Thursday, November 21, 2013

What Does It Mean to Be Reformed?

A conversation between a member of a church in the RCA, a CRC pastor, and a UMC pastor.  
This is an ongoing conversation that will be hosted between these three blogs:  Renewing Your MindQuaerenda , and Mercy Not Sacrifice .  

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 MondaysThe 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.


Laski said...

Luther and Lutherans have never used the term "Reformed" for themselves, preferring instead the term "Evangelical." The two groups have never gotten along well in Europe or the US. The history is interesting and significant.

While Luther is credited with starting "The Reformation," there wasn't really a thing people called "The Reformation" until a hundred years later. The political response to Luther -- the way heads of state lined up against each other in preference for either Luther or the pope -- is what caused the schism and political upheaval scholars now call the "confessionalization" of Europe. It's part of the story of the rise of modern ethno-nationalism culminating in the tragedies of the 20th century.

Luther is sometimes called the egg that hatched Calvin, as a kind of play on the older idea that Erasmus was the egg that hatched Luther since Erasmus was among the reform-oriented critics of the church prior to anything Luther did. Erasmus was in his way an evangelical catholic, as the early Lutherans later called themselves. Erasmus would not endorse Luther's core theology however. In Luther's reaction to Erasmus in their debate over the freedom of the will Luther articulated positions that are close to or arguably identical with the "ultra-Calvinism" that would much later be expressed in the Canons of Dordt. The CoD was written specifically to criminalize free-will Calvinism in the Dutch churches. The Synod of Dordt was basically a kangaroo court in a political coup that led to a number of high profile executions and exiles when free-will theology was made a capital crime in the fledgling Dutch republic.

Typically Calvinist and Lutheran groups did not get along in Europe from the beginning. The way things usually worked was that everyone in a region would have to adopt the religion of the ruler, which could change with a marriage or succession. When one group was in power, if they treated the other poorly, revenge would be sought when the situation changed. The Heidelberg Catechism represents a more moderate expression of reformed theology because it was created at the behest of a political leader who wanted peace and stability among his mixed population of French Calvinists and German Lutherans. Yet compared side by side with Luther's Shorter Catechism, you can see a very wide gulf exists between them, especially in terms of emotional affect and emphasis.

In the centuries after the Reformation European rulers in countries with Reformed and Lutheran populations often tried to get everyone under one roof in a national church. Of course a lot of people felt this was just an unbearable compromise, and many of them came to the US to preserve their religious freedom. In the US they found already established Lutheran and Reformed churches who were sometimes mixing together and losing their distinctives, de-emphasizing doctrinal differences, etc. The newcomers in some cases campaigned hard against this. Rifts that emerged between more and less liberal Reformed and Lutheran churches generally had something to do with fights over doctrinal purity and cultural assimilation/secularization -- e.g., whether you could be a member of a lodge, whether military chaplains could be supported, whether buying insurance was moral, whether you could pray with Christians from other denominations, and a raft of other issues. Lutheran conservatives were pretty successful in re-establishing a strong confessional identity and return to traditional liturgical norms, but nowadays there is a strong drift in all oldline protestant denominations toward free church Evangelical church structures, modes of thought and worship.

Kelly J Youngblood said...

Oh, yeah, I know Lutherans don't use the term Reformed; I just wanted to point out that at first, that's all the term really meant to me--that Luther started what's known as the Reformation. Thanks for all the other info!