Truly Reformed (TR) & Reformed Catholics

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A class of churchmen is emerging in Reformed circles that excites me. They are called Reformed catholics (or Reformed irenics), the term preferred by many of the great Protestant scholastics who didn't care much for the term "Calvinist". Reformed catholics differ from the so-called progressives insofar as they prize their confessional identity rather than pay lip service to it. They also differ a little from another group of staunch confessionalists.

For many years now, those who have taken the Westminster Confession of Faith seriously - perhaps a little too seriously for some - have at times been designated with the pejorative, "TR" (Truly Reformed). Not infrequently I have heard the quip, "he's a TR [sic]." 

Now, as I understand the term, those who are Truly Reformed are the "hotter sort" of Presbyterians. There are Reformed Baptists who are like this, as well. I know some of these chaps, and I will not apologize for saying that some of the godliest men I know are Truly Reformed (or would be branded that way). I count many of them my friends, and look up to them. 

Among this group, I sometimes worry that their zeal for Confessional fidelity - a noble zeal, in and of itself - can sometimes reflect an overly restricted reading of the diversity of the Reformed tradition and our Reformed confessional history. They can read our confessions in a somewhat a-historical manner. Thus they tend to draw the lines of orthodoxy quite narrowly, excluding views from the tradition that have quite a bit of historical precedent. We must admit: our tradition has lots of diversity. Lots. And this diversity is present in the way our Confessions were formed, if one reads them carefully (e.g., the nature of Adam's reward is ambiguous).

Take for example the hypothetical universalist position on the atonement. I myself am not a hypothetical universalist. But I am also aware that up to a quarter of the Reformed tradition, including the early Reformers, were hypothetical universalists. Indeed, if a hypothetical universalist came to the Western Canada Presbytery to be examined - let's call him Edmund - I would not view his position as striking at the vitals of the Confession. It is a close one, but the better versions of hypothetical universalism - which differ from the views of Amyraut or Cameron - are practically indistinguishable from certain versions (yes, versions!) of particular redemption. John Owen was actually the novel theologian when he wrote The Death of Death. In fact, Owen was an innovative theologian for his time, rarely afraid to say things differently or in a new way.

This example above on the extent of the atonement provides a gateway into the topic described at the beginning of this post. I sense there may be a growing number of younger churchmen who have had particularly good historical-theological training overseas and also here in North America. They understand the sentiments behind Regensberg. They have wrestled with the diversity of the Reformed tradition in the Early Modern Period. They have read a lot of primary sources, and so haven't been duped by some of the earlier popular Reformed literature that made a lot of claims without a lot of evidence. They have seen that there is a precedent for a healthy Reformed catholicity. And so these chaps are willing to cut a little more slack to positions that they are in disagreement with. Yes, the gospel must be defended, but the gospel isn't necessarily under attack when someone denies that Adam could merit heavenly life or affirms that there were gracious elements (carefully understood, of course) in the "Adamic Administration." 

The problem with a lot of polemical theology done by those who might be called Truly Reformed is their penchant for going for the jugular too easily and quickly. One can get in the habit of reading the worst into someone's view and calling them a moralist. This has a twofold consequence. First, to call someone a moralist is to say they are going to hell. It is the most serious of all heresies, and not a charge to be taken lightly. A moralist believes that we are justified by Christ and something else (e.g., circumcision). Second, what do we make of the rest of Christendom (e.g., Arminians) who have a different understanding of justification by faith than the Reformed. Are they also moralists consigned to the outer darkness?

Most of those in Christendom have never heard of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, much less understand it. Some in North America act like if you don't affirm that particular doctrine your soul is in danger. Nonetheless, I find some comfort in John Owen's words: "Men may be really saved by that grace which doctrinally they do deny; and they may be justified by the imputation of that righteousness which in opinion they deny to be imputed." Considering that Owen wrote one of the best defences of the doctrine of justification, these words need to be taken seriously. We need to remember that justification is not by precision alone

Here's the irony: to be truly Reformed, in my view, is to be a Reformed catholic. To be truly Reformed means you can freely quote men who are Papists or Arminians. Our Reformed forefathers didn't have to worry about people freaking out when they quoted Arminius approvingly. Today, the Reformed catholic can quote N.T. Wright approvingly, but he must be prepared to pay the price (personally, I am not much of a fan of Wright, but the example is still useful). It was Thomas Goodwin, a Westminster divine, who called Estius an "ingenious Papist" and a "learned expositor." So much theology online today reflects a party-spirit: if my friend says certain things it is okay, but if someone I don't like says the same things he is creating confusion and we need to send emails warning people about their heterodoxy. 

Charles Hodge spent a lot of time with Schleiermacher. Consider this rather startling catholicity from Hodge:

When in Berlin the writer often attended Schleiermacher's church. The hymns to be sung were printed on slips of paper and distributed at the door. They were always evangelical and spiritual to an eminent degree, filled with praise and gratitude to the Redeemer. Tholuck said that Schleiermacher, when sitting in the evening with his family, would often say 'Hush, children; let us sing a hymn of praise to Christ.' Can we doubt that he is singing those praises now? To whomsoever Christ is God, St. John assures us, Christ is a Saviour. (II.440 footnote).

Maybe spending time with Schleiermacher was the difference. We tend to be more forgiving towards people with whom we've spent time.

Readers who have been paying attention to Reformation21 will also notice that certain quarters within the blog have tried to cultivate a Reformed catholic spirit, even though we don't mind some theological sparring. No doubt we've upset some folk who are concerned about the content on the site (e.g., pieces on Halloween), but we've also gained a wide readership from people who are thoroughly enjoying Reformation21. (I'd visit the site just to read Aaron Denlinger's pieces). 

Reformed catholics receive Baptists into church membership, embrace them at the Table; Reformed catholics don't go crazy when someone - let's call him E.J - chooses to remain agnostic on the length of the first three days of creation. 

When we consider the Christian world, and just how broad it is, it doesn't make much sense for us in the Reformed Confessional tradition to be too narrow. We are, after all, a tiny minority. We should, as far as we are able, and without compromising our confessional heritage, embrace or respect other Christian traditions, viewpoints, and values. It is actually a firm confidence in our Reformed Confessional heritage that allows us to do this. 

I can only speak for myself on this matter, but visiting South Africa, China, Brazil, and other lesser-known parts of the world (e.g., Holland), has been good for me. I have spent a lot of time with godly Christian men and women who do not quite have their theology as precise as Reformed confessionalists do here in North America. But when you see their basic love for the Lord, their desire to exalt Christ, and their joy that their sins are forgiven and that God has given them his Holy Spirit, you tend to gain a different perspective compared to those who perhaps spend a little too much time in one place with those who agree with them on almost everything. Echo chambers can be dangerous places. I'd love for some of the "hotter sort" of seminarians visit Christians in other countries; it may be more valuable for their theological and pastoral development than most of the PT classes they take. 

I have students in Africa who have had to deal with a visiting pastor in their church claiming that Job was a Satan worshipper. A literal fight broke out, and in that case I think they were right not to embrace diversity! 

In the end, I think that we need to take more seriously these words from John Owen: "And a good work it is, no doubt, to pare off all unnecessary occasions of debate and differences in religion, provided we go not so near the quick as to let out any of its vital spirits." This is something I want to take more seriously in my own approach; but I hope others will also think carefully about how they seem to want to make trouble where there doesn't need to be any trouble. To that end, I'm grateful for the growing Reformed catholicity among a new generation of churchmen that takes confessional theology seriously.

Does this mean we compromise? Absolutely not; unless, of course, we're willing to say that Owen and Hodge were compromisers...

Posted November 9, 2015 @ 10:10 AM by Mark Jones
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