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‘Reformed’: It’s a Flavor of Jazz

Being theologically Reformed is tremendously important to me. I’m a convert, and it’s always the converts that you have to watch! Those of us who come to the Reformed tradition from elsewhere are often the ones who are most passionate about it, and who want to say, “Wow! You have a real gift here! Treasure it!”

When I first became a Christian, I had no idea the Reformed tradition existed. When I discovered it, I realized I had come home to where I theologically belonged. I am still as convinced as I was 20 years ago that the Reformed tradition speaks to the heart of the Gospel, and so I seek to live and teach and preach out of that perspective.

To define what “being Reformed” means in academic theology can be like trying to pin jelly to a wall.

With that said, though, I do admit that in my particular context as an academic theologian, the word “Reformed” can be a problem in all sorts of ways. Here’s one: In the world of academic theology, the term has become so broad that it can be all but meaningless. You say to someone you are Reformed, and that won’t necessarily tell them anything clear and definite about you theologically because it could mean so many things. To be honest, trying to define what “being Reformed” means in academic theology can be like trying to pin jelly to a wall.

FROM HORTON TO MOLTMANN

One way of getting at this is to say two names: Michael Horton and Jurgen Moltmann. Horton is a Westminster Standards theologian through and through. The Westminster Standards and the historic Reformed tradition more generally explicitly and implicitly shape his theology. That’s one way of being a Reformed theologian. Then there’s Moltmann, who also self-identifies as Reformed. He rarely mentions, and almost never directly bases his theology on, key documents of the historic Reformed faith. He doesn’t particularly focus on historically distinctive Reformed doctrinal emphases, and some aspects of his theology are contrary to positions held by the majority of Reformed theologians down the centuries. With Horton at one end and Moltmann at the other, you then have every theological shade in between. What does it mean if you say that you are a Reformed theologian in an academic context? Well, you tell me, because it could mean almost anything on a very broad spectrum.

To an extent, this is how it has always been. Right from the start, our branch of the Reformation was never homogenous. There were different ways of understanding the sacraments and other doctrines amongst the 16th century Reformers, for example, and our tradition has gone in a number of directions on important matters ever since. Folks will often quote the slogan “ecclesia reformata semper reformanda” (a church that is Reformed and always reforming – although I always insist on the full slogan, which adds “secundum verbum Dei”: according to the Word of God). There is a recognition that our theological understandings and formulae are always partial and provisional, and that is one of the reasons why our tradition has so many confessions and catechisms. We have always realized that no one way of articulating what we believe is going to capture the essence of what it means to be Reformed Christians for all times and all places. Even so, historically there has been a recognizable core to our Reformed identity across its various expressions.

TOO BROAD?

Today, however, it seems as though the term has become so broad and vague that it’s almost impossible to say what being Reformed means within the theological guild any more. It becomes whatever you define it as when you say that you are a Reformed theologian.

This means that one way “Reformed” is problematic is that it is underdefined. Another problem, though, is that what it means to be Reformed can end up being far too narrowly overdefined. So, for plenty of people, it means just one thing: you plant TULIPs in your theological garden. For many, the so-called “five points of Calvinism” have become the sum total of what it means to be Reformed. My colleague Todd Billings has written some marvelous articles critiquing this. The idea that you can define what it means to be Reformed by TULIP is very wrong and very damaging. First, the acronym is extremely problematic in itself and doesn’t do a particularly good job of explaining the Canons of Dordt. Second, the Canons simply clarify a few disputed aspects of one doctrine – election. The Canons are not (and do not intend to be) a comprehensive account of election from a Reformed perspective. So not only do the Five Points of Calvinism not count as a summary of what it means to be historically Reformed – go to something like the Belgic Confession for that – they do not even say anything like everything that the Reformed would want to say about the one main doctrine they deal with.

Given how difficult and confusing it can be to try to pin down what it means to be Reformed, how do I see being theologically Reformed, and why does it matter? Well, to be Reformed is mostly to be classically, historically Christian: to strongly uphold key doctrines such as the incarnation and so the two natures of Christ, the Trinity, and so on. Most of what I believe as a strongly Reformed Christian, I share with most others down the ages who belong in the stream of historic Christianity. That is a good thing, and that is how it should be. The Reformers were adamant that they were not trying to start a new church with new doctrines. They considered that they were doing nothing less than getting back both to the Scriptures and to the core doctrines of the first five centuries of the church, because they thought those were a proper interpretation of Scripture. It mattered deeply to them that they were in continuity with the historic Christian tradition, and it is a good thing that we continue to share so much with many other brothers and sisters in Christ across various traditions.

To be Reformed, then, means that I share with the wider Protestant communion things like centrality of Scripture as the sole authoritative source for doctrine and life, and justification by grace through faith, and so on. Incidentally, the latter, like so much of the Protestant Reformation, isn’t even uniquely Protestant. While there are nuances and differences, Augustine is the founding father of so many of the key Protestant doctrinal moves.

REFORMED EMPHASES

And then there are some classic Reformed emphases. I would include things like a significant stress on the sovereignty and providence of God and, especially, the sovereignty of God over our response to him. We could not even begin to make the first move toward God without God’s specific enabling, and faith itself is a gift of God (that’s Augustine too, by the way). Then there is the theme of covenant and also the strong push within Reformed theology to significant engagement in the world. I would add the way that the Calvinist stream of Reformed theology understands the sacraments and union with Christ by the Spirit. I think we can also point to a strong and important anti-idolatry strain in our tradition. By that I mean much more than the smashing of physical images in the 16th century.  I mean that at its best the Reformed tradition has a nose for sniffing out more subtle idolatries – whatever it might be that seems to be usurping the sole Lordship of Christ. At times, our tradition has failed miserably at this, but at our best, the Reformed tradition is good at keeping a Christ-focused, critical distance from culture and at resisting idolatrous claims, as well as at the transformative impetus that goes with our active engagement with the world. Finally, although people don’t tend to focus too much on such things these days, I think of our polity – our conciliar understanding of church government. While many of these themes are not necessarily unique to the Reformed tradition, all of them have mattered enormously to us down the centuries, and they continue to shape how we understand and live into every aspect of our life as followers of Christ.

As a professor in a seminary in the Reformed tradition, I teach explicitly from this perspective, and I consider that it’s very important that I do that. Given what I’ve just said, it won’t surprise anyone that teaching theology from a Reformed perspective therefore means that much of the time folks from other traditions would say, “Yes! That’s what we would say too.” And that is good. That is how is should be.

Teaching from a Reformed perspective also means I introduce folks to the breadth of the Reformed tradition. As I mentioned earlier, there really isn’t one way of being Reformed – there never has been; there never will be. From Calvin to the Canons to Edwards, Schleiermacher, Barth and beyond, ours is a pretty big tent.

I also teach in a way that is clear about where our Reformed tradition stands and why and also about where other traditions stand and why. I want to model what it means to be Reformed in grace-full conversation with others.

For those students who are Reformed (and not all of the students at Western Theological Seminary are), I think it is very, very important that they leave here with deep and strong roots in the richness of our Reformed theological heritage. That means that they can go off and play jazz. I want students to know the contours of Reformed theology so well that it’s like the rhythm and the chord progressions for a jazz musician. You can only play jazz well if you have internalized those things, because that is what sets you free to improvise. Knowing and internalizing the theological moves of the Reformed tradition means you can go with the flow of your ministry situations and do your amazing creative riffs on Reformed theology in whatever context you find yourself. I teach the Reformed tradition so my students can go out and play Holy Spirit jazz on it.

A MATTER OF ACCENT – YET NOT

As you can tell, being Reformed matters very much to me personally, and it matters very much in how I see my calling. But I honestly don’t mind whether we use the word much or not. Above all, what I want is for people to come to know Jesus: Share the Gospel with people! Open the Scriptures with people! We will always do that from somewhere, and the “somewhere” from which I do it and from which I teach others to do it is the Reformed tradition.

In some ways, being Reformed (and belonging to any other Christian tradition) is like having an accent and speaking the same language, but in noticeably different ways. So, as an Australian, I speak the same language as you do, but with a funny accent, and sometimes rather differently from you. Chances are, when I meet you, the first thing I say about myself will not  be “Hello! I’m an Australian who has spent a lot of time in the U.K. so that explains my funny accent!” Instead, I will say, “Hello, I’m Suzanne!” and we will talk for a while, and than you might say, “So, you’ve got a bit of an accent! Where are you from?” And then I will tell you. Similarly, when people get to know you and your congregation and how you worship and do discipleship, they after a while might say, “You know, you say some things and do some things a bit differently from the church down the street. Why is that?” And then we say, “Well, it’s because we belong to the Reformed tradition of Christianity,” and that opens the conversation for why we speak the Gospel with the accent that we do and the distinctive way that we do.

On the one hand, we will say and do many of the same things as our brothers and sisters from other traditions, but just like I say, “aluminium” and you say, “aluminum” or I say, “tomahto” and you say, “tomayto,” we Reformed folks will say some of the same things with a different emphasis.

On the other hand, it isn’t just about the accent. There are all sorts of words and phrases from my Australian or British background that you don’t use at all or that mean something very different. When I say those things, you will say, “Huh? What was that you just said? What does that mean?” Similarly, with being Reformed, it won’t just be that we say and do the same things as others, just with an accent. Sometimes we will say and do things very differently from others, and those differences are important too.

When we preach and teach and pastor and counsel and create liturgies and so on, we will do all of that with a Reformed accent and with Reformed distinctives. We will do that primarily because this is the best way we know to tell people about who God is, and what God has done, is doing and will do. But first, we simply do all of those things – preach, teach, pastor, counsel, create liturgies and so on – so that by grace, people will come to know and love Jesus and the Triune God and to walk in God’s ways. And then, second, as occasion and need arises, we explain why our Reformed accent and distinctives are the way that they are.

Suzanne McDonald teaches theology at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.