Why I am not Reformed

Posted: October 21, 2011 by J in Theology

Back in the 90s, before it was cool and trendy for young men, I was Reformed. That’s right, big R. I kept the Westminster Confession by my bedside, read Jonathan Edwards with my breakfast, and listened to Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones whenever possible. Seriously! My steady diet was Packer, Owen, Spurgeon, Sproul, Piper, etc. I sold Banner of Truth books. I was Mr Reformed.

Nowadays I avoid the word altogether, I don’t find it helpful as a tag, it is so loaded. But since the term has received such an injection of macho and testosterone recently, since so many young guys are so proudly wearing ‘Reformed’ as a badge, it’s become a suitable topic for the Grit to tackle.

I’m a part of a church denomination in the reformed tradition. I’m deeply grateful for the inheritance of faith and doctrine I’ve received there. My own faith has been so deeply influenced and shaped by the traditions of the Reformation, I can’t imagine what Christian faith would be like without it.

So why don’t I identify as Reformed any more? Why not even as reformed?

First, because of the Reformed movement’s semi-Roman stance on doctrine. The RC church as we know claims that its teaching is true and immutable, like God himself. Since the Spirit inhabits the Church permanently, its teachings have the authority of God himself. The Pope can speak infallibly. This of course way overstates the immanence of the Spirit at the expense of his transcendence, as though the Church had the Spirit corked in a bottle, to be dispensed at will.

But the Reformed movement tends strongly towards the same view.  The ‘faith once delivered to all the saints’ is equated with the theology propounded at the Reformation. Reformed doctrines are given such authority that in practice they become ‘gospel’. Orthodoxy is defined by adherence to them. To question the historic teachings is to prove oneself unfaithful to the cause, and generally ‘unsound’. The faithful Christian’s calling is to defend and promote ‘the faith’, not to question it.

What has happened is that once again the Spirit has been chained. The events of the Reformation have been so thoroughly identified as works of God that the resulting credal formulae tend to be afforded divine authority. In practice, that is, if not in theory. Any later statements of faith will only carry weight in so far as they agree with the Reformation ones. Later teachings that conflict with Reformed doctrine at any point are by definition not of God. Implicit in this stance is the assumption that the Spirit is uniquely connected to the Reformed tradition. This chaining can be seen when people use the term ‘Reformed’ to mean not just  ‘faithful to my tradition’, but  ‘faithful to God’.

The reason I call this stance only semi-Roman is because not everyone in the movement holds to it equally. Some people in reformed churches are much more conscious of the distinction in status between Gospel truth and Reformed theology. Also, few would admit to this stance in theory – Reformed rhetoric is often more cautious in its claims. However, this Roman-style approach to doctrine is a strong and prevailing tendency in the whole movement.

And the second reason I don’t indentify as Reformed is because of the tradition’s resulting unwillingness to do theology. This unwillingness is deeply ingrained. Since Reformation theology is equated with the gospel faith once delivered, it becomes the holy deposit to be cherished and guarded: NOT questioned or added to. In fact questioning the tradition is the very opposite of faithfulness: it smacks of unbelief. Since the doctrine is from God, our task is to maintain it, and make sure we don’t turn away from the truth.

Theology, then, poses a threat. Orthodoxy has been established: any further theologising simply risks distorting and debasing it. The only theology tolerated is what we might call micro-theology: theology in the gaps where the movement has not yet turned its attention, further clarification of doctrines long-accepted, work on small details. And this sort of micro-theology has long been a specialty of the Reformed movement: arguments over small matters. Rival theories about the precise relationship between law and gospel, for example. But for the major issues of the Gospel, the Church’s theology has been well-established for centuries, those discussions are closed and no further work is wanted. Any new suggestions or divergent formulations are a priori heterodox.

This fossilisation is of course the antithesis of living theological inquiry. The theological discipline having been castrated in this way, Reformed theologians have become largely historians, curators of the teachings of antiquity. Where those ancient writers boldly reformulated their theology to respond to the Gospel as it impacted their culture and society, Reformed writers meekly preserve those reformulations. The form of the Reformers is preserved, but their spirit and project is long lost. The striking thing about so many modern works of Reformed theology is how little they contribute that is new, how lacking they are in ideas, how mind-numbingly similar they all are. They tend to be compendiums of the work of others (whether acknowledged or not!). Genuine theological work is often lacking, and not even expected. The intellectual atrophy of the tradition is by now surely in its final stages. A friend who studied at a Reformed college tells of how the doctrine classes would canvas a few positions on an issue, before triumphantly declaring the Reformed view the superior one! This was the regular routine. No theological work was really done in those classes, my friend felt that the students were left bored and uninspired by them.

Richard Gaffin is a glowing exception to this rule, a truly Reformed teacher who was committed to doing theology. But even he knew he had to watch his back, he was often in trouble for his work, and he had to be careful where he trod.  Time and again in his writings Gaffin holds back from stating the implications of his discoveries: he knew what the penalty would be for questioning any of the sacred theological cows. People close to him were guillotined by the Reformed authorities. Roman Catholic theologians tend to face the same troubles in their Church, often being pushed to the fringes of the establishment.

But Gaffin is the exception that proves the rule. There is no future for the discipline of theology wherever Reformed attitudes hold sway.

The Reformed stance absolves the church of its responsibility to test everything by the Word of God, to understand the Gospel afresh in each new generation, to take the risk of speaking new words in response to God’s great Word. Where the God’s Kingdom challenges us with its living dynamism and transforming power, this generation of hip young men are buying into something that is essentially conservative, risk-averse and fossilising in its tendencies.

If the butterfly is alive, it might fly anywhere. That’s the danger of doing theology. The only way to be sure about it is to pin it to a board.

“Under no circumstances may theology set out to appropriate credal propositions merely because they are old and widespread and famous. If it is seriously committed to the quest for truth, it will forego seeking the name and fame of an ‘orthodoxy’ faithful to tradition. There is no heterodoxy worse than such orthodoxy!”

Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, an introduction.

  1. mike w says:

    I don’t know, maybe there are certain, emegency situations where the church could admit that it is biblically illiterate and incapable of thinking, and so should simply rehash and protect formulae.

  2. mrdanwebster says:

    I totally agree with Wellsy. The ’emergency situation’ being most of the theologians (ie. Christians) in my church (harking back to a recent email). The old creeds help them take baby steps into theology. It’s great for them to think new thoughts, and ask hard questions, but they can’t even begin to do that until they’ve got something to question, or some guidelines.

    But I guess you’re not talking about them.

    I agree with you about Gaffin. He just goes for truth, rather than feeling like he needs to rehash some party lines. He does have a few solid swipes at the Reformed tradition in ‘By faith, not by sight’ though.

    • Jonathan says:

      I had taken Wellsy’s comment to be ironic…

      • Mike Wells says:

        Well, it was kind of ironic and kind of not.
        I really do think there are times when it could be appropriate to acknowledge our theological weakness, not with a view to staying there, but with a view to moving forward.
        But it was also ironic. Those who are agro reformed (six point Calvinists, the sixth point being “If you disagree with me you can burn in hell) are often claiming superior knowledge.

    • Jonathan says:

      Yeah, he’s a brave man, Richard Gaffin. But have you noticed how carefully he chooses his battles. His work suggests all sorts of challenges to Reformed thinking, but he only hits hard on a very few of them. And he makes sure he has someone big and fat to hide behind for those ones, generally Calvin. He basically only takes on the modern Reformed tradition at points where he can demonstrate that the older Reformed tradition was better, and it has strayed from its roots. It’s a powerful style of argument in that scene, where conservation is everything. But I take it it’s Gaffin using a wise strategy – I don’t think he really cares that much whether we all stay faithful to Calvin.

      But it seems that where Calvin is silent, Gaffin doesn’t feel able to go. Not that he’s worried about straying into error – I imagine he’s worried about being thrown out of the camp for doing fresh theology without Reformed authorisation. The price is just too high, for Reformed people who do that.

  3. mrdanwebster says:

    Actually, that leads me to another point… excuse the rant. But I don’t like the sub-title of this blog. Questioning everything gets in the way of doing anything. Leaves you a blubbering pile of questions. It also mildly connotes our ability to actually come to answers on everything on our own.

    I know that’s not the point, and a blog allows finding answers in community, and you’re probably just saying the extreme to encourage us to question SOMETHING! But there you go. I’ve said it. I don’t like the subtitle.

    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks for your comment, Dan. We weren’t expecting people to like that subtitle!

      I think perhaps you’re taking it a little differently from how it was intended. Constantly questioning everything is certainly a recipe for indecision and paralysis. I know that some people struggle with that sort of problem, and find it hard to achieve conviction about anything. We’re not advocating that as a virtue.

      I would however suggest that in order to do anything in faith, questioning has to happen somewhere in the process. We could idealise the process as:

      Question what’s currently happening (in light of the gospel)
      Decide what is to be preserved and what needs to change
      Make a plan
      Enact the decisions made

      Most of us naturally tend to be weak at some point in this process. In my experience, most people are weakest at step 1. We tend to accept what’s happened until now. We find out what the acceptable position is, what is the party line, what people expect, etc. Or we find out what’s ‘worked’ elsewhere. And we go with that. We crave precedent. Deeply conservative, we lack the pioneering spirit. This is particularly true of the evangelical church: years of fighting have left us entrenched in our thinking at many points.

      As a result we tend to say and do the same things over and over, through the generations. In particular we express our faith in ways that made good sense 400 years ago, but which don’t cut it today. Because we don’t feel free to question the traditional formulae, we can’t do the theology needed to address the needs of today, and speak the Word of God to them.

      Our subtitle is a call to break free of the trenches before we die in them.

      Of course some people are good at questioning, and bad at steps 2 and 3: deciding and planning. That’s a frustrating place to be. Maybe those people need a blog subtitled ‘Stop Questioning Everything and Get on with it!’

      Personally I find that a lot of time put in at step 1, questioning, and at step two, deciding what to change, makes the rest of the process fairly easy. Once I’ve got conviction about something, it tends to lead to planned and purposeful action. Often I need to major on 1 and 2 for some time before I’m ready for action. During that time I probably look ineffective.

      Luckily I just had four years to think and plan and be ineffective…

      But that’s me, other people will need a different focus.

      So I guess our subtitle, “Question Everything” is aimed at a perceived need in our community. Especially in regard to theology: the way we articulate and structure our words of faith in Jesus.

      Having said all that, I don’t think I can say anything that’s going to make you like the subtitle, Dan! Sorry. 🙂

  4. Mike Wells says:

    Here is a try, simple version
    “Jesus is the question to all our answers”

    complicated version

    “The shape of Christian faith is the anchoring of our confidence beyond what we do or possess, in the reality of a God who freely gives to those needy enough to ask; a life lived ‘away’ from a centre in our own innate resourcefulness or meaningfulness, and so a life equipped for question and provisionality in respect of all our moral or spiritual achievement: a life of repentance in hope.

    Nothing is more promising and nothing is more difficult. That the Church repeatedly seeks to secure a faith that is not vulnerable to judgment and to put cross and conversion behind it is manifest in every century of Christian history. But in so doing, it cuts itself off from the gift that lies beyond the void of the cross, and imprisons itself in the kind of self-understanding it can master or control.

    In such a perspective, the question about dogma becomes a question of how the Church retains a faithful sense of the accessibility of God’s promises; though the obvious paradox is that dogmaa has so often been understood as precisely the sign of the Church’s command of the data of revelation, the sign of something being ‘done with’ and settled rather than of a challenge left open. Because of this misperception of the function of dogma, the Church’s dogmatic activity, it’s attempts to structure its public and common language in such a way that the possibilities of judgement and renewal are not buried, must constantly be chastened by the awareness that it so acts in order to give place to the freedom of God- the freedom of God from the Church’s sense of itself and its power, and thus the freedom of God to renew and absolve. This is why dogmatic language becomes empty and even destructive of faith when it is isolated from a lively and converting worship and a spirituality that is not afraid of silence and powerlessness. The more God becomes functional to the legitimizing either of ecclessiastical order or of private religiosities, the easier it is to talk of God; the easier it is to talk of God, the less such talk gives place to the freedom of God”

    Simple version 2
    “Jesus is still alive you know”

    • Jonathan says:

      Sounds like more than a try. But what do you mean by ‘try’? A try at what? And whose words are the complicated version? Doesn’t sound like the way you normally talk Wellsie! Complicated indeed. Sounds like one of those theologians who read too much German – Webster perhaps?

      I like simple version one very much!

  5. mike w says:

    I didn’t want to say who the complicated one is because then people might not listen to him.
    Keep guessing. Like Webster, he is British. I think he has done some German, especially Hegel. I think he hung out with some Russians too

  6. mike w says:

    oh, and the try was ‘try to convince Dan about the subtitle’

  7. mrdanwebster says:

    Gentlemen, I thank you for your ‘tries’ to convince me about the subtitle.
    I learnt much. That’s a totally awesome quote Wellsie.
    And breaking it down to a structure is helpful Jonno. Yep, we need to keep questioning for the glory of Jesus.

    I’m still not convinced, but that’s because I wasn’t thinking in such an intellectual way.

    I think it’s partly because my brain gets tired of questioning everything. And because when I hear ‘question everything’, I hear the connotation ‘question everything all the time’. Which isn’t what you’re saying.

    Also, I want to balance questioning everything with the certainty of a God who doesn’t change. He upholds creation in such a way that I don’t have to question everything every time I do anything. I can wash the dishes the same way I did last time without questioning it.

    ‘Jesus is still alive you know’ means I’m also free to chill out.

    Fair call?

  8. mike w says:

    sorry, it makes more sense in context
    Rowan Williams “beginning with the incarnation”
    perhaps the subtitle should be changed to
    “being questionable”
    “distasteful mud and proto-pearls”

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