The Legacy of Hans Küng’s Doctrine of Justification

Hans Küng (1928—) was ordained in 1955, and his doctoral thesis, Justification: La Doctrine de Karl Barth et Une Réflexion Catholique was published in 1957 (Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection1964 ET). Justification was Küng's first book and was a study of the Protestant and Roman Catholic teachings on the Doctrine of Justification with a special emphasis on the Reformation and Counter-Reformation conflicts that lead to the schism of Western Christianity. The remarkable conclusion of Justification is that the Protestant and Roman Catholic differences in Doctrines of Justification are only imaginary, and there is no longer any 'justification' for Protestants and Roman Catholics to remain separated brethren. I've assembled the following quotations as a brief survey of events that followed the publication of Justification.

"Trent's teaching on justification can be correctly understood only in the context of history of dogma. In this context, however, it can and must be understood correctly. This, for the time being, is our preliminary answer to Karl Barth's polemic against Trent. Protestants speak of a declaration of justice and Catholics of a making just. But Protestants speak of a declaring just which includes a making just; and Catholics of a making just which supposes a declaring just. Is it not time to stop arguing about imaginary differences?"

Küng, Hans Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004. 221. Print.

Hans Küng on Karl Barth

In Justification, Küng had chosen Karl Barth as his representative of the Protestant Doctrine of Justification (primarily using Barth's Church Dogmatics Vol. IV/1 and IV/2.) Küng (a recognized teacher in the Roman Catholic Church at that time and later a petrus at Vatican II) represented the Roman Catholicism counterpart to the Doctrine of Justification.

The question to why Küng had chosen Barth as his provost for Protestant may be partially explained by the following quotation from Hans Küng's essay, Karl Barth and the Postmodern Paradigm. If Karl Barth does not represent some Protestants, I hope that the following discourse would consider a second look at Barth's Doctrine of Reconciliation due to the hope of reunification of the divided Western Church may be found in it.

Let me begin on a personal note. I cannot, and will not, speak of Karl Barth as I would of any great theologian or philosopher of the past, Hegel, for example, Schleiermarcher, Kierkegaard, or Harnack. I cannot, and will not, pretend to a lofty objectivity and neutrality, least of all in the case of Barth. Talking about him means for me, now as ever, talking about a person and theologian who has remained alive, who was combative--and pious precisely because of this--a man whom I met in a crucial phase of my life and to whom I am indebted for basic insights into theology (without ever becoming an uncritical Barthian). I have no intention of providing an academic (in the bad sense) abstract of our common history, nor of course will I deny the fact that I disagreed with him then, as I do now. In this retrospective I should like to follow a difficult via media between sympathy and distance, as I try to convey something of the vitality of this theologian and his theology, as I have seen it not only in Barth's work but in a great and many encounters and conversations.

Küng, Hans. "Karl Barth and the Postmodern Paradigm." Princeton Seminary Bulletin (1988): 1. Web.

Council of Trent

Council of Trent

Karl Barth's Response to Justification

Karl Barth was no Roman Catholic sympathizer when Küng had chosen him. In the first part of Justification, Küng summarizes Barth's Doctrine of Justification, including Barth's criticisms of Roman Catholic. I have already written about Küng's summary of Barth's criticisms of Roman Catholic Doctrine of Justification in a previous post. The following quotation is an exemplary representative of Barth's criticisms.

[Karl] Barth reacts very strongly against the decree of [the Tridentine] Session VI: “The decree itself is theologically a clever and in many respects a not unsympathetic document which has caused superficial Protestant readers to ask whether there might not be something to say for it. But if we study it more closely it is impossible to conceal the fact that not even the remotest impression seems to have been made upon its exponents by what agitated the Reformers or, for that matter, Paul himself in this whole question of faith and works" (IV/1, 624f.)

Küng, Hans. Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004. 75. Print.

Hans Kung and Karl Barth

Hans Kung and Karl Barth

Hans Küng's response to Karl Barth's criticisms of the Council of Trent

The genius of Küng's Justification is in the way Küng demonstrated that the Roman Catholics were not condemning what Protestants now believe, and also that the Protestants were not condemning what the Roman Catholic now believed regarding the Doctrine of Justification. Küng is convinced that these two parties were talking past each other as the previous quote exemplified.

Karl Barth's response to the Tridentine Canons represents the way that all Protestants have responded to the 16th century Council of Trent's Anathema sit! (anathematizing) of the Reformers doctrine of "Justification by faith alone".

"If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ's sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified: let him be anathema." (Council of Trent, Session VI, Canon XII.)

Schaff, Philip. "Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical notes. Volume II. The History of Creeds.", Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2009. 113. Web.

Is any Protestant 'unjustified' for reacting in such horror as Barth when they read this Tridentine anathema? This Tridentine Canon and those others like it, especially throughout Session VI, are horrifying to all Protestant ears? Küng's surprising solution does not reject the Council of Trent, but instead he explains that these anathamas do not represent a complete and systematic doctrine of the Catholic Magisterium or apply to Protestants today. Even if the statements claim to be the teaching of the Magisterium, Küng explains that in fact they are only a reaction against events that were convulsing the entire Church that no longer are in effect. Consider Küng's explanation of these events:

In similar discussions about Trent one is likely to be asked with a malicious grin whether such explanations do not produce "a bad historical conscience" among Catholics--the point being that Trent did after all wish to present a comprehensive theology of justification. It is true that Trent was not simply a discussion among confessions or simply a controversial theology but rather a cohesive, positive presentation of Catholic truth. And the Council, especially in Session VI de justificatione, did not limit itself (as it did in Session IV and for the most part in Session V) to restudy and refining texts already promulgated nor did it simply list errors in order to judge them (as did Session VII), but rather dealt directly with the problem of justification as such.

All this is true and indicates the noble and objective spirit of this ecclesiastical assembly, yet we have here no reason for historical pangs of conscience--because the point of departure and the target Council discussions, as well as the never-absent shadow over them, was clearly the Reformation teaching. The decree on justification too, was motivated not by the desire for an unbiased scholarly peace-time declaration but by heresy convulsing the Church. The introduction to the decree notwithstanding its irenic style, is clearly polemical in purpose: "Since at this time a certain erroneous teaching about justification is being broadcast with the consequent loss of many souls and serious damage to Church unity . . . this Council of Trent . . . intends to set forth for all the faithful of Christ the true, sound doctrine of justification" (CT, V, 791; D 792a). 

Küng, Hans Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004. 107. Print.

Karl Barth's commendation of Hans Küng's Justification

Karl Barth was a life long friend of Hans Küng, and he responded to this young theologian with a remarkable letter endorsing Justification, and this letter of retraction, in Augustinian fashion, was included as a preface to Justification. Here is a quotation from Barth's letter:

3. The negative conclusion of your critique is this: Due to my erroneous (because unhistorical) evaluation of the definitions and declarations collected in Denzinger and of the statements of the Church’s magisterium in general, I have been guilty of a thoroughgoing misunderstanding and, consequently, of a thoroughgoing injustice regarding the teaching of your Church, especially that of the Fathers of Trent. Quid dicemus ad haec? If the things you cite from Scripture, from older and more recent Roman Catholic theology, from Denzinger and hence from the Tridentine text, do actually represent the teaching of your Church and are establishable as such (Perhaps this single book of yours will be enough to create a consensus!), then, having twice gone to the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Trent to commune with the genius loci, I may very well have to hasten there are third time to make a contrite confession—“Fathers, I have sinned.” But taking the statements of that Sixth Session as we now have them before us—statements correctly or incorrectly formulated for reasons then considered compelling—don’t you agree that I should be permitted to plead mitigating circumstances for the considerable difficulty I had trying to discover in that text what you have found to be true Catholic teaching? Imagine! So unexpected a view of freedom, of grace, of juridico-real justification and its realization and foundation in Christ’s death, of the and sola fide, and so on! How do you explain the fact that all this could hidden so long, and from so many, both outside and inside the Church?

Küng, Hans. Preface. Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004. xl-xli. Print.

Thus we have the genesis of the healing of the rift between the Roman Catholics and Protestants by Hans Küng and Karl Barth. The question immediately arises whether this is only a compromise among friends, or truly a solution to the Roman Catholic and Protestant schism? The answer is Nein! In 1962, Pope John XXIII appointed Hans Küng as a peritus (expert) in Vatican II. Hans Küng has a significant role in the Second Vatican Council, and worked in a similar capacity to Joseph Ratzinger (who would later become Pope Benedict XVI).

Karl Rahner in 1974

Karl Rahner's commendation of Hans Küng's Justification

In 1962, Karl Rahner published an essay titled, "Questions of Controversial Theology on Justification" in Theological Investigations Vol. 4, that was an assessment of Küng's book Justification and Karl Barth's response. Karl Rahner's writings may be considered opinion or speculative, but he is no Barthian, and he is certainly well respected in Roman Catholicism. Rahner's conclusion was that Hans Küng had represented accurately the Roman Catholic view of Justification, and he also agreed that Küng's description of Barth's doctrine of Justification was compatible with the Roman Catholic view. Rahner raised some concerns regarding whether Barth's doctrine was represented accurately by Küng in Justification, but recommended that Barth's approval and affirmation Justification should be accepted from Barth over the opinion of those who say that Barth's system does not harmonize with Catholicism.

"One can be a Catholic and hold this doctrine of justification, which Karl Barth has declared to be the same as his own." [...] The history of theology is "not simply the history of the progression of dogma, but also a history of forgetting (Probleme, 126)"

Küng, Hans Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004. 106-7. Print.


"Thinking as we do, as we shall shortly explain, that we do not understand Barth's doctrine better than Barth, and that Küng propounds on all essential points a doctrine of justification which is in accord with Catholic doctrine, nothing very noteworthy can be said here on the actual theme of the book. Our considerations are therefore marginal notes with regard to the object and contents of the book, and we wish them to be understood as such."

Rahner, Karl. "Questions of Controversial Theology on Justification." Theological Investigations Volume IV: More Recent Writings. Vol. IV. Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1966. 189. Print.

1999 signing of the Joint Doctrine of the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) with Bishop Dr. Christian Krause (left) and Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy (right) (source:

The silencing of Hans Küng

Hans Küng's Justification (1957) was his doctoral thesis and first book, and such a successful book that it resulted in Küng being made a peritus (Latin for 'expert') at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). However, Küng wrote another controversial book, Infallible? An Inquiry (1971)  that criticized the Roman Catholic doctrine of Papal Infallibility and subsequently lead to his right to teach being revoked by the Vatican in Dec. 1979. It's important to know that the removal of Küng's right to teach was long after Justification and Vatican II, and that it was Küng's success in his book Justification that lead him to address other dogmatics, but unfortunately, Infallible? An Inquiry, did not receive the same reception as Justification. It's unfortunately that Infallible? An Inquiry left such a dark cloud over Küng.

Hans Küng's Justification and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification

The Joint Doctrine on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) was a controversial ecumenical statement in 1997 and 1999 that forged agreement between the Federation of Lutheran Churches and the Roman Catholics Church. The JDDJ was approved by a supermajority vote but not unanimously (124 in favor and 35 opposed). The JDDJ was a monumental eccumentical statement of unity between the Lutherans and Catholics, but many today deny that Hans Küng work in Justification germinated the JDDC, yet the JDDC is remarkably similar to the writings of Küng's 40 years before:

1. On the basis of the agreements reached in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JD), the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church declare together: "The understanding of the doctrine of justification set forth in this Declaration shows that a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics" (JD 40). On the basis of this consensus the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church declare together: “The teaching of the Lutheran Churches presented in the Declaration does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration" (JD 41).

"Official Common Statement #1" The Holy See. Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church, n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2014.

The JDDJ did not settle all the issues dividing the Lutherans and Catholics, but laid the blue print to rebuilding the broken foundation of the divide Church. The Official Common Statement was put forth showing an unprecedented unity between Catholics and Lutherans unseen since the Reformation. Additional statements were put forward by the Vatican about the remain questions as well as by conservative Lutherans on the work left unresolved by the JDDJ.

Was Hans Küng the Forgotten Founding Father of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification?

"I know today that an agreement could have been arrived at over the matter of justification, as I argued in my doctoral dissertation, Justification, in 1957, and as has been confirmed in 1999 by the Roman Catholic-Lutheran consensus document."

Küng, Hans, and John Bowden. The Catholic Church: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2001. 125. Print.

In Hans Küng's Memoirs, in reference to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) [mirror], he wrote:

"It will take around 40 years, until 1999, for the breakthrough already achieved in 1957 to be officially sanctioned by the church. I once read in C.G. Jung that it takes 40 years for an idea from the higher levels of the clergy to get down to the men on the street.

Did the prelates also count on that? At any event, first of all there was some undesirable theological haggling: instead of taking the results of the book Justification, the subsequent discussion and the Malta document as presupposition of an official recognition of the consensus, the Vatican, playing for time, set up year another ecumenical commission with the Lutheran World Federation which for years had once again to chew through all the statements in the Tridentine decree on justification. Galley slaves’s work.

Küng, Hans. My Struggle for Freedom: Memoirs. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2003. 144. Print.

There's a remarkable silence in the JDDJ regarding Hans Küng, especially since the JDDJ repeated the same ingenius arguments that Küng provided forty years before in Justification. In the following quotation that extends the previous quote, Küng explains this extremely awkward situation, where the the JDDJ is formed due to his ground-breaking research, yet he remains uncredited, and how others give him recognition when the ancient Catholic Church does not (forgive my protestant slant):

It goes without saying that I remain excluded from such official discussions by commissions under the conditions of an all too eternal yesterday — at the wish of Rome and with the assent of Protestants. And I’m pleased: what a waste of time! Here of course the Roman infallibles attach importance to every statement of Trent: these cannot in any way be false or even wrong, but were ‘fundamentally’ correct or were at least ‘meant to be correct’ (otherwise ‘everything would collapse’). But of necessity Lutheran biblical scholars respond to the Roman tactics accordingly: they are concerned to demonstrate that as many formulations as possible in Luther or the confessional writings are irreformably correct and, where they can be, are to be pressed into the categories of law and gospel. In a neurosis over confessional profile, some remain caught in the mediaeval paradigm, others in the Reformation paradigm. And so they lose opportunity of making clear to people in a competitive society in a quite concrete and convincing way how important it is that human beings as persons are not justified by God on the basis of achievements, successes, works of all kinds, but happily by God himself, who expects only trusting faith.

Be this as it may, finally in 1999, despite some shady moves and Luther counter-moves and after further additional declarations, on 31 October, the anniversary of the Reformation, a declaration of agreement will be signed in Augsburg. When this happens, vigorous applause spontaneously breaks out in the church and goes on for an astonishing time. For me — watching it on television — is a great delight. For the applause shows those in church and those watching on TV how great the longing is for such an ecumenical agreement. A late triumph. No doubt about it. But should I conceal the fact that at the wish of Rome the name of the author of the 1957 book Justification, which was originally top of the list of those to be invited, was again deleted — and as so often without a protest from the Protestants involved? Certainly this pettiness niggles me a little, but I can easily get over it, and in any case I am no friend of long church ceremonies. Did my former assistant and colleague Walter Kasper, now a Curia bishop, no doubt informed about the deletion of my name, perhaps sign for me in spirit? At any rate, to conclude from several reactions, including those of Bishop Karl Lehmann, I am not forgotten by the well informed. The best sign comes a few weeks later at the ‘Cape of Good Hope’, on the occasion of my lecture to the Parliament of the World Religions in December 1999. On the stage, the Lutheran Bishop of Cape Town, Nils Rohwer, gives me the fountain pen, beautifully engraved by the city of Augsburg, with which he himself signed the Augsburg document: he says that I deserve it more than he does. The Lord Mayor of the city of Augsburg is kind enough later to send him another jubilee fountain pen at my request. This is practical ecumenism in small matters."

Küng, Hans. My Struggle for Freedom: Memoirs. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2003. 144-45. Print.

The Legacy of Hans Küng's Justification today

The Justification is a ground breaking event in the reunification of Western Christianity, and despite that laudable success of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, Protestants and Roman Catholics remain 'separated brethren' and the uncrossable chasm between the two branches of Western Christianity remains for the foreseeable future. It is understandable that a five hundred year family feud would not heal overnight, and that the opposing sides desire to see more resolution on other disputed dogmas than 'justification by faith alone'. We may hope that further work would continue to be done now that Küng's Justification has let forth the floodgates.

The JDDJ was a productive test case of Küng's Justification, but some of my Reformed friends have expressed that it does not address the particular Reformed criticisms of Roman Catholicism, and suggest that the JDDJ was another incarnation of Andreas Osiander's doctrine of 'Essential Righteousness'. John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion III.XI.5-13, contains Calvin's extended criticism of Osiander's Doctrine of 'Essential Righteousness.'

After contacting every Lutheran and Reformed with a Ph.D. that I could find on twitter, I received a consistent response that the JDDJ departed from Küng's Justification to the degree that they would accept Küng's Justification but not the JDDJ. And almost every person I spoke with, and there were many, referred me to Eberhard Jüngel's book, "Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith" as the most important response to the ideas Hans Küng proposed fifty years ago.

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