Saturday, October 31, 2009

Reformation Day '09

When we're remembering the Reformation, it's right that we remember and celebrate Holy Scripture. The Bible was in the driving seat of the Reformation. Because of the Bible, the Church lived again. Because of the Bible, there is hope that the Church can still be given new strength.

When the Church stands under Scripture, she finds herself opened up. She has had many conversations and debates going on within her walls. Theologians have talked, churchmen have talked, poets have talked. The members of the Church have spoken to and with one another, and that is how it should be. But when the Bible is opened, the Church is also opened. She is no longer talking to herself. There is a voice from outside.

The Prophets and Apostles, commissioned by Christ to be his witnesses, still speak and still witness. Their voices are heard in the Scriptures. Their voices cut through out intra mural chatter. Because they were the first - because they touched and saw and heard and spoke with - they demand a hearing. We must listen. Their voices confront us and shake us, and break through our cultural barriers and our churchly comfort. Strange voices that we have not known give us, unexpected and all of a sudden, reality.

And in and through and above their voices, the Voice. To be open to Scripture is to be open to the Lord. He speaks to his Church. Are we still listening?

Thursday, October 22, 2009


When I were a lad, I spent my time in churches which were very keen on being Reformed. Discussions could be had about who was 'really' Reformed and who was just faking. I enjoyed it at the time. More recently, I've had conversations with people about what it might mean to be a 'Reformed charismatic' - something that never came up in my youth, as we all knew that 'Reformed' and 'charismatic' were mutually exclusive terms. I wonder whether it might be useful to run down the different ways the word 'Reformed' is used, to aid us in our scintillating chats about who is in and who is out?

'Reformed' could be used in a purely historical sense. In the 16th Century, the Protestant Reformation led to the emergence of three great Protestant churches: the Lutherans, the Anglicans, and the Reformed. (On another reading of history, there were maybe just two big strands, with Anglicanism being a subset of Reformed. I think this is less useful, descriptively and analytically, just because of the huge differences between Anglicanism and other 'Reformed' churches). Obviously, there are now churches which would claim descent from the Reformed wing of the Reformation. It is a fact that many of them, particularly on the Continent - although one could also think of the URC, now tend towards a theology which is either a significant modification or a near-total repudiation of the theology of the 16th Century Reformed. Still, they have an obvious claim to the title. Perhaps we should speak of church today which have 'Reformed heritage', thus acknowledging the link without making any theological claims.

'Reformed' could also be used in a theological sense, in at least two ways. We could identify a 'thick' Reformed theology and a 'thin' one. On the thick understanding of 'Reformed', we would be talking essentially about the Christian Institutes of John Calvin. Reformed theology is covenantal and paedobaptist, characterised by a particular view of the relation between Word and Spirit, cessationist with regard to miraculous gifts, presbyterian in church polity, placing a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God in revelation and salvation. I think you could make a good argument for this being the most comprehensive definition of 'Reformed', and the most useful, for reasons to be explained. We could perhaps talk about churches which espouse this theology today as having 'Reformed doctrine'.

The 'thin' understanding of what it means to be theologically Reformed tends to take a subset of the beliefs above, which are taken to be the 'heart' of the whole system, and makes these beliefs the meaning of 'Reformed'. This tends, in practice, to mean being Calvinists in terms of how people are saved, espousing a high view of the sovereignty of God. There are many churches that would take this line, and we could perhaps talk about them having 'Reformed soteriology'.

So, who is Reformed?

On the first understanding, the URC is and newfrontiers isn't. The URC stands in a direct line of succession from historically Reformed churches, whereas newfrontiers does not.

On the second understanding, the URC is not, nor is newfrontiers, nor is any baptist church. In the UK, you could go to the Free Church of Scotland, or perhaps the EPCEW. You'd struggle to find any other churches that are doctrinally Reformed in this maximal sense.

On the third understanding, newfrontiers is Reformed, as are all FIEC congregations I've ever been to, as are many evangelical Anglican churches.

My own judgement would be that we should use 'Reformed' in the second sense, primarily. I think it is useful to give a word the maximum definition it will take, for purposes of clarity and analysis. I also think it is clear that the historically Reformed would want us to think of theology and not merely heritage as the defining mark of their movement.

So I think only presbyterians are Reformed. We could perhaps use qualifying language to show the relationship that other churches stand in to this tradition - whether historic or theological. Personally, I am an anabaptist, holding (lightly modified, but still very clearly) Reformed soteriology and a (more heavily modified) Reformed understanding of Word and Spirit. Perhaps I could say I am an anabaptist with a theological debt to Reformed theology. But I'm not 'properly' Reformed, and I'm okay with that.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Done, not doing

I feel the need to clarify a previous post, not least because it has obviously not communicated what I hoped it would to some who have read it. I am not sure whether that is because of my lack of communicative skill or because I'm saying something that is novel. Either would cause me some concern. Still, I think the point I'm making is Biblical and important, so I'll restate it.

It is a commonplace in evangelical apologetics to point out that where other religions give an imperative - DO! - the gospel gives an indicative - DONE! This way of stating things is no worse for being a commonplace. It is perhaps the easiest and best way of expressing that idea that lies at the heart of Christianity: that because Jesus has achieved my righteousness and my acceptance with God, there is nothing I need to do to work towards righteousness and acceptance. Indeed, any work I attempted in this direction would be sin, because it would be a failure to trust in Jesus' finished work. In so far as this is applied to justification, I hope that all evangelicals would agree.

Now I am saying nothing more than that this way of thinking be applied to all areas of life.

Let's stick with righteousness. I am perfectly righteous in Christ - this is achieved and accomplished apart from me. Does that mean I do nothing about my righteousness day by day? Absolutely not. I must strive for holiness. But why so I strive? Not because each battle won is a step towards perfect righteousness. Not because I am not righteous unless I am making progress. My righteousness is perfect and secure, because it is Christ's. My battle to live out holiness in every day life is about giving a lived out 'amen' to the gospel. It is about saying 'yes' today to what God willed from eternity and Christ won at Calvary. I have called that 'witness'. It does not achieve my righteousness, but it witnesses in the here and now to the righteousness that is mine in Christ.

I think the same logic applies to feeding the hungry, or alleviating poverty. It was the old liberal myth that our actions, inspired by Christ and following his example, could bring in the kingdom of God. As an evangelical, which is simply to say as someone who is bound to Scripture, I have to say 'no', in two senses. No, because the kingdom of God has come already in Christ; and no, because the kingdom of God will come when Christ returns. The kingdom is established now, ever since Easter morning. But it is veiled and not seen. Like my righteousness, it is achieved in Christ that a kingdom is established where there will be no more crying or suffering or death. Now it is not seen, but it is real for all that.

To live as if this were not so could take two forms. It could take the form of thinking that poverty and hunger are just there, and we need do nothing about them. In other words, resignation - ah well, that's just the way it is. But that is not the way it is. Jesus has abolished these things; he has brought in new creation! On the other hand, it could take the form of working hard to abolish poverty and hunger, as if we had to do everything. In other words, humanism - we can and must fix this. But we cannot and need not fix this. Jesus has done it; he has brought in new creation!

The response of faith is to say: I will live today as an 'amen' to Jesus' victory. I will live today as a resounding 'yes' to the presence of the kingdom and the accomplishment of new creation. God from eternity has willed the removal of poverty and hunger; Christ on the cross has achieved it. I will live as a witness to that reality. I will not set out in unbelief to fix the problem myself, but I will set out in faith to show through my actions and lifestyle that everything has already changed in Jesus. I will witness to the invisible Kingdom.

The question for me is: to what extent do I show that faith?