Why I am not Reformed

Posted: January 21, 2014 by J in Bible, Church, Church history, 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 R-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, and captured in the Reformed confessions. (I use the word ‘captured’ advisedly.) Reformed doctrines are given such authority that in practice they become ‘gospel’. Orthodoxy is defined by adherence to them. To question the historic teachings, or even to question their terminology, 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 near-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. Even a revision of the terminology, of the way we express those doctrines, is often decried as a betrayal. 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. I thank God for them. 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.

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. And it is deadly. 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 as a discipline, then, poses a threat. For 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. We have long been champions at dividing over such minutiae. If the hair won’t split, we will happily split for it! But on all issues of any gospel-importance, the Church’s doctrine 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. Men who have nothing to say, who need no courage, who will offend no one. Where those ancient writers boldly reformulated their theology to respond to the Gospel as it impacted their culture and society, today 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!). It is not just that genuine theological work is often lacking, (it is) the problem is that such work is 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. In other words, the responsibility to do theology. 

Well, that’s about it: that’s why I’m not impressed with the new trend towards big R Reformed in our ranks. For where God’s Kingdom challenges us with its living dynamism and transforming power, this generation of hip young men is instead buying into something that is essentially conservative, risk-averse and fossilising in its tendencies.

If theology is a Spirit-filled, living discipline, that’s a scary thing. If the butterfly is alive, it might fly anywhere! The only way to be sure about it is to pin it to a board.

Let me leave you with some wise words from a real theologian:

“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.

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