Review: Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue by Anthony N. S. Lane

The Regensburg Forum is pleased to present a book review by Zach Howard of Bethlehem Seminary.

Published shortly after the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on Justification in 1999, Anthony S. Lane’s book, Justification by Faith in Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue: An Evangelical Assessment, still offers the most thorough analysis of the issues on this topic. Indeed, the book has garnered endorsements from both Catholic and Protestants alike, including stalwarts like the late George H. Tavard as well as D. A. Carson. Lane approaches the topic as a historian, and therefore his project is primarily descriptive. In describing the conversation between Catholics and Protestants, Lane demonstrates that, while convergence on justification by faith is not yet complete or certain, substantial progress has been made through ecumenical dialogue.

Lane starts his book by considering the significance of the Regensburg Colloquium in 1541, which is also the namesake of this forum. He summarizes Regensburg’s value for the present this way:

The moral of Regensburg is that agreement across the board is very unlikely but that justification could be one of those areas where the differences can be bridged. If they were, it would not mean that the Reformation was over. More fundamental than the issue of justification is the issue of the authority of the church, which was the underlying cause of the failure at Regensburg. Even total agreement over justification by faith would not remove this deeper difference (4-5).  

According to Lane, the pre-Tridentine dialogue at Regensburg foreshadowed the possibility of agreement on justification that seems to be emerging through talks between Catholics and Protestants in the last 50 years. As a Protestant, Lane is quick to assert that such agreement would not end the Reformation, given other significant issues still to overcome, but it does suggest that doctrinal alignment on justification, like the Nicene doctrines, is possible between Catholics and Protestants.

As further prolegomena, Lane establishes several “Ground Rules for Dialogue” that encourage his readers to consider not just the beliefs of a particular side but also their underlying concerns. Lane explains, “It is important to pay attention not just to the doctrines put forward by each side but also to their concerns that underlie these doctrines. If each side can be brought to understand and value the concerns of the other, considerable progress can be made.”[1] Throughout the book, Lane models how to apply this guideline with care as he assesses the various documents and positions held by Catholics and Protestants.

Lane structures the book simply. After spending two chapters introducing the Protestant and Catholic positions on justification, mediated through John Calvin and the Council of Trent, respectively, Lane then examines eight key dialogue documents in chapter 3. These range widely from public correspondence between Karl Barth and Hans Küng to official ecumenical dialogues between Catholics and Anglicans (1987) as well as Catholics and Lutherans (1983, 1999). In chapter 4—where the main theological payoff comes—Lane examines 15 key issues that emerge in these dialogues. He tackles an impressive array of issues including the status of theological language, the definition of justification, whether justification is the sole criterion of a true church, the grounds on which a person is accounted righteous, whether faith alone saves, the relationship between law and gospel, the question of merit and reward, assurance of salvation, and, finally, a reflection on the Roman Magisterium’s view of justification, especially as taught in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church. He concludes the book with a simple question and answer-style section to enumerate his most important outtakes. An added bonus is an annotated bibliography as well as two appendixes with the article on justification from The Regensburg Agreement (1541) and the full Joint Declaration (1999).

Throughout the book, Lane delivers high praise to the Joint Declaration on Justification (JD) on several accounts. First, he finds the document to be the most comprehensive ecumenical treatment of the issue to date. Second, he notes its significance as the only document affirmed by the official bodies of the Catholic and Lutheran churches. However, he does not miss the important fact that the JD fails to mention the imputation of the alien righteousness of Christ. “This is a serious omission,” Lane worries, because of the different definitions of justification that Catholics and Protestants employ (158).

Indeed, Lane identifies how we are accounted righteous as “the heart of the difference between the views” (158). The key question is whether we are accounted righteous because of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us (Reformers) or because of his righteousness imparted to us (Trent). In this discussion, Lane practices what he commends, namely, considering what the underlying concerns are behind each side’s belief. He notes that, on the one hand, “Catholics fear that the idea of imputed righteousness will lead to neglect of the transforming work of the Spirit and give rise to people with unchanged lives who have an assurance of salvation.” On the other hand, “Protestants fear that reliance upon imparted righteousness leads to a dependence upon one’s own righteousness and a corresponding loss of assurance as well as a weak view of sin” (160). Lane acknowledges legitimacy in both fears.

Yet Lane is not content with merely noting the different concerns and their apparent legitimacy. He pushes his readers further to consider their implications for how faith is practiced. “These two approaches [imputation vs. impartation],” he argues, “will inevitably give birth to different spiritualties” (164). In other words, Lane does not make this merely an academic exercise but actually cares how these doctrines play out in the life of each communion. He has pastoral concerns, which makes his scholarship that much more important and poignant. For example, he does not gloss over the concern of Reformed authors to connect both justification and sanctification to union with Christ instead of saying one is the cause of the other.

While Lane’s book has no glaring weaknesses, many of his readers may finish his descriptive work on the dialogue documents and assessment of the key theological issues slightly unsatisfied—unsatisfied not with what Lane did accomplish but with what he did not do. First, he declines to engage biblical material in his assessment. While that may be understandable given the scope of his project, it nonetheless leaves the reader without a full treatment of the topics he covers. For example, in seeking to delineate the Catholic tendency to collapse the typical Protestant categories of justification and sanctification under “justification,” Lane’s assessment could have benefited from a brief overview of biblical texts where Paul uses the dikai- word group to refer to both theological phenomena. Second, Lane’s conclusion offers little evaluation of the careful descriptive work in the book. He hesitates to help his readers land on most of the issues. Perhaps this is wise scholarship, but it may leave some readers unpersuaded by his assessment.

As a descriptive work of the recent Catholic-Protestant dialogue, this book has few equals. One of its most valuable contributions is demonstrating how the recent convergence on the doctrine of justification has followed a similar path to the near success at Regensburg. In the dialogues, Catholics have been willing to move beyond sixteenth century (mis)understandings of Protestant theological assertions, and Protestants have accepted a slightly wider range of views and an element of ambiguity in verbal formulation (225-26). Genuine progress has been made between Catholics and many Protestant groups on justification—though Reformed and evangelical Protestants, with whom Lane identifies himself, have been less participatory. Nevertheless, I want to conclude my review by affirming Lane’s aside in his conclusion: Although Catholics and evangelicals may be much closer on the topic of justification by faith than popularly thought, as an evangelical, my answer to what still divides us would have to be: “Peter and Mary” (see footnote 18 on p. 231).


[1] Ibid., 12.

zachZach Howard (M.Div., Bethlehem Seminary) is instructor of theology and humanities at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. 

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