A Humble Reformed Faith

John ArmstrongReformed Christianity

The terms "generous orthodoxy" and "humble orthodoxy" have become popular in recent years. I like both terms a great deal, though definitions vary wildly. Who doesn’t want to be generous, or humble? (Actually, I can think of some people I know who probably think the term generous is nefarious in some sinister way!)

I am personally preparing for my oral examinations with a classis of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) on April 24. I am doing this in order to have my credentials as a minister transfered into the RCA. (I believe deeply in connectionalism so remaining independent of church accountability as a minister is not an option.) This decision has actually been developing over a long period of time. The largest hurdle, initially, was the question of baptism. I have always been Reformed, at least since I was a very young Baptist minister back in the 1970s. I came to embrace the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper, a view that welcomed the mystery of Christ’s "real presence" in the meal (elements) about twenty years ago. But I could not yet connect this to baptism, which I have now done with real peace and joy.

I find the RCA to be a good home for me emotionally and theologically. It is the oldest continuous church body in the United States so it didn’t begin with yesterday’s newest schism. It embraces ecumenism yet remains confessional and orthodox. It has meaningful dialog with many traditions and is truly catholic. Yet it retains some of the distinctive marks of Reformed Christianity that I find precious and biblically rooted. And it is deeply committed to church revitalization and church planting. 

One thing that has particularly helped me to enter the RCA is the clear, open commitment of this Church communion to the idea of ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est. This Latin phrase refers to "the Church Reformed and always reforming." This slogan, sometimes misused and often attacked from the right, is unknown as to its particular origins but the spirit of it has clearly marked the tradition historically. It is a phrase that encourages us to retain the Reformed confessional marks but always with a charitable openness to pursue continuing reformation. Rigid conservatives reject this idea, insisting that a particular confession is virtually synonymous with the theology of the Bible. Liberals abuse the idea by having no anchor in historical Christianity, using various forms of piety and psychology to undermine the historical nature of true faith. Precious and important truths are always dangerous and open to abuse. This one, with so much to commend it historically and practically, is powerful but dangerous at the same time. It must be handled with care but it should be embraced with joy and freedom in the Holy Spirit.

My friend I. John Hesselink has spent his lifetime thinking about this matter. He is a first-rate Reformed scholar and served as president of Western Theological Seminary (RCA) in Holland, Michigan, after being a missionary in Japan for many years. John concludes that Reformed Christians have a heritage that they can be proud of, in the right sense. But they must never forget that the term Reformed "denotes a task more than an accomplishment." That says it very well. I believe a humble Reformed faith is one that celebrates the past with deep gratitude and pleasure while it remains humble and open to the present since what has been given to us is a great task and divine responsibility. My calling, as a Reformed minister, is to give myself humbly to the task of reforming and renewing churches, not to standing on a soap-box condemning other Christians and other good and valuable confessional traditions within the Church. This is precisely why I am ecumenical and explains why I am committed to the whole Christian Church; Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. The world Reformed community, beyond the narrow sectarian battles of conservative North American Christianity, understands this calling well. This is increasingly why I turn there to learn and observe the practice of "a humble Reformed faith."