Thursday, October 19, 2006

Why Reformed Theology Must Adapt or Become Irrelevant

A recent article in Christianity Today “Young, Restless, Reformed” noted the resurgence of Calvinism among the younger generation of Christians. Significant figures who were mentioned included Piper, Mohler, and Harris. What I found interesting in reading the article was, aside from a brief reference to Sproul and Packer, those within traditional, Reformed circles were not mentioned as playing a part in this movement. In considering why this may be, I fixed upon several areas where Reformed theology has fallen short, or is in need of refinement, which contribute to this lack of influence. In order to keep this from becoming one very long post, I will break it up into several sections.

First, Reformed theology must reexamine their identity as confessional churches. Reformed theology is traditionally classified by acceptance of the traditional Reformed confessions, from the Westminster Standards to the Three Forms of Unity. I consider the practice and the desire to be truly confessional one of the strengths of Reformed theology. Confessionalism is a means of unity among a wide range of congregations with each other and with a vibrant stream within church history. It grants clarity and honesty to a church’s actual doctrinal stance with a concise, well-articulated statement of the full system of a church’s doctrine, and not a simple statement briefly covering selected doctrinal positions. A confession also serves as a witness to other churches to their lack of clarity and faithfulness in matters of theology. Yet, these benefits of confessionalism are very commonly outweighed by a variety of abuses.

Most commonly, a confession is given improper authority, even unconfessional authority. All too often initial appeal is made to the confession, and not to the Scripture. What is worse, it is common for a confessional statement to be offered as the final word on a topic, rather than “the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined…can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (WCF I:10). To cite a single practical example, what constitutes a proper observance of the Lord’s Day is a perennial discussion in Reformed circles. For many, and enshrined into the rules of a particular OPC-sponsored camp, activities such as football, canoeing, or simply throwing a Frisbee are forbidden. The rationale for this rule is a statement in the Westminster Confession, “this Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men…observe an holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations.” A biblical basis can be found for abstaining from work (which all the proof-texts speak of), but where is the Biblical rational for abstinence from “worldly entertainments?” It is much more serious when this tendency is followed in matter of doctrine. Once again, citing only one example, the Westminster Confession makes mention of the eternal generation of the Son, “the Son is eternally begotten of the Father” (II:3). On a certain reformed discussion list, this doctrine was vigorously upheld on the basis of the confession alone, despite a lack of solid exegetical support, and denial by many in the Reformed tradition from John Calvin to Robert Reymond in more recent days.

Confessional churches are also hesitant to modify their confessional documents. Such an attitude would be acceptable if the confession were simply a historical artifact; but for confessional churches, the confession serves not only as a landmark, but also as a current statement of their positions. However, for Presbyterians, doctrinal development did not cease in 1648. Need for renewed reflection and declaration on contemporary issues remains today. In many areas, aspects of a confession are downplayed, ignored or modified by the confessing churches. Thus, many in PCA circles take exception to the Westminster Confession’s stance on the Sabbath; or in the OPC liberty is (hypothetically) granted to those who hold a position other than the ordinary day view of creation days; or both the PCA and OPC make allowance for historic premillennialism, even though it is technically not allowed by the Westminster Standards (c.f. WLC 88). In order to avoid modifying the confession, concepts such as animus imponentis, or study committee reports to clarify the Confession, or address issues not directly considered in the Confession are introduced as another level of official statement. It would be simpler to update or modify the Confession to bring it into accord with the actual position of the church. This practice is not without historical precedent. In the Adopting Act of 1789, American Presbyterians modified the Westminster Standards to better suit their situation in America- how much more should we revise the Confession to suit out situation today?

The article clearly cites the desire not only for serious doctrine, but for Biblical doctrine. True confessionalism offers both. A confession represents a church’s serious and sustained reflection on Scripture and its teaching, and a careful, honest statement of that effort. A confessionalism open to growth and development ensures that such a statement is open to and consistent with the Bible.


torn_aclu said...

Do you think that those in the Reformed heritage need to begin mentioning that they no longer consider themselves Evangelicals and start to look for another name that somehow incorporates the Reformed dsitinctives? It's not that the name Evamgelcialism is so bad, but so many people have strayed from the vision of Carl Henry that a different strategy might be needed. Isn't that what Westminster California has done?

Keith said...

I guess the Reformed heritage has a much longer and richer history than the Evangelical community, and was never totally Evangelical. Especially if the definition of an Evangelical is “anyone who liked Billy Graham,” I don’t think Reformed theology has ever really been Evangelical. I am not aware of what Carl Henry’s vision was, so I cannot say if Reformed theology is consistent with those goal. Some in the Reformed community like Henry, other not so much.

Concerning Westminster West, I think they are an institution that is attempting to balance a Reformed theology and an Evangelical identity. I guess my question is what is their success on both those fronts? They tend to water down Reformed distinctness so much that anyone who has any connection with the Reformation, Lutheran or Reformed Baptist is within the fold; while at the same time taking shots at the rest of the Evangelical world for not fitting in to their odd conglomerate of confessional Evangelicals. I think they have a good idea with what they are trying to do, but I don’t think they have quite accomplished their task.