Reformed Faith at the Crossroads
The following address was given to the first meeting of the International Reformed Fellowship.
The theme assigned to me for today is “Reformed Faith at the Crossroads.” It is a timely and vital theme because I believe that we in the Reformed community are at a crossroads. What do we mean when we speak of being at a crossroads? We mean that we are at a place of decision.
The American poet Robert Frost expressed this thought in one of his most famous poems, “The Road Not Taken.” The poem concludes:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Life is full of choices, some great and some small. Our choices establish the direction and character of our lives. As a Reformed community we face choices today that will make “all the difference” for ourselves as individuals and for our churches. I believe that we face especially intense issues and decisions in our time. I will be speaking about my concerns from my own American context, but I believe that our American problems parallel issues in the Reformed community around the world.
As I think about our time and our choices, I am drawn to the words of the prophet Jeremiah.
In early American history there was a type of Puritan sermon that was known as the jeremiad. It was a sermon preached in the woeful and threatening spirit of the prophet Jeremiah, calling the people to repentance. We need such a sermon today, reminding us that as we stand at the crossroads, we need to choose “the ancient paths,” the paths of covenant faithfulness. The new path is the one that says, “Peace, peace, where there is no peace.” It is the path that tries a superficial cure for a deep wound. It is the path that is easy and attractive, but brings no real healing. It is the path of those who find no pleasure in the Word of God, but rather are offended by it. Too many are taking the easy path, what our Lord called the broad path that leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13.)
As a Reformed community we stand at a crossroads in a number of ways. I hope that as we look together at the situation in which we find ourselves, we can see more clearly the paths we should walk, the choices we should make.
First we must recognize that our relatively small Reformed community is part of the broader evangelical community and that the evangelical community is facing very serious problems. At the heart of the problems in the evangelical community is the issue of truth. Has God spoken clearly and finally? Is truth revealed or evolving? Does truth matter? David Wells, in a forthcoming book entitled The Loss of Theology, suggests that for some evangelicals, truth has really become peripheral or irrelevant. Experience and emotion seem much more important than any connection to historic Christian orthodoxy. Think of the notorious heresies about the Trinity espoused by many well-known television “evangelists” and the relative silence of the evangelical community warning the faithful about these heretics. This silence suggests that experience, success, love and unity have overshadowed truth.
The drift on the issue of truth in the evangelical community can be seen in other ways. Prominent evangelicals have become Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox or high Anglican, moved I suspect more by aesthetic, traditionalist and ecumenical feelings than by concern for the truth. Other figures have been embracing doctrines that are historically liberal - errors in the Bible, God as changeable, universal salvation - moved I suspect more out of a concern for the world's respect than out of concern for the truth. Others yet have become pentecostal or charismatic, moved I suspect more for a sense of self-fulfillment in the power and emotion of the movement, than by a concern for truth.
Now I do not want to impugn the motives of all who have made these changes, or suggest that they are all equally wrong. But I do want to make the point forcefully that we are living in times of dramatic change and these changes have a strong influence on the Reformed community. These changes also require responses and decisions from us as we evaluate these changes.
Perhaps we can look at the developments in the evangelical community from a different perspective. Perhaps we need to see them as part of the swing in the history of the church between concerns for unity as dominant in one period and concerns for purity as dominant in another. The Middle Ages were dominated by an imposed and corrupting concern for the unity of the church. The Reformation reacted sharply proclaiming the need for pure doctrine. The Great Awakening in the mid-eighteenth century began a period of evangelical unity and cooperation that lasted almost two centuries in America. By the early twentieth century however, theological diversity within the evangelical community had grown so great that a division was inevitable. In the 1920s fundamentalists rose up against modernists in the name of the purity of doctrine and the “evangelical empire” split apart. By the late 1940s a reaction against the extreme separatism of some fundamentalists set in and a new era of evangelical unity emerged. I believe that the 1990s may well see the pendulum swing back to concern for truth. I believe that concern for truth is essential today.
The evangelical community broadly and the Reformed community in particular needs to choose for the truth. It is not in the claims of the church's tradition or of the Spirit's power or of the world's wisdom that healing for God's people is to be found. Healing is only to be found in the truth of God's Word.
Who should teach this truth to the people of God? I believe that the Reformed community has a unique responsibility and opportunity to be the teachers of truth. I believe that Reformed Christianity is the most faithful interpreter of Biblical truth and that our witness is greatly needed in our time. But the Reformed community has its own distinctive problems and decisions to face. Those problems must be the second subject of this address.
As I have thought of our distinctively Reformed problems I see three areas of concern. The first is the problem of confidence.
The Problem of Confidence
Reformed Christians can easily look around and conclude that the action is somewhere else. Roman Catholicism and the World Council of Churches get most of the news coverage on religion in America (except of course for evangelical scandals!) The charismatic movement clearly is the most dynamic and successful among the Protestant movements of the second half of the twentieth century. Non-charismatic success seems to come to churches that are activist and pragmatic, rather than thoughtful and principled. Where are the Reformed successes? Does Reformed Christianity work?
We as Reformed Christians can look back to days of great strength and blessing in times past. Calvinism flourished in some of the most difficult circumstances in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Revival came significantly from Reformed sources in the eighteenth century. Effective missionary work and strong theology came from the Calvinistic community in the nineteenth and on into the early twentieth century. But now we seem to have fallen on a day of small things. We seem too often out of touch and out of our element.
In part our present Reformed sense of dislocation arises from the different culture in which we find ourselves in America. American culture today is dominated by forces that are radically democratic, individualistic, anti-intellectual, pragmatic and undisciplined. And each of these elements of American culture is at odds with Reformed Christianity. We Reformed people are committed to a faith that is not radically democratic, but believes in authority and office; that is not individualistic, but communal; that is not anti-intellectual, but believes in loving God with the whole mind; that is not pragmatic, but believes we must live out of our principles; that is not undisciplined, but committed to the disciplined Christian life.
How are we to respond to our loss of confidence and the cultural challenges that surround us? What path should we take to pursue greater effectiveness and relevancy in our time? Some in the Reformed community are following our evangelical friends in seeking help from sources alien to our heritage. Some experiment with high church liturgical practices. Some experiment with theological ideas drawn from liberalism. More are drawn to charismatic practices to try to bring vitality to our piety and worship.
I fear that ultimately these approaches are counsels of desperation. If we lose our own distinctives, we lose our reason for being. We will never be as convincingly high church as the Roman Catholics, or as “with it” as the mainline denominations or as “in the Spirit” as the charismatics.
To regain our confidence we cannot mimic others. To be sure we may learn things from others. But the basic character and direction of our theology, church life and piety must be drawn from our own Reformed heritage.
The Problem of Knowledge
And that brings me to our second great problem: knowledge. As Reformed people we just do not know our own Reformed tradition very well.
Our Reformed heritage is rich in Biblical study, in theological reflection, in the study and practice of holiness and in effective ministry and worship. Most of these areas are relatively unknown to most of us. We are perhaps most familiar with our theological and Biblical heritage. We Reformed people have a reputation for theological acuity and precision. And some of us have surely made an important contribution in our time to the theological stability of the evangelical community.
Even in the area of theology however, are we as well informed as we need to be? Do we know our confessions as well as we should? Do we read the classics of the Reformed faith? Or do we prefer to read rather shallow and faddish contemporary works? Or do we find that we just do not have time to read at all? Reformed pastors today face so many pressures that time to study can easily disappear. Yet Reformed Christianity is convinced that truth is the foundation of Christian life. Where truth is lost, life is lost. As J. Gresham Machen wrote in Christianity and Liberalism, “Christian life is the fruit of Christian doctrine, not its root, and Christian experience must be tested by the Bible, not the Bible by Christian experience.”
We need a theology today that is truly comprehensive and avoids eccentric concentration on peripheral issues. At times the evangelical community has allowed itself to limit itself to only a few issues of theology and missed the broad range of attacks that the devil can mount against Christian truth. In our Reformed community too we can lose sight of the central issues and be led away from the foundational truths. The inerrancy of Scripture, the sovereignty of God in election and effectual calling, the substitutionary work of Christ for the elect, justification by faith alone, the Christian life of gratitude and obedience, the church as the central institution of Christian worship and nurture - these and other basic themes must be basic to our Christian thought and life.
Whatever failings we as Reformed people may have in knowing our theology adequately, we are much worse off in the areas of Reformed piety, ministry and worship. We need to recapture the roots of a distinctively Reformed spirituality – a spirituality of the Word. We need to learn anew how to feed on the Word as we hear the Word preached, and see the Word in the sacraments and are corrected by the Word in church discipline. We need to sing the Word again, regaining a Psalter. We need to study the Word on the Sabbath day that the Lord has given us. In a time when the offices of minister, elder and deacon are devalued we need to insist that they are instituted by God with authority to minister His Word and that the offices are essential to the survival of true religion. We need to restore our Reformed worship to its Word-centered simplicity. We need to remember the zeal of the Lord for the purity of His worship and utterly reject all temptations to turn the worship of the living God into human entertainment.
Our ignorance of our Reformed heritage is understandable. Reformed reflection especially on church and piety has been buried in history books little examined. We have not produced popular works explaining and applying our heritage. In the average Christian bookstore very little can be found coming from a clear Reformed perspective. We as leaders of the Reformed churches must labor to recapture our heritage and interpret it for our day.
The work will be worth the effort, I am convinced. The loss of a solid Reformed perspective has seriously weakened the church in our time. There is much religious activity, but little depth. The American church seems more impotent than at any other time in our national history. How much holiness and discipline is there in our churches? How much self-denial? How much worship that focuses on pleasing God rather than on pleasing ourselves? We need commitment to our Reformed heritage. Indeed that is our third problem area: commitment.
The Problem of Commitment
Even if we could regain our confidence and increase our knowledge, would we have the commitment we need to live the Reformed life? Do we have the zeal and the courage to stand on the Word in an uncompromising way?
I believe that the success of the Pentecostals in our time is not due to clever programs or just to being in harmony with the times. Their success is due in large part to the zeal and commitment that they show. They are convinced that their theology and piety are what the church needs and they proclaim it with passion. We Reformed Christians must learn that kind of passion and commitment.
The great choice before us – the real crossroads - is ultimately whether we will be Reformed or not. Many who have gone before us have decided that they do not wish to be Reformed. The great state Reformed churches of Europe are largely in the hands of liberals. The large Presbyterian church in America is largely in the hands of liberals. Theological issues trouble even the smaller, more traditional churches in Europe and America. Our decision to be Reformed must not be just a nostalgic reaction or a love of the past. Our Reformed commitment must be born of our conviction that the Scriptures teach Reformed truth and that the need of the weak church of our day is for Reformed truth.
The church of Jesus Christ is badly hurt in our day. It is bleeding. The dressings and ointments of many are ineffectual. The church weakens. Jeremiah asks us today, “Do we take pleasure in the Word of God?” That is the searching question every Christian must answer. Many today even in Reformed churches seem embarrassed by the Word. They want to shave it and shape it to a new form that will be more acceptable to the modern world. Women as well as men must hold church office. God must be called she as well as he. The Bible must be translated into inclusive language that changes the text of Scripture. There seems to be no pleasure in the Word here.
But where there is no pleasure in the Word there can be no health in the church. Where there is no pleasure in the Word there can be no peace. Ultimately where there is no pleasure in the Word there can be no real relationship to Christ. When a woman sought to praise Jesus by saying, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you,” Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11: 27, 28).
If we would be God-centered and Christ-centered, then we must be Word-centered. The ancient path that we must walk for the healing and peace of the church is the path of covenant faithfulness, that is faithfulness to the Word of God, the Word of Jesus. If we study and treasure that Word, if we immerse ourselves in the rich heritage of our Reformed tradition, we will build ourselves up in the faith and offer the glories of Christ to the nations. We need confidence, knowledge and commitment to do that. We also need each other. Reformed Christianity is not a religion for rugged individualists. It is a religion for a community. We need to work together and study together and pray together. We need to walk the ancient path together.
We stand at the crossroads. We have great decisions before us. The choice we make will make “all the difference.” Let us decide to walk in the ancient paths to the glory of God, the comfort of our souls, the edification of the church and the ingathering of the elect. May God use this conference to unite us in making that decision.
Originally published in The Outlook, June 1993 by Reformed Fellowship, Inc. www.reformedfellowship.net. Used with permission
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