As a seminary professor, I am sometimes asked, "What does it mean to be Reformed?" This is an eminently sensible question in light of the many stereotypes that abound about the Reformed tradition. One way to begin to answer it is to say that, for the Reformed, the boundaries of one's theological convictions are to be no more nor any less than the boundaries of the Bible. To be Reformed is to be defined by the Scriptures. This is the so-called "formal principle" of the Reformation, "sola Scriptura!"
At first glance, this collection of essays is simply trying to elaborate what it means to be faithful to this fundamental Reformational virtue today. The editors say in their introduction, "We must resist the temptation to empty God's Word of its content, and reawaken a delight in the content, fullness, clarity and specific rationality of God's Word." And yet too often this book's tone suggests that it is not this but rather the very fluidity of the tradition itself that is the tradition's chief virtue. The clarion call to "reform the Church" is manifest throughout. Less than manifest is the call to "reform the Church in accord with the Scriptures."
The collection is weighted toward theologians from the mainline tradition of American Presbyterianism and European Reformed churches, including five representatives from Princeton Theological Seminary and three from Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. These are not the mainline's radical wings, but they are not the confessional end of the Reformed tradition either. While it would be irresponsible to characterize thirty-one different essays with the same broad brush, it is fair to say that the whole collection exhibits several overt tendencies. First is the pervasive presence of Karl Barth. This is as much a festschrift to Barth as it is to Calvin, with the closest example to a "pure Reformed church" throughout being the Confessing Church, under Hitler's regime, standing squarely against Nazism. Second, being "doers of the faith and not hearers only" amounts largely to supporting progressive gender and racial and especially environmental agendas. And, third, the ecumenical creeds of the early Church, in contrast to any Reformation era or even any contemporary Reformed creeds, are viewed across this collection as uniquely foundational for the Church today. The authors' "ecumenical" concerns drive them to be suspicious of any creeds that are parochial and tradition-specific.
Nevertheless, this collection is a gold mine of information about the current state of middle-of-the-road Reformed folk who are neither evangelical/confessional nor radical and pluralistic. This subgroup of the larger Reformed community has been greatly chastened by the failure of theological liberalism but remains equally suspicious of fundamentalism with its emphasis upon doctrines and confessions. It desperately wants to recover the larger narrative details of the Christian story without the consequent controversies about inerrancy and inspiration. It also wants to be viewed as ethically responsible in the present context while holding onto something of the past.
The essays are divided into three general groupings. The first set deals with the global implications of being Reformed today, the second set with particular theological topics, and the third with specific historical episodes. Overall, the first set is the least careful and the least orthodox. Brian Gerrish's opening essay and the essay by Jurgen Moltmann are disappointing largely because they are merely programmatic and their generalizations are far too broad to be insightful (e.g., Gerrish: "Be deferential to the past and be critical of the past," and Moltmann: "To be reformed is to be confessional-but confessions that are always being reformed"). One hopes for more from such luminaries.
The second set opens with an interesting, carefully argued essay by Tom Torrance, the most distinguished Scottish theologian of his generation, on the nature of confessional subscription. He defends the view that implicit within the Westminster Confession of Faith is a central core of doctrine that has defined Christendom, that is evident in the ancient creeds, and that every Christian ought to be able to confess. This core cannot be altered. It is the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. It includes the "great and fundamental truths, such as the Trinity, the incarnation, the deity of Christ, propitiation, salvation, regeneration, justification, resurrection, etc." Yet this "central core" cannot be definitively and uniquely located within any set of particular doctrinal propositions. So, Torrance argues (following Charles Hodge, whom he quotes liberally), subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith, required of all ministers in the Church of Scotland, obligates adherence to these core doctrines but not necessarily to the full range of the Confession's doctrinal propositions. Whether one agrees with Torrance or not, this is a clear and careful and historically sensitive argument.
The only attempt at a genuinely biblical argument in the whole collection appears in William Placher's "The Vulnerability of God." Placher is an especially keen expositor of postliberal or narrative theology. Here he offers an interpretation of the Gospel of Mark that purports to manifest the explicit ways in which Mark sought to demonstrate God's vulnerability. The essay is a helpful exegetical treatment of Mark's larger narrative of the identity of Jesus, but it is less obvious that it calls into fundamental question God's impassibility, as Placher supposes. No doubt, Mark was concerned to emphasize the ways in which Jesus turned the expectations of the powers-that-be upside down: the first shall be last; the strong shall be shown to be weak; mercy is more powerful than vengeance. These themes need emphasis in a "success" era like our own, but Placher takes them yet further as manifestations of the "suffering God" who is so strongly interwoven into modern theology and into Barth and Moltmann in particular. It is unclear why the "paradox of the incarnation," as evident in the early ecumenical creeds, will not suffice to explain these biblical themes.
Leanne Van Dyke's essay, "Towards a New Typology of the Doctrines of Atonement," is less a call for a new set of categories to interpret the diverse theories of the work of Christ than a call for a new understanding of the work of Christ itself. She defends the cogency of John McLeod Campbell's theory of the atonement, which was declared heretical by the Church of Scotland in 1831. Campbell suggested that Christ did not suffer an infinite punishment for our sins. Rather, he vicariously repented for our sins, was humiliated on account of them, and manifested genuine remorse for them. In this way, he "satisfied" the demands for reconciliation with an infinitely perfect and holy God. The central advantage of this understanding of the atonement, according to Van Dyke, is that it is a nonviolent, noncoercive alternative to a penal substitutionary account. Christ's sufferings did not evidence God's wrath or sin's punishment, but were a response of God's love to the affront of sin. Unfortunately, the essay contains little exegesis and not much appreciation for the overwhelming witness to the penal substitutionary theories of the atonement in historic Christendom and especially within the Reformed tradition.
Dawn DeVries's intriguing essay compares Calvin's sermons on the Luke 2 birth narratives with those of Frederick Schleiermacher. She argues that Schleiermacher's attempt to find a route around the historical-critical questions of this text-in particular, around D. F. Strauss's contentions that most of the details of the birth narratives are fictitious-do not in the end blunt the historical critics' attack. For Schleiermacher still needs some historical details to be true. He still needs to make good on the claim that the "ideal must have become completely historical in Christ," and thus he cannot bypass history altogether. For good or ill, then, DeVries argues, the Reformed tradition cannot simply side-step the critics of historicity.
There are two interesting essays on the legacy of Jonathan Edwards for the American Reformed tradition, the first by Sang Hyun Lee, the philosophical theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary, and the second by Amy Plantinga Pauw. Lee extends some of his early work on Edwards by further expounding Edwards's "dispositional analysis of the Trinity." This analysis supposes that reality does not consist of "substances" but of "dispositions" or tendencies; reality is essentially a network of dispositional forces rather than a system of particular substances. Being, then, is essentially disposed to further activities and thus to further increases of being. God is essentially a set of perfectly actualized dispositions (which thereby explains why God is "loving" from all eternity). Thus, God's glory can increase while God is at all times perfectly glorious. And thus Edwards, according to Lee, can more fully and richly maintain the traditional Reformed paradox of the full sovereignty and absoluteness of God as well as the genuineness of his interaction with time. Reading Lee reminds one of the brilliant, although not always readily comprehensible, genius of Edwards, the greatest of America's theologians.
Pauw's essay argues nicely if rather broadly for a recovery of "community" on the basis of Edwards's theology. Edwards's notion of community accommodates the convictions both that living out the Christian faith in community reflects the purpose and reality of God and that being a Christian in today's world implies a fundamental interrelatedness with the entirety of God's creation. For Edwards, all truly virtuous love among created beings is dependent upon, and derived from, love to God. But this should not stop Christians from joining forces with others who yearn for the day in which peace and justice embrace. Indeed, our confessional commitment to living out the story of God's reconciling acts with humanity requires these transformative efforts. But it will also keep us from placing our ultimate trust and hope in these efforts. A worthy reminder indeed!
The final essay by Eberhard Busch, the well-known biographer of Barth, asks the ultimate question, "What makes us Reformed?" Busch argues that in spite of the divergences among the global Reformed community and the historically diverse Reformed confessions, there is something common to them, all of which might be referred to as a "Reformed profile." This has two central features. First, for the Reformed there has always been the polarity of fundamental theological assertions-Scripture alone (rather than Scripture and tradition), Christ alone (rather than Mary and Christ), grace alone (rather than nature and grace), through faith alone (rather than through faith and works)-even as there remain true bipolar mysteries-Jesus as God and Man, God's majesty and God's abasement, Word and Spirit, justification and sanctification. Knowing where the polarities and bipolarities reside has always been key to the peculiar Reformed way of thinking. Second, there is the Reformed profile's "anti-pagan" stance, which identifies "idolatry" as the fundamental sin (whereas, e.g., in Lutheran theology, "works-righteousness" is the fundamental sin). These are broad generalizations but ones that nonetheless help to explain the richness and depth of the Reformed tradition.
As with any collection of essays, some are stronger and some weaker. The sheer magnitude of essays in this volume makes one wary of drawing too many interpretative conclusions about the collection as a whole. But that magnitude also argues for the vitality of the Barthian tradition today. Yet if it is evident that the Barthian theologians are vigorous and engaged, it is also evident that they would much rather dialogue with the left than with the right. The voices of evangelical and confessional Reformed folk are virtually absent from this collection. (John Leith's essay moves in this direction but comes up short.) These voices would have meant taking the Reformed tradition yet more seriously, and that would have been a very good thing indeed.
Richard Lints is professor of theology and apologetics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, Massachusetts) and author of The Fabric of Theology (Eerdmans, 1993). He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America.
Issue: "Train Up a Child: Becoming People of the Word in a Culture of Images" Jan./Feb. 2001 Vol. 10 No. 1 Page number(s): 51-53
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