The Leuenberg Agreement from a Confessional Reformed Perspective

The Leuenberg Agreement (LA) was drafted in 1973 after extensive discussions between representatives of the Reformed and Lutheran traditions. In the agreement mutual condemnations were revoked so that Protestant churches of both traditions could share in one church community. Thus the LA became the founding document of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE). The churches that have signed the LA recognize each other and accept each other’s members at the Lord’s Supper and each other’s ministers in the pulpit. One of the churches that signed the LA is the Protestant Church in the Netherlands. This article highlights the complicated acceptance of the LA in its church order and voices some theological hesitations from a confessional reformed perspective.

Protestant Church in the Netherlands

In November 1973 the Leuenberg Agreement was accepted by the synod of the Netherlands Reformed Church. During the discussion the Lutheran professor J.P. Boendermaker explained that the Agreement was not a confession, because some of the delegates were concerned about the statements on predestination and the relationship with the Reformed confessional documents, such as the canons of the Synod of Dordt`from 1618 and 1619. Notwithstanding these hesitations, the LA was accepted unanimously by the synod.

Twenty five years later, however, the LA became a bone of contention in the process of unification of the two Reformed Churches with the Lutheran Church in the Netherlands. On the 1st of May, 2004, the Protestant Church in the Netherlands originated as a continuation of the Netherlands Reformed Church (Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk), the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Kingdom of the Netherlands (Evangelisch-Lutherse Kerk).

On that same day the Restored Reformed Church (Hersteld Hervormde Kerk) started, regarding itself as a continuation of the Netherlands Reformed Church. More than 100 congregations split. More than 50.000 members did not join the merged church, because of its pluralistic character. In their opinion the Netherlands Reformed Church had been exclusively Reformed while the Protestant Church was not Reformed at all. The LA played an important role in this process.

The final text of the church order of the Protestant Church says that ‘the church, in obedience to Holy Scripture as the one source and norm of the church’s proclamation and ministry, confesses the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’ After listing the three confessions of the early church and six protestant confessions of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, and the Theological Declaration of Barmen, it says: ‘With the Leuenberg Agreement the church acknowledges that the Lutheran and Reformed traditions come together through a common understanding of the Gospel.’

In the original draft of 1993 the Declaration of Barmen and the LA were placed in the same article with the other confessions. This evoked serious criticism from the orthodox reformed wing of the Netherlands Reformed Church, because, the Declaration of Barmen interpreted revelation as exclusively-Christological and the LA relativized the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper, Christology, and predestination. Moreover, its rejection of the doctrine of reprobation, contradicted the Canons of Dordt.

According to the Reformed opponents of the union the proposed church order revealed a relativistic view of the confessions as historical documents rather than as statements of the truth. The separation of the Declaration of Barmen and the LA from the confessions in the final text expressed that they did not have a confessional status.

For the Restored Reformed this was not enough. They were of the opinion that placing contradictory Lutheran and Reformed confessions next to each other revealed a relativistic and pluralistic concept of truth. They viewed the Leuenberg Agreement as a hermeneutical rule for the understanding of the other confessions.

A second solution for the Reformed orthodox objections was offered in the ordinances, the practical regulations of the church order, where a difference in nuance was made between the confessional character of the church as a whole and that of the local congregations. Reformed congregations were particularly connected to the confessions from the Reformed tradition, while Lutheran congregations were particularly connected to those from the Lutheran tradition. All congregations were to acknowledge and respect the particular connection of the other congregations to their specific confessions.

These statements intended to safeguard the continuation of the Reformed identity on the congregational level. Reformed and Lutheran congregations remained connected to the confessions of their own tradition; no change was forced on any local body. From Restored Reformed side, however, it was emphasized that the price for remaining Reformed locally was the acceptance of pluralism and acknowledgement of and respect for Lutheran opinions that contradicted Reformed truth. According to them, being Reformed implied being exclusively Reformed. The proposed solution was deemed a withdrawal to congregationalism and an abandoning of the national Reformed church.

The Restored Reformed did not call the Protestant Church a false church, but a ‘non-church’, because of its pluralistic character. The acknowledgement of and respect for Lutheranism within the Protestant Church became a case of conscience and a reason for separation. Thus the confessional Reformed wing in the former Netherlands Reformed Church split into a group that – notwithstanding all hesitations and objections – remained within the Protestant Church, mainly the Reformed League (Gereformeerde Bond) and the Restored Reformed Church.

Sadly, the LA, a document that was originally intended to further church unity, and was unanimously accepted as such, became a partial reason for a serious split of one of the churches that had accepted it. It would be incorrect to blame the LA for the Dutch church difficulties in the first years of the twenty-first century, but on the occasion of its fortieth birthday it is also good to consider some of the shadows of its history.

Passing by the often discussed view on predestination, I will critically focus on the function of justification, the role of Scripture, the lack of covenantal theology, and the understanding of the work of the Spirit in the LA.

Justification

A major difference between the German and Swiss reformations was that the reformation in Wittenberg started as a quest for the sola gratia through the sola fide. At first Luther wanted to appeal to the authority of a council to reform the church. Only in the polemical discussions with among others Johann Eck, Luther had to admit that some of his opinions were also held by Jan Hus who was condemned by the council of Konstanz. Then Luther replied that he only acknowledged the authority of Scripture. Thus the sola scriptura followed the other two solas as a consequence.

In Zurich the start of the Reformation was different. The humanist Ulrich Zwingli went back to the sources and did not want to acknowledge anything that was not contained in Scripture, as the opening phrase of the ‘67 Articles’ for the First Zurich Disputation in January 1523, illustrates. Zwingli claims that he has preached these doctrines ‘based upon the Scriptures which are called theopneustos’ and expresses his willingness to be corrected where he had misunderstood the Scriptures ‘but only from the Scriptures themselves’. Apparently the Swiss Reformation started as a quest for the authority of Scripture (sola scriptura), from which the doctrines of sovereign grace (sola gratia) and salvation by faith alone (sola fide) flowed.

The LA takes the Lutheran approach and starts with the doctrine of justification. The common understanding of the Gospel is identified with the ‘message of justification as the message of the free grace of God’ (LA 6). Preaching, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are shapes or forms – in German Gestalten – of justification. This seems to differ from the original position of the Reformation, where justification was a fruit of the proclaimed gospel and where the sacraments were seen as signs and tokens added to that justifying Word.

Justification is not just one of the doctrines of the Reformation it is the article by which the church stands or falls. Still in the way it functions in the LA it does not only seem to relativize disagreements between the traditions, but also to underestimate essential notions within both traditions, especially regarding the necessity of faith and the saving work of the Holy Spirit. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin emphasized the connection between the Word of God and the human response. Not that the promise depends on the answer, but still a lack of faith can make the promise of no effect. Redemption is not only accomplished by Christ, but is also applied by Christ through His Spirit. This understanding of soteriology does not only – with Lutheranism – start from the sola gratia, but also runs the risk of emphasizing sola gratia at the cost of the sola fide and the sola scriptura.

The authority of Scripture

This approach also appears in the underlying concept of the authority of Scripture in the LA, for instance in the way in which the relation between the gospel and the bible is phrased. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, or rather the testimony of the apostles and prophets contained in them, are defined as ‘fundamental witness to the Gospel.’

Perhaps the English translation creates more distance between the two than the German text: ‘Das Evangelium wird uns grundlegend bezeugt durch das Wort der Apostel und Propheten in der Heiligen Schrift.’ But what exactly is the Gospel? Is it a canon in the canon? Is Scripture the Word of God or is the Word of God the Gospel to which prophets and apostle witness and whose witness can be found in the Scriptures?

The LA breathes the view of Karl Barth on Scripture in its threefold form: God’s saving act in Christ, Scripture, and preaching. It does not start with the principle of Scripture, but goes the other way around from the Gospel of justification via preaching to Scripture.

The Covenant

In the LA the word ‘covenant’ is only mentioned once, when Israel is called ‘das Volk des Alten Bundes’ (LA 7), except of course in the phase about the ‘Verhältnis des Lutherischen Weltbundes und des Reformierten Weltbundes.’ (LA 48) The LA takes a very indiscriminate and general approach to baptism. ‘In Baptism Jesus Christ receives irrevocably human beings fallen victim to sin and death into his fellowship of salvation that they might become new creatures.’ (LA 14).

Does the ‘irrevocably’ only voice a rejection against any repetition of baptism, or does it also imply that the sacrament as such is saving? In the original draft the word ‘irrevocable’ was phrased as ‘once and for all’. Probably the word irrevocable should be interpreted as unrepeatable, but still without knowledge of the background of the discussion the phrasing may easily be interpreted as a sign of sacramentalism as if someone who is baptised is automatically saved.

Infant baptism is not mentioned in the LA, not because it was not an issue, but because of the internal division of the Reformed participants regarding the views of Karl Barth on the issue. By hiding infant baptism in the word ‘irrevocable’ the issue of the tension between the general practice of baptism and the particular call to a new life is not dealt with.

Baptism is the New Testament sacrament that replaces circumcision as a sign and seal of the covenant. Of course critics have stated that this idea was only invented by the Reformed to counter the critique of the Anabaptists, but one can also say that it was discovered in Scripture in the crisis of the Reformation debates. I advocate the second view.

The maintenance of infant baptism led to a tension in Reformed theology between the sola scriptura principle and the original meaning of baptism as the sacrament of the embodying of the baptised in the body of Christ. This is even illustrated by the development of the editions of Calvin’s Institutes, where in the first edition circumcision is only mentioned in passing and infant baptism is founded on the fact that the children share in the same faith as the adults, although they may not yet be conscious of it personally. The fact that later Baptist movements mainly or perhaps even exclusively originated from the Reformed branch of Protestantism, confirms that there is a tension within the Reformed tradition at this point. In the Reformed tradition baptism became more and more a sign of the covenant, while in Lutheran theology it remained more a sign of initiation in the church.

In Dutch church history almost every split within the Reformed Church family can be related to the concept of the covenant. In early reformed theology the question how far the covenant extended remained open. If baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant promises, then for whom does it seal them, for all the children of believers, or only for the elect? And if this is the case for all those baptised, then what about those who turn out not to be believers at all? This tension was strengthened in those cases where the Reformed church became a privileged church or a Volkskerk. Every child was baptised, but only a few percent of the inhabitants were willing to submit to church discipline and become a full member, so only a small number attended the Lord’s Supper.

From the very beginning a view of the church as a community of true believers was adhered by some of the Reformed, illustrated for instance by the practice in the Dutch Refugee Church in London in 1550 to excommunicate the eighteen to twenty year old young people who refused to make confession of faith or go through confirmation, which normally took place at the age of fifteen Marten Micron writes in the Christian Ordinances – published here in Emden that ‘if he is 18 or 20 years old [and still has not made confession of faith] he must be excommunicated and handed over to the devil, so that one would learn that it is not sufficient to be a Christian that we have received the seal of the covenant that is baptism as a child, but that our life has to be in accord with it, lest we bear the name of Christ to his dishonour.’

But more important than the issue of election and the covenant, is the question how the grace of the covenant promises sealed in the sacrament of baptism relates to the new life of faith and sanctification or the believing response of those baptized, especially when they come to the years of discernment. Any Reformed understanding of baptism has to face the question how the promises relate to their effect. It is a pity that the LA does not deal with this tension.

The Holy Spirit

It would be an oversimplification to say that according to the Lutherans the Spirit works per verbum and according to the Reformed cum verbo: both expressions are used on both sides in the confessional documents. Yet, according to Herman Bavinck while ‘the Reformed usually say that the Holy Spirit unites with the word (cum verbo), the Lutherans prefer to express themselves by saying and increasingly emphasizing that the Holy Spirit works through the word (per verbum).’

The Lutheran confessions maintain that the external Word is a necessary condition for the internal work of the Spirit, while the Reformed confessions say that the internal work of the Spirit is a necessary condition for the effect of the external Word. The Confessio Helvetica Posterior, written by Heinrich Bullinger in 1562, does stress that ‘the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.’ The Word itself must be taken into account, not the minister.

The confession seems to be in line with Lutheran confessions, but there is also an important difference. The Confessio Helvetica Posterior gives the work of the Spirit an independent place: ‘At the same time we recognize that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry, for that is in his power.’ In other words, the external word is necessary for us, but not for God; he can work sine externo ministerio.

The Second Helvetic Confession also warns of hypocrisy. ‘[T]here are many hypocrites, who outwardly (foris) hear the word of God, and publicly receive the sacraments, […] yet they are inwardly (intus) destitute of true illumination of the Spirit.’ We must also take care that we do not attribute too much to the minister. ‘God teaches us by his word, outwardly (foris) through his ministers, and inwardly (intus) moves the hearts of his elect to faith by the Holy Spirit.’

The Reformed maintained that signa and res belonged to each other from God’s side, but denied that they were inseparable from the perspective of all recipients. Only by true faith, which is the internal the work of the Spirit, grace (the res) is received together with the sacrament (the signa).

According to Lutherans, the Reformed position was a dangerous underestimation of the objective value of the sacraments. In the doctrine of the sacraments, the Lutherans maintained the unity of the grace of God, the thing signified, and the outward sign, while the Reformed maintained that the grace of God remained free and was not necessarily connected to the sign. In a similar way, the Lutherans stressed the unity of Word and Spirit, while the Reformed emphasized that the Spirit was not bound to the Word. For Lutheran spirituality, this implied a focus on the word and on the administration of the sacraments while Reformed spirituality focused on the application of the Word to the heart and the fruits of the Spirit, in sanctification.

The Holy Spirit is mentioned six times in the LA. In the context of justification, it says that God calls all people to repentance and faith ‘through the Word of God in the Holy Spirit’ and that he assures believing sinners of their righteousness in Jesus Christ (LA 10). With respect to Christology it says that in Christ God has given himself to lost humanity and that the Holy Spirit makes the crucified and risen Jesus present to us in the word of promise and in sacrament. (LA 21). Regarding church fellowship it says that it becomes a reality in the life of the churches and congregations, which bear their witness and perform their service together, believing in the unifying power of the Holy Spirit (LA 35). The other three references are in the articles on preaching and on baptism (LA 13-14). There the LA states that ‘In preaching, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Jesus Christ is present through the Holy Spirit’ and that in baptism, which is administered in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Christ receives fallen human beings irrevocably into his fellowship of salvation, that they might become new creatures. This life of renewal is intimately tied with the work of the Spirit, in whose power Christ calls sinners into his church and to a life of faith, with daily repentance and discipleship.

The internal work of the Spirit has almost disappeared in the LA. Does the Spirit work cum verbo or per verbum? The choice is not explicitly made, but the LA leans toward the Lutheran position. The LA does admit that in baptism Christ calls fallen human beings ‘in der Kraft des Heiligen Geistes in seine Gemeinde und zu einem Leben aus Glauben, zur täglichen Umkehr und Nachfolge.’ It is perhaps only in this final phrase that the Reformed concept of the necessity of the saving work of the Spirit shows up.

There is an interesting shift in the text on baptism regarding the relationship between justification and sanctification. The original draft of September 1971 – the ‘Entwurf einer Konkordie reformatorischer Kirchen’ – was more objective than the final text. The draft says that in baptism Jesus Christ gives us forgiveness of sins and eternal life, renews us by his Holy Spirit and calls us into his church. ‘In der Taufe schenkt uns Jesus Christus durch sein Wort die Vergebung der Sünden und ewiges Leben. Er erneuert uns durch seinen Heiligen Geist und beruft uns in seine Gemeinde.’ The final text seems to lean more to a Reformed understanding of the relationship between the sacrament and the work of the Spirit.

It is in line with the theology of the Reformation that justification and sanctification are kept closely together – the new life is always a fruit of true faith and not a condition for true faith – but what if sinners do not become new creatures at all? The original Reformed – and Lutheran – confessions have some sharp edges, take for instance the Heidelberg Catechism says that you can ‘boast of Jesus Christ and still in your deeds deny the only Saviour.’ (HC 30) The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is for ‘those who are displeased with themselves […] and desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to amend their life. But the unrepentant and hypocrites eat and drink judgement to themselves.’ (HC 81) and in preaching the door of the kingdom of God is not only widely opened for those who believe, but it is also the command of Christ to proclaim ‘to all unbelievers and hypocrites, that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation abide on them so long as they are not converted.’ (HC 84). These tones are completely missing in the LA, which speaks in very general terms about the work of the Spirit without making any distinction.

Analysis and conclusion

Possibly I am too critical of the LA, but that is not only due to a negative association with the church split of 2004. It also flows from the comparison of the text with some specific Reformed doctrines.

Why is Scripture not taken as the starting point and why is the covenant absent from the text? Why are the phrases so general, hardly without any reference to the renewing work of the Holy Spirit? An underlying reason might be that the Reformed representatives in the ecumenical discussions did not hold the confessional Reformed positions regarding these issues.

Still it is important to remember that the text of the LA does not claim to have confessional status. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the uniting Protestant Church in the Netherlands gave the document a semi-confessional status that the strife about it was so fierce. The Netherlands Reformed Church probably would not have split if the synod had chosen for a federation with the Lutherans in stead of a union in one church.

Especially in its pneumatology – regarding the relationships between justification and the sanctifying work of the Spirit, the authority of Scripture and the Spirit, the functioning of the sacraments and the Spirit, the LA reveals not only a Lutheran tendency but also the influences of a form of Protestantism that in some aspects departs from the shared confessional Protestantism of early Lutheran and Reformed theology.

Henk van den Belt is professor of Reformed Theology: Sources, Development and Context at the University of Groningen.