeeming Flesh" appeared in the May issue of First Things .