Thoughts on the Way Home

Friday, May 02, 2008

Who or What Defines "Reformed?" - R. Scott Clark


I thought this might make for some good discussion. (Or not, who knows around here...)

Consider bread, not the colloquial, metaphortical bread one spends at the store, but the literal stuff one eats. When the lady at the counter asks, “white or wheat?” we have a common reference point. We are both discussing the same thing. Indeed, the metaphorical bread, as in “give us our daily bread” (i.e. sustenance that may include but is not limited to literal bread) is premised on an agreement as to what bread is. If I ask for bread and the nice lady hands me a stone it is a sign that something is amiss. We haven’t understood each other. We are using the same sign (”bread”) but the res significata (the thing signified) is different. Human communication is predicated upon a common understanding of signs and things signified.

In this case the sign is the adjective “Reformed.” Is there a fixed referent to that adjective or are there as many definitions of that adjective as there are definers? Should we settle for a minimal definition of that adjective or only for a maximal definition?

Well, what did the word “Reformed” signify when it was first used? It signified a theology, piety, and practice. We confessed certain doctrines in every locus (topic) of theology from the stuff one says before one gets to the doctrine of God (i.e. prolegomena), to the doctrines of God, Man, Christ, Salvation, Church, Sacraments, Last Things, and Ethics.

What do the Reformed Churches confess regarding baptism? We confess that God has one covenant of grace, one church, throughout the history of redemption. We confess that there is fundamentally one pattern in the administration of that kingdom/church. We have always had essentially two sacraments: one for admission and one for renewal. Before Christ that church/kingdom was administered with bloody types. With the advent of God the Son incarnate, those types were fulfilled but the pattern of signs of initiation and renewal continue. In other words, we understand that we are in the same church as Abraham. We understand that the Mosaic church/kingdom introduced a temporary, parenthetical, cultic and theocratic administration that ended with the advent of Christ.

Our Baptist friends reject that reading of redemptive history. They insist that the adjective “old covenant” refers to everything that occurred before the incarnation (despite Paul’s definition of “old covenant” in 2 Cor 3 and despite the way it is used in Hebrews) and therefore the new covenant is so utterly different from Abraham that, despite God’s command to initiate covenant children into the visible church/kingdom, we can no longer initiate covenant children thus.

Our Baptist friends are entitled to think what they will but they are not entitled to fundamentally re-define the adjective “Reformed.” Implied in the attempt by some Baptists to re-define “Reformed” so that it no longer entails a doctrine of church and sacraments is a minimalist definition of “Reformed” so that it only refers to the so-called “doctrines of grace.”

Who licensed anyone to re-define the adjective Reformed? Why should Reformed folk accept such a re-definition? If the Baptists, who reject our view of the covenants, who reject our view of our children as heirs of the covenant of grace and its promises, who reject our understanding of redemptive history (no small thing), who reject our ecclesiology, can deny a good bit of what it means to be Reformed and yet call themselves “Reformed” why can’t others play the same game? Why can’t the Open-Theists call themselves “Reformed?” Why can’t Arminians call themselves Reformed? After all, the Remonstrants were members of the Reformed Churches and they accepted a fair bit of our theology. Where do we stop? If the doctrine of the church and sacraments are negotiable why aren’t the doctrines of God, Christ, and salvation also negotiable?

Put another way, why can’t we call Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Bradwardine, and Gregory of Rimini (anachronistically) “Reformed”? They held to “the doctrines of grace.” There were five pointers long before the Synod of Dort. If holding to TULIP makes one Reformed then Godescalc (Gottschalk) of Orbais was Reformed.

Of course there is much more to being Reformed than holding to the five points. The Reformed faith is a contiguous, organic whole. It is a coherent thing. Our theology, piety, and practice are inter-related. We approach God (piety) as we do, by the due use of the ordinary means, because of our theology. We practice the faith by observing the regulative principle of worship and by observing the Christian Sabbath as we do because of our theology and piety.

Thus, the short answer to Arthur’s question is that yes, one must hold to every point of doctrine in the Reformed confessions in order to be Reformed. One might have Reformed sympathies or predestinarian sympathies or covenantal sympathies and the like and not be Reformed. I don’t know what Baptists who sympathize with us on certain points should call themselves. I wouldn’t presume to tell them. I truly wish that they would embrace Abraham as their father in the faith and embrace their children as covenant children and the promises as belonging to their children and that they would thus embrace the Reformed faith as confessed by the Reformed Churches.

-R. Scott Clark

Read the whole thing here.

HT: Challies