Reformation and Secularity

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Recently, I was invited to give a paper to the University of Divinity’s Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy. The event was billed as ‘Luther, Protestantism and Society’, and was a low-key way to mark Reformation Day. There was, however, no beer to be found, and so the event was always going to struggle to be true to character.

There were, however, four speakers. Monica Melanchthon (Pilgrim College) spoke on ‘Luther, Bible, and Gender’, focusing especially on Luther’s exegesis of Genesis 38. Gordon Preece (Director of RASP) spoke on ‘Luther, Vocation, and Precarious Work’, and Andreas Loewe (Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral) spoke about ‘Luther, Music, and Bach’.

I offered some reflections also, abbreviating parts of a larger project that I’ve been working on. For those who may be interested, here’s a version of what I said (minus all the technical apparatus).

Reformation and Secularity

Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy, 31 October 2017

Taking Some Bearings

Debates about personal and religious liberties can get ugly, even in so-called liberal democracies. They can also be instructive. For some, such debates expose the lamentable erosion of a grander and shared communal story – an account of how we came to be where and who we are, and so a way to answer the question, ‘How then shall we live?’ For some others, such debates expose the myth that such a story ever existed, and that adjectives like ‘traditional’ – as in ‘traditional values’ – are considerably more novel than their Galahads would have us believe.

Ecclesial communions are not disinterested bystanders to such debates. Nor are they newcomers to the game. (By comparison, liberal democracy has only just turned up.) God-botherers have been playing this one for a very long time. In fact, we even wrote lots of the rules. Today, I want to offer four little reflections on what I judge to be live challenges for those religious communities committed to staying in the game, and for whom the various reformations of the sixteenth century remain critical for the formation of their identities.

One particular misjudgement I have in my scope is that social vision that places the church at the centre of things, a misjudgement that sponsors modes of being in the world that are at odds with some of Protestantism’s most remarkable instincts. Of course, not everyone shares my enthusiasm for such instincts.

Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation

Brad Gregory’s ambitious, provocative, and polemical book The Unintended Reformation (published in 2012) sits among a growing body of scholarship concerned with the geneses, definitions, and assessments of what many God-botherers often misrefer to as ‘secularism’. Epigrammatically, his thesis (which is neither new nor without serious historical misjudgements) is that liberal modernity is the progeny of the Protestant reformations of the sixteenth century. Continuing the destructive work begun by Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, these religious and intellectual upheavals, Gregory argues, are to be lamented because they are unwittingly responsible for ending over a millennia of Christianity as ‘a framework for shared intellectual life in the Latin West’, and because they created the conditions out of which grew some of the greatest maladies of the modern world, among which Gregory names individualism, pluralism, scepticism, capitalism, secularism, and consumerism – a smorgasbord of isms that have, he believes, left the world disenchanted. The Protestant response to ‘the failure of medieval Christendom’ was, in Gregory’s assessment, to squeeze transcendence out of intellectual and public discourse, and, consequently, to discard any meaning from the world that cannot be justified by an insipid and existentially-disquiet form of revisionism.

I am not entirely unsympathetic to the charge of disenchantment that Gregory lays at Protestantism’s door, especially because behind that door lies a musty room filled with very sober second- and third-generation Calvinists in whose work certain ‘metaphysical assumptions … probably did contribute to an eventual conception of a disenchanted natural world’. But a towering Manichaean saga that blames Protestants for dismantling some imagined and monolithic medieval synthesis represents a classic case of drawing up an indictment against the past, and then refusing to let it testify on its own behalf. ‘Such attention as we give to it is usually vindictive and incurious and therefore’, as Marilynne Robinson has argued, ‘incompetent’.

Contra Gregory, I would argue that the liberalising consequences of the reformers’ intentional efforts made those who welcomed them to be more at ease with secularity not in spite of their theological convictions but precisely because of them. While those who hanker for some near-Edenic past in medieval Christendom will lament that the genie has gotten out of the bottle, those who take their energies from the spirit of the reformations will not grieve that there is no way of getting him back in.

Protestant commitments to the doctrine of providence, expressed, for example, in Calvin’s positive assessment of creation as God’s ‘dazzling theater’ (Inst., 1.5.8), or as ‘a sort of mirror in which we can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible’ (Inst., 1.5.1), and in Luther and Calvin’s enthusiastic appraisal of non-ecclesial vocations, undermine the old dualisms between so-called ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ space. Both quoted fondly the psalmists words: ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’ (Ps 24.1). Luther’s political theology therefore has little qualms about stripping the church of jurisdiction and property, and about empowering worldly rulers to exercise their vocation of caritas towards the state’s citizens, and beyond. It did not, in other words, ever cast the world to the dogs …. Unless, of course, you happened to be an Anabaptist, or some German peasant demanding agrarian rights and freedom from oppression by wealthy aristocrats.

Of course, the modes of secularity with which the magisterial reformers made their home also assumed the kind of Constantinian arrangements that made their programs of reform possible in the first place, and which kept the church at or near the centres of power. While Protestants have not left such arrangements go entirely unchallenged, there remains a pressing summons to rigorously reassess them.  Any tradition that finds itself in a situation where many of the underlying commitments and assumptions upon which its identity were forged are now crumbling, has to do some hard thinking about its ongoing character. So it is to this that I now turn by way of four brief reflections.

Belief beyond medievalism

A more compelling account of the story of western modernity than that offered by Gregory is that made by another Roman Catholic, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. In his essays Sources of the Self and A Secular Age, Taylor is concerned with what he calls ‘the conditions of belief’: ‘How’, he writes, ‘did we move from a condition where, in Christendom, people lived naïvely within a theistic construal, to one in which we all shunt between two stances …; and in which … unbelief has become for many the major default option?’ Taylor tells the story of why in a so-called post-secular age ‘the hegemony of the mainstream master narrative of secularisation’ is increasingly being challenged, and of how in our ‘secular’ age, transcendence and immanence coalesce into one dis-connected whole in which ‘believers are beset by doubt and doubters, every once in a while, find themselves tempted by belief’ (Smith).

The work of many of our best novelists, musicians, poets, filmmakers, artists and other endangered species attests to the belief that our age is haunted. We no longer need the church to perform this role for us. Jamie Smith describes it well: ‘On the one hand, … [w]e live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence  …. On the other hand, even as faith endures in our secular age, believing doesn’t come easy. Faith is fraught; confession is haunted by an inescapable sense of its contestability. We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now’. Paul Elie also describes well the character of belief in our time:

We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places. Every religion is one among many. The clear lines of any orthodoxy are made crooked by our experience, are complicated by our lives. Believer and unbeliever are in the same predicament, thrown back onto themselves in complex circumstances, looking for a sign. As ever, religious belief makes its claim somewhere between revelation and projection, between holiness and human frailty; but the burden of proof, indeed the burden of belief, for so long upheld by society, is now back on the believer, where it belongs.

This makes religious belief less stable than those who confuse faith with certainties condone. I am not suggesting for a moment that sixteenth-century Europeans could have imagined the world that Taylor is seeking to understand and to map. They couldn’t have. But some of the instincts they fostered, birthed against the background of their own turbulent time, remain serviceable for us today. The Reformed project’s instincts, if rarely its practice, have been to appraise belief in terms unconstrained by the ‘protective guardianship’ (Sarah Coakley) of the status quo. Its instinct, if rarely its routine, has been to lose faith in settled arrangements, and to learn instead the habits ‘of dispossession, the constant rediscovery and critique of the myth of the self [or of the institution] as owner of its perceptions and positions’. This is the kind of thinking that ‘unsettles all claims to a final resolution of how we define and speak of our interest’ (Rowan Williams), and of belief. When it comes to believing – or to not believing – in anything we are now on our own, and responsible for ourselves. ‘Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives’ (Taylor). The medieval social space and intellectual imaginary after which Gregory hankers no longer exists, if it ever did.

Taylor is right to observe that the social imaginary in which moderns live is one in which ‘the fate of belief depends much more than before on [the] powerful intuitions of individuals, radiating out to others’ (Taylor) than it does on the unchallengeable status that a single orthodoxy once enjoyed, or on what he calls ‘the church’s good magic’ – an orthodoxy and magic which Gregory argues are a precondition for making the world intelligible. In my judgement, there is both loss and gain to be named here. On the one hand, it requires a more deliberate effort for belief to find the requisite shape in communal life. On the other hand, as Taylor observes, ‘other facets of our predicament in relation to God come to the fore; for instance what Isaiah meant when he talked of a “hidden God”. In the seventeenth century, you had to be a Pascal to appreciate that. Now we live it daily’. Or, as Abraham Heschel once put it: ‘While stripped of pretension and conceit we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith’.

Into such spaces, Christian communities can recover the shared vocation of being unstable and vulnerable bearers of the live question that brought them to birth in the first place – ‘Who do you say that I am?’ To so proceed is to welcome one of the genius insights of that first generation of Protestants regarding the freedom of the Word unharnessed from but at home among the particularities of any one culture or form, including ecclesial ones, a subject to which we now turn.

Church beyond Constantinianism

For most of its life, Western forms of Christianity have not heeded the words of the Hebrew prophets to be a sanctuary unescorted by borders or bullets. Nor have they placed much store in the warning carried in the words ‘… crucified under Pontius Pilate’. Instead, they have been made inebriate by drinking from the same wells of imperialism that created the empires of Egypt, Assyria, and the United States.

Signs that the keg may be running a little low occasions another opportunity for Protestant communions to dissent from all ‘stupid allegiance to political authority as if that were service to the church and, a fortiori, to God’ (William Stringfellow), and to embrace instead what Davis McCaughey called a ‘transitory character’. Without minimizing Christendom’s remarkable achievements, it seems judicious, imperative, and overdue for those traditions forged under its assumptions, atmosphere, and protection to undergo appraisal. This, as John de Gruchy rightly reminds us, does not mean ‘adopting a politically neutral stance or eschewing the responsible use of power’. Indeed, a project like the Reformed’s is, after all, essentially public and acutely concerned for the public commons. ‘The question is not’, therefore, ‘whether the church is going to use political influence, but how, on behalf of whom, and from what perspective it is going to do so. Is [such influence] going to be used “to preserve the social prestige which comes from its ties to the groups in power or to free itself from the prestige with a break from these groups and with genuine service to the oppressed”?’

For those who hanker after a secure life, a kind of invulnerable area in the world, the Word of God holds out no promise, no escape, no counterfeit security, no withdrawal from the actualities, ambiguities, uncertainties, and instabilities of human life. The idolatry of certainty – whether cultural, political, or intellectual – signals ‘a withdrawal from accepting the peril and the promise of the Incarnation’; namely, the call to live ‘an exposed life’ before God, one ‘stripped of the kind of security that tradition, whether ecclesiological or institutional, easily bestows’ (Donald MacKinnon). This is the church’s atypical and baffling existence. It also goes by another word – ‘discipleship’. It was this direction towards which a young Lutheran by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was looking when in London in the early 1930s he preached that:

Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its apologia for the weak … Christendom has adjusted itself much too easily to the worship of power. It should give much more offence, more shock to the world, than it is doing. Christianity should … take a stronger much more definite stand for the weak than to consider the potential moral right of the strong.

The worldliness of the church

During his first American tour, Bonhoeffer spoke also of a church ‘beyond religion’. While his now-famous wrestlings with the question of a ‘religionless Christianity’ and of ‘interpreting biblical concepts nonreligiously’ seem to have had their main geneses in Karl Barth’s theological critique of religion, it is clear that Bonhoeffer was pressing beyond Barth towards something more as-yet unknown. Neither an ‘extra’ to the normalities of human existence nor a ‘stopgap’ for when we have reached ‘the limits of our possibilities’, Bonhoeffer’s God is fully present in all of life’s ‘polyphonic’ dimensions. ‘We cannot, like the Roman Catholics’, Bonhoeffer said, ‘simply identify ourselves with the church’. For ‘Jesus calls not to a new religion but to life’, the content of which is a participation in God’s powerlessness in and suffering ‘at the hands of a godless world’.

Bonhoeffer’s is a call to reject the claim that ecclesiocentricity and its institutional permanence are necessary in order to make the world coherent. He rejects, in other words, the myth that the church is the telos of world history wherein ‘the whole space at one’s disposal is filled with ecclesiology’, and where ‘the world has disappeared from the horizon’ (J. C. Hoekendijk). He rejects, therefore, a church turned in upon itself (ecclesia in se incurvata) and so the reduction of mission to proselytism into particular cultural forms.

Here we come to modern Protestantism’s failure to know why it exists anymore. As a commentator noted in The Washington Post just last week, ‘Protestantism has become an end in itself … The result is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share’. Bonhoeffer did not make this misjudgement. Firstly, because he had no problem with saying the third article of any ecumenical creed. He refused, in other words, to not hope for and work towards the genuine and international unity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. And secondly, because in his terms: ‘The church is church only when it is there for others … The church’, he wrote, ‘must participate in the worldly tasks of life in the community – not dominating but helping and serving’. This refrain found echo in the World Council of Churches’ report, published in 1967 as The Church for Others and the Church for the World. The report grappled with the perception of a growing secularization in the West, pleading that the Church not discern in its ‘change of social function’ a ‘loss or emigration from society’ lest it understand mission to be ‘a counter-attack to restore’ Christendom. It argued also that we might be wisest to consider the possibility that secularisation might in fact be ‘a fruit of the gospel’, and a much-welcomed invitation to seek traces of Christ’s transforming work ‘outside the walls of the Church’ and among those ‘who may have little or no connexion with the churches as they are today’.

Gregory’s long threnody for medieval Christianity masks an unwillingness to consider that, however unintended they may have been, the liberalising consequences of the reformers’ congeniality with what we today might call ‘secularity’ was a deliberate theological move. It was a move birthed of the instinct that the hegemony of the ecclesia meets its counter story in the truly catholic authority of the free and freeing Word who ‘came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (Jn 1.13). The fact is too that Gregory can lament for a past time all he likes. There can be no going back. The nostalgia for the absolute is just that – nostalgia, and nothing more.

Faithful secularity and the humanising of the public commons

The one thing that is certain in our current cultural and political climate is that things are ‘deeply uncertain and fluid’. ‘There is’, as Rowan Williams has noted, ‘widespread impatience with transnational institutions, from the EU to the UN, yet equally widespread anxiety about the dominance of a single power. We are increasingly aware of the issues that cannot be solved by single sovereign states on their own – ecological crisis, terrorism, migrancy – yet are uncomfortable with any notion of global jurisdictions’. In addition, there is the profound ‘discontent of the disenfranchised and insecure’ (Williams). The global north is increasingly conscious of facing a highly critical, if internally diverse, Islamic world and is struggling to know how best to respond to its presence both within and outwith its borders. ‘Enlightenment liberalism, the self-evident creed of reasonable people, now appears as simply one cultural and historical phenomenon among others. Its supposed right to set the agenda for the rest of the world is no longer beyond question’ (Williams). Things once seemingly reliable now feel fragile, and endangered.

At the same time, how we appraise and navigate secularity itself is also undergoing significant revision. A growing number of historians, sociologists, political theorists, cultural anthropologists, and theologians are debunking the so-called secularisation thesis and are proposing alternative accounts of secularity in which ‘religious and nonreligious commitments and practices interact over time’ (Luke Bretherton). Among these is the theological ethicist Luke Bretherton. Drawing upon insights from Aristotle, Hannah Arendt, Saul Alinsky, and others, and from his own experience with grassroots democracy in the work of Citizens UK, Bretherton’s is a vision of democratic politics and of vibrant civil society expressed in what he calls ‘broad-based community organizing’. He promotes a vision in which those who carry myriad obligations, commitments, identities, and practices – those representing varying economic, political, kinship, intellectual, and religious concerns – learn to coordinate, converge, communicate, debate, clarify, negotiate, and seek to forge a common life, a life that will inevitably call into question the kind of arrangements orchestrated to leave economic, political, and religious elites immune from accountability and responsible participation in a common social, legal, economic, and political space. Bretherton recognises that ‘whereas the medieval city offered one set of political opportunities and challenges, the modern and now world city offers an assemblage of material and social conditions for a different set’. Rather than shy away from this reality, or rail against it, however, Bretherton leans into its opportunities. He writes:

What community organizing represents is a means of reconstituting, from the ground up, a sensus communis, which can then form the basis of a practical rationality on which shared judgments can be made. It does this through assembling a ‘middle ground’ out of the existing traditions, customs, and habits that have poured into the city. The practices of community organizing create the conditions through which a shared world of meaning and action can emerge – albeit one often based on partial misunderstandings and misconceptions.

Bretherton’s is a call to the virtuous pursuit of a shared polis formed ‘through particular kinds of democratic practices rather than a single tradition, neutral procedure, or agonistic relations’. It is life that presupposes a space wherein active citizenship is organised and exercised through voluntary associations around common interests, goals, and commitments to life’s flourishing. Such a commitment need not, of course, be grounded in any consensus about what constitutes ultimate truth, or even agreement that such an oddity may exist. It requires only that citizens be dedicated to meet in such a space, and a just state that will normalise liberal democracy’s chaotically-pluralist character. Here, Bretherton seems to have in mind something like Nicholas Wolterstorff’s talk of ‘integrated existence’ – the integration that makes the public square to be truly the square of the public.

The plea for better knowledge of and investment in local civic activism echoes that of a growing number of voices concerned to counter the bastardisation of democracy as what the Italian social scientist Vilfredo Pareto refers to as ‘the circulation of elites’ who have detached themselves from – and become disdainfully imperious towards – those they rule. In the US, for example, Richard Falk has for over two decades now championed the idea of what he calls ‘globalisation from below’. This deeply Protestant-like vision rejects the homogeneity and unity that globalisation-from-above seeks, for a vision instead that ‘tends towards heterogeneity and diversity, even tension and contradiction’. Much of this tension and contradiction is, as the Belgian sociologist Geoffrey Pleyers has suggested, the fruit of the fact that broad-based community organising is characterised by both ‘elite cosmopolitan activists’ who ‘share a top-down conception of social change’ and grassroots activists who reject such approaches as too approximating of the very social machinery they are determined to overthrow. In the sixteenth century, many Europeans committed to ecclesial and social reform felt likewise – that despite the rapid internationalisation of the movement, and however disparate in form, its productive energy was always expressed locally, with voices both from above and from below.

Lest the liberal state lose its essential liberalism it must be marked too by a continuing dialogue with religious communities, and those with each other. Viable civil societies in religiously plural contexts presuppose viable interreligious and extra-religious relations, with a high priority given to efforts at the local level where the freedom to engage in ‘convivial and cooperative relations’, however difficult and unstable, and to do so in ways that avoid ‘religious vandalism’, yields – dare I say it? – signs of the Spirit’s work in the earth.

Traversing Boundaries

The realities with which I have been concerned in this paper offer both challenges to and opportunities for theologians. We are increasingly working ‘within a re-enchanted world’ whose imagination is being fed from a smorgasbord larger than any single religious or cultural tradition can offer. Such a world moves theology from nearer the centre of things (where Gregory and many others would like it to be) towards the ‘discursive borderlands’ where interdisciplinary conversations and collaborations become normative. If theological faculties have frequently forgotten this habit, let me offer assurance that mine is not a call to novelty (Aquinas, for example, worked in such a way) but to renewed commitment to boundary-traversing discourse undertaken under new conditions of enchanted metaphysics. It is a call also to receive with gratitude what Marilynne Robinson names simply ‘the givenness of things’. The future of theology means making our way across boundaries, like a small cloud rising over the sea’s horizon, bearing hobbit-like witness to promised rains for a famished land.

When assumptions are challenged, when faith is stirred, when things once familiar become the new unknown, when we find ourselves travelling ‘too near the mountains’ in unguarded territory seldom traversed by ecclesial wayfarers, and when all we have in our kit are ‘old maps’ which are of ‘no use’ in this new terrain, it may be that at that point we have just begun, like Abraham and Sarah, and Frodo Baggins, on a quest that will leave us, and the future, different. My reference here to Mr Baggins is wholly intentional: colourful and noisy and undersized hobbits enter the quest, as J. R. R. Tolkien reminds us, not to preserve ‘this or that polity, such as the half republic half aristocracy of the Shire’, but rather to engage in ‘liberation from … evil tyranny’. Such is a reminder of the Christian calling too, that this people of God are not called to preserve that familiar life that they had known in the Shire but rather to imagine a future in which all of life’s enemies have been overcome, and to direct all their embodied efforts towards such an end. Along the way, they not only lose their reputation, but they also carry many unanswered questions, all the while knowing that there can be no going back. (Nor, as Frodo was to discover, can there be anything to be gained by going sideways.) But it is precisely in both the refusal to abandon questions and the determination to move forward nonetheless that Frodo and his strange company of friends discover that prudence is not about worldly cleverness but is rather about uncomplicated minds and wills conformed to a life of virtue, of boundless mercy, and of unbending devotion to the destruction of that which would undo their very being. In Protestant parlance, it is a simply that life which is lived under and by and toward the Word alone.

Jason Goroncy
Reformation Day 2017

Innovation, Renewal, and Betrayal

Innovation

I’ve been reading Michael Welker again, this time his essay on ‘Travail and Mission: Theology Reformed According to God’s Word at the Beginning of the Third Millennium’, published in Toward the Future of Reformed Theology: Tasks, Topics, Traditions. I was struck by Welker’s use of the word ‘innovation’ to describe the reformed habit of semper reformanda, the subject I tackle in my contribution to this book. Incidentally, Michael Jinkins, in his delightful little book The Church Transforming, also likens the reformed maxim to the idea of ‘innovation’, and draws upon the work of Edwin Friedman, a rabbi and leading proponent of family systems theory, and upon Friedman’s notion of ‘adventurous leadership’ as the only effective antidote to the anxiety that grips people, organisations, and institutions today, noting the apparent insanity of the Renaissance explorers who sailed west to discover a new trade route to the east and by doing so helped medieval Europe become ‘unstuck’ from its anxiety and conformity to convention and thus ushered in the Renaissance. In some sense, Jinkins argues, Luther and Calvin and the whole Protestant movement during the sixteenth century were products of the ‘Age of Unstuckness’, the ‘Age of Adventure and Exploration’. He suggests too that ‘the thing we most need today in our church in this profoundly anxious time is a similar spirit of adventure in leadership’. But I digress …

Back to Welker. Welker suggests that while the Reformed community has made its mark on the dialogue with the social sciences and with jurisprudence throughout the twentieth century, and has been one of the most actively committed proponents of the ecumenical movement, ‘it seems that precisely Reformed theology’s delight in innovation and new departures, its interdisciplinary, cultural, and ecumenical openness, has brought it into a profound crisis at the end of the twentieth century’. This crisis, he avers, finds its nexus in the rapid, diverse and diffuse cultural and social developments that have characterised the Western industrialised nations. Welker believes that Reformed theology with its special openness for contemporary cultural developments has been particularly tested and assaulted by these developments in ways in which other theologies, perhaps those with more dogmatically- or liturgically-oriented ‘brakes’, have been less vulnerable. The theologia reformata et semper reformanda seems ‘to be at the mercy of the shifting Zeitgeist’, and the profile of Reformed theology seems to have disintegrated into ‘a plethora of attempts to engage contemporary moral, political, and scientific trends, either strengthening them or fighting them’. Exposure to continual renewal has left Reformed theology both vulnerable to losing its profile through the ‘cultural stress of innovation’, and in danger of betraying its ‘typical mentality and spiritual attitude’.

Welker’s prescription for response to this ‘travail’ is to clarify our understanding of, and attend to the address of, the word of God over against the cacophony of competing utterances, addresses and presentations. Such ‘evangelical freedom’ will mean not only joining the ancient Hebrew prophets in naming the perversion of justice, the misuse of the cult, and the refusal to practice mercy, but also drawing repeated attention to ‘the situation in which religion, law, politics, morality, rulers and ruled, natives and foreigners make common cause against God’s word and God’s presence’, and bearing witness to the creative power of the Word of God who ‘overcomes the power of sin, renews and lifts up Christian persons and communities in the church of all times and regions of the world, and radiates a beneficent influence on their environments’.

It seems to me that such freedom also invites a change of direction (metanoia) regarding the Church’s yielding to three temptations: (i) the turn inwards, or the burying of itself, in its own affairs to the almost-complete neglect of any meaningful engagement with non-churchly cultures; (ii) the engagement in a flurry of welfare activities, or what P. T. Forsyth once referred to as ‘affable bustle’, the focus and essential content of which is set by the moment’s popular interest. (The Reformed principle of ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda is, of course, a call to being reformed by the Spirit and the Word rather than an invitation to an ‘endless cycle of idea and action, endless invention, [and] endless experiment’ (T. S. Eliot) for its own sake); and (iii) the uncritical alignment with the most sympathetic leaders of other faiths and programs in a profession of loyalty to ‘Truth’. This situation was acutely observed more than half a century ago by Lesslie Newbigin in his little essay ‘The Quest of Unity through Religion’.

[Image: Tabbert]

Theological education: a gift from the reformed

there-s-a-sea-in-my-bedroom

What insights and gifts do various church traditions offer to each other, and to the world?

Well, the Orthodox remind us that this girl is old, much older than you think. In fact, she’s a real nanna. The Pentecostals remind us that this girl likes to experiment. The Seventh Day Adventists remind us that the graffiti on the back of the dunny door announcing that this girl likes Marcion, who also goes by the name of ‘Marci’, is just slander. The Anglicans remind us that this girl plays best when she’s playing with all sorts of different girls. (‘Anglicans’ who don’t get this might as well become Brethren.) Speaking of which, the Brethren remind us that this girl shows us that weirdness can be catholic too. The Baptists remind us that this girl is supposed to have a thing about unprotected sex with civil authorities, and that she has a mind of her own. The Presbyterians/Reformed remind us that this girl is a bit of a nerd. The Methodists remind us this girl can sing! The Lutherans remind us that this girl can drink! The Salvos remind us that this girl can go without drinking at all because her arms and legs alone keep her alive. And the Roman Catholics remind us that this girl is not a girl at all but actually a boy who likes playing dress ups.

Now the thing that I really want to reflect on here is the gift that each of these habits and idiosyncrasies are to each other, and how much poorer this girl would be were any of these features made to be unwelcome, or not given opportunity and space to flourish. I’ll take one – the Presbyterian/Reformed commitment to education.

In his little book The Church Transforming: What’s Next for the Reformed Project?Michael Jinkins writes:

The Reformed project has always promoted theological education to support and strengthen the church in its mission. We live at a moment, however – an axial moment in the history of the church – when some question the rationale for the theological education of those called to lead the church. Today we must argue convincingly for a theologically well-educated ministry if we care about the quality of preaching and the worship of God, of pastoral care and counseling, of Christian teaching and nurture, of mission, service, and evangelism. We must make this argument powerfully if we care about the nurturing of a church that can grapple with the social and cultural challenges it faces. Theological education will not solve every problem: it will not heal our every disease or deliver us from every evil. But theological education can teach us that we don’t have to be mean or stupid to follow Jesus of Nazareth. And in our culture today, this is one of the most countercultural messages we can articulate.

Education, including theological education (a subject about which I’ve blogged a bit before), proved to be fundamentally important in the birthing of the Reformed movements in the sixteenth century, both through Grandpa Calvin’s emphasis on catechesis and the ‘sermon’, and through the establishment, in 1559, of the Genevan Academy, which became the training ground for an ‘educated clergy’ and the nursery of Reformed movements in France, the Netherlands, England, Poland, Scotland, and elsewhere.

In his masterful biography on Calvin, Bruce Gordon has observed that ‘Schools were, in Calvin’s mind, essential to the building of Christian society’. Calvin shared with the Genevans a commitment to the humanism of the great European centres. This commitment found expression in the creation of and widespread support for the Academy, which had two parts – the schola publica which trained ministers and the schola privata where Genevan children, each of whom was believed to be a gift from God, were schooled. The schola privata, in particular, received substantial support – a claim buoyed by the fact that it was provided with new buildings, and it received nearly 20% of the city’s annual budget in 1559–60, money gained largely from the dissolution of the monasteries. In addition, citizens of Geneva were required to bequeath legacies to the Academy in their wills, and were expected to pray for the Academy and its work.

Undergirding such a commitment is a deeper commitment to the world itself. The church has often faced the temptation to disengage from the world, to take a turn inwards and focus almost entirely on churchly matters, to become a mere sect. By and large, the Reformed have resisted this temptation.

Indeed, historically, one of the real gifts that the Reformed have bequeathed to the wider Church and to the discipline of theology has been the rigour with which it has applied the life of the mind in the service of God and of God’s work in the world. So Jinkins:

From the first, Reformed Christians have sought to advance the best thinking in the face of superficiality, superstition, bad religion, social reactivity, and anxiety. As expressions of confidence that Christian faith and the promotion of knowledge go hand-in-hand, the Reformed project established the first programs of universal education, founding universities, graduate schools, and teaching hospitals as it moved across the world. Today the world’s problems have become extraordinarily complex, and many religious people try to prove their religious devotion by refusing to test their convictions intellectually or by seeking to silence those with whom they disagree. Now more than ever, we as Reformed Christians must foster the curiosity and intellectual openness that have driven us to think deeply, for there is desperate need for faithful people who are bold and unflinching thinkers, people who will use their best knowledge and concerted intellect to engage and mend a broken world.

So we are thinking here about the habit of the Reformed to love God – and so God’s world – with our mind, as well as with our heart, soul, and strength. The Reformed are typically among those in the body of Christ who worry most about what will become of Christian faith – and, indeed, of the world – if Christians fail to love God and God’s world with a love schooled and tenacious enough to ask – and to keep asking – the tough, deep, critical and sometimes intractable questions about life. They are among those who are ‘concerned about what it will mean for our faith if we choose to ignore life’s most profound mysteries and insoluble riddles’, who are ‘concerned about the integrity of the church if we abandon the curiosity that is unafraid to swim at the deep end of the pool, if we jettison a passion for ideas, for knowledge, and for wisdom for their own sake’ and who are equally ‘disturbed about what will become of society if persons of faith retreat from the public sphere, where ideas must fight for their lives among competing interests, where justice is served by vigorous argumentation and intelligent action as much as by high ideals’. They are certainly among those who believe that the greatest heresy the church faces today is not atheism but superficiality, and its attendant ‘cult’.

To cite Jinkins, again:

Occasionally I hear editors of church publications or church growth consultants arguing that Christian laypeople just aren’t interested in theology, or that laypeople aren’t interested in the history of their faith or, worse still, that laypeople simply can’t understand complicated ideas. Yet, when I speak in congregations around the country, I regularly encounter crowds of lively, intelligent laypeople hungry to know more about their faith. These are laypeople, incidentally, who in their daily lives run businesses and shape economies, teach, read or even write important books on a variety of serious subjects, argue legal cases before judges and juries, write laws that shape our common life, and cure our diseases of the mind and body. These laypeople are tired of being infantilized at church. They want to understand their faith more deeply. The comments of the laypeople I meet, people who want to learn more about their faith, are often along the lines of what an elderly woman said … one Sunday after [Tom Long] had preached in one of the many congregations in which he speaks around the country. As he was making his way from the pulpit to the sanctuary exit, the woman stepped forward to greet him. Earlier in the evening, Tom had invited members of the congregation to share with him any messages they’d like him to take back to the future ministers he teaches in seminary. As this woman stepped forward, Tom greeted her with the question, “Is there a message you’d like me to take back to the seminary, something you’d like me to tell our students?” “Yes, there is,” she said. “Tell them to take us seriously.” Now, I know that not every person in our churches, or indeed in our society, craves to understand God (or anything else) more deeply. But I would also maintain that at the core of the gospel there is a sacred mandate – we call it “the Great Commission – to go into all the world to make disciples, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). The word disciple translates a Greek word that means “pupil” or “willing learner.” As church leaders, then, we have this duty, this mission, this commission: to teach, to kindle curiosity, to expand knowledge, to renew minds, to make our people wiser. And there are many, many people only too eager to learn.

The Reformed emphasis on the importance of education needs to be tempered, however, with the kind of humility that the Reformed emphasise concerning human personhood in general, and about the noetic effects of what its Augustinian forebears named ‘the Fall’. Truth, as the saying goes, is the first casualty of war. But self-criticism is among the first casualties of insecurity, especially those brands of insecurity that transform thinking people into an unthinking herd.

Christian faith, on the other hand, thrives on a spirit that resists taking itself too seriously. Healthy girls know how to party, and they do. As G. K. Chesterton once suggested, angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Devils, on the other hand, fall under the weight of their own self-regard. But God help us all when Presbyterians and Uniting Church folk start parking their brains in the shopping cart, as some of their own members and not a few of their ecclesial cousins are want to do.

So, three cheers for serious theological education, wherever it’s happening.

Always Being Reformed

PICKWICK_TemplateA new collection of essays on reformed theology, arising from a wonderful conference hosted by Austin Seminary, has just been published. Always Being Reformed: Challenges and Prospects for the Future of Reformed Theology was edited by David Jensen, who was also a contributor to the volume along with Cynthia Rigby, Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi, Deborah van den Bosch, Henk van den Bosch, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Lameck Banda, Margit Ernst-Habib, Martha Moore-Keish, Mary Fulkerson, Meehyun Chung, and Bill Greenway. The collection includes a few scribbles from me too.

My essay is titled ‘Semper Reformanda as a Confession of Crisis’. It is unambitious and simple in its three broad aims, each of which earns a section. The first section is an attempt to identify the historical beginnings and theological intentions of the aphorism semper reformanda, and to trace some of the ways in which the commitment to this virtue of the reformed project has evolved. The second, and longest, section asks more specifically about how that commitment relates to reformed patterns of confessing. Principally, what I argue for here is that to confess the faith in the spirit of the semper is to confess that the Christian community is, at core, in a state of crisis. The final section attempts to place on the table one theo-political commitment that might call for reevaluation; namely, how the reformed conceive of their relationship vis-à-vis the modern state. I take it that this section is an implication of the previous one – i.e., an implication of the gospel’s eschatological character and what it means to be a community unsettled, unpredictable, and unreliable when it comes to its relationship with whatever current arrangements might be in place in the world.

I look forward to seeing the book when it arrives, and to revisiting some of the wonderfully-stimulating essays therein.

The conference was memorable in many ways. So was Austin. It was there that I met, for the very first time, a quiscalus quiscula.

 

Communion: On Being the Church – the Lutheran–Reformed Joint Commission

Lutheran-Reformed dialogue - Communion. On Being the Church_Page_01The latest report of the Lutheran–Reformed Joint Commission between the Lutheran World  Federation and the World Communion of Reformed Churches is now available. Its title is Communion: On Being the Church. To read and/or download the report, click on the pretty picture.

An Interview with Setri Nyomi

In this recent interview, Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, reflects on the 14 years he has served with the WCRC. I was both interested and challenged about what he had to say about the Accra Confession, a document whose 10th anniversary this year will ironically be marked by a series of consultations:

The issues that the Accra Confession talked about are still with us. And in fact they are expressing themselves in more vicious ways than they were in 2004. We still have economic injustice, we still have many, many, many people dying as a result of the way the global economy is shaped. Since 2004, that has also touched the global north in a way that couldn’t have been envisioned in 2004. In 2004 people thought, “oh that’s the issue for Latin America, and Africa and Asia.” But in 2008 we had the economic meltdown that impacted the north and I personally had letters from people in the global north saying, “Looks like this is the very thing the Accra Confession is talking about.”

And so ten years later we have those issues still with us. For me the unfortunate thing is I don’t see how it is being lived out, even in the lives of our church members, to the extent I would have liked to see. If I had any evaluation of the Accra Confession I would count that a failure, that it is still not part of the mainstream of the life of people. And I hope this tenth anniversary we’ll be able to do that kind of evaluation and redirect ourselves because it’s not the kind of confession that you put on a shelf and say, “We’ve achieved a good statement.” It’s not even the kind of confession that you’re happy about if once in a while you recite it in churches as one of the wonderful confessions of the church. It is one that calls on us to engage in some actions, and unless we are doing those I would say we need to say we have failed.

The risky business of being ‘reformed’

end of the lineIn her book Moving Forward, Looking Back: Trains, Literature, and the Arts in the River Plate, Sarah Misemer describes the trains of Argentina as symbolising ‘the dialectical influences of the forward trajectory (progress/future), while at the same time embodying the backward glance (regression/past)’. When travelling on an old train in particular, despite being aware of the technology that makes such eccentric carriage possible, one can have a sense that even though one is moving forward, there is also the sense that one ‘travels into a quaint and less mechanized’ world, escaping backwards in time.

The same theme is picked up by artist Michael Flanagan in his brief essay ‘The Backward Glance’. He explores the intersection between time and memory, suggesting that our vision of the past operates akin to the view of a disappearing landscape glimpsed from within a moving train: ‘How can the Past ever be anything but a mystery … We see life as if from the end car of a speeding train, watching through the rear window as the tracks slip away beneath us … everything passing, receding, disappearing into a point on the horizon’.

Insofar as this is true of our experience of train travel, the same might be said of our thinking about Christian community – we can lament that our past ebbs too quickly. Such lament can encourage the creation of romanticised images, like those of nineteenth-century artists George Angas and Gottfried Lindauer who Europenised the New Zealand landscape. Flanagan calls this the ‘nostalgia problem’.

At the other end of the train are those who seek to drive on, aware only of what lies in front. Like perpetual teenagers, they are those for whom the past is forgotten and irrelevant; indeed, it is not even part of their being today.

But here the analogy breaks down, particularly for those of us who profess to be concerned with the project called ‘reformed’: we have no tracks upon which to travel, and even the existence of the train itself is not a sure thing. Entirely bereft of the familiar and the certain, the reformed – i.e., that churchly tribe of which Presbyterians form the largest part – are concerned to live entirely dependent upon God’s speech, upheld solely by the Word who continuously calls us into being. To be reformed is to be always open to the risky possibility that what one hears from God tomorrow might be entirely at odds with what one heard yesterday.

Such a situation poses a real challenge – and opportunity! – for a tradition concerned to confess the faith by way of formal statements. One of the hazards of writing confessions, for example, is that institutions are then tempted to build upon them, to trust in them, to look to them to do the work of safeguarding whatever it is that the institution most values – to turn the living Word of God into a ‘thing’. Even the desire to confess and embody our unity in Christ can mask efforts which are at core idolatrous: namely, to locate the unity of the Body of Christ in something – in a ‘thing’ – rather than in the person of Christ himself and his claims upon us, claims which precede and bring under judgement all our efforts.

The Christian community is called to be at once more free and more bound than a train. It is called to be entirely unburdened from all efforts to keep it from falling off the rails, and it is called to be entirely bound to him who alone brings it into love’s true freedom.

_________________________________________________________________________

This piece first appeared in ‘Theology Matters’, Spanz 58 (Winter 2014), 16. A pdf version is available here.

John (de Gruchy) on John (Calvin): a commendation

De Gruchy - John Calvin

John W. de Gruchy, John Calvin: Christian Humanist and Evangelical Reformer (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013). ISBN: 978-1-62032-773-9. 240pp.

John de Gruchy’s little book on John Calvin is a great read! One of its real achievements is that its author has succeeded, in little over 200 pages, in capturing something of Calvin’s spirit and energy. It is certainly no hagiography – de Gruchy is not shy to point out those areas where paradox exists in his subject, and where he thinks that the reformer simply got it wrong! In an honest effort to introduce one of the most important figures in Western intellectual, theological, and social history, it picks up some themes that marked and gave anatomy to his work. De Gruchy is especially keen to retrieve Calvin and the tradition that exists most consciously in his wake as constructive expressions of Christian humanism, a movement of social transformation that is at once liberating, ecumenical, and humanising.

Writing with a non-technical style, and out of his own experience of witnessing both the beauty and the ugliness of the reformed project played out in his native South Africa, de Gruchy builds a compelling case for why we should take Calvin’s thought seriously as a resource for what it means today to engage in the public commons, and for encouraging the kind of flourishing of human society that God desires. Certainly not everything in Calvin’s thought lends itself to such a project, but there is much that does, and these are the features that de Gruchy identifies and develops. He concludes his study by offering six affirmations about Christian humanism and its public vision. They bear repeating and thinking about as a way into considering Calvin’s own vision, and its portability today. They are:

First, Christian humanism is inclusive in its vision of humanity. It recognises that being human is our primary identity – coming before those of religion, race, culture, social class or gender.

Second, Christian humanism affirms both the God-given dignity of being human and the concomitant responsibility of being human. Given human brokenness, it understands the gospel as God’s way of restoring human dignity and awakening our responsibility for the world in which we live.

Third, Christian humanism is open to knowledge and insight from wherever truth is to be found, but it draws most deeply from the Christian Scriptures and the long history of their interpretation through the centuries, embodied in what is called ‘Christian tradition’.

Fourth, Christian humanism insists that love of God is inseparable from love for others; that faith and discipleship belong together; that theology and ethics are part of the same enterprise, and that the renewal of church life and public life are intrinsically connected.

Fifth, Christian humanism places justice, good governance, ecological responsibility and global well-being above national and sectional interests. It is concerned to ensure that scientific and technological development serve the common good and the well-being of the earth.

Sixth, Christian humanism encourages human creativity and cherishes beauty. It insists that goodness, truth and beauty are inseparable, though distinct. Just as it places a premium on moral values and the search for truth, it also regards the development of aesthetic values and sensitivity through the arts as essential for human well-being.

I warmly and enthusiastically commend this book, particularly for those for whom Calvin remains something of a persona non grata, or an embarrassing – or worse! – spokesperson for the Christian faith, and for those who wish to gain a clearer sense of the world-embracing vision of the reformed project at its best.

 

Semper Reformanda as a Confession of Crisis

Girolamo ZanchiSoon, I will be making my way to Austin TX. It will be my first time in ‘the live music capitol of the world’ (other candidates for the accolade are Melbourne and Berlin), and I’m not a little gutted that I won’t be there in time to enjoy the South By Southwest events. Still, I’m very much looking forward to participating in the ‘Inaugural Clarence N. and Betty B. Frierson Distinguished Scholars’ Conference’ at Austin Seminary. The conference theme is Always Being Reformed: Challenges, Issues and Prospects for Reformed Theologies Today.

Any excuse to think critically about matters at the very heart of the reformed project is to be welcomed because this strange beast called ‘Reformed’ can never be a default or settled position, and because it is through such self-examination that the reformed serve the church catholic and its witness to Christ in the world. Is this not precisely the only justification for the reformed project at all?

My paper is unambitious and simple in its three broad aims, each of which earns a section. Here’s a wee summary, for those who may be interested:

I. The first section is an attempt to identify the historical beginnings and theological intentions of the aphorism semper reformanda, and to trace some of the ways in which the commitment to this animus of the reformed project has evolved among us. I note that the etymological history of the reformanda sayings is sketchy, but whether their geneses were in 1670s Holland (in the writings of Jacobus Koelman, Johannes Hoornbeeck, and Jodocus van Lodensteyn) or in 1562 in the Italian reformer Girolamo Zanchi (the strong case for priority in Zanchi’s writings is in reference to some correspondence with Theodore Beza, and his treatise De Reformatione Ecclesiarum), they all use the idea of semper reformanda in a similar way—namely, as a summons to the church to be restored to a former purity. Only then, it is argued, can the church really be called ‘reformed’. Zanchi, Calvin, the early reform movements in France and indeed most of the tradition since (with few exceptions; e.g., the Synod of Privas, 1612, argued that ongoing reform would be destabilizing for the church. Another way to read this is to say that those who found themselves benefiting from past reforms did not want their new positions to be undermined), believed that such reform is both possible and is to be a permanent characteristic of the church’s existence in the world.

History points to a movement whose character and energy were ripe for transformation, believing that such would represent not a human achievement but an action of God who calls the church to renewed obedience and continuing reformation through Holy Scripture. Reform, in other words, was to be the fruit of a people attentive to the Word of God in the Bible and to the living Word who ever breaks himself open to us therein. So understood, Ecclesia semper reformanda is not ecclesia semper varianda. Or, as T. S. Eliot put it, reformation is not an ‘endless cycle of idea and action, endless invention, [and] endless experiment’ for its own sake. It is, however, as Michael Jinkins has argued, an invitation to adapt the lessons of the past ‘to new conditions in new environments and to do so in ways that remain appropriate to who we are called to be as a community of followers of Jesus Christ’.

II. The second, and longest, section asks more specifically about how that commitment relates to reformed patterns of confessing. Principally, what I am arguing for here is that to confess the faith in the spirit of the semper is to confess that the Christian community is, at core, in a state of crisis.

I begin by arguing that confession is first and foremost concerned with the community’s lived wrestle with and response to the live question ‘Who is Jesus Christ today?’ This question calls for some risk—faith’s risk that our response might drive us away from familiar formulations and into previously-unchartered territory. This is what it means to be a living tradition, continuously being brought into being by One who encounters us both in and for new contexts. So while we will speak in some continuity with the past, we must reject all moves to deify past confessions. I suggest that confession exemplifies something of the character of commentary insofar as exegesis always calls for new translation. Such work entails the risks of having misheard, of having spoken out of turn, of living with both continuity and discontinuity with one’s history, and of having no stable culture and no visible institutional identity upon which one can rely.

It seems to me that the formula ecclesia reformata semper reformanda serves to safeguard against the temptation to capture revelation as some fixed given, as ‘a thing’. Consequently, I suggest that it calls for something of an event metaphysics wherein the pilgrim community and its witness are continuously disrupted, created and reformed by the eschatological Word and Spirit. One implication of this is that our claims will have an invisible, indemonstrable, and unprovable character about them, and so will be of little value in the hands of those whose measure of reality is that which is passing away.

Drawing on the work of Hendrik Kraemer, Michael Weinrich, J. C. Hoekendijk, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Käsemann, William Stringfellow and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I argue that confession, as understood by the reformed, is a form of dispossession. That is, for a community-in-diaspora to confess Christ is to be entirely uninvested in its own self-preservation. It is a community whose attention to God’s address is such that ‘its whole life is put in question’ (Karl Barth).

III. The final section of my paper attempts to place on the table one theo-political commitment that might call for reevaluation; namely, how the reformed conceive their relationship vis-à-vis the modern state. I take it that this section is an implication of the previous one—i.e., an implication of the gospel’s eschatological character and what it means to be a community entirely unsettled and unpredictable and unreliable when it comes to its relationship with whatever current arrangements might be in place in the world. The Word of God creates a crisis particularly for those who want life to be secure and invulnerable and certain for it calls for faith to live what Donald MacKinnon names ‘an exposed life’ and to boldly resist all efforts to ‘justify’ its position in the world.

My invitation for us to do some critical thinking about what this might mean for our relationships with the state recalls, of course, that the reformed will share radically different—even contradictory—positions on this subject as on others, and this is how it should be. What ought to be unequivocal, however, is that such positions resist being settled ones, and that they emerge from our hearing afresh the Word in context. Again, the issue here is the divine freedom, and the provisional nature of the Christian community elected for service in this world.

I look forward to the ensuing discussion.

Piet Naudé on why being a ‘Reformed’ systematician or biblical scholar matters

Piet NaudeWhile writing a paper on the historical and theological significance that the Latin phrase Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei seeks to capture, I came across these share-worthy sentences from Piet Naudé on the contribution that ‘Reformed’ theologians and bible scholars make:

[F]rom the view of confessions … being a ‘Reformed’ systematician or biblical scholar does matter, not only because confessions are by their very nature a specific hermeneutical decision about reading the text of Scripture today, but also … because the continued struggle to heal schismatic tendencies among Reformed churches places a responsibility on us to be serious about the ethics of our own reading and academic activities.

Being Reformed really matters if we call for a repentance of our ‘hermeneutical diseases’ manifesting themselves inter alia in a narcissistic obsession with methodologies or a lame acceptance of differences prompted by a cynical postmodern arbitrariness. Put in a positive manner, being Reformed really matters if we recommit ourselves to ongoing conversation (Tracy) and true convivendi (Joerns), because interpretative conflicts and deadlocks are not merely between hermeneutical systems, but between living Christians in a world desperate for signs of reconciliation.

– Piet J. Naudé, ‘Reformed Confessions as Hermeneutical Problem: A Case Study of the Belhar Confession’, in Reformed Theology: Identity and Ecumenicity II: Biblical Interpretation in the Reformed Tradition, ed. Wallace M. Alston Jr. and Michael Welker (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007), 260.

A wee note on ‘hypothetical universalism’ in the Reformed tradition

John_Owen by John_Greenhill

One of the recurring themes that crops up in conversations with my students is over the various articulations of and arguments for and against soteriological universalism. And, from time to time, some of my students are even interested in knowing what the Reformed tradition (my students are, after all, trying to be Presbyterians!) has to say on the subject. And so I was delighted to find (among some less salutary material, to be sure) a helpful wee discussion on non-Amyraldian hypothetical universalism in English Reformed orthodoxy in Richard’s Muller’s essay ‘Diversity in the Reformed Tradition: A Historiographical Introduction’ wherein Muller writes:

‘Given that there was a significant hypothetical universalist trajectory in the Reformed tradition from its beginnings, it is arguably less than useful to describe its continuance as a softening of the tradition [as Jonathan Moore does]. More importantly, the presence of various forms of hypothetical universalism as well as various approaches to a more particularistic definition renders it rather problematic to describe the tradition as “on the whole” particularistic and thereby to identify hypothetical universalism as a dissident, subordinate stream of the tradition, rather than as one significant stream (or, perhaps two!) among others, having equal claim to confessional orthodoxy’.

Orthodox and Reformed in dialogue

Centre Orthodoxe du Patriarcat OEcumeniqueA guest post by Joseph D. Small

Followers of Per Crucem ad Lucem may have seen the video of Orthodox theologian George Dragas’ wonderful reminiscence of T.F. Torrance. In his remarks, Dragas mentioned the Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue, which he and Torrance co-chaired. The Dialogue resulted in a remarkable ecumenical achievement, the ‘Agreed Statement on the Holy Trinity’.

Ecumenical dialogues (a number of reports from which can be accessed here) often assume agreement on fundamental theological matters, focusing instead on neuralgic issues or comparative ecclesiology. But Torrance believed that mutual understanding of Trinity was the essential prerequisite for the viability of future dialogues on other themes. Only from acknowledgment of shared Trinitarian faith, Torrance believed, could the two church bodies proceed to discuss issues about which there might be less commonality, such as the nature of the church, ministry, and sacraments.

The ‘Agreed Statement on the Holy Trinity’ is precisely that, a statement that speaks with one voice. Unlike many reports that emerge from ecumenical dialogues, the Agreed Statement does not set out differing emphases or divergent positions. It begins by stating, ‘We confess together the evangelical and ancient Faith of the Catholic Church …’, and it is common confession that is articulated throughout. The Agreed Statement is divided into eight brief, densely packed sections, each one of which contains affirmations that are of enduring importance. The Agreed Statement on the Holy Trinity is a singular theological and ecumenical achievement. It is worth attention for its succinct articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, and also for its demonstration of the very best in ecumenical engagement. The text is readily available here, as well as in Growth in Agreement II: Reports and Agreed Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level, 1982–1998 edited by Jeffrey Gros, Harding Meyer and William Rusch.

Calvinism and Law: a conference

Calvinism LawThe International Reformed Theological Institute (ITRI), an affiliate member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, is organising its tenth International Conference. It will take place between 2–7 July 2013 in the picturesque town of Sárospatak in Hungary. The theme will be Calvinism and Law – a relationship with a long history, and with no shortage of contemporary relevance. They have also issued a call for papers. These, and relevant questions about the conference, can be emailed to Albert Nijboer before April 20. More information is available here.

Please note too that a listing of other forthcoming theological conferences is available here.

Ruminating on a broad tradition

Christian Rohlfs, ‘God seeks out Abraham’, 1921. Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart.

In a recent post, I suggested that both culturally and theologically, the Reformed tradition is – at its best – a broad tradition, captive to neither ethnic nor cultural boundaries, nor to either the left or the right of the theological spectrum. I also noted that the Reformed believe that the politicising of the body of Christ along lines which limit the love and availability of God are a scandal against the Table of the Lord.

I’ve been thinking a bit more this afternoon about this Reformed conviction, and it seems to me that it both represents and gives rise to a number of commitments. I will note just five related matters:

  1. The Church is justified – and kept justified – by the grace of God alone and not by our efforts. All our efforts as both a claimed and proclaiming people ought to be directed towards bearing witness to this truth.
  2. Our unity in Christ, made concrete in the forgiveness of sins, means that all other distinctives are subdominant features of our being together.
  3. No one cultural or theological consortium has a monopoly on the experience or truth of God. This is not only to confess something about the fact that divine revelation is always sheer and surprising gift, but it is also to gesture towards the observation that if our knowledge and love of God (and, conversely, as Calvin noted, our knowledge and love of ourselves) is to deepen, we need to resist moves towards mono-culturalism in all its forms, whether theological, ethnic, sexual, geographic, etc. The Jerusalem Conference (recorded in Acts 15) represents, among other things, precisely such a commitment to mature in the gospel through wrestling and living together with the gospel-culture-ethical rub.
  4. The ‘other’ is not our enemy but represents God’s radical invitation to open-ended life, to dialogue, to prayer, to repentance, to growth, to transformation, to love, and to relationships characterised by mutuality, creativity, openness, trust and presence. Here one recalls the profound work of Jewish philosopher Martin Buber [and, we could add, that of Ricœur, Bonhoeffer, Sartre, and others] and particularly his essay I and Thou wherein he gestures towards the truth that it is not only one’s communion with the ‘other’ that makes human life meaningful, but also that such communion is a necessary counterpart to our communion with One who is always our ‘Other’. To give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger and clothe the naked, and to take care of the sick and visit the prisoner is, by the work of God, to come face to face with Jesus Christ (Matt 25; cf. Heb 13.2).
  5. To confess ‘I believe in Jesus Christ’ is, therefore, to both resist the temptation to domesticate God and to confess the absolute imperative to remain in fellowship with those with whom we disagree and with those whom we do not yet understand precisely because they too are in fellowship with God. As I wrote earlier, Jesus does not grant us the liberty to choose our friends. Rather, whenever Jesus comes to us he always brings his friends along with him as well … and he helps us to love them.

Reformed World

The latest edition of Reformed World has landed on my desk. It contains the following articles which arose from the first consultation of the World Communion of Reformed Churches‘ Global Network of Theologians which took place last October at Karnataka Theological College in Mangalore, India:

  • ‘Reformation and the Unity of the Churches’, by Bas Plaisier
  • ‘Reformed Identity: Some Approaches’, by Michael Weinrich
  • ‘In Search of a Shared Theology: Reformed Theology between the Contextual and the Universal’, by Heleen Zorgdrager
  • ‘Reformed Theology and Mission’, by Jurgens Hendriks
  • ‘Church and Civil Society in the Reformed Tradition: An Old Relationship and a New Communion’, by Jason A. Goroncy
  • ‘The World Communion of Reformed Churches and its Office of Theology’, by Douwe Visser

BTW: I blogged a bit about my time in India here.

Reformation Day: 25 Theses

1. Anyone who thinks you can cherry-pick the sixteenth century Reformations for solutions for today’s church and society is an idiot.

2. Anyone who thinks you can ignore the Reformations has their head in the sand.

3. Music, art, and literature were transformed by the Reformations.

4. The Reformations also triggered the Peasants’ War: the greatest social upheaval in Europe before the French Revolution.

5. Genuine Reformations always spell trouble.

6. Reformations begin and end with our understanding of God.

7. God spells trouble.

8. From Luther to Teresa of Avila, faith begins with doubt, ecstasy begins with despair.

9. Reformations begin and end with our understanding of Christ.

10. ‘If you will not taste the bitter Christ, you will eat yourself sick of honey’. (Thomas Müntzer)

11. Reformations begin and end with our understanding of Holy Spirit.

12. ‘God’s Spirit is within you, read/Is woman shut out, there, indeed?’ (Argula von Grumbach)

13. In today’s churches heart and mind are out of kilter.

14. In our music and our liturgy we say we yearn for transformation.

15. In our thinking, however, we have given up on the future.

16. We Presbyterians feel we have lost our Church, nationally.

17. Many in the churches feel we have lost the way, politically.

18. There were many Reformations: humanist, Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Radical, and communal.

19. None of them gave up on the future.

20. All of them found the way to that future, however, in a recapitulation of the origins.

21. To go forward we need to go back.

22. ‘Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition is the living faith of the dead’. (Jaroslav Pelikan)

23. The Church likes to domesticate, to tame the Bible. The Reformations recognized it as dangerous memory, as liberation, as a wild animal.

24. ‘Almaist in everie private house the buike of Gods law is red and understand in oure vulgaire language’. (1579; Geneva Bible).

25. God is gift.

– Peter Matheson, 31 October, 2011

On resisting the chaotic non-conformity of private, virtuoso theologies

‘Throughout the history of the Reformed tradition, the central place both for the ongoing hermeneutic process urged in the confessions, and for the general influence of the confessions in the Church, has been the pastoral office through preaching, teaching, oversight, and leadership. Correspondingly, it is chiefly the minister of the word, among the other ordained ministries, who is held accountable in the constitutional questions for following the leading and guidance of the confessions of faith. Appropriately, theological education was in the past structured by the theology of the confessions. Rather strongly, thus, I wish to remind those of us that find our calling in theological education that it is scandalous for a faculty member in any discipline in the church’s seminaries not to be able to locate his or her work and thought and teaching matter with relation to the confessional teachings. We do not want again the old teaching oath, or any teaching oath at all, and the inevitably stifling conformity it promotes. But neither do we want the On resistsing that leave the relation of thought to life in the empirical church to the improvisation of individual ministers. Further, theological education carried out in programs of continuing education or presbytery projects of many types, should be oriented by a reasonable awareness of what the Church teaches in its confessional and creedal literature.

More broadly, it is the educational ministry of the Church on all levels that should bear the chief responsibility for a confessionally rooted hermeneutic, worship, and mission. The idiom of the tradition, whether in words or ethic, needs to be exercised in spiritual, biblical, theological, and ethical education.

It would be well, we often think, if one might be just a Christian, and not a Presbyterian, Catholic, or Methodist. But so, it might seem, is the case with language. What if we could avoid German or English and just speak language? But it doesn’t work. Esperanto is a wonderful idea, but like Basic English a few years back, it is bereft of the richness of meaning and naturalness of a true language. So a theological Esperanto, or ecumenical Esperanto—for the time being at least—leaves us far from the concrete reality in which we live and speak. The idiom of the Reformed tradition, when fully understood, is the ground and motive both for ecumenical awareness and progress, and for other kinds of reform and advance. Not abandonment, but reform, as new light breaks forth from Scripture and illuminates new situations in our culture and environment and in the world Church, is the promising idiom of our tradition’. – Edward A. Dowey Jr., ‘Confessional Documents as Reformed Hermeneutic’, Journal of Presbyterian History 79, no. 1 (2001), 58.

The World Communion of Reformed Churches: A Wee Reflection

Bruce Hamill and I have spent the last 10 days or so in Grand Rapids, Michigan, serving as delegates of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand at the United General Council of the newly-formed World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). The Council has been involved in the bringing together of two former bodies – the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC) – into one World Communion that represents over 80 million Reformed Christians worldwide. It has been a very exciting meeting to attend, and I have felt a deep sense of privilege in being here as a participant.

It has been a rich time of worship, of meeting delegates and visitors from all over the world, of catching up with old friends and making new ones, of sharing resources and ideas about ministry, theological education and mission, of attending to administrative matters (there was no shortage of this), of hearing about what God and God’s people are doing – and are not doing – in different parts of the globe, and of reflecting on both the catholicity and the reformed identity of this branch of the Church, among other things. And, as is typically the case at these ecumenical gatherings, there has been no shortage of talk about ‘justice’, ‘peace’, ‘mission, ‘unity’, and about addressing the powers of empire. The spirit of Accra abides.

One of the issues that I was keen to ‘place on the table’ at this gathering concerned the relationship between Reformed Churches and the State. It seems to me that a tradition like mine which is so heavily imbedded in what is now a rapidly-disappearing Christendom has well and truly entered (in most parts of the world) a time in which our relationship with the State is overdue for a rethink. Put differently, is it time for Reformed Churches who have long been in bed with the State to start thinking about wearing an ecclesiastical condom, at least at more ‘risky’ times of the month? Conversely, is it time for Reformed Churches who have long  sidelined themselves from their societies to re-think their bed etiquette? One place that I thought that such a rethink may be encouraged is in the teasing out of a few implications of being a ‘communion’, as opposed to a being a mere ‘alliance’ (Bruce has more to say about this distinction here). So I trundled along to a section called ‘Reformed Identity, Theology and Communion’, naïvely thinking that the topic of conversation at such a group might have at least something to do with Reformed identity, theology and/or communion.

After what felt like countless hours of talking around in circles about neither Reformed identity, nor theology, nor communion – hours made all the more painful by an incompetent section moderator – I offered the following proposal:

‘The World Communion of Reformed Churches acknowledges that the affirmation of communion has implications for our life together. The shape of this life together is fashioned upon the Gospel, that is, upon the gracious economy of the Triune God who makes us one.

Our identity and communion is created, sustained and fleshed out by Jesus Christ. This reality, which the Bible calls ‘life in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 6.23; 1 Cor 1.30; 2 Tim 3.12), redefines and reconstitutes our identity thus making all other identify-forming relationships secondary.

Therefore, as one of the many concrete expressions of this communion:

  1. We will not kill one another.
  2. We will make disciples in our congregations who might learn to resist participation in the State’s machinery of violence and thereby offer a distinctive Christian witness to an alternative way of living that is determined to not perpetuate the practices of that world which is passing away but which is formed by the new creation inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
  3. We will communicate – in word and in action – to our respective states and governments that our principle allegiance is to Jesus Christ.
  4. We will offer our full support to all those in our communion for whom this commitment will come at great cost.

We are a people who confess to follow one who puts himself in the way of evil, who intervenes on behalf of the oppressed and the weak and the downtrodden, and who does so not with swords and spears, but by bearing on his body the blows and resisting retaliation. Jesus confronts the cycle of violence and declares that ‘The violence stops with me’. He suffers in his own person the wrong that is done, and trusts the outcome to God. That is the pattern of obedient life that Christians are called to follow and into which they are incorporated through baptism. Forgiveness, compassion, prayer and sacrifice are the tools that Christ takes up in his war against evil and sin. When those who bear his name take up arms to wage war, and insist that such action is necessary, unavoidable and a last resort, they are resorting to a logic other than that of the Logos incarnate. It must be confessed therefore that they have failed in the call to inhabit God’s new creation, a call which allows for no exceptions when it comes to loving even our enemies’.

Unsurprisingly, the proposal received very little support (something like 15% I guess). That it received so little support was less disappointing to me, however, than the fact that here was a group of intelligent and articulate reformed thinkers and church leaders who – because of an incompetent moderator – were not afforded the opportunity to even discuss the issue/s being raised. It was, sadly, a wasted opportunity and I can only thank God for the many informal discussions that arose after my presentation. It was also a learning opportunity for me in ecumenical diplomacy (something that I hope never to be too good at) and at the importance of having well-moderated meetings.

After dusting myself off, I decided to give my modest proposal another (if even-more modest) crack in a session the following day, and that via the addition of a single sentence to a report of the Policy Committee. The Report serves as the guide for the future work of the Executive Committee of the WCRC. To the recommendation that ‘WCRC, working with appropriate member churches and other organizations, seek ways to accompany member churches through prophetic solidarity, education and advocacy’, I suggested the following addition: ‘This will include a commitment to not participate in violence against one another’. This time, the proposal was enthusiastically received, but again there was no discussion. And perhaps just as well, for a body of this size (around 1000) to engage in a meaningful conversation about the implications of such a statement would have us stuck here in Grand Rapids for many more moons, and while Calvin College is a extraordinarily-beautiful setting to be hanging out in for a few weeks, I’m looking forward to getting home and to doing some further thinking myself about reformed identity and about the shape of reformed ecclesiology in post-Christendom states.

[Photo by Erick Coll/UGC]

On the writing of Reformed Confessions

pcanzIn recent times, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand has been engaged in drafting a contemporary, indigenous confession of faith – Kupu Whakapono – with a view to it being accepted as a new subordinate standard. (You can read more about it here and here.) Among other things, the writing of this confession is evidence that while theology by committee is never easy – if not usually downright impossible – miracles still happen. The draft confession reads:

From this land of Aotearoa New Zealand
we confess that we believe in and belong to God
who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We believe in God
the Father of Jesus Christ,
sender of the Holy Spirit;
Creator and Nurturer of all,
Love above all loves,
and Judge of all the earth.

We believe in Jesus Christ our Lord,
truly human and truly divine.
He lived among us full of grace and truth
and suffered death by human hand,
He was raised by God to new life,
setting us free from sin
and bringing to birth God’s new creation.
Now ascended, he calls us to repentance and faith,
and restores us to God and to one another.

We believe in God the Holy Spirit
who makes Christ known,
inspires the Scriptures,
transforms hearts and minds,
gathers us into the community of Christ
and sustains the Church in worship and in mission.

We belong to this triune God
who calls us to become what we are in Christ:
God’s own people, diversely gifted
witnesses to his love in word and in action,
servants of reconciliation,
and stewards of Creation.

Brought together in Christ,
women and men,
young and old,
tangata whenua and tauiwi,
we look forward in hope
to that fullness of life
in which justice and peace will flourish,
the reign of Christ will be complete,
and we shall forever sing praise to the glory of God.

Eberhard BuschIt’s not perfect – there’s no mention of Israel for a start – but its very existence does recall something inherently built in to our DNA as those people of God who identify most strongly with the Reformed branch of the Church Catholic. I was reminded of this afresh recently while reading an essay by Eberhard Busch titled ‘Reformed Identity’ Reformed World 58/4 (2008): 207–218). In this essay, Busch recalls not only that being Reformed entails what he calls ‘the unconditional subordination of [our] own tradition and doctrine to the holy scripture’, and that the Reformed consciously confess that they are members of ‘one, ecumenical church’, but also that the arrangement of the Reformed denominations occurs ‘in the travel of God’s people’. To be Reformed, in other words, means to affirm (as the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia would have it) that we belong ‘to the people of God on the way to the promised end’. It is the taking serious of this on-the-wayness – that the community is a participant in God’s eschatological liveliness – that calls for fresh expressions of the ancient faith. So Busch:

In every shape the Church is only on its way, – following the aim which is determined and brought about by Him alone. Therefore the life of the congregations and their members is essentially a pilgrimage, not fleeting life on earth, and not being obsessed by it. It is like the way of Israel through the desert. It is being on the way, in restlessness, in uneasiness, in fights, in sighs, and in thirst, but always with the motto: let’s go! Calvin indicated this direction: ‘After we have accepted the testimony of the gospel about the free-gracious love of God, we are waiting, till God will show that, what is still hidden below the hope’. For the Confessio Belgica (1561) or the Confessio Scotica (1560) this goal is clearer in the visible appearance of the rule and the realm of Christ, which had already begun when He rose to heaven. And the Heidelberg Catechism formulates that the coming judge is no one else than the already appeared redeemer. Therefore, we walk towards him ‘in all [our] sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head’ … In this context it becomes clear that the Reformed are not so much interested in the possession of a confession, but more in the determination to confess. The Reformed acknowledge – in line with the ancestors – that we do not always have to say and do the same as they said and did. It is possible that we will be asked new questions, to which we will have to give new answers. It is possible that other insights become the focus of attention, inviting us to decide whether we confess or deny Jesus Christ. Certain biblical sentences speak particularly at different times. In 1942 the long forgotten words ‘Salvation is from the Jews’ (John 4:22) began to be heard in the Swiss churches in favour of the Jews. Monopolisation of biblical words is beyond such an experience. The Reformed denomination reminds us that we have to reckon with the Holy Spirit who wants to lead us in all truths. We have to be open to His concrete, new instructions. It is the Spirit, who allows us to think, say and do what is necessary now. The same Spirit urges us to get on the way from our own denomination to what is more than our and all other denominations.

Busch then proceeds to speak about the ‘gratitude of the Reformed Church’, recalling that when the freedom of the Spirit of Jesus in the Gospel does not exist in a denomination, then that denomination becomes inflexible. Busch believes that this danger is no longer a particular issue for the Reformed churches today (I’m not so sure about this), and he cites another danger which is ‘far more of a menace’:

That is the threat of a certain kind of liberalism: the danger that they gamble away the talent of a church, Reformed according to the Word of God, which has been handed over to them for safekeeping and for passing on to their neighbours. It is the danger of selling this talent for a small profit. Maybe they seem to be ‘Reformed’, but they have the title without the ‘Word of God’. That is the danger of wrongly interpreting the formula ‘The Reformed Church is always to be reformed’, so that they think they are Reformed because they are doing their work in a different way than the Reformers. They do not understand the true sense of that formula that we have to turn again and again to the fountain of faith, love, and hope. It is dangerous for the Reformed to store their legacy in a museum, which is visited occasionally, but not used in the daily life. In short, there is the danger that present-day Reformed Christians live in the church, as if it were not true that God is not the God of the dead but of the living. Therefore, our ancestors can not really join in our conversation today and are not allowed to have a say in our decisions. There is no space for their questioning whether we still really are Reformed Christians. When we think in this way, an unspiritual arbitrariness will appear in the church.

For the contemporary Reformed who live in Aotearoa New Zealand and who are seeking to carve out what it means to be faithful to God’s good news in Jesus Christ in this land, these words from Professor emeritus Busch are both timely and imperative. It is, after all, Reformation Day.

October bests …

Draw the LineFrom the reading chair: Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreams by Ian Bradley; The Quest For Celtic Christianity by Donald E. Meek; Banner in the West: A Spiritual History of Lewis and Harris by John Macleod; Why Study The Past?: The Quest For The Historical Church by Rowan Williams; Loving God With Our Minds: The Pastor As Theologian edited by Michael Welker and Cynthia A. Jarvis; Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization by Jeff Rubin; Liberating Reformed Theology, Christianity and Democracy: A Theology for a Just World Order and Theology & Ministry in Context & Crisis: A South African Perspective by John W. de Gruchy; Witness to the World: The Christian Mission in Theological Perspective by David J. Bosch; Black and Reformed: Apartheid, Liberation, and the Calvinist Tradition by Allan A. Boesak; Praying with Paul by Thomas A. Smail.

Through the iPod: Kind of Blue (50th Anniversary) by Miles Davis; Looking for Butter Boy by Archie Roach; Daughtry and Leave This Town by Daughtry; Draw the Line by David Gray (this is easily in my top 10 for 2009); X&Y by Coldplay; Christmas In the Heart by Bob Dylan (Judy says that it won’t be being played in ‘our’ house this Christmas, so does anyone want me over for lunch).

By the bottle: Mt Difficulty Long Gully Pinot Noir 2007; Carrick Josephine Riesling 2007.