On the EPC, World Communion of Reformed Churches, and Declarations on Justification

On July 5th the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ). The JDDJ is a document originally crafted and signed between the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) in 1999. The JDDJ is an ecumenical document designed as part of the path back to unity in the church. Justification is at the center of the theological cause of the Protestant Reformation. As Martin Luther said, “Because if this article [of justification] stands, the church stands; if this article collapses, the church collapses.” The JDDJ set out to arrive at a common consensus between the LWF and the RCC on this crucial doctrine. Both the LWF and the RCC in the initial declaration believe,

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. In light of this consensus the remaining differences of language, theological elaboration, and emphasis in the understanding of justification described in paras. 18 to 39 are acceptable. Therefore the Lutheran and the Catholic explications of justification are in their difference open to one another and do not destroy the consensus regarding the basic truths (5.40)

In other words, while there may be differences in the Lutheran and Catholic articulation of justification, they are not differences of substance. Therefore, “The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this 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.” (5.41). The anathemas of Trent from the RCC are not applicable to the LWF because of the agreement of substance on justification.

This is incredibly significant. My denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), is a member of the WCRC, which means my church is now connected to this conversation and declaration. Pope Francis even addressed the WCRC last year in anticipation of the JDDJ being signed. The pursuit of church unity is important, and I have been happy with the publication of several books on this topic recently (e.g. The End of Protestantism by Peter Leithart and Divided We Fall from the EPC’s own Luder Whitlock). Though I don’t always agree with large emphases in these works, I am thrilled at the impulse behind them. I am going to spend a number of posts evaluating the JDDJ through the lens of scripture as summarized in the Westminster Standards. The rest of this post will deal with the history of the JDDJ.

In 1999 the LWF approved the JDDJ with 89 of 124 member denominations voting for it. The LWF represents ~74 million of the ~80 million Lutherans in the world. The more conservative International Lutheran Council and Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference have both strongly rejected the JDDJ, and many of the LWF member churches that voted against the JDDJ are also members of these more conservative alternates. The LWF is not a denomination or church, but a federation of churches. I am not all that familiar with Lutheran ecclesiology, but my understanding is that the decisions of the LWF do not bind its member churches, but reflect the sentiment of its members. While some in the RCC have argued this means it does not have the authority to sign such a statement, the Vatican’s official position is respect for the Lutheran ecclesiological approach in this process.

The JDDJ has multiple sections where each party articulates their understanding of certain aspects of justification. In 2006, the World Methodist Council (WMC) representing ~81 million global Methodists unanimously adopted the JDDJ with several additions of their particular understanding of justification to the declaration. The Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), one of the four instruments of the communion for the Anglican Communion, affirmed the JDDJ in 2016. The Anglican Communion has had a number of bilateral dialogues with the RCC and the LWF for some time, and the ACC does not have binding power over the Anglican Communion, but this represents the ~85 million global Anglicans.

The EPC is a member of the WCRC, which represents ~80 million of the roughly 120-150 million Reformed people globally. Unlike the LWF, WMC, and Anglican Communion, the WCRC does not represent essentially all churches in its tradition, but somewhere between 54-75% of the global Reformed population. Other groups, like the more conservative World Reformed Fellowship (of which the EPC is also a member) and the International Conference of Reformed Churches, also have large memberships. Unlike the LWF and WMC, the WCRC member churches did not vote on adopting the JDDJ, nor is it binding in any way upon WCRC members. The WCRC, like the WMC, also added several sections reflecting the Reformed perspective on justification.

Roughly 320 million people in total, somewhere between 35-53% of all global Protestants, are represented by bodies that have signed the JDDJ. While the specifics of each body’s polity complicate understanding how many people subscribe to the JDDJ, this is still significant. A huge number of Protestants, including not just Western Christians, but global Christians, have agreed with the RCC on the substance of the doctrine of justification. The RCC understands that bodies that sign onto the JDDJ are articulating an understanding of justification that is not anathematized by Trent. The unity of Christ’s church is something that should be longed for and pursued, and this includes continuing the vision of the Reformation to be a reforming of the church, not the splitting of it into different communions. The separations that occurred in the Reformation were necessary to maintain the integrity of the church and the gospel, but the hope and goal should always be to restore the formal unity between the fractured parts of Christ’s body. Justification, as a central point in the Reformation, is one of the key differences that must be resolved before Protestants and the RCC consider unity. So pursuing clarity and a charitable understanding of that doctrine among different factions is a necessary point in that process.

However, it also quite possible to downplay the significance of differences or to compromise biblical beliefs on justification in order to achieve a step towards unity. Going forward I will be evaluating the JDDJ, the WCRC additions, and will briefly look at the additions of the WMC.