A conversation between a member of a church in the RCA, a CRC pastor, and a UMC pastor.
Part I: What does it mean to you to be Reformed?
|Christian Doctrine by Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr.|
Before I moved to Northwest Iowa, I had little to no exposure to "Reformed Theology". What I knew about "Reformed" was that Martin Luther started the whole thing. I knew two pastors of two different Reformed churches but to me, they were simply another Christian denomination. I knew of John Calvin, but I'd never heard of Abraham Kuyper, and as I prepared to come into this community, I had a conversation with a pastor that I knew in the Christian Reformed Church . He explained to me some various ideas about "Reformed" and as he spoke, I kept interrupting him to ask questions such as, "that's like the Methodist idea of..." or "isn't that like when the Catholics say..."
Later, to my surprise, I found out that one of the denominations in which I have roots, the United Church of Christ , has roots in the Reformed tradition. Out here in Internet Land, Reformed most often is equated with Calvinist and the idea of double-predestination, and then Calvinist is in opposition to Armininan. The names associated with Reformed are John Piper and Mark Driscoll. But people I know in person in this Reformed area haven't even heard of them! I've seen a lot of negative thought regarding Reformed, and I am inclined to say "but that's not my experience." This is not to discount those who have had negative experiences and that have been hurt by other people and congregations who are Reformed, but rather to say there’s a lot out there that people experience differently—good and bad—Reformed or not.
|Christian Doctrine by Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr.|
Unlike Kelly, I grew up in the Reformed tradition. I was raised in Gibson Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, attended private Christian schools based on Reformed theology, received my bachelor’s degree from Calvin College and later my M.Div from Calvin Theological Seminary, the official institutions of the CRC. My life has been inundated with Reformed thought for as long as I can remember. As a teenager I learned Catechism on Sunday mornings and Reformed doctrine in high school Bible classes.
I often have to remind myself that to those unfamiliar with the Reformed tradition, this can all sound like a bit much.
This backdrop has shaped who I am today and colors the way that I view the world. I readily admit that my experience is not the universal experience of folks in the Reformed tradition. While I have found Reformed theology to be a wonderful home for profound theological wrestling, deep engagement with the breadth and depth of the world, and an impetus for serious academic study, others have found in Reformed faith little to energize them or, worse, have endured intense pain (or even abuse) at the hands of some within the broader Reformed community. I can only share my own experience with the Reformed tradition.
I currently pastor a Christian Reformed Church with many folks attending our church who are faculty and students at Dordt College, a college in the Reformed tradition. Our church is shaped heavily by the Reformed emphasis, but, due to the large number of faculty, we have a strong theoretical and academic bent to our Reformed perspective.
I attend a Reformed Church that is part of the Reformed Church in America. Our church website has a section about "accepting Christ". Sunday morning worship has a very contemporary, Evangelical feel to it. We use a variety of resources for classes, regardless of whether or not they are "Reformed", such as " Emotionally Healthy Spirituality", " The Story ", " Apprentice". My pastor recently commented how doubt is an important part of faith, and that church should be the place where people should feel free to ask questions and wrestle with that doubt. The men’s group my husband goes to just read a book in which the author wrote about his dislike for the “doctrine of unqualified submission taught by so many Christians and churches today” which definitely does not fall into the hierarchical/patriarchical view that many people associate with Reformed.
The truth is, of course, that the Reformed camp is a rather large place. At the core, I’m not sure it’s even possible to come up with a cogent definition that would include all of those who self-define as “Reformed” Christians. I refer to the Reformed “tradition” because to me, being Reformed is as much about finding my place in a broader story than about being able to adhere to any specific theological doctrines.
I appreciate that a lot, because even though I am a member of an RCA church, my background is multi-denominational, plus I’ve also been influenced by my Jewish friends, so I tend to dislike having a definitive label, other than Christian, for myself. I’ve also been reading a book I have, Christian Doctrine, by Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr. in which he says that “there is no one authoritative statement of faith to which all Reformed churches subscribe” and “There is plenty of room in the Reformed family…for individual differences and freedom of movement” (page 17). He believes that in order to be Reformed and Always Reforming, we need to constantly be looking at and questioning what individuals and denominations and creedal documents teach in order to find freedom and truth. That’s very different from the popular perspective that Reformed are not allowed to question anything or anyone.
My Reformed tradition is heavily marked by some key phrases. Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda (“The reformed church must always be reformed”), for instance. Or fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”) – and yes, that phrase predates our typical understanding of “Reformed” but that’s why we call it a tradition. Or Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch of creation over which Christ does not claim, ‘This is mine.’”
To me, being Reformed is about a posture of openness.
In my limited Reformed experience, that is something I have noticed. As I said earlier, the church I attend uses a lot of materials from sources that aren’t just “Reformed”. And one thing I’ve appreciated at Dordt College is their invitations to many non-Reformed speakers (see First Mondays, The Christian Evasion of Popular Culture ). I had originally had a slight fear that it would be “this is the way it is and that’s that” but what I have instead learned is that it is more “let’s talk with others, let’s listen, let’s have a dialogue.” The other day a Reformed pastor and I were talking about parenting and I’d commented on some parenting workshops I’d been to and how beneficial they were as opposed to some Christian-specific mothers stuff I had gone to, and he said that all truth is God’s truth, and I really appreciated that. In some Christian circles, it sometimes seems that if it isn’t outwardly/obviously Christian (like having a Jesus fish on a store’s sign or something like that), then it is somehow inferior. But what this pastor said, I think, goes along well with your earlier quote from Kuyper.
That idea points to the heavy emphasis on the sovereignty of God which is at the heart of Reformed thought, which declares boldly that God can and does speak through the wonders of the created world and that we are humbly utterly dependent upon God to break through into our brokenness with the healing of Jesus Christ. It has the audacity to say that this world was created to bring honor and glory to God and so should be respected, cared for, and lovingly stewarded. It declares that Christ invites us into the experience of resurrected life, to experience foretastes of that coming Kingdom, and to join God in the mission of transforming all spheres of society into the vision of God’s Kingdom. Being Reformed means that I am constantly being re-formed, constantly shaped by the experiences of this life and my walk of faith.
Since I spent some time in a United Methodist Church and briefly attended Asbury Theological Seminary, that sounds very Wesleyan to me! John Wesley developed what is now known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which is about using Scripture, Tradition, Reason, & Experience together.
I appreciate that. Before accepting the call to my current position, I worked in campus ministry at Michigan State University. Our (Reformed) campus ministry for graduate students welcomed students from across the denominational spectrum. We had folks who self-identified as Lutheran, Charismatic, Methodist, and everything in between. I frequently heard students say, “Our denominations are a lot more similar than I ever realized.”
To me, “Reformed” is less about a difference in theological or doctrinal positions and more about the posture with which I walk, the accent with which I speak, and the color in which I view the world.
I walk with a posture of humility, fully cognizant of my own limitations and the way in which human finitude and fallenness affects even my best intentions. Yet I walk without fear into critical Biblical scholarship, into scientific discovery, into bold philosophy, and into the intricacies of classical theater, trusting that God is there.
Please stay tuned for Part II, where Morgan Guyton questions us about Reformed thought and the problem of evil & the fall.
You also should read Rachel Held Evans' "Ask a Reformed Pastor" interview with Jes Kast-Keat.