Doing Reformed Theology

I am sometimes asked, “Are you a Reformed theologian?” This post is a brief attempt to give an honest (and simple) answer to this question.

First, this question infers that I am a theologian. The answer to this part of the question is both yes and no. Every Christian is a theologian in some sense, either a good one or a bad one. If you think about your faith, in this case the Christian faith, then you are a Christian theologian. There are trained and untrained theologians. There are lay theologians, teaching theologians, writing theologians, etc. I do formally teach theology but I am not a professional writing theologian who has been highly trained an academic doctoral context for this noble purpose. I have limitations and freely admit it.

The great danger I see here is twofold. Untrained theologians can become rather self-confident because they have read a few “old” books, listened to their favorite teachers, and then strongly adopted what they believe to be true Christian theology. When they do this to the exclusion of all other Christian thought it then divides and creates real harm inside the church. It even impacts our mission before the world as well. In my estimation both Calvinists and Arminians, to use one evangelical example, are guilty of this problem. It is so easy, if you have adopted one side or the other in this centuries old debate, to read only your side favorably and then label the other side negatively. When this is done serious reflection and continued growth is often the great loser.

Trained theologians are sometimes guilty of a very different problem. They sometimes show an almost complete disdain for non-professional theologians. (There are wonderful exceptions to this tendency!) What we all need to keep in mind here is the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Pastors and professional teachers of theology should be especially careful to see their theological work as “service to the whole body.” They are not engaging in a profession apart from the catholic church.

Second, the question I’ve put to myself (because others have done it for me as well) is this: “Am I truly Reformed?” The answer to this is again a qualified yes and no. This will require a careful answer.

images If being Reformed means that I accept one or more of the great confession(s) from the 16th century, say the Westminster or the Belgic, as the final word on biblical theology then the answer is a strong no. While I have affirmed the “Three Forms of Unity,” and serve as an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America, this does not mean that I agree with every word of these fallible human confessions. I find a broad agreement with them for sure but I am not required to hold them without exception. Even the most conservative Reformed denominations allow “exceptions” for elders and ministers.

The problem I am getting is best stated by a friend who left an independent church many years ago and said to me, upon joining a very conservative Reformed church, “In the Westminster Confession I have found the most nearly perfect expression of faith ever penned. I need no more theology than what I have found here.” That is not only a wrong way to use a creed but it is not truly Reformed.

If being Reformed means that I am “young and restless” then I am neither. I am 62 and no longer restless about life or theology. I find this recent emphasis, which has grown in some conservative circles, to be unhelpful to the greater goal of missional-ecumenism. It puts up old barriers and thereby destroys relationships with people who are deemed “wrong” about a wide range of ways to frame the faith. I believe a more ancient-future faith paradigm is faithful to the overall witness of Scripture. In such a paradigm we can use and respect ancient creeds but we can also look to the future with faith and hope as we continue to think and confess the Christian faith in every unique circumstance.

Yes, I am a Reformed Protestant Christian. But I am first, above all else, a Christ follower who loves the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. This means that Reformed, at least for me, is a modifier of my Protestantism, informing my view of the church and its faith in my own context. It seems to me that the proper priority of these commitments is both missional and ecumenical. Some think this type of confession is ludicrous. I believe their confidence is too deeply rooted in their presuppositions about creeds and traditions. I also believe that their personal sense of how certain they are about their own theological system and tradition is a sign of their overconfidence in human systematizing. I love this tradition but I do not hold it in this way. I follow the post-Reformation statement, which no one is sure where it came from originally: “Reformed and always reforming.” I hold this view because this is how I believe we can and do perceive truth in our present state.

images (1) My own denomination (Reformed Church in America) recently began the process of adding a fourth doctrinal statement to the three major creeds/catechisms from the Reformation era. I refer to The Belhar Confession. This modern confession comes from South Africa. It deals with modern concerns about racism and systemic forms of sin in the church and culture. The consideration of adoption created a huge stir in Reformed Church settings. It barely passed after a long process of adoption. A few other groups have looked at it, but chosen not to take action. Many conservative Reformed Christians simply do not like Belhar. The two primary arguments made against it, so far as I can tell, go as follows: (1) It does not rise to the same level of doctrinal maturity and wholeness as our past standards and thus it is not, strictly speaking, a creed. (2) It implicitly opens the door to approving homosexual practice since the principal South African author of Belhar now approves homosexual practice. It is argued that by approving it we are adopting a creed that will in itself make it easier to embrace this change too. Without a long explanation about these two points I find the first argument seriously worth consideration while I find the second weak and deeply rooted in fear and false logic.

My point in bringing up The Belhar Confession is that the oldest Reformed denomination in America is now in the process of formally adding this twentieth century creed to its historic standards. This says something important about what the word Reformed really means, at least to one family of Reformed Christians with whom I share fellowship. A Reformed church and theologian is thus never to become static. Let me express this more fully.

I believe we do need new creeds. We don’t need them every few years, or decades, but now and then history calls for new ways of expressing the faith in the context the church confesses the faith and serves the gospel. The Christian faith can never be adequately captured by, or expressed in, one creed for all time. This means that even the ancient creeds, which are given prominence by the whole church, are not infallible. We can and should continue to think, grow and reflect upon biblical truth within our own culture and context. This requires good theology, not a rote recitation of a human creed as an infallible instrument that defines the faith once for all time.

We must remember that confessing the faith is always an ongoing process, one that must be carefully related to the missional situation in which we find ourselves at the moment. I can think of many illustrations of this point but none is more relevant to the last century than the German Church situation in the 1930s and the need for The Barmen Declaration. This short and impressive doctrinal statement challenged Nazism through the simple power of the gospel of Jesus in a very challenging context. This statement of simple faith, written when dark clouds of judgment loomed, was a masterful Reformed response to the times.

Thus I conclude: I am a Reformed theologian in the truest and best sense of this word. I believe the historical creeds and confessions have given us great and important insights that should be preserved going forward. But I also believe that the precise form of our confession and apologetic for the faith must continue to change. This is not relativism. It is most assuredly not liberal or conservative in the way we often carelessly use these terms to undermine real discussion and growth. What this is, in my humble view, is an expression of true confidence in both Word and Spirit. God alone will lead us forward in faith, hope and love. My Reformed faith can embrace deep mystery, engage with all parts of the Christian church and thereby seek the unity of the whole church in love. It can do this because this Reformed faith can engage in continuing dialog with the goal of unity in mission kept before us as we move into a future under God’s providence. This kind of Reformed theology is being done the world over by great minds and hearts. But many conservatives in America fear this kind of Reformed theology very deeply. In my understanding this fear is rooted in cultural constructs that create profound emotional discomfort. This is never in the best interest of Reformed theology or true faith, hope and love—the marks of the type of Christian faith that serves Jesus and his mission holistically.

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