The dialogues between the European Baptist Federation and the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe.
The Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE) at its Sixth General Assembly, September 12-18, 2006, in Budapest, decided that it wanted "a closer cooperation" with the European Baptist Federation (EBF) in the future. With this decision the General Assembly took up the Baptist request for an "associate membership" in the CPCE or some similar kind of "structured relationship." The Council of the CPCE was instructed to work out in detail appropriate recommendations. Furthermore, the General Assembly renewed the invitation to the EBF to send delegates in a guest status to the doctrinal conversation groups of the CPCE. (1) This practice had already been used at the last General Assembly in June, 2001, in Belfast.
Thus, the CPCE and the EBF are continuing their rapprochement, which started in 1999 in Berlin. This fact is not only one of the most important developments in inner-Protestant ecumenism, but it is also of significance for the ecumenical movement as a whole. The Reformation of the sixteenth century led to the separation of Catholics and Protestants as well as to various doctrinal condemnations and church divisions among Protestants. The most important division occurred between the Lutheran and the Reformed churches and states. Antitheses of confession divided these two branches of the Reformation--especially in the understanding of the Lord's Supper, but also in the areas of Christology and the doctrine of predestination. This inner-Protestant division was accompanied by the suppression of the Anabaptists through Catholic as well as through Lutheran and Reformed authorities. The Anabaptists were the first to develop the model of evangelical free churches; that is, Protestant churches based on their members' personal and free confession of faith and organized independently from the state. This free-church model was adopted by Mennonites, Baptists, Methodists, and other evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic churches and movements from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.
One of the most important aims of the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century was and still is to overcome these oppositions and antagonisms within Protestantism. The importance of the reconciliation of Protestant churches cannot easily be overestimated. Politically, it is a presupposition of the cultural unification of the European continent and an important contribution toward stabilizing and strengthening the value-based relationship between Europe and North America. Ecumenically, it is necessary in order to meet the Roman Catholic Church at eye level. If Protestant churches are not united on their own side, their various dialogues with the Catholic Church could increase the fragmentation of Protestantism, and the public perception of the predominance of Rome could weaken the evangelical witness. Church unity in Protestant understanding can never mean either a so-called "return to the Roman Catholic Church" or an incorporation of the various Protestant churches into a single, evangelical church body, but visible unity in the shape of reconciled diversity, such that the churches remain independent and keep their different confessional identities but put their mutual condemnations aside and join together for common witness and service.
The most important step so far in the unity of Protestantism has been the "Agreement between Reformation Churches in Europe," which was accepted in 1973 at Leuenberg near Basel, and therefore, usually referred to as the "Leuenberg Agreement" (or "Concord"). This document is--in its own words--"not to be regarded as a new confession of faith," but as a declaration of church fellowship among the undersigned Reformation churches (Lutheran, Reformed, and United) and pre-Reformation churches (Waldensian and Czech Brethren) in Europe. It establishes a consensus in the understanding of the gospel and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper and declares church fellowship because of this consensus. At the same time the participating churches, which remain organizationally separate entities, commit themselves to the fullest possible cooperation in witness and service to the world. Until 1973, there had been no common celebration of the Lord's Supper between Lutheran and Reformed churches--not even in the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (Evangelical Church in Germany), to which all Lutheran, Reformed, and United regional churches in Germany have belonged since 1948--because Lutheran and Reformed churches in the Reformation era had each condemned the other's doctrine of the Lord's Supper. This deep division within Protestantism, which lasted over 450 years, was revoked through the Leuenberg Agreement and the Leuenberg Church Fellowship (LCF), which since 2003 has been known as the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE).
In the following years the LCF/CPCE has become an attractive and successful ecumenical model. The Scandinavian Lutheran state churches did not initially sign the Agreement, but the Lutheran churches of Norway and Denmark decided to sign in 1999 and 2001, respectively. Already by 1997, seven Methodist churches of Europe were received into the community. Since 1999, the European Baptists have also made an important approach to the community and have been trying to find a special form of fellowship with the Leuenberg churches that, while not full church fellowship, is more than merely friendly coexistence. The presuppositions for full church fellowship have not as yet been fulfilled, primarily because the Baptists do not recognize the baptism of infants as it is practiced in the Leuenberg churches. However, the two dialogues between the LCF/CPCE and the EBF have shown that there is so much common ground between these two bodies and the traditions they represent that both sides are earnestly willing to seek binding cooperation as an intermediate stage of church fellowship.
Following a more detailed introduction of the CPCE and the EBF, we shall explain how these significant developments came to pass.
I. The Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE), the Former Leuenberg Church Fellowship (LCF)
The CPCE is an association of, at present, 105 European Protestant churches (including five South American churches that originated in Europe). Until recently it called itself the LCF, since the Leuenberg Agreement of 1973 formed its theological foundation.
The basic teaching of the Leuenberg Agreement is threefold. First, it maintains that the churches involved are one in the determinative question, namely, in the understanding of the gospel that God justifies the sinner by flee grace through faith. The assurance of justification reaches humankind in three forms: preaching, baptism, and the Lord's Supper. If churches agree on the right teaching of the gospel and the right administration of baptism and the Lord's Supper, which is the second basic teaching, then table and pulpit fellowship are possible. Thus, church fellowship is made possible on the basis of a consensus on word and sacrament. The existence of such a consensus is established in the Leuenberg Agreement. It is said that the mutual condemnations expressed in the Reformation confessional statements no longer apply to the contemporary doctrinal positions of the assenting churches. Third, the churches commit themselves to deepen and strengthen their fellowship in the areas of witness and service that should occur primarily through continuous doctrinal discussions.
The Lutheran state churches of Sweden, Finland, and Iceland, which did not sign the Leuenberg Agreement, nevertheless participate in the work of the CPCE and go under the name of "participating churches" to distinguish them from the "signatory churches." In 1997, seven Methodist churches of Europe were received into the community without signing the Agreement, but through a special "Joint Declaration to Church Fellowship." A particular form of cooperation was created with the EBF, with which no full church fellowship is possible because of differences around baptism. Since the Fifth General Assembly in Belfast in 2001, the EBF has been invited to send "participant observers and permanent guests" to the doctrinal conversations.
In its beginnings the LCF was only an "ideal concept," not yet an "institutional body." (2) Its work was done in doctrinal conversation groups with the aim of continuing and expanding its theological work, which had led to the Agreement. It was concerned at first with themes that were disputed among the churches of the Reformation confessions but that were not of a nature that would lead to church schism (for example, doctrine of the two kingdoms, ministry, and church). In the course of time, current challenges determined the point of departure (peace, freedom, and nation). The step toward an institutionalization of the fellowship was undertaken at the Third General Assembly in Strasburg in 1987. Since then there have been regular convocations every six years of the "General Assembly," an "Executive Committee," two or (since 2001) three Presidents, and a "Secretariat" in Berlin that moved to Vienna in 2007.
In November, 2003, the LCF changed its name to "Community of Protestant Churches in Europe." This change made public what the LCF had already long been: "Not merely an organization for the maintenance of tradition of a significant theological document, but also an important representation of European Protestantism with the claim on active participation in the shaping the future of our continent." (3). At the last General Assembly in September, 2006, in Budapest, the CPCE for the first time gave itself statutes and articles. The first article says:
The Reformation churches in Europe which assent to the Agreement of Reformation churches in Europe declare and realize church fellowship between one another. These churches form the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe--Leuenberg Church Fellowship---(CPCE). The CPCE serves to bring about the church fellowship which is described in Section IV.2 of the Agreement of Reformation Churches in Europe, especially by a common realization of witness and service and further theological work. Further churches can enter this church fellowship by special arrangement on the basis of the Agreement of Reformation Churches in Europe. (4)
"Organs" of the CPCE are mentioned: the "General Assembly," the "Council" (previously called "Executive Committee"), and the "Presidium" (the Council elects three Presidents from among its members). The director of the Secretariat is now called the "General Secretary."
The CPCE is not a "merger" of churches but a "fellowship" of churches. The churches remain rooted in their original confessional associations and connections, keep their confessional characteristics, and remain organizationally autonomous. The further development of the CPCE into a "European Protestant Synod" has been recommended at various times, but these recommendations have not led to an agreement.
II. The European Baptist Federation (EBF)
The EBF is a fellowship of fifty-one national Baptist unions in Europe. Not a transnational church structure in its own right, it is a forum for spiritual fellowship and cooperation between the autonomous unions that participate in it. (5)
Its formation was inspired by the founding of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) in 1905. As a result, the first European Baptist Conference was held in Berlin in 1908, followed by a second in Stockholm in 1913. Neither conference followed institutional aims; their exclusive purpose was to encourage the Baptists in Europe to give witness to their faith and to build a common European consciousness among them. After the setback due to World War I, the BWA sought to intensify the cooperation among the Baptists in Europe again, especially through emergency aid, furtherance of educational opportunities for preachers, and commitment to religious freedom. In 1920, a full-time authorized agent of the BWA was posted. His efforts to strengthen the alliance were thwarted through the increased resistance of the majority of churches against Baptist missionary work, through the emergence of numerous totalitarian states, and, ultimately, through the outbreak of World War II.
The reconstruction of European Baptist cooperation after the catastrophe of
World War II began with a congress in Copenhagen in 1947, the establishment of the Theological Seminary in Ruschlikon near Zurich, which was open to all European Baptists (and financed mostly but not exclusively through the Southern Baptist Convention of the U.S.A.), and the setting up of a European Baptist Women's Union (through the Women's Section of the BWA). In October, 1950, the EBF was finally called into being in Paris. It was the first established regional body within the BWA, whose example has been followed since 1975 in other parts of the world.
In the original constitution of the EBF was written: "It is not a super-union with powers above the national Baptist Unions, but a federation for co-operation between the various European Baptist Unions. The Federation fully respects the independence of the national unions and of local churches." These formulations are no longer present in the new "Statutes" of the EBF, formulated for judicial reasons in September, 2001 (when the EBF became an association according to Swiss law), but they have remained until today a natural component of the self-awareness of the EBF. A fourfold purpose was mentioned in the original constitution: "To promote the fellowship among Baptists in Europe, to stimulate and co-ordinate evangelism in Europe, to provide a board of consultation and planning for Baptist mission work in Europe, (and) to stimulate and co-ordinate where desirable the missionary work of European Baptists outside Europe." The new Statutes name as their purpose: "To strengthen and draw together Baptists in Europe and in the Middle East on the basis of their Christian witness and distinctive convictions, to encourage and inspire them in faith and fellowship and shared responsibility, and to seek in all its endeavors to fulfill the will of Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior." Among their purposes were also to share the concerns of the BWA and to further its purposes, as well as to operate the International Baptist Theological Seminary, which was moved from Ruschlikon to Prague.
The most important organs of the Federation since its foundation have been the "(General) Council," which meets annually, and the "Executive Board" (formerly Committee), which confers twice a year. At the top of the EBF are an honorary president and vice president, each elected for two years. At first the BWA detailed its regional European secretary to the post of full-time Secretary of the Federation. Since 1980, the Europeans have financed their own "General Secretary," while the World Alliance provides a subsidy for the common budget. From the beginning the Baptist Women's Union and the Youth Committee have been important bodies.
The formulation of a common confession was renounced from the start. The participant national unions possessed their own confessions, but there was no common text for all European Baptists. No attempt was made in the EBF to formulate such a confession, but one could see a sufficiently firm basis for the work in the Holy Scripture, in the common emphasis of some convictions (above all believer's baptism, independence of the local congregation, evangelism and church-planting, religious freedom, and separation of church and state) and in the personal and devotional closeness of the acting persons. The original quinquennially occurring pan-European congresses served to strengthen the feeling of belonging together; the last one (for the time being) was held in 1991 in Lillehammer, Norway.
The first four decades of activity of the EBF stood under the cloud of the division in Europe. Hence, there arose the task of maintaining, as far as possible, the connections between Baptists in the flee part of Europe with those behind the Iron Curtain, to fight for oppressed and persecuted Christians (even in individual eases), and to stand up publicly for religious freedom. The missionary work in other continents had been partially Europeanized. To make it possible for German Baptists to resume their missionary work in Cameroon, which had been forbidden by the French during World War II, the French and Swiss Unions founded together with the German Union the Europaische Baptistische Missionsgesellschaft (European Baptist Mission). Seventeen European Unions are current members. An important extension of the work of the EBF took place at the urging of the BWA after 1974, as the General Secretary of the EBF became responsible for, among others, the Baptist Unions in the Near East. Today the Baptist Unions of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria are members of the EBF. A Turkish church in Ismir (the biblical Smyrna) has been an affiliated church since 2002, and in Baghdad the first church in Iraq was planted in 2003. In 1974, four "departments" were established in which a large part of the work of the EBF is done. Since 1990, they are called "divisions" and carry the names: "Theology and Education," "Mission and Evangelism," "Communication, Advertising, and Fellowship" (responsible for the European Baptist Press Service), and "External Relations."
Radical changes for the work occurred after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and 1990, as the political and societal context of Baptist church work in Central and Eastern Europe was completely altered. Work in the whole of Europe enjoyed new liberties but was also faced with new challenges within the churches, among the churches, and in the political arena. Social-welfare work to alleviate suffering, support of the church unions by their new missionary opportunities, a critical fixing of the relationships with the numerous parachurch organizations (some of which were proselytizing in Eastern Europe), and engagement for religious liberties in view of the growing tendencies to cut these in states with an Orthodox majority--all came to the forefront.
In 1990, the program "Baptist Response Europe" was started to organize humanitarian aid in crisis regions of eastern and southeastern Europe in cooperation with the national unions and the relief agency of the BWA. In 2003, an aid program was inaugurated for the improvement of the financial opportunities for employing indigenous pastors. There is ongoing cooperation among theological teachers of the Baptist education centers (European Theological Teachers Conference) and recently among the educational centers themselves (Consortium of European Baptist Theological Seminaries), as a result of which the recognition of academic degrees should be achieved. The Baptist Theological Seminary in Ruschlikon, which the Southern Baptist Convention of the USA had set up in 1947 and put at the disposal of European Baptists, came gradually under the staffing and financial responsibility of the EBF. In 1991, the Southern Baptists terminated their agreed financial subsidies by means of a unilateral declaration. They accused the Ruschlikon faculty of following a "liberal," that is, nonfundamentalist, theological course. Although the "moderate" Cooperative Baptist Fellowship from the U.S.A., which did not support the radical fundamentalism of the Southern Baptists, replaced the missing subsidies, it became necessary in 1995 to sell the estate in Switzerland and to move the seminary to the more cost-effective and, for the new Europe, more central site in Prague, Czech Republic. Since then, the Prague International Baptist Theological Seminary (IBTS) offers graduate courses in biblical as well as in Baptist and Anabaptist studies (Master of Theology) in cooperation with the University of Wales and doctoral studies in cooperation with Charles University in Prague.
Although the Baptist unions of Europe, on account of very different experiences, held occasionally contradictory positions with respect to ecumenical relationships, maintaining interchurch relations is one of the areas of work of the EBF since the 1970's. This was intensified after the fall of the Iron Curtain, as the other confessions began to think and act in an increasingly pan-European manner. In 1991, the then-General Secretary of the EBF, Karl-Heinz Walter, accepted an invitation to speak before the Catholic European Bishops' Conference in the Vatican on the subject: "The Re-evangelization of Europe." He also encouraged Baptist unions in Europe, which had not yet joined the "Conference of European Churches," to participate in it. Since 1998, the EBF has been an extraordinary member of the Conference. At the consultations with the LCF, the EBF became active for the first time as an ecumenical dialogue partner, although any binding decisions can only be taken by the member unions.
III. The Background of the First Dialogue
The instigation of conversations between the CPCE and the EBF was occasioned by the historical church situation that emerged after the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe. Since then, things are thought out and acted upon on a Europe-wide basis not only on a political level but also on an ecclesiastical level. Accordingly, the Catholic Church soon organized a European Bishops' Conference. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople had always spoken for the Orthodox Churches in Europe. The Protestant churches of Europe are, however, so diverse, that they at first had difficulties in responding to their European calling. After the reunification of Europe, the question had to be put: Where does a forum exist that can unite Protestant churches in Europe in common witness and service?
In 1992, a European Protestant Assembly took place in Budapest. The LCF was asked to give more expression to the obligations of the Protestant churches toward common witness and service than had hitherto been the case. Specifically, the relationship to those churches with which no church fellowship existed should be clarified. This request was positively received at the Fourth Leuenberg General Assembly in 1994 in Vienna, and the Baptists were expressly mentioned. The Rev. Karl Heinz Voigt, a German Methodist, commented on this event in August, 1996, in the newsletter of the Verein zur Erforschung freikirchlicher Geschichte und Theologie (Society for the Research of Free-Church History and Theology), since 1999 renamed the Verein fur Freikirchenforschung (Association of Free-Church Research), with the words: "Thus, a new kind of church-political task has devolved to the Leuenberg Church Fellowship, which was not originally so intended. It has become so orientated, that Leuenberg should set the table, at which European Protestants should speak with one another." (6) Leuenberg's changing of its name in 2003 to the CPCE demonstrated the new allocation of tasks.
First, as-yet-unofficial consultations between "Leuenberg" and the Baptists had already taken place in November, 1993, organized by Reinhard Frieling and Erich Geldbach of the Konfessionskundliche Institut (Institute for Inter-Confessional Research) in Bensheim, Germany. In the final report of these unofficial consultations, (7) it was urged that a dialogue on the European level should be conducted between the signatory churches of the Leuenberg Agreement and the Baptists. The General Assembly of the Leuenberg Churches and--through the EBF--the Baptist Unions were asked to undertake the necessary steps. With respect to the content, it was stated: "With a dialogue between the 'Leuenberg Churches' and the Baptists, it is assumed that both sides acknowledge in their own way the impulses of the reformation and will do their best to express this in a responsible manner in the present time." Further, "On the way from being against or loosely beside one another to full church fellowship, there are many intermediate stages."
The summons of these unofficial consultations was not heard on the Baptist side and was never answered. On the Leuenberg side, too, nothing happened; rather, as could be heard, there was clear resistance from the side of Lutheran representatives against closer fellowship with the Baptists. Even so, the fact that it came to further steps, is due to the efforts of Voigt. He appealed to the Baptists, in the above-mentioned article in the newsletter of the Verein zur Erforschung freikirchlicher Geschichte und Theologie, to enter into dialogue with the LCF. Otherwise, there would be the danger that the Baptists would be regarded in the whole of Europe as existing outside of Protestantism. Also, in private conversations with the author of this essay as well as during a visit to the faculty of the Baptist Theological Seminary in Hamburg (since 1997, in Elstal near Berlin), Voigt expressed his views forcefully and convincingly. Accordingly, the faculty of the seminary requested that the leadership of the Baptist Union of Evangelical Free Church Congregations in Germany give impetus for an official dialogue between the Baptists and the Leuenberg churches. The German leadership--thus not yet the EBF--wrote to the LCF in November, 1996, with the request that official consultations be taken up. The Executive Committee of the LCF, which gathered in Tallinn in February, 1997, received this request positively. Both sides formed delegations. Two years went by because of various difficulties with the dates before the first round of dialogues or consultations could take place in February, 1999.
IV. The Results of the First Dialogue 1999-2000
Three rounds of consultation took place in Berlin--the last one in February, 2000, in the education center of the Baptist Union of Evangelical Free Church Congregations in Germany in Elstal--until a final report could be completed. (8) The delegations were led on behalf of the EBF by its General Secretary, Dr. Theodor Angelov of Bulgaria, and on behalf of the LCF by the Director of the Secretariat, the President of the Head Office of the Evangelical Church of the Union (now Union of Protestant Churches in the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland) in Berlin, Dr. Wilhelm Huffmeier. (9)
The final report introduced at first "the partners in dialogue and the fellowship they already share," then treated "theological differences and obstacles to a full church fellowship," sketched "the fellowship to be worked for," and finally combined "the results of the conversations."
A. The Already Shared Fellowship in Faith
According to the report, the "common Reformation heritage," which has as its center the gospel as the joyful news of God's free grace for humankind and for individual sinners in their sinful state, belongs to the fellowship in the faith. The unique mediation of salvation through Jesus Christ forms the heart of the scriptures. The measure of all the church's preaching is the message of justification as the message of God's free grace. This is a literal inclusion of corresponding formulations in Art. 12 of the Leuenberg Agreement, which in view of the theological dispute about the criteriological function of the doctrine of justification in connection with the "Common Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" of Lutherans and Catholics, is not without current relevance. Both sides emphasized "that the Holy Scriptures are the norma normans for all Christian dogmatic and ethical knowledge, although there are differences [but not contradictions--author's note] over the question of access and the key to the interpretation of Scripture (role of creeds and confessional statements)." Both sides confess "that Christ in his mercy took the initiative for the salvation of humankind, an initiative which calls for the human response of faith." The reformational particulae exclusivae "solus Christus," "sola gratia," "sola fide," and "sola scriptura" are shared among the Baptists and the Leuenberg churches.
The common sharing in the Reformation heritage is intensified in the report insomuch as "Baptists can express their common understanding of the gospel together with Lutheran and Reformed Christians in Articles 6 to 16 of the Leuenberg Agreement." In these articles the understanding of the gospel is formulated, which constituted in 1973 the basis of the declaration of church fellowship among the Lutheran, United, and Reformed Churches. If the report is correct, then the Baptists stand on the same basis with respect to the content. Not without reason do the Baptists and the churches of the Leuenberg Agreement practice--as the report says--"mutual eucharistic hospitality." Nonetheless, the report does not remain silent about the fact that the statements in the article on baptism (Agreement Art. 14) lead to divergent theological and practical conclusions. While the "churches participating in the Agreement relate these statements to both infant and believer's baptism, for the Baptists they apply to believer's baptism alone." Therefore, Baptists have no fundamental objections to the wording of the Article on Baptism of the Leuenberg Agreement, but they dispute that it may legitimately refer to the baptism of infants. This emerging difference of opinion is explained more fully in the further course of the report.
According to the report, large areas of ecclesiology also belong to the common ground of the Baptists and the Leuenberg churches. The reformational understanding of the church as creatura verbi and as congregatio sanctorum et vere credentium (Augsburg Confession [C.A.] VIII) is affirmed by both. That there are differences at this point is discussed elsewhere in the report. With respect to the common ecclesiological ground, it is said further that "both partners to the dialogue are familiar with church structures, which transcend the congregational level and with the authority of synods," even where there is an "emphasis on the local congregation being the church." Both agree supra-congregational church structures should be entrusted with numerous tasks such as creedal statements, mission, education, ordination, and church order. For both sides, spirit and law, life and ordinances, movement and institution belong inseparably together in the church. Baptists and the churches of the Leuenberg Agreement "acknowledge that Christendom has a missionary task in a secularized world."
Although there is so much common ground, the report finds that it is not at present possible to grant one another mutual church fellowship in the form of "fellowship in word and sacrament." Deep theological differences between the Baptists and the churches of the Leuenberg Agreement stood against this.
B. Theological Differences and Obstacles to a Full Church Fellowship
The report counts among the obstacles to a full church fellowship "ignorance and prejudices" and "other non-doctrinal factors" of sociological and religiopsychological nature, such as the differences of majority and minority, different legal structures, and financial resources. More important, however, were the mutual theological condemnations, which reach back partly into the sixteenth century.
1. Mutual Condemnations in the Doctrine of Baptism
The Lutherans pronounced condemnations of the Anabaptists and their teachings in five articles (Arts. 5, 9, 12, 16, and 17) of their Augsburg Confession of 1530. As Baptists do not hold to four of the five "anabaptist" teachings (the Baptists are not the immediate successors to the Anabaptist movement of the time of the Reformation), the only remaining point of difference is the acceptance or rejection of infant baptism and its necessity for salvation.
The difference on this point is not as far-reaching today as it was during the Reformation. According to the report, this lies primarily in a change of thought on the Lutheran and the Reformed side. They express their regret about "the effects which their doctrinal condemnations had on the persecution of the Anabaptists." "Furthermore, recent Lutheran and Reformed teaching on baptism no longer concords with the view derived from CA 9, 'that all infants must be baptized or that infant baptism is the only legitimate form of baptism.'" Reformed theologian Karl Barth's teaching on baptism is understood as "an offer to discuss the Baptist doctrine on baptism." The report judged the statements about baptism in the Lima Document of 1982 as "progress in understanding." Along the lines mapped out by Lima, the LCF observed in 1994 that "according to our present theological understanding ... the one baptism shows itself to be of equal value in infant and in adult baptism."
Nevertheless, Baptists continue to insist that believer's baptism is the only valid "biblical baptism." Although the Baptists expressly declared that baptism is not essential for salvation and that they encounter Christians of other churches who have been baptized as infants "in love and spiritual respect, because they like we are members of the universal body of Jesus Christ through the grace of God" [although without the biblical baptism--author's comment], the condemnation of the baptism of infants remains as a gulf between them and the Leuenberg churches.
2. Convergences in Understanding of Baptism
Notwithstanding the above-mentioned doctrinal condemnations, there are also areas of agreement even in the understanding of baptism. The report observes that the differences concerning baptism "relate primarily to the prerequisites for baptism on the receiver's side," and in this sense they also have to do with the understanding of baptism. With this formulation, misunderstanding is avoided that the whole matter of understanding of baptism is controversial for both sides. This does not generally hold, otherwise the Baptists would not have been able to agree with the content of the article on baptism of the Leuenberg Agreement. The differences are, rather, concerned with only one aspect of the understanding of baptism, namely, the question of the conditions for receiving baptism. For this reason the report emphasizes "that there are also far-reaching common features of the understanding of baptism in the Reformed, Lutheran, and Baptist traditions." The report does not work out these areas of common ground in the understanding of baptism individually but limits itself to saying first something about the Baptist understanding of baptism and then something about the teaching on baptism from the Leuenberg side.
The report claims that in Baptist churches and unions there is
both a conception of baptism more or less in line with that of Ulrich Zwingli and, more recently, Karl Barth, where baptism is fundamentally only the spirit-filled response of believers to the word of God addressed to them, and also an understanding that sees baptism simultaneously as the 'visible' word of God and the response of human beings.
The LCF considers baptism to be "one form of the word of God." God's salvation reaches humankind "both as the spoken word in preaching and as the 'visible' word in the sacraments." For these churches the sacrament is a "means of salvation and not only the response of a human being to God's grace."
The report leaves both descriptions alongside one another without further comment. Even so, the common ground is recognizable enough, when we take into account the Baptist utterances, which understand baptism as God's Word as well as the response of humans. That baptism is a means of salvation and "not only" (but also) "the response of a human being" can well be maintained by both sides (see the Baptist-Reformed dialogue on the world level, 1977, para. 14). Even the anti-sacramental understanding of baptism, which some Baptists entertain, is--as the report makes clear--not without parallel in the Reformed tradition (Zwingli and Barth). That the Baptist rejection of infant baptism does not grow out of a pretension to possess the only ecclesiastically valid baptism is made apparent by the reference: "When Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches baptize adults after they have made their confession of faith, this baptism is recognized by Baptist congregations as biblically legitimate and valid."
3. Ecclesiological Questions
Other theological questions remained, according to the report. Besides the issue of baptism, there were "ecclesiological questions." This can give rise to astonishment, as ecclesiology had been esteemed at great length to be a part of a fellowship in the faith that already exists. At this stage the areas of ecclesiology that are closely connected with the different baptismal practices (the question of church membership) were not under discussion, but questions regarding the nature of the church, church discipline, and church organization were.
"Agreement" exists between the Leuenberg churches and the Baptists "on the understanding of the Church as creatura verbi and as congregatio sanctorum." "On this basis the Baptists place more emphasis on the nature of the church as the gathering of those who confess and live out their faith (congregatio vere credentium), whereas the Leuenberg churches understand the church more as the realm constituted by the word of God into which the individual believers come." Accordingly, the differences in understanding of the church are only a question of different emphases of the two complementary characteristics of the church, not a difference in the matter itself.
Agreement also exists "that the church is always a corpus permixtum made up of those who truly believe and hypocrites, because it is God's eye alone which sees what is hidden and knows the limits of the true Church." The Baptist acceptance of the term "corpus permixtum" may surprise some and will not be accepted by all in their own ranks--this term is usually used as a description of the state or "folk" church principle and, therefore, as a contradiction to the freechurch desire to build visible congregations of truly believing men and women. As an explanation for the use of this term, it is mentioned that only God knows who is a truly--that is, in one's heart--believing person. The Baptists, too, do not believe themselves capable of becoming a completely pure church. Naturally, it does not follow that faith and, thus, the true church is simply invisible and that one can make no difference between believers and nonbelievers. Because of this, the report also mentions that Baptists, who build voluntary congregations, and the Leuenberg churches, which are for the most part national churches, in both accepting the term "corpus permixtum," nevertheless come to differing practical conclusions, for example, in the area of church discipline.
Agreement is established in a third paragraph on ecclesiology in that
every local congregation gathered in the name of Christ is church in the full sense, provided that it does not consider itself absolute. The conclusion the Baptists draw from this is the legal autonomy of the local congregation (congregationalism), whereas the Leuenberg churches also concede rights to supra-congregational church structures in relation to the local congregation.
By and large, the three paragraphs on ecclesiology show that there are no insuperable obstacles in this area for a possible church fellowship. The differences are clearly named but are bracketed by common convictions. In practice the differences lead to alternatives that cannot simultaneously be practiced in one church, but it is apparent that there are no substantial, ecclesiastical contradictions on these points. A contradiction to some Leuenberg churches may arise only with the question of whether it is legitimate to continue to accept as church members baptized persons who do not actively confess their faith and who distance themselves from the church.
C. The Fellowship to Be Worked For: Results of the Conversations
In the part concerning the fellowship to be worked for, the report recalls the ecumenical commitment of both the Baptists and the LCF and uses this as the basis for the common desire to reach "closer cooperation and deeper fellowship." On the path to full church fellowship, "Lutherans, Reformed, Methodists, and Baptists can cooperate on as many levels as possible both nationally and on the European scale," whereby "work for religious liberty and human rights" is emphasized above all, followed by "theological conversations." Furthermore, "mutual visits at congregational level including the practice of eucharistic hospitality" is recommended.
Three actual "results of the conversations" are named:
First, Leuenberg churches and Baptists are encouraged to participate in a "doctrinal conversation on baptism," which should pose the question of "under what conditions mutual recognition of baptism is possible." In view of the known opposing positions, which have until now shown themselves to be insuperable, such an "encouragement" could appear to be illusionary. For this reason the report expressly calls to mind the arrangement reached by the Lutherans and the Reformed, made possible by the Leuenberg Agreement, concerning the Lord's Supper, although there had been mutual condemnations for centuries on this matter: "Agreement was reached, because it was possible to go back beyond the historical controversies to a common study of the New Testament. This kind of procedure would also be promising for the issue of baptism."
Second, it was recommended to the LCF and the EBF "to allow representatives of the Baptist Unions to participate in the Leuenberg doctrinal conversations as 'permanent guests,' even before the conversations on baptism have reached a conclusion." Thus, the two bodies were called upon to foster and deepen the fellowship where it is already possible and not to wait until the last and most difficult obstacle had been overcome.
Third, it was urged that "conversations on the national level should accompany and support this form of cooperation and dialogue."
V. The Reception of the Elstal Consultation Report and the Second Dialogue
The Elstal Consultation Report was discussed at the Council of the European Baptist Federation in Riga, September 22-24, 2000, and was unanimously accepted. (10)
In the following year it was also a subject of consultation at the Fifth General Assembly of the LCF/CPCE, June 19-25, 2001, in Belfast. (11) The General Assembly warmly welcomed the unanimous decisions of the Council of the EBF and resolved "that representatives of the Baptist Unions should be invited to attend as participant observers and permanent guests within future program of doctrinal conversations held of the LCF." The Elstal Consultation Report, "with its valuable survey of the extensive common ground between Baptist, Lutheran, Reformed, and Methodist Churches," was gratefully acknowledged. The General Assembly requested the Executive Committee
to open a theological dialogue with representatives of the Baptist Unions belonging to the European Baptist Fellowship with the aim of discovering whether a basis can be found for the respective churches and unions to deepen and extend the communion which already exists between them. Such a theological dialogue need not to be confined to the doctrine and practice of Baptism but should extend to any other issues, which are perceived on either side to stand in the way of mutual church fellowship.
At the same time, the General Assembly "encourages" the member churches "to strengthen and deepen their contacts with Baptist Unions and churches active on their respective territories." Thus, all three recommendations of the Elstal consultation report were accepted by both sides.
On the basis of the resolutions in Belfast, two new doctrinal conversation groups were set up within the LCF/CPCE on "The Form and Shape of the Protestant Churches in a Changing Europe" and "The Missionary Task of the Churches in Europe." Both conversation groups have had a representative of the EBF as a guest, namely Prof. Dr. Erich Geldbach (Bochum and Marburg, Germany) in the first, and Dr. Peter Penner (IBTS, Prague) in the second. Both groups finished their work in 2005 and sent their reports to the Presidium and the Secretariat. The Sixth General Assembly in Budapest in September, 2006, discussed and accepted both texts with gratitude and approval. For their publication the results of the discussions in Budapest will be taken into account.
In Belfast in 20011 a dialogue commission was set up to discuss further the obstacles to mutual church fellowship between the Baptists and the churches of the LCF/CPCE, Dr. Martin Hein, Bishop of the Evangelical Church of Kurhessen-Waldeck, Germany, was head of the delegation of the LCF/CPCE side, and the General Secretary, Dr. Theodor Angelov of Bulgaria, led the EBF delegation. (12) The dialogue was carried out from October, 2002, until January, 2004, and closed with a document titled "The Beginning of the Christian Life and the Nature of the Church." (13)
Since the delegations considered the possibility of a church fellowship as "the core question" of their dialogue (p. 12), the first part of the report describes the "convergence" (the German version says "Ubereinstimmung," concordance) in the understanding of the gospel--analogous to the Leuenberg Agreement and through an affirming quotation of the corresponding paragraphs from that Agreement. The second part deals with Christian faith and baptism. It states that Baptists and CPCE churches have basically the same understanding of faith and discipleship and that both consider baptism as a coming together of the love of God and the response of faith. The delegations did not follow the suggestion of the Elstal report, to go back beyond the historical controversies to a common study of the New Testament but, rather, took up an idea of British Baptist Paul S. Fiddes, who has been a member of the EBF delegation, to look upon Christian initiation as a process in which baptism is only one moment (no. 3.9). (14) The third part of the report has the church as subject and describes it as "the work of God," "the community of saints," and "the eschatological people of God." It emphasizes that "the church is both local and universal" (p. 24). The "Introduction" to the whole report, undersigned by both chairmen, accordingly says that the delegations became aware "that the supposed front-line position between a pure congregationalism of Baptists and an institutional concept of church of the CPCE churches was not so much a reality as prejudices" (p. 12).
A very important statement at the end of the section "The Unity of the Church" reads: "We recognize the presence of the true church of Jesus Christ in one another. As Christians of different traditions we are able to share in Holy Communion and to acknowledge the ministry of those who are ordained presbyter (pastor) in each other's churches." European Baptists and CPCE churches, thus, have table and pulpit fellowship, although a full concordance in the administration of baptism is still lacking. The last part of the report, "Summary and Questions," declares that "the single hindrance to 'church fellowship' lies in the problem of the so-called 're-baptism'" (no. 11). Therefore, the delegations ask whether it might be possible to place infant baptism and believer's baptism at different places within a commonly understood process of Christian initiation, and they pass the question to further theological work. In the "Introduction" the two chairpersons express their hope that the results of the dialogue may serve as a basis for the intensification of the communion between Baptists and CPCE churches, and the report itself says in the summary that agreement in the understanding of the gospel should strongly encourage both sides "to strive for the closest possible community in witness and service."
In April, 2004, both sides' Executive Committees examined this final report. Their positive reactions are already cited in no. 3 of the "Introduction." The Council of the EBF discussed the report at its meeting in Beirut in September, 2004. It accepted the results "with thanks" and commended it to the member unions for discussion. Recognizing that full church fellowship is not possible at this time, it expressed its desire to continue the good relations with the CPCE and to cooperate in those areas that strengthen their mutual concern to further God's mission in contemporary Europe. Moreover, it asked the CPCE to explore if the EBF itself or their member unions might be granted an "associate membership." The Executive Committee of the CPCE at its meeting in February, 2005, in Utrecht, Netherlands, took notice of the EBF Beirut resolution "with pleasure" (according to the press release of February 26, 2005) and decided to examine whether an associated membership of the EBF would be possible.
Until September, 2006, several reactions to the last dialogue report were sent to the CPCE Secretariat--most of them from CPCE churches. The General Assembly in Budapest instructed the Council to evaluate the comments of their member churches and elaborate background proposals for a closer cooperation with the EBF. The most comprehensive reactions on the Baptist side came from Germany. The faculty of the Theological Seminary Elstal published in 2005 a statement on the second dialogue report, (15) and the Presiding Committee of the Union of Evangelical Free Church Congregations wrote to the CPCE in March, 2006, that it was interested in obtaining an associate membership in the CPCE; this desire was confirmed at the General Assembly in Budapest. (16) The future will show how this desire will be realized from the expected proposals of the CPCE Council.
The European Baptists and the CPCE appear to be on their way to more intensive cooperation and a growing spiritual fellowship, notwithstanding the fact that full church fellowship is not yet possible. Continuing on this way is of great importance for both Baptists and the Leuenberg churches. It will protect the Baptists in Europe from ecumenical isolation, which necessarily leads to impoverishment in witness and service and strengthens radical fundamentalist tendencies. If the Baptists want to preserve their Reformation heritage, they need to have as close a fellowship as possible with the other Reformation churches in Europe. Discord between evangelical churches also makes the missionary witness to non-Christian people difficult and untrustworthy. A closer fellowship with the Baptists is important for the CPCE churches, too. The EBF represents the largest European Free Church; their congregations exist in more European countries than those of any other denomination. If the CPCE really wants to tie together Protestants in Europe and strengthen their evangelical witness and services, there is no other way than to open their fellowship in one way or another to Baptist unions. The Baptists could then build a bridge between the traditional Leuenberg churches and the large group of free evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic churches, which are coming more and more into the focus of CPCE. So, Baptists and Leuenberg churches are on a path that challenges both to fulfill their spiritual mission and their historical task.
* This essay is an extended revision of a German article in Theologisches Gesprdch, supplement 8 (2005), pp. 80-97. I am grateful to Rev. Andrew B. Duncan of Gladbeck, Germany for his help with the translation.
(1) See the Final Report of the 6th General Assembly, "Freedom Is Binding." The German is in Wilhelm Huffmeier and Martin Friedrich, eds., Gemeinschafi gestalten: Evangelisches Profil in Europa, Texte der 6. Vollversammlung der Gemeinschafl Evangelischer Kirchen in Europa--Leuenberger Kirchengemeinschafl--in Budapest, 12.-18. September 2006 (Frankfurt am Main: Lembeek, 2007), pp. 301-328. The English can be found at http://www.leuenberg.net/side.php?news id=7063&part id=0&navi=16.
(2) Thus, Martin Friedrich, "30 Years of Leuenberg Fellowship: What the Leuenberg Agreement Has Achieved," in Wilhelm Haffmeier and Udo Hahn, eds., Being Protestant in Europe: 30 Jahre Leuenberger Kirchengemeinschaft (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Otto Lembach, 2003), pp. 87-104.
(3) Ibid., p. 87.
(4) Statute of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe CPCE, available in English at http://www.leuenberg.net/side.php?news id=7001&part id=0&navi=14.
(5) For further history, see Bernard Green, Crossing the Boundaries: A History of the European Baptist Federation, (Didcot, UK: The Baptist Historical Society, 1999); Stanley Crabb, ed., The European Baptist Federation Presents Our Favourite Memories, Being a Collection of Inspirational and Sometimes Humorous Stories, Told by Those Who Lived Them during EBF's First 50 Years (n.p., n.d.; available from EBF: firstname.lastname@example.org).
(6) "Rundbrief des VEfGT," August, 1996, p. 7.
(7) "Mehr Gemeinschaft zwischen 'Leuenberger Kirchen' und Baptisten: Schlussdokument mit Dialogvorschlagen von einer inoffiziellen Konsultation zwischen Vertretern der Leuenberger Kirchengemeinschaft und baptisticher Gemeindebunde vom 18. bis 21. November 1993 in Bensheim," Materialdienst des Konfessionskundlichen Instituts Bensheim 45 (March-April, 1994): 37-38.
(8) The report was published in German in the Baptist periodical, Theologisches Gesprach, vol. 25, no. 4 (2001), pp. 127-144; and in Wilhelm Huffmeier and Christine-Ruth Muller, eds., Versohnte Verschiedenheit--der Auftrag der evangelischen Kirchen in Europa. Texte der 5. Vollversammlung der Leuenberger Kirchengemeinschaft in Belfast 19. his 25. Juni 2001 (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Otto Lembeck, 2003), pp. 281-292. English and French versions have been drawn up through the Leuenberg Secretariat in Berlin and are available as manuscripts.
(9) The other members of the Baptist delegation were Dietrich Fischer-Dorl (Austria), Prof. Dr. Erich Geldbach (Germany), Holger Lam (Denmark), Karl Heinz Walter, D.D., (Germany, the former General Secretary of the EBF), as well as Dr. Stefan Stiegler, Dr. Volker Spangenberg, and Dr. Uwe Swarat (all professors at the Theological Seminary in Elstal). The delegation of the "Leuenberg" side included Prof. Dr. Andre Birmele (France, Lutheran), Dr. Fulvio Ferrario (Italy, Waldensian), Prof. Dr. Christian Link (Germany, Reformed), Bishop Dr. Rudiger Minor (Germany and Russia, Methodist) and Dr. Helmut Schwier (Germany, United Church).
(10) The text of the resolution (in English and German) can be found in Theologisches Gesprach, vol. 25, no. 4 (2001), pp. 142-143.
(11) See the Final Report in Huffmeier and Muller, Versohnte Verschiedenheit, pp. 383-396. Proceedings in English of the General Assembly are not available.
(12) Other members of the Baptist delegation were Prof. Dr. Paul Fiddes (Oxford), Rector Keith Jones (Prague), Prof. Dr. Johnny Jonsson (Stockholm), Dr. Tony Peck (Bristol), Prof. Dr. Wiard Popkes (Luneburg), Dr. Sergei Sannikov (Odessa), Dr. Kim Strubind (Munich), and Dr. Emanuel Wieser (Vienna). Representatives of the CPCE delegation were: Bishop Dr. Ernst Baasland (Stavanger), Prof. Dr. Andre Birmele (Strasburg), Prof. Dr. Fulvio Ferrario (Rome), Prof. Dr. Martin Friedrich (Berlin), Dr. Wilhelm Huffmeier (Berlin), Prof. Dr. Eberhard Jungel (Tubingen), Prof. Dr. Tamas Juhasz (Cluj), Lecturer Dr. Milos Klatik (Bratislava), Dr. Manfred Marquardt (Reutlingen), and Prof. Dr. John Cecil McCullough (Belfast).
(13) The text and some papers are printed in German and English in Leuenberg Documents vol. 9 (see note 1, above).
(14) See Paul S. Fiddes, "Baptism and the Process of Christian Initiation," The Ecumenical Review 54 (January-June, 2002): 48-65.
(15) See Theologisches Gesprach, supplement 8 (2005), pp. 117-122. Although the comments are very well-disposed, some of the questions it poses also indicate certain weaknesses of the text.
(16) The present General Secretary Tony Peck and the author of this essay were present in Budapest as delegates of the EBF.
Uwe Swarat (Baptist) has been Professor of Systematic Theology at the German Baptist Theological Seminary since 1988 (in Hamburg; Elstal since 1997). He was an editor at R. Brockhaus Verlag, Wuppertal, 1986-87. He studied Protestant theology at the universities of Tubingen and Erlangen, 1974-81, and served as a scientific assistant at the University of Erlangen in early church history, 1981-85. His candidate's year at the German Baptist Theological Seminary (Hamburg) was in 1985-86, and he was ordained in 1988. Also in 1988, he received his doctorate in theology from the University of Erlangen. He has published Alte Kirche und Neues Testament: Theodor Zahn als Patristiker (R. Brockhaus, 1991) and Fachworterbuch fur Theologic und Kirche (R. Brockhaus, 3rd rev. and enlr. ed., 2005). His several articles have appeared in Theologisches Gesprdich and Theologic far die Praxis and as book chapters (most recently in Uwe Swarat et al., eds., Von Gott angenommen--in Christus verwandelt, Beiheft zur Okumenisches Rundschau no. 78 ). He also co-edited Evangelisches Lexikon fur Theologic und Gemeinde, 3 vols. (R. Brockhaus, 1991-93; 2nd ed., 1998); and Der Monotheismus als Theologisches und politisches Problem (EVA, 2006). From 1991 to 2007 he was an editor of Theologisches Gesprach.
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|Publication:||Journal of Ecumenical Studies|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2008|
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