Reformed and O How I Love to Proclaim It!

Reformed and O How I Love to Proclaim It! May 15, 2013

While at a conference a young man introduced himself to me, we began to chat, he informed me he was Reformed, and he had a few questions for me. I asked him what kind of Reformed, and he wasn’t all that sure what that meant, so I asked it concretely: Presbyterian? No. CRC? No (he had never heard of this). So I said OPC? He said “Not sure what that means.” Then I dropped the big one: Are you Barthian? He gave me a harumph and said that Barth wasn’t Reformed. He did know who Tim Keller was but said he was more like Piper than any so far mentioned. Moltmann didn’t come up.

What is Reformed?

Well, what does “Reformed” mean then? There is a very good article surveying Reformed theology by Dirkie Smit in Expository Times 122.7 (2011) 313-326, an article that I relished for its spanning of the global context of Reformed theology. You see many young ones today think Reformed theology begins and ends with Piper and Driscoll, or in the circumference of The Gospel Coalition or the shifts among the Southern Baptists, but a fair number of Reformed theologians say, “Well, no, not really.” What we need, then, is exactly what Kelly Kapic and Wes Vander Lugt (that’s a Reformed name if ever there was) have produced with IVP: Pocket Dictionary of the Reformed Tradition. I’ve read the thing; it’s good and helpful and informed and cautious and accurate though it could definitely use some more entries about South Africa and its theologians and issues. As such, its focus is the UK, Netherlands and the USA. But mostly UK and USA. It’s not just about the historic Reformed folks but scans a wider circle. A friend of mine once told me if you don’t baptize infants you aren’t truly Reformed.

It covers topics — accommodation, Anabaptism, atonement,  baptism (good sketch of infant baptism), bondage of the will, Christ and culture, and on and on. It covers names — Barth, Calvin, JI Packer, Hermann Ridderbos, et al. It covers events and movements — Barmen Declaration, Puritanism, etc.. No entry on “gospel.”

In other words, every young “Reformed” theologian and any theological student will benefit from this kind of accessible book. It will prove especially helpful for students who need quick information on major names and ideas.

Of course, there were a number of places I dug in. Like “apostasy.” Defined: “Intentional abandonment and rejection of faith previously professed.” OK, good on intentional, and abandonment, and rejection but the whole focus here is typical: previously professed is understood to be a “real phenomenon” but only for those who have “merely professed faith outwardly” and “have participated in the visible church … making internal realities publicly known” (14-15). The jig is up for me: what this teaches is that “real” apostasy can’t occur because the person who abandons never was saved or regenerated. So apostasy is from external realities but not internal realities. Look very soon, perhaps as early as tomorrow, for an e-book of mine called A Long and Faithful Obedience.

A good sketch of Karl Barth, with sensitivities to his own development. There is nothing here smacking of the old bad guy Barth. Good for the authors. On “biblical theology” they describe what is characteristic: biblical theology is the history of redemption, which in my terms is a soterian approach to the whole Bible, which I have emphasized tells a true and good story but not the whole story. I’m glad they include Don Bloesch and Bonhoeffer, who is Lutheran. On Calvinism, TULIP is not adequate to describe it (good for the authors).

They see evangelicalism through the lens of justification by faith and grace alone. They do recognize its broader scope with the Wesleys. But they also show tension between the Reformed tradition and contemporary evangelicalism.

The featured article is a tad catchy: Reformed theology is canonical, creational, comprehensive, covenantal, Christ-centered, concordant (divine sovereignty and human responsibility), confessional and contextual.

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  • T.S.Gay

    Perhaps the best way to comment is to have any reader go to the categories on this blog and read the posts on Calvinism. Since this one is uncategorized I’ll try once more to have a conversation. I really don’t know why I try. I’ve tried so many times, and have come to the conclusion it is best not to try.
    Either we assume a stingy God or a generous God. Look, I also have never been able to embrace the kind of universalism that teaches that all human beings will be saved in the end. But there are universal texts and we must square the stingy sounding ones with the generous sounding ones. Otherwise there is no room for the mysterious ways of God who has promised that where sin abounds grace much more abounds.
    The universal aspects of Christ are so important because not accepting them gets into our very body language( not to mention speaking and active listening skills). I am standing for a more inclusive approach. The pluralism of today’s world brings into the light the weakness of any exclusive approach.
    As difficult as it may be for our logic to embrace, the Scriptures teach us that ” all are” even though “some are not”. We must accept the so-called universalistic texts as written, telling us that all persons will be saved. We can do so as long as we keep in mind the exceptions that are found in the Bible itself. The exceptions are those who reject or remain indifferent to God’s will for them, whether in nature/conscience or gospel proclamation.

  • Reformed is Calvinism. And any ‘ism causes one to open a can of wormy paint that gets spread on a floor. Inevitably – someone ends up in a corner away from any means of escaping. “Reformed” can become shorthand for “God loves a few million and hates the rest.” Grace is pinched into an exclusive context. John 3:16 becomes qualified. Knowing in part – – – is also qualified as the body of Reformed thought is continually shaped in Darwinian fashion.

  • Rick

    No, “Reformed” can become shorthand for God is sovereign, our salvation is due to nothing in ourselves and totally up to him, thus fully on His grace. Now, some of the ramifications of that position may bring up difficulties, such as the one you pointed out, but the difficulties are not “shorthand”.

  • Ben Thorp

    It’s probably worth noting that although there are some followers of Driscoll and/or Piper who go no further, both of them would encourage their listeners to read much more widely, and understand much more deeply, what it is to be Reformed. I know that I wouldn’t have books by such authors as JC Ryle, Sibbes, Spurgeon, or Lloyd Jones (to name a few) had I not been introduced to the delights of “dead mentors” via Driscoll.

  • Good, measured, and fair. Points to you for not exaggerating or resorting to gross hyperbole.

  • Thanks for pointing out the resource. When all people think about when it comes to Reformed theology or Calvinism are the 5 points (with no idea what Dordt is), then you’re not dealing with a Reformed, but a Driscollite or a Piper-fan. For everybody else, do them a favor and point them to the Heidelberg Catechism, James K.A. Smiths “Letters to a Young Calvinist”, or Calvin’s Institutes themselves. You’ll do everybody a favor there.

  • Adam

    Isn’t this why we have the word Neo-Reformed? Maybe I’ll start a new group called the Reformed Neo-Reformed. We protestants do love a good schism.

  • Yeah – a much smoother way of saying it. “Some of the ramifications…” Where’s the door? Way over there.

  • There is *no* universalism* to be had. But there is plenty of “reversalism.*

  • Steve_Winnipeg_Canada

    Your anecdote, Scot, shows why I hesitate to called myself ‘Reformed’. This guy could have been me five years ago.

    I’m not in any kind of traditional reformed denomination. I’m still in/pastoring the small independent charismatic congregation I was converted in (what? am I supposed to leave the people who baptized me?) I’ve been Calvinistic in my soteriology since before I knew what it was. About a year after conversion I read a little Calvinism vs Arminianism book and thought ‘Of course that’s how it works!” I gravitate towards the reformed, neo-reformed, neo-puritan, TGC, etc.. guys. It’s taken me a few years to read up and study and digest. *I’ve barely started on Barth – sorry*

    So given that this guy could have been me a few years ago, is there no slack for him? I mean, would a self-identifying anabaptist have to produce a bibliography as credentials? Sometimes folk are on a journey into a tradition/theological paradigm that they find appealing. Maybe young buddy was at the start of his journey.

    That being said, I would love the air to be let out of quite a few young ‘reformed’ hotheads. Perhaps this book will be a good thing,

  • KentonS

    I’m ready to join your Reformed Neo-Reformed group.

  • KentonS

    And now, I’d like to break off from your group.

  • scotmcknight

    Steve, nice, and thanks for that pushback. Yes, many Anabaptists have never heard of Balthasar or Grebel or Blaurock. But… but… Reformed doesn’t just mean one small segment of Calvinist Baptists and a book like this sets things straight, as did Ken Stewart’s exceptional book — did you read that? What do you think of the idea that a true Reformed person has to baptize babies?

  • PJ Anderson

    These modern reformed folk are a confusing as child-proof lids.

    We had a rabble of them come into our local church and attempt to subvert the leadership. It got messy, of course. During a townhall style meeting one night, I was being belittled by a 19 year old for not having an orthodox soteriology. Halfway through I asked him if he was Reformed. Then I asked him if he had read Calvin’s “Institutes” or Bavink’s “Reformed Dogmatics” or any of Barth’s “Church Dogmatics.”

    The poor lad hadn’t read any, but did recite several slender volumes by Piper, Driscoll, and Keller. The rest of the conversation didn’t go well for him.

    My point is this: it seems these neo-Reformed folks are highly concerned with their contemporary identity rather than a robust theology.

  • That’s the spirit, Kenton!

  • Steve_Winnipeg_Canada

    Scot, do you mean Stewart’s ’10 myths’ book? No, I haven’t. I read a couple of reviews but there are just so many things to read.

    I’m in total agreement with you about the need to really expand one’s views of what Reformed is; this goes for any other stream too. Piper (as encouraging as he has been to me personally) is not the end all be all. But he’s a popular level guy and Christians get into bigger ideas through popular level doors. To his credit, he’s always trying to point people to other writers.

    A subtext of this post/issue that I perceive is youthful passion bordering on arrogance. I’ll also aim this point @ PJ Anderson below. Your young conference goer may well have had fire without depth. But depth (spiritual, intellectual, and character too) takes a lot of time. It just isn’t the province of the young. I remember John Stackhouse saying once how the Bible says virtually nothing nice about youth! Haha, maybe he was on to something. I’m think I’m in full sympathy with you about the tone of lots of young ‘reformed’ hotheads. But I’ve found similar tones among emergy types, guys who think they’re the first to read the Fathers, those with a passion for the poor, and folk who are discovering liturgy for the first time.

    As for baby-baptizing, well, the fact that my two little ones are still unbaptized shows where I’m at. But…when my first daughter was born I wrestled with the issue. I hit the books, took note of the best arguments for both positions, was compelled by the paedo-baptist position, but in the end couldn’t do it. Does that make me less ‘reformed’? Maybe. But there’s a long line of ‘reformed baptists’ so I’m not alone.

  • Rick

    Horton holds to that view, and it would seem it is because he sees Reformed theology as equal to Covenant theology:

    “Historically, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have required professing members and their children to be baptized. In the former, arising from Continental Reformed sources, all church members confess the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort) as the faithful summary of Scripture. What this means is that in Reformed churches historically, only those who affirmed the inclusion of children in covenant baptism could be members….I affirm, on the basis of Scripture, the traditional Reformed and Presbyterian view that it is “a great sin to condemn or neglect” baptism (Westminster Confession, Ch. 28.5) and that “also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized” (Ch. 28.4; cf. Shorter Catechism, Q. 95).”

  • scotmcknight

    Do you mean by “contemporary identity” belonging to the right groups?

  • The “I’m reformed” or “I’m _____” by way of introduction always smacks of jingoism to me. It’s like a preemptive strike that broadcasts *exactly* where the conversation is going to go. It’s tiresome.

    I’m okay with someone identifying with a tribe, I just don’t understand the attitude that often accompanies this kind of tribal identity. It seems that 9 times out of 10 my encounters with someone who makes a big point out of their tribal identity lead directly into vilifying and demeaning all other tribes. It probably waxes and wanes as time passes, but this seems to be a much bigger problem with the Neo-Reformed crowd than any other tribe. Totally anecdotal and subjective, but I’ve never had anyone say to me “Hi, my name is ____, I’m an arminian.” or “Hi, my name is _____, I’m into open theology.”

  • scotmcknight

    Interesting point, Tommy. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that, either.

  • Bob Robinson

    Having received my MDiv from TEDS (while you were still teaching there), I must say that this ignorance of what “Reformed” is stems from an ignorance that is propagated by those in the evangelical tradition. Unless one goes to an explicitly Reformed school (or, I imagine, an anabaptist school or a Weslyan school, etc.) where the issue is deeply studied, then all we have is the “I’m of Piper,” “I’m of Driscoll,” “I’m of Keller” statements.
    What do you think can be done at the Seminary level to more clearly teach these issues more deeply?

  • Bob Robinson

    I particularly like Jamie Smith’s little book. An excellent corrective for what Scot is talking about here.

  • Gene R. Smillie

    The guy who “declared himself” to you at the conference as “Reformed” just blows me away. His responses to your attempts to identify what he meant sound almost incredible to me. Other comments here on your blog confirm, though, your suggestion that many younger churchfolk who fancy themselves of a theological bent are somehow wowed by Piper, Driscoll, and other contemporary guys in the spotlights, and think therefore that they themselves “are Reformed.” Sort of like white people in the 1960s who thought of, and sometimes called themselves, “civil rights activists” because they liked listening to Diana Ross and the Supremes.

    Having spent my three seminary years in a truly Reformed academic environment (Princeton Theological Seminary), I have a whole different take on that whole business. About half the Princeton students were Presbyterians (whose churches generously supported the place); the other half were Methodists, Lutherans,
    Church of Christ, and a few dozen other garden variety believers, including a sprinkling of us holy rollers on the fringes. Yet the Reformed perspective was a given, like water is to a fish. It was our environment, not a personalized,somehow-differentiating label. Nobody spent much time “debating” differences between Arminius and Turretin, and I don’t know if I ever in three years heard even an allusion to the famous TULIP acronym.

    But the Friday night event where seminarians could play their guitars and blues harmonica was called The Most Original Sin coffeehouse, a clever nod to one of the “pillars.” And we could eat breakfast with T.F. Torrance and hear fascinating little anecdotes about his tribulations in translating Barth’s Dogmatics to the latter’s satisfaction . . . and listen to transcribed tapes of Karl B. himself in his 1962 series of messages taught/preach at Princeton. (His English, though strongly accented, was so good he could spontaneously make little
    puns on his feet. I remember in one he was talking about care of Creation and
    was developing a line of thought about a “Garden Theology” and, remembering the inscription on all the New Jersey license plates he’d been seeing the previous few days, he muttered as a humorous aside,“… perhaps, mmm, a Garden STATE theology . . .”, and you can hear the appreciate murmur of laughter in the
    recorded audience).

    I also was so taken by Jurgen Moltmann’s genuine humility that I became an immediate and ever-after fan, though my mentor Karlfried Froehlich (himself a Swiss Lutheran, who used to be Oscar Cullman’s assistant) once lowered his voice to tell me, “Well, you know, Moltmann isn’t really Reformed; his wife is . . . .” (whatever that means!) Froehlich is right, of course: Moltmann just leaps over a thousand years of theology, including the Reformation, to root his own work more in the Cappadocian fathers.

    But that is what the Reformed movement has always meant to me, since my three years at Princeton: “Always reforming” is their motto, but what they often mean is “always working our way back to what the Church has always believed.”
    I don’t know if there is any seminary in the world (including the Roman Catholics’ institutions) that is as serious as Princeton is about knowing and making use of the Church’s long and broad history as we face the theological needs of today.

    C. S. Lewis complained (in his Introduction to a translation of Athanasius’ On the
    Incarnation—citing, I believe, G.K. Chesterton) that the modern church is
    extremely chauvinistic in that it denies a vote to the generations of saints
    that have already died. Your conference interlocutor betrays that superficial modern spirit, and shows just how far he is from the real spirit of Reformed theology when he does just the opposite of what “real Reformed theologians” do, at least in my limited experience: root whatever theology we do today in a deep and informed commitment to what the Church has always believed.

  • fb

    Isn’t this, in part, because they believe that they have THE biblical
    gospel and that the gospel of other Christians is suspect at best? They
    are declaring that they are true Christians, and inviting/challenging
    you to prove that you are — at least, that’s how they come off to me.
    I’m open to being corrected if I’ve misunderstood.

  • scotmcknight

    Read more broadly, Bob, from Calvin to the South Africans to the Americans … get a big picture of what Reformed means. Do the same with the other traditions where students learn the major voices and major ideas.

  • Bob Robinson

    But I *HAVE* read more broadly, but only after having graduated with honors from TEDS. I was *NOT* encouraged to read more broadly while studying at an evangelical institution that believes itself to be the model of exemplary seminary education. This was not part of the curriculum. I see that as a major part of the problem you are addressing in this post.

    Or perhaps you are saying that *seminaries* should have their students “read more broadly.” If that is what you’re saying, then how would this fit into the present curriculum being taught at seminaries? How would a seminary, like Northern Seminary or TEDS, develop a well-rounded curriculum that does not create graduates with the naivete you talk about with this young man? Because that is exactly what is happening.