This was a recent interaction I had with a great friend of mine who is Reformed in his theology, but sees some flaws within the Reformed movement and is concerned with claiming that as a belief system. I agree with the assessments of the flaws within many who claim the “Reformed” title (not all of the Reformed, but some of them), but I do not necessarily agree with the conclusions.
The main thing I want to emphasize before starting this interaction is that those who claim Reformed theology are not without their faults, big faults; I mean, they are sinners after all, saved by grace, myself included. Many are arrogant, filled with head-knowledge just for the sake of head-knowledge, all the while not applying it to their own souls, but just so they can “defeat” their opponents. Theology for the sake of pride? That sounds anti-Gospel to me. You can just see the vitriol that drips on some of the Reformed forums. Sometimes I just can’t read them because they are so frustrating, because ultimately, they are maligning Christ and the Gospel itself through their Pharisaical arrogance. But unfortunately, those are the people many see as the “face” of the Reformed, while in reality, they are in the minority of those who are actually historically Reformed.
Theology, that is, knowledge about God from the Scriptures, that does not result in the humility of the sinner before Christ and His work on our behalf, is of no use. As Paul said, “knowledge puffs up,” if it is not coupled with an active, humble pursuit of Christ as a sinner saved by grace. The attitude of the arrogantly Reformed that results of not putting theology into practice is a big turn-off to a lot of people on the outside looking in. Theology is meant for doxology (Biblical truth is meant for the glory of God). Orthodoxy should result in orthopraxy (right believing and thinking should result in right practice and living).
But, as I say in this response to my friend, you cannot look at a system of theology and conclude the system itself is wrong based upon the stupid, arrogant decisions of a loud minority who claim it. You must look at what the system itself is saying about the Gospel, look at it’s heroes themselves, and check what it is saying against the Scriptures, with all diligence. So without further ado, I’ll give his initial comments to me, and then my reply.
“John Owen, John Calvin and John Piper aren’t the final authorities on scripture though. I would be very careful following Christianity even from a reformed theological preacher such as the ones i mentioned. Even Paul pointed to the gospel, not to reformed theology. All Paul was doing was helping churches get back on the path to the truth in Christ. I don’t think he was meaning for this reformation to take such a huge stance in Christianity. Why not just say the gospel instead of reformed? It’s important to see these teachers as sinful human ‘equals’ meaning sinners such as ourselves. Seeing them as the tellers of perfect truth can make their weaknesses become our own. For that matter, why let any person who wasn’t apart of the original Bible such a huge stance such as Calvin. I think he has a bigger place in the Bible than say Timothy and Calvin wasn’t even in the Bible.”
Understand that as I go through some of your contentions with Reformed theology (or rather the modern Reformed movement) in this email (which I’m a little confused about where this came from), I’m not coming at you with theological “guns ablazin'” (with a mean spirit or something 🙂 I’m simply engaging some of your arguments honestly with responses to them. I agree with many of your assessments and others not so much. So in no way does this have to be a “heated” (i.e. emotional) engagement. So don’t take it as such.
We’re both men who can debate ideas and still love each other as brothers in Christ, praise God! People can debate ideas without it becoming personal, that’s where things have gone bad with others in debating, they malign the person, instead of engaging the ideas (i.e. “You’re so stupid so as to believe that”). That helps no one.
Just understand that I respond with these things because I love you and care about you and desire to see you pursue Christ on the straight and narrow path, not the twisted, crooked, wide one of the world that many are going down. I believe you are on the correct path spiritually more than ever, but we must always be on guard against deceptive ideas that can come in and slowly take us off track. That is how Satan works to keep our eyes off Christ, by giving us ideas that seem plausible, but in reality, take us down a road slowly but surely that moves us off the center-piece of our faith, that is Christ. With all that said …
“John Owen, John Calvin and John Piper aren’t the final authorities on scripture though.”
I agree, they are definitely not final authorities, I never said they were, nor have any of the historically Reformed. But they are nevertheless authorities, articulating what we believe to be the Biblical positions of Scripture. Will you ignore their teaching simply because they are not the final authority? As a great friend of mine has said before (paraphrasing), “You can go and stare at a great painting for hours and glean a lot of depth into what was being conveyed in the image. And you definitely should do that on a regular basis so that you can be changed by it! Yet there are people who have devoted their entire lives to understanding the painting; the lighting, the shadows, the depth perception, the colors, the mood, things I would never have really paid attention to unless someone explained it to me. So it is with the Scriptures, theology and church history. There is a great wealth of knowledge given to us by people both today and that are now gone, who loved Scripture and wanted others to see its truth, because in it is the beauty and power of Christ in the Gospel.”
Sola Scriptura states that Scripture Alone is the final infallible authority for the life, faith and practice of the church. You owe that statement to the Reformation. It wasn’t even an idea in the history of the church until the 16th century because of the Roman Catholics snuffing out the witness of Scripture. That is a Reformed idea itself and is the basis for all other debating on theological topics. But the doctrine as stated above does not negate the fact that there are church authorities, both individual and corporate, who speak on matters of theology throughout church history. This is actually a classic modern day Arminian argument against Calvinism and Reformation theology oddly enough and it is still null, void and baseless, because we have never said they were final; Jesus is final. That is actually the one thing that attracted me to Reformed theology to begin with: that it pointed to the truth of Christ, the Gospel, just like you said before that we should be doing. Reformation theology, in its summed up essence, is the recovery of the Biblical Gospel, as opposed to all the others that are out there that are blatantly heretical and soul-damning.
“I would be very careful following Christianity even from a reformed theological preacher such as the ones I mentioned.”
Really? Why? Where did this come from? So who will you learn from and follow as a mentor? The Lord uses teachers (people that are more spiritually mature and have studied the Scriptures and are more spiritually knowledgeable than us) to bring things to light you (and I) otherwise would not have seen on your (my) own. To ignore the teaching of those who have gone before you, who put in a lifetime worth of work to faithfully understand what the Scriptures have said to us, is just foolish in all honesty. This goes for anyone who would ignore great teachers of the faith. This is the very thing some people in our society say and we can see how much good it is doing them in their faith. The result is a soul-less evangelicalism that is bright and flashy on the outside and dying on the inside. They are stagnate in their pursuit because they will not listen to anyone who is smarter and wiser than they are, like mules being forced to drink from a clear bubbling brook.
So you don’t believe Reformed preachers are articulating the correct, Biblical position of theology and would not learn from them over against other camps of theology? Reformed theology as a system is not infallible (no one ever said it was, and if they have can you cite it?). But I do believe it is the closest Biblical articulation of what the Scriptures have said. I’m going to be honest: this sounds like you are defending some position or system of theology, yet not stating what that position or system is. And believe me: everyone has a system of theology, even if they deny it, because that in itself is a system of theology. In fact, that is much of the church’s framework/system: anti-intellectualism. They approach the Scriptures as if it’s just plain and simple. And it is in one sense, and then absolutely difficult and complex in another. The Gospel is so simple a child can understand and yet so deep that it takes a life-time to unfold it’s glories. It is both unbelievably simple and unbelievably complex at the same time.
Regardless, many in our culture will say, “All you need is Jesus.” Yet when you ask them, “Who is Jesus? Why did He come?” The answers you will receive back are an articulation of a particular theological position, particularly evangelical and protestant. “Well, He’s the Son of God, God become man, who died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead that we might be saved.” My response: “Well, others say Jesus is just a historical figure who should just be modeled and looked up to, who is now dead and gone.” Their response? “Well, I disagree with them about that.” My response: “That’s a theological position.” This is why theology matters: it is unavoidable. The question then is not do you have theology or not, because everyone does. The question is do you have good theology or bad theology? I believe that Reformed theology is the most correct out of all other systems, because all other systems are not nearly as Christ-centered as it is.
“Even Paul pointed to the gospel, not to reformed theology.”
Yes, that is true. Reformed theology though is itself the recovery of … the Gospel. This is a null argument purported mostly by Arminians to try and refute Calvinism and Reformed theology (not at all saying you are an Arminian, but they use that same argument). An honest Reformed position never says that Paul was “Reformed.” That’s absurd, because the chronological order of history itself does not allow for this (i.e. Paul lived in the first century, the Reformation began in the 16th century).
Spurgeon said in his Defense of Calvinism http://www.spurgeon.org/calvinis.htm, “The old truth that Calvin preached, that Augustine preached, that Paul preached, is the truth that I must preach to-day, or else be false to my conscience and my God.” That truth is that God saves sinners through Christ. That is a summed up articulation of Reformed theology, over-simplifid, but still at the heart of it. Yes it’s just Biblical, but many who say they believe the Bible deny this very statement by adding things to or taking away from it, which in turn makes it a false gospel. That statement, that God saves sinners through Christ, is absolutely a Pauline understanding, yet Augustine (in the 3rd and 4th centuries) and Calvin (during the Reformation) both reiterated that very truth and expounded upon it later in history because of errors that kept progressing and needed to be dealt with, and it was spoken under different labels over time, but it is still the same truth. The Gospel. Only by God’s doing through Christ can man be saved.
Do you believe that Paul spoke about election? Predestination? Effectual calling? Grace alone? (Rhetorical, because I know you do) These are terms used (some of which are in Scripture, others are not) to articulate giant, great, divine ideas about salvation. The term “Trinity” is not in the Scriptures either, yet the idea is clearly there. So will you throw that out as a received orthodox doctrine (necessary to be believed by the church) that heroes of the faith in the early church died for? So also it is with Reformed theology. The term contains within it a whole understanding of what the Scriptures have said to us, namely that the whole point of the Scriptures is the exaltation of Christ (that itself is a Reformed position that I know you personally hold concerning the Scriptures). By no means is it ultimate, but it is definitely authoritative and I believe very Biblical, as I would think you would agree with as well.
“Why not just say the gospel instead of reformed?”
Here is why: Because every “Christian” group, even heretical one’s who are unbelievers in fact, say they have the one Gospel-truth as well. Who do we believe? Which gospel is true? To answer your question, we don’t have that luxury basically, because there are so many false gospels out there, it’s frightening. The Catholic church says the same thing, “no, we have the true Gospel, anyone outside of us stands condemned.” Unfortunately, you have to distinguish what Gospel you are talking about now, and in order to do that you must use labels, faith-definitions. Paul himself said to be very leery of “gospels” other than the one you first received. Take the Galatians for example. That whole book is a refutation of a false gospel being spoken there that was deceiving its church body.
Our culture denies faith labels and definitions, yet they have historically been utilized since the history of the church to distinguish different ideas. The Reformed gospel, as opposed to the Catholic “gospel,” says something totally different. Same as the Arminian gospel, the Mormon “gospel,” the Jehovah’s Witness’ “gospel,” and so on. We need to be very careful about the Gospel truth we have received, that we protect it and hold onto it with everything we have. Yes, I agree with you that I would prefer to just say the Gospel without using any kind of labels to distinguish what we’re saying, but we live in a super-confused culture who doesn’t know its right from its left and so you need distinctions from other faiths, even within Christianity. I wrote about faith labels and distinctions in this blog entry http://www.davidwesterfield.net/index.p … 530-005706 recently, and it may help clarify some of these points. We live in one unbelievably confused culture who are putting forth just absurd ideas, even within the church.
“It’s important to see these teachers as sinful human ‘equals’ meaning sinners such as ourselves.”
Yes it is. And never should we say they are final, sinless individuals. That’s absurd, and never have I said they weren’t sinners. That would be anti-Scriptural (Romans 3?). Some people who claim the “Reformed” name do say that (implicitly), and honestly, people like that do not have the true Reformed spirit of honest humility and Christ-following about them. Regardless, I do esteem pastors and theologians of the Reformed tradition as better truth-sayers than other teachers and listen to them over others any day. But at the same time, that also doesn’t mean that some things cannot be gleaned from other Gospel-rooted faith traditions. We just have to take what they say with a (sometimes giant) grain of salt.
“Seeing them as the tellers of perfect truth can make their weaknesses become our own.”
I absolutely agree! In addition, I would also go on to say that those who view other fallible men as the final authority (who I will call the Arrogantly Reformed) are not consistent with Historic Reformed theology itself. John Calvin (if you’ll allow me to quote him on this 🙂 said that the life of the Christian should be marked by three things: humility, humility and humility. I agree. That’s what the life of someone following Christ should look like. Humble. Yet many of the so-called Reformed lack this to a great degree and it is sad, because this is supposed to be the mark of the Reformed to begin with: humble pursuit of Christ. If we believe in unconditional election (that God chose us for salvation based on the freedom of His grace, that His loving choice wasn’t rooted in us to begin with) how in the world can we boast, even in our correct theology? Is correct understanding and truth not itself a gift of of the cross of Christ? All boasting is evil. The Reformed would do well to take James’ advice on this, maybe apply it to their lives.