July 14, 2010

How Reformed is Reformed?

Here is a question I've considered as of late:  What does it mean to be a "Reformed" Christian?  The question arose for me, a United Methodist, as I considered the theology of some of my Baptist brothers who have some Reformed beliefs but are not fully aligned with what the term has meant historically.  What is required to be Reformed?  Can there be degrees of Reformed thinking?

It seems best to start with a couple of semi-Reformed options.  Take, for example, someone who would identify himself as a "Reformed Baptist."  As I understand this descriptor, it refers to someone who holds a Calvinistic soteriology and a Baptistic understanding of church government, church ordinances (including adult-only baptism, of course), regenerate church membership, and, perhaps, an eschatology that wouldn't normally be identified with the Reformed tradition (e.g. premillenial).  On the other hand, you might take someone like myself.  I don't hold to a Calvinistic soteriology with regard to unconditional election.  I do, however, affirm justification by faith alone on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ as well as Reformed understandings of the sacraments (infant baptism and spiritual presence), the covenantal scheme of redemption, and eschatology.  In light of these affirmations, it would seem that I have more theological commonality with the Reformed camp than my Reformed Baptist friend who uses the term in question in his own self-identification.  Which of us is more Reformed? Are either of us Reformed?  Is it an all or nothing package? How Reformed must one be in order to be truly Reformed?

History may shed some light on the question.  Jacob Arminius considered himself quite Reformed, though he disagreed with Beza on the matter of unconditional election.  Arminius and his disciples, the Remonstrants, considered the Calvinist-Arminian disagreement to be an in-house debate.  I'm quite close to Arminius, as far as I can tell.  This would seem to lend weight to the consideration that within the Reformed tradition there might be room for a charitable soteriological disagreement within the larger framework of Reformed thought.  Though many, I'm sure, would disagree. 

Labels can be abused, at times.  But they can also be helpful.  We need ways of summarizing belief systems so that we don't have to say something like, "I'm a justification-by-grace-on-the-condition-of-faith-infant-baptizing-sacramental-covenantal-postmillenarian."  It would be easier just to identify myself as a Reformed Methodist or a Reformed Arminian.  Such a descriptor might indicate an overall affirmation of the typical covenant theology of the Reformed tradition as well as an evangelical Methodist or Arminian soteriology. 

So, what shall it be?  Is this an all or nothing issue?  Can I be a Reformed Methodist? 

7 comments:

Luke said...

Did you see Baptist historian Nathan Finn's recent series of posts asking this question in a Baptist context? He offers a helpful typology of Calvinistic Baptists. There are some Reformed-label-police out there (think Westminster California). But I think "Reformed" can be a modifier for denominations other than Presbyterian or Reformed, if we make the necessary qualifications. Historically this must be so. If you think about the Reformation in terms of three wings--Lutheran, Reformed, and Radical--it is clear that Anglo-American Baptists, Congregationalists, and Methodists came out of the Reformed/Anglican wing.

Matt O'Reilly said...

I haven't seen Finn's posts, but I'm interested in looking them up. Thanks for the tip and your comment. I agree that the term "Reformed" should be applicable to various strands that came out of the Reformation, with appropriate qualifications, of course.

Luke said...

Of course you have to be careful using the term "Reformed Methodist" because there was a minority Calvinistic Methodist tradition among the Welsh.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Yeah, my thought was that it might be percieved as following Whitfield. But I kind of like the ring of it.

ἐκκλησία said...

The value of the reformation, is that it was fundamentally biblical, which is not to say the Reformation produced perfect doctrine.

The problem with the reformation is that has become a standard unto itself.

The question should not be "How Reformed is Reformed?" but instead "How Biblical is Reformed?"

The accusation of being "Reformed" only has merit if it really means "Biblical".

Likewise, the accusation of not being Reformed has no sting what-so-ever, if one IS still completely Biblical.

But to treat the Reformation, rather than ministry of Christ itself, as the standard by which to judge theology/doctrine is simply another method to replace the true doctrine of Christ with the doctrine of man.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Ekklesia,

While the question of whether the Reformation was and is biblical is, of course, highly important, that was not the specific question raised in this post.

My question has to do with how much breadth there is within the "Reformed" label, and do my views, which I take to be biblical, fit within it. I take this to be a helpful question in terms of clearly defining and qualifying our terminology.

Matt

ἐκκλησία said...

Agreed Matt, and this isn’t a criticism of your post. Diversity within the reformed community is of historical interest.

But simply looking at diversity within the reformed community to ascertain breadth has more historical than theological value, since the source of all theology is the Bible, rather than the reformation. Such a question further assumes perfect doctrine (or at least very good doctrine); which means that when they obsess over the doctrine that they got right, they stop asking the question Where did we get it wrong?.

Remove the Bible as a frame of reference, and the question has little, if any, theological worth. Worse still, it removes the only source of illumination that can expose why those differences exist in the first place (both within the Reformed community and between Christian communities in general)
This scenario is no different Jews asking themselves what diversity defines modern Judaism , or Catholics asking what is the extent of Catholicism given cultural and geographical diversity.

Reformers are often more concerned that their doctrine sits squarely within the Reformed community than whether their doctrine is fully square with the Bible. Even if much of reformation theology IS correct it is ultimately not acceptable to settle for even a jot (iota) less than the full theology of Christ.

The issue isn't about what is Biblical about reformed doctrine?, rather the issue is what is un-Biblical about it. Human doctrine is human doctrine.

The rejection of part of the truth is STILL a rejection of truth, and thus a rejection of Christ himself, who was truth personified.

Neither the thief on the cross, nor Paul of Tarsus, nor the apostle Peter thought - gauging whether a doctrine (or community) was Reformed or not - important enough to include in their individual testimonies, yet they were all supremely concerned whether their doctrines were exactly those of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

The breadth of Diversity within reformed doctrine IS of historical interest, but understanding the differences between reformed doctrine and the one true perfect doctrine of Christ is ultimately of eternal interest.