Getting Past the Cage Stage

A Reckoning with the Modern Reformed Consensus

There is a national emergency that must be dealt with: the rising number of cage-stagers in American society. Fresh from quickly skimming a Substack post or listening to a single, hours-long podcast, they see themselves as experts in an entire field of study, ready to opine on social media and blast away at enemies real and imagined. 

Even if they stumble upon the truth, they don’t possess the prudence necessary to navigate our current circumstances. Cage-stagers on the political Right often miss the various nuances in how the Left employs and uses power—especially in the digital space. They too often settle for seemingly bold but ultimately naïve and counterproductive stands that help the Left achieve their goals.

Theological cage-stagers can become puffed up with an assortment of facts but have little wisdom. While they may have some expensive, multi-volume systematic theologies on their bookshelves, they often zero in on a specific theological tradition—and often a narrow segment of that tradition. They spend their days in fruitless “debates” in Facebook groups, hammering away on their phones as dust gathers on their Bibles.

Rather than a slow, methodical, and careful study of Scripture, aided by conversations with pastors and great commentaries and works from church history, they turn wherever the winds are blowing in their group chats. They go from Baptist to Presbyterian to Eastern Orthodoxy—all in the span of four years. Where they will end up by 2026 no one knows.

There is another aspect of the cage-stage phenomenon in theology that is less about temperament and more about never getting beyond popular presentations of a theological tradition. For example, much of what falls under the “Calvinist” label today is ahistorical and far more representative of recent trends in theology than it is grounded upon the rich heritage of the Reformed tradition.

When first venturing into the Reformed world, it’s very likely that you will be inundated with so-called key doctrines of the Reformation like TULIP (or the five points of Calvinism) and slogans like “semper reformanda,” or always reforming. Modern converts will likely drink from the wells of twentieth-century pop-Calvinism, reading books and listening to sermons by well-known Reformedish pastors.

There is good that one can glean from such tutors. Pop-Calvinism can be beneficial for those first diving into Reformed theology (it certainly was for me). But what should be an introductory phase has become for too many the place where they stay for the rest of their days. To use St. Paul’s analogy from 1 Corinthians 3, the “milk” of pop-Calvinism, however, needs to give way to the “meat” of Reformed theology.

For instance, take the seemingly traditional slogan “semper reformanda.” But as David Sytsma has pointed out, a Google Books search finds that it “appears to have been little known before 1950.” And apart from its ahistorical nature, this slogan can too easily mislead modern Reformed Christians, subtly shifting them toward doctrinal innovations rather than safeguarding the faith.

The same goes for TULIP, which is supposedly a summation of the five points of John Calvin’s theology that is taught in the Canons of Dort. Per Richard Muller, that acronym is in fact an Anglo-American pedagogical device that dates sometime to the nineteenth century. Muller further notes that “neither Calvin nor his fellow Reformers, nor the authors of the Canons, would have reduced their confessional position to TULIP.” This problem is likely one of the reasons that prompted R.C. Sproul to rename each part of TULIP in What Is Reformed Theology?—a move I didn’t fully appreciate when I read it for the first time but am grateful for in retrospect.

This leads to perhaps the central error of the modern Reformed movement: calling what we believe “Calvinism.” Though John Calvin was a crucial second-generation Reformer, his theology is not the normative standard by which to measure one’s fidelity to Reformed theology as a whole. (Calvin’s Lutheran opponents actually coined the term “Calvinism” as an epithet when they disputed his view of the Lord’s Supper.) Quite simply, as Glenn Moots writes in his excellent book Politics Reformed, Calvin was “but one figure in the simultaneous development of an international movement that had no official leader.” It might be surprising for modern “Calvinists” to learn that when Heinrich Bullinger’s compilation of sermons called The Decades was first published in England, it outsold Calvin’s Institutes.

“The Reformed tradition never saw Calvin as the fountainhead of its pursuit of orthodoxy,” Michael Lynch has written, “and often what passes as ‘Calvinism’…is quite substantially a modification of Calvin’s own views.” A typical error associated with making Calvin the cornerstone of the Reformed tradition is the place of predestination in “Calvinistic” theology. Commonly thought to be the central doctrine that propped up Calvin’s entire theological system, it was actually just one in a series of doctrines, or loci, that all stood together. In fact, Roman Catholics of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries devoted far more time writing on predestination than Reformed theologians, Calvin included.

This means that the Reformers who participated in the Synod of Dort were assuredly not attempting to sum up John Calvin’s specific theological views in five points. As Daniel R. Hyde has argued, the so-called “five points of Calvinism,” or better yet “heads” of doctrine, “actually are 59 positive articles of belief plus 34 rejections of errors”—so 93 doctrinal points total in the Canons. All told, there are 259 points of theology in the Dutch Reformed tradition as a whole.

Contrast these issues with the Reformed tradition as it was historically: one that was well-conversant with Roman Catholicism (among other traditions), featured theological diversity hemmed in within orthodox confessional bounds, and commented on the best pagan sources, filtering them through a scriptural lens. Mark Jones has shown that the Reformed tradition features multiple views on the extent of Christ’s atonement—for example, John Owen’s understanding of particular redemption versus John Davenant’s hypothetical universalism—church polity, and the efficacy of baptism. Importantly, all of these differences fell within orthodoxy. The move by some today to narrow the Reformed tradition to a single acceptable view, or use the term “Reformed” as a cudgel, is not a sign of health.

Also essential are the Reformers and their heirs showcasing a concern for catholicity. Most were in continual dialogue with the top theologians throughout church history, from the early Church Fathers through the medievals. According to Carl Trueman, John Calvin considered Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of an order of monks and co-founder of the Knights Templar, as one of the fathers of the church. Additionally, consider Francis Cheynell’s classic work on the Trinity, which draws on a range of Christian theologians, including “Augustine, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa” as well as “John Calvin, Theodore Beza, John Jewel, and James Ussher.” And that doesn’t even broach the influence of a certain theologian whose name still sends shivers down the spines of presuppositionalists everywhere: Thomas Aquinas.

Rather than promoting a fundamental disunity with the Christian tradition—that Reformed Christianity, and Protestantism more broadly, has no historical connection to Christian theology and practice between, say, 312 to 1517—the Reformed tradition is at home within the wider Christian church. As Hyde has pointed out, contrary to popular belief the word “Protestant” doesn’t mean “protest”—in other words, Protestantism is not fundamentally about schism and separation. Rather, he notes that it’s derived from the Latin word “protestatio,” which means “a public declaration or testimony.”

Reformed theologians also read and wrote commentaries on key pagan works, seeing them as evidence of the reason, though now corrupted by original sin, that God implanted into man. David Sytsma has noted that Protestant Reformers, such as Peter Martyr Vermigli and Antonius Walaeus, wrote at least 50 commentaries on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics alone. Calvin’s successor Theodore Beza once called Aristotle the “summum illum omnium Philosophorum principem,” or that highest prince of all philosophers. The Reformers did not pit two worldviews—biblical versus secular—against each other. Instead, with the help of divine revelation, they sought to elevate and perfect teachings received by way of the light of nature.

What’s needed today in the Reformed world is less anachronism and more theological study, greater precision, and intensive reading of primary sources. We also need less gatekeeping and ideological-driven vendettas that seek to hit modern opponents but actually throw orthodox Reformed doctrines out with the bathwater. And the bookshelves of modern Reformed Christians should look more like their theological heroes, who most assuredly did not simply have works by other Reformers on their shelves.

Fortunately, pivotal work has been done in the past decades, including the retrieval efforts conducted by Heiko Oberman, David Steinmetz, Richard Muller, and their students. Various resourcement projects that seek to revive classical Protestantism (including the mostly untapped potential of AI) are currently being undertaken that will undoubtedly help preserve the Reformed heritage. We need more of that in the coming years—especially the kind of resourcement that challenges our twenty-first century moral and ethical consensus. 

Image Credit: Unsplash

Print article

Share This

Mike Sabo

Mike Sabo is a Contributing Editor of American Reformer and an Assistant Editor of The American Mind, the online journal of the Claremont Institute. His writing has appeared at RealClearPolitics, The Federalist, Public Discourse, and American Greatness, among other outlets. He lives with his wife and son in Cincinnati.

2 thoughts on “Getting Past the Cage Stage

  1. When talking about traditions, we need to distinguish having a healthy respect for a tradition from being traditionalists. While the former may favor a given tradition, it also can distinguish what is good and bad in a given tradition as well as it enables one to learn from other traditions. A traditionalist serves as the other side of the coin of a narcissist. That is because while both favor a given time, both believe that their those from their pet time period(s) have everything to teach and nothing to learn from others–adapted a phrase used by Martin Luther King Jr. Such Protestant traditionalists sometimes appear to forget that while the Scriptures were God-breathed, the writings of their traditions were not and thus were subject to contamination by their culture including the values, and worldviews of their times.

    We should note something else about traditions. One of the first signs of authoritarianism is showing hostility and aggression to those who do not conform to conventional values or traditions. Another sign is to have a black-white worldview that divides the world into us vs. them. And since conventional values or traditions are relative to the individual, we see that authoritarianism crosses all ideological lines. Thus, we can have authoritarian Leftists, authoritarian liberals, and authoritarian conservatives. We can have authoritarian Marxists as well as authoritarian Capitalists. We can have authoritarian Anabaptists, authoritarian Lutherans, authoritarian Roman Catholics, and authoritarian Reformed believers. And so what we have here is that traditionalists are probably exhibiting authoritarianism when showing hostility or aggression toward those who do not conform to their tradition(s).

    Now unlike some secular traditions, Christian Orthodox traditions have a hierarchy of two sets of beliefs: essential and non-essential beliefs. The essential beliefs consist of the Godhead, Soteriology, and the Scriptures and there is a certain universality between various Protestant traditions regarding those beliefs. Non-essential beliefs include baptism, keeping the Sabbath, church government, and ideologies pertaining to more secular subjects like economics, politics, and social views. While disagreement in the essential categories puts one at risk of not being catholic in terms of being a Christian, disagreement in the non-essential categories does not though there might be other risks involved.

    And so when it comes to being Reformed, is it better to be one who respects the Reformed traditions or a traditionalist? Is the universality of the Christian faith broken if we disagree with a given set of traditions regarding non-essential beliefs? Here we should note that that the universality of the Church does not just extend backwards through the Church Fathers to the Apostles, but also through the times of the writings of the Reformed, Lutheran, and Anabaptist traditions too. Are those who are traditionalists in one of the Protestant traditions at risk of putting their traditions on too high a pedestal as the Pharisees did in Mark 7? Are those who are traditionalists in one of the Protestant traditions ones who are breaking the universality of the Christian faith? If the Berean Jews from Acts 17 used the Scriptures to examine everything that Paul preached, should we not do the same with all Christian Orthodox traditions regardless of whether they are talking about essential or non-essential beliefs? And last but not least, should we be seeing red flags and proceed with caution when conformity to someone’s pet Protestant traditions in non-essential beliefs is being demanded?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *