I am a Reformed Christian. I love the "Three Forms of Unity" of the Dutch Church, especially the Heidelberg Catechism. I think it is the most evangelical and ecumenical of all the great Reformation catechisms. I grew up in a Baptist Church and was a Baptist minister for many years, having first been ordained in 1970. I still love Baptists, in fact more now than ever since they have taught me so much that I still value; e.g.,the soul liberty of the human conscience, the best understanding of the separation of church and state I know, the priesthood of all believers, the real importance of missions and evangelism, etc. But some years ago I began to realize that I really did believe in the covenantal way of thinking about the Bible and the Church. I understood the Church as a community gathered in and by the covenant. For this reason I was examined and accepted as a minister in the Reformed Church in America earlier this year. I will not promote this new identity over my catholicity or over my fellowship with all of those who disagree with me and the formal fellowship where I ended up in my ministerial standing. But I do not hide this change either. I am very glad to be a Reformed minister and felt it was an honor to stand before my classis and affirm the faith commonly held there and to sign the register of ministers, a concept that goes back to Calvin and Geneva. (Some friends have made me honorary Dutch by telling me I am now John Van Armstrong. Whatever!)

At the same time I am deeply concerned about a lot of Reformed expressions of Christianity, and their approaches to God and theology, that I have met in North America. I have very good friends in all the various Reformed groups; e.g. Reformed Baptists, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in America, Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church. Most of these groups are even represented on the board of ACT 3. At the same time I am concerned for what I have seen among some of these Reformed groups and people during thirty-five plus years of travel and ministry. I am not concerned, for the most part, about what these various people believe. I am concerned about what they do not believe and how they use their theological systems to create the illusion that "they alone know the truth and nothing but the truth."

A great warning about this came my way today when I read a quote from the early Church father Gregory of Nyssa. Said Gregory: "Concepts create idols, only wonder grasps anything."

I fear many Reformed folk have grasped great concepts about God, through a theology and systematic way of speaking about God. In the process they now run the real risk of creating idols. These idols are concepts that replace the unknowable and the ineffable with ideas that easily replace the living God and remove the wonder.

Ask yourself: "Does my theology lead me to conceptualizing about God in a way that removes the wonder from my heart and mind? Do I have more answers than questions in the way I live and teach the faith? And do I see, even in the doctrine of the sovereignty of God as I understand it, sheer mystery?" Your answers will tell you a great deal.

I am personally even more prepared to call myself a Reformed Christian than ever, even though some of my critics think that I am not since I do not agree with every jot and tittle of their understanding. They are quite sure of their interpretation of the Bible and the creeds and thus quite sure that I must be wrong. I gave this question to my classis to examine it and when they carefully examined me they gladly approved me as a Reformed minister. Call me whatever you wish but I am Reformed. At the same time the wonder of God and life increases in my soul every passing day. I have less answers than I had years ago but my soul is ravished with the love and glory of Almighty God, not the desire to fight for every Reformed argument that has been advocated by polemical argumentation through five hundred years of history. This is, in the end, what it means to be Reformed, i.e., "Reformed and still reforming" as the old and oft-cited saying goes.

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  1. Nick Morgan December 10, 2007 at 10:39 pm

    Very good “blog” John! It is so easy to confuse knowlege of theological “concepts” of God with true knowlege OF God. Didn’t Jesus, when He rebuked the pharisees, basically state that they didn’t have eternal life by simply “searching the Scriptures”, but that the Scriptures testified to Him. I believe He also stated that since they refused to come to Him they DID NOT have LIFE. He also rebuked the Sadducees with the words “you know NEITHER the Scriptures nor the power of God. Sobering words for us all! I think you are probably more “reformed” in accord with Calvin himself than many of your critics are. God bless!

  2. Phil Wyman December 10, 2007 at 10:48 pm

    Thanks for a great post John. I am not Reformed, nor do I anticipate navigating my faith in that direction, but I find great comfort and fellowship in many Reformed brethren who hold their faith in the mystery of the Gospel and not in the systematic theologies of whoever is most popular at the moment. Thanks for being one of those fellows.

  3. P. Andrew Sandlin December 10, 2007 at 10:48 pm

    John, the idolizing of ideas (ideology) is the worst idolatry of all. Barth has much to teach us here.
    Kudos to you!

  4. Nathan Fullerton December 10, 2007 at 11:00 pm

    Just wanted to say thanks for your blog I always find it very interesting (even when you talk about sports). I Met You years ago as a young Christian when my brother Ryan his best friend Clint had you come out to Drumheller Alberta. Keep up your faithful work. Peace from God!

  5. Keith Duff December 10, 2007 at 11:04 pm

    I couldn’t agree with you more, John.
    As a young pastor I am continually amazed with the reality that the more I learn and the more I grow the more I realize I don’t know and the more I see mystery. While a the search for an answer may reveals one, it often generates two questions in its wake.
    Ironic how our understanding of our heavenly father so closely parallels our understanding of our earthly father. As a teenager we know all the answers our fathers seem to be blinded to – only to become fathers ourselves and realize how foolish we were – and how wise our fathers were…
    Thank you for continuing to turn over the rock to examine it further – not being satisfied with the view from only one side.

  6. Jason Powell December 11, 2007 at 12:21 am

    In my opinion you represent the best of the reformed tradition in that the faith is ALWAYS reforming. Everything needs to be in play regarding the dynamics of interpreting the faith. Science, cosmology, social sciences, technology…these things effect the faith. We either grapple with them or we don’t. A true Reformed faith is willing to grapple with the world it lives in and keep reforming. If not our ideas and ideals become nothing more than stale idols. A picture frame for God with no image in it that is still discernable with the passage of time.

  7. andrew December 11, 2007 at 5:05 am

    excellent post and excellent questions to ask, john. thanks!

  8. poetryman69 December 11, 2007 at 5:24 am

    I am troubled that some will be born, live and die totally under the domination of other beliefs. It would seem that the effort to get out the gospel to those who do not know it would be especially pressing.

  9. Tim Trumper December 11, 2007 at 8:23 am

    You speak for many of us who are as committed as ever to the Reformed faith, but increasingly dismayed by the spirit emanating from too many in leadership of the Reformed community. God raise up leaders among us whose attention to the grace of Christ is as great as their attention to the truth of Christ (Jn 1:14). A Christ-like balance, under the blessing of God’s Spirit, will yield multiple dividends for the Reformed community worldwide. Thanks for articulating what others of us also feel.

  10. michael December 11, 2007 at 10:02 am

    Good post, John. Have you written more elsewhere on your journey to the RCA? I came out of there back in ’95 when my congregation, 7th Reformed (and on that note, greetings to Dr. Tim, her new pastor; we still get the bulletin and newsletter) was removed from the RCA.

  11. Gene Redlin December 11, 2007 at 10:16 am

    I preached last Sunday in a Reformed Church (building).
    Except there isn’t really a reformed fellowship meeting there any more.
    When masses of Christians voting with their feet are finding hope in other Christian spiritual expressions could there be a potential for a problem to be resolved? Or just to let it die.
    Trying to incrementally change the intransigent is folly. I too wish I could go back to that little white wood frame North Dakota Mo Synod Lutheran Church of 1954 that I remember and loved so well as a child. It’s gone now and so are all the trappings of what was.
    Much of what I see are people engaged in Hospice Care as the Church of former years dies a slow death. No one denies the inevitability of her passing, they just want her to be comfortable as the last gasps are taken.
    Meanwhile, new birth is breaking out, it’s different, it’s alive, it’s fresh and just a little strange. But it’s real.
    After the epithet is written for the past church the new life will bloom.
    I only hope the new life doesn’t become so pleased with it’s past that it repeats the pattern once again.
    I won’t be here to see that, but I have hope they might not repeat the error of dwelling on former things.
    Isaiah 43:18
    God then says, “Behold I do a NEW THING” V19
    If it’s new to GOD it’s new to YOU and ME. Why do we try to preserve the former things?

  12. Jeffery J. Ventrella December 11, 2007 at 10:17 am

    Well put: We who are Reformed in conviction need to remember that the Lord is NOT impressed that we are Reformed–Calvin didn’t die for our sins!
    As the prophet warns–idols taken to heart lead to destruction.

  13. Scot Sherman December 11, 2007 at 11:04 am

    John – this is brilliant. And Advent is the perfect season to be reminded that “only wonder grasps anything!”

  14. Craig Higgins December 11, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    Let me add my congratulations on this excellent post, my friend. I will be sharing it with many!

  15. caleb j seeling December 11, 2007 at 12:49 pm

    hey john,
    reformed and always reforming–i’m glad you put that at the end because i was going to say if you didn’t. ironic that so many reformed leaders become staid and cranky in their beliefs! you have been and continue to be an inspiration for me.

  16. Martin Downes December 12, 2007 at 6:55 am

    Hi John,
    Can I ask you a question? I appreciate that you may be busy and not have time to answer it.
    As you don’t really deal with any specific aspects of Reformed theology in your post are you saying that the problem is with the mindset that seeks to construct exhaustive theological systems in general? Or it is the construction of systems in theology proper that are too detailed to the point of eliminating the reality of God’s incomprehensibility?
    I wasn’t sure if it was the former (although the three forms of unity and the WCF are pretty comprehensive confessional statements) or the latter. The latter seemed less likely given that Reformed Christians are big on analogical knowledge and the Creator-creature distinction, accommodation etc.

  17. Sam Khoury December 12, 2007 at 10:48 pm

    I find your article interesting but maybe a little misdirected. It seems that most of your readers are not from Reformed traditions which usually means that they view any attempt to study systematics as being unspiritual. The reality is that those who have been forgiven their sins can do nothing but wonder at how awesome God truly is.
    On the other hand to stand in awe of a god that is a creation of your own imagination is in no way “Christian”. To genuinely be in wonder of God there is some level of theological understanding. I see todays church suffering from a lack of theology and an over abundance of wonder but it is wonder due to a lack of understanding and not the incomprehensibility of God. Your post brings up important points that old school reformed folks should look at but the church that extends beyond the confessional reformed type needs to be pushed to develop a theology that makes one wonder at God’s majesty.
    Just my 2cents worth. Thanks for letting me post.

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