On the Reformed and the JDDJ

On July 5th the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) joined the JDDJ. The WCRC’s statement of association, like the World Methodist Council, adds areas of distinct Reformed emphasis on justification. These additions are both far superior to anything produced in the original JDDJ or its subsequent additions, while simultaneously being the most disappointing additions.

Areas of Strength

The WCRC correctly grounds justification specifically, and salvation in general, upon union with Christ ( §4, 9, 10), something lacking from the rest of the JDDJ. This of course is the Reformed confessional position (e.g. WLC 65-70), and it is encouraging to see this so clearly in the WCRC’s statement.

Like the initial Lutheran portion of the JDDJ, the WCRC emphasizes that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. This is done much more clearly than by the Lutherans (compare JDDJ 4.3.26 with the WRCR addition in §4,5, 10), and is connected directly to Christ’s saving work, and not upon an abstracted, substantive version of grace disconnected from the work of Christ. The “additional insights” provided by the WCRC are also commendable: that the law is a gift from God fulfilled in, not abolished by Christ; our assurance of salvation is grounded upon God’s unshakeable election expressed in his unbreakable promises in the gospel; and that good works are the fruit of justification, not its basis.

On justification these are the distinctive areas of emphasis in which the Reformed tradition differs from the Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Methodist traditions, and so it is good to see them presented as such. The WCRC does not, unlike with the Lutherans and Methodists, allow their position to be subsumed by the definitions of the Roman Catholic tradition.

Areas of Disappointment

The biggest weakness of the original JDDJ is the vast volume of Roman Catholic doctrine left assumed and unchallenged. The differences between the Lutheran and Catholic positions are significant in application, and can only be treated as meaningful consensus if those differences are ignored or minimized. In §2  of its addition, the WCRC states, “We embrace the model of differentiating consensus and the openness, diversity and richness of theological language it makes possible. We accept those passages where Lutherans and Catholics explain their doctrinal traditions in the light of the consensus…and we do not consider these diverse emphases sufficient cause for division between either party and the Reformed.”

“Differentiating consensus?” What kind of nonsense is that? The distinctions on justification outlined by the WCRC should make it abundantly clear that the Catholic and Methodist positions are not in fundamental consensus with the Reformed – they are in complete contradiction! The WCRC’s treatment of the (failed) Regensburg Agreement of 1541 and Calvin’s response to it show the unwillingness to truly wrestle with these differences. The Regensburg Agreement failed because of “confessional struggles” which are completely ignored by the WCRC. Calvin approved of the effort, but not the outcome of the Agreement, same as Luther and the Vatican. To cite him as an author of the Agreement is just an egregious error.

The WCRC also passes by the opportunity to use a confessional definition of justification. There is no mention of God pardoning us and accounting us righteous for the sake of Jesus. This is a sorely missed opportunity to make clear that we are justified because of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. The Lutherans failed to use this language in the JDDJ, and the WCRC should have relied upon its confessional heritage and employed this language. My suspicion is that to use that language would have made it much too clear that there is no real consensus between the Reformed and Catholics on justification, and so it was unused.

The WCRC addition also uses wishy-washy language. “We appreciate…” vs “We agree that the Bible teaches,” for instance. Or the suggestion in §16 that the “insight” on justice that the WCRC discovered after 2001 “may” have been at the root of John Calvin’s insistence that justification and sanctification are inseparable. The description of the JDDJ as having “distinctive insights” on justification, rather than recognizing that there is nothing new or distinct to it, is just bald flattery. 

The WCRC’s “insights” between justification and justice are the etymological fallacy on steroids. Because δικαιοσύνη may be translated as “righteousness” or “justice” does not then mean that our modern notions of justice are implied in the term. Specifically, us being justified/made righteous does not in and of itself mean, “That both of these meanings are conveyed with the same word reflects the fact that they are profoundly related. The one who is justified by faith is called to act in a righteous way. As a consequence, the doctrine of justification cannot be seen in the abstract, divorced from the reality of injustice, oppression and violence in today’s world.” It is true that our being justified requires us to be holy as God as holy, which is why good works are an outworking of justification. But this is not implied by the term justification, nor is this an insight that the Reformed discovered in the last 15 years.

Overall, the disappointments outweigh the strengths of the Reformed additions, particularly in light of embracing the differences between the Reformed and Roman Catholic as a consensus. The disappointment is all the stronger for the Reformed tradition, with such beautiful theology and heritage, failing to challenge the consensus.

The WCRC and the EPC

The WCRC, unlike the other groups who have agreed to the JDDJ, did not have its member representatives or denominations vote to decide whether to affirm the declaration. In a May, 2016 letter sent its member denomination, the WCRC stated that it was not bound by the feedback of those denominations in making a final decision on joining the JDDJ. That also means that member denominations are not bound by the WCRC joining the declaration.

The EPC is a member of the WCRC, but did not affirm the JDDJ or the WCRC joining it. The EPC also did not provide any formal feedback to the WCRC on the declaration, and in conversations with denominational leaders I was told that it was not worth the effort just to be ignored. It is discouraging that the WCRC would move ahead without receiving formal approval from its membership, and that its communications to the communion made it clear that no matter the feedback it was going to join the JDDJ. But it is encouraging that the EPC is not, by virtue of its membership in the WCRC, bound to the JDDJ.