What does it mean to be ‘Reformed’?

Posted on April 25, 2009


I have always been fairly comfortable describing myself as ‘Reformed’. The sort of theology I have found most energising and informative for my own ministry, prayer, and thinking has been recognisably within a Reformed tradition; the denominational tradition which has formed me finds most, at least, of its roots in the recognisably Reformed tradition of the English separatists and Puritans; and so on.

The tag, like any other, carries the potential of misinterpretation: for a while British Evangelicals were apparently  supposed to decide whether they were ‘charismatic Evangelicals’ or ‘Reformed Evangelicals’. I have always wanted to tick both boxes (for those who have seen Rob Bell’s Everything is Spiritual, this is the moment to grab a marker pen and say ‘Yup!’). ‘Reformed’ is at least well-defined theologically, however, and so less available for misinterpretation than many other labels.

A couple of years back, I became gradually aware that it was becoming fashionable to be ‘Reformed’ again. In the States, John Piper and Mark Driscoll, amongst others, were (in different ways) creating a re-energised Reformed Evangelicalism; in this country a certain species of Anglican evangelical found in the tag a rallying call for a more defined and aware self-identity; younger leaders in my own denomination found a cause and an identity in some mixture of these various renewed traditions. The old ‘Reformed’ vs ‘charismatic’ distinction is thankfully more-or-less collapsed; others, equally unhappy, have sprung up in its place (Reformed evangelical vs ‘open evangelical’; Reformed vs emergent – where’s my marker pen…)

Colin Hansen’s Young, Restless, and Reformed captured a mood well. It was a mood that I found puzzling – there is so much that is good about it, at least from where I am sitting. People were beginning to understand again that the doctrine of election is pretty central to the gospel; were committed to serious, doctrinally-informed Biblical preaching; were wanting to combine theological seriousness with fervent worship and a commitment to evangelism. As some of my American friends would put it, ‘what’s not to like?’ And I got on well with the folk I met who self-identified with the tradition. But something niggled; something wasn’t quite right.

It wasn’t any particular doctrinal position: I could and do wish one or another of these folk thought differently (or even just more…) about this or that, and I object strongly to the focus on denying the preaching ministry to women which seems endemic within the movement, but that wasn’t the problem I felt; it was more about tone that content – a sense that it wasn’t what was being said, but the way it was being said, that disturbed me.

At a conference this week, I think I put my finger on it (the conference was a colloquium of the excellent Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in Britain project, and so circled around some of these areas, but it was really a matter of thoughts coalescing in my mind, not any particular paper or comment, that got me thinking this way). In published writings and public pronouncement, these people too often feel (to this reader/hearer at least) just too convinced of their own rightness. In my experience, it is rarely true when you meet them one-to-one, but in public, the tone is just somehow wrong – too brash; too self-confident; not, strangely, Reformed enough.

At the heart of the classical Reformed tradition, perhaps particularly in its Baptist expressions, is an intense and intrinsic self-criticism. As the great slogan has it, ecclesia reformata semper reformanda. A slogan, incidentally, too-often mistranslated. The participles are both passive: the church has been reshaped and remade (by the agency of God), and always will be reshaped and remade (by the agency of God).

Because of this, true Reformed Christianity necessarily sees all its pronouncements and conclusions as provisional. Its confidence – and it should be confident – is a humble confidence, based not on a conviction of its own rightness, but on an awareness that, in the good sovereignty of God, honest efforts may be used for good even if misguided. God has spoken; but our words are not His words, and our unshakeable belief in His truthfulness can never become an unshakeable confidence in our correctness.

The classical accounts of Reformed faith parse this carefully: it is not because there is new revelation, but because our sinfulness and blindness will constantly need correcting; the faith is delivered once for all to the saints, but we constantly distort and warp it. The necessary ongoing correction and repair of the church is not our work (if it were there would be no hope), but God’s. God will carry out this work by His Word through His Spirit, and so every encounter with Scripture in a Reformed church is potentially a moment of judgement and recreation (with the minister called to the task of preaching the words that will undermine her authority and reconstruct her calling).

When the (apparently impeccably Reformed) Lords of the Scots Congregation met with Oliver Cromwell, demanding a commitment to impose presbyterian polity as the price for their support in war, his reply was, famously, ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ – think it possible you may be mistaken.’

It remains good advice to anyone who is confidently Reformed.

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