The Reformed Reckoning Continues

Traps to Watch Out For

Following up on my piece from last week, much more can be said about the general state of the modern Reformed movement. While there are certainly good aspects of it, from its general reverence in worship to its theological rigor, there are also shortcomings that need to be addressed. These problems include rhetorical traps, not always preaching the full counsel of God, and the prevalence of gatekeepers who seem more interested in condemning their Reformed enemies than promoting a historically based understanding of the Reformed tradition as a whole. 

One such rhetorical snare is hiding behind confessionalism to excuse questionable theology that parrots the pieties of our age. After being outraged that anyone would dare question their Reformed credentials, these types like to claim that they’re “confessional” and therefore beyond criticism.

Confessionalism is a good and necessary thing. Confessions bind us to the faith as delivered by the church throughout the ages. In the Reformed tradition, they 1) outline the key doctrines of orthodoxy as taught in Scripture (as well as being ecumenical about certain second- and third-order issues), 2) establish methods of discipline should the teachers of the church subvert those doctrines, and 3) catechize congregants and their children in patterns that should pervade all areas of life. 

Importantly, confessions do not overturn the principle that, in the language of Article Six of the Thirty-Nine Articles, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.” Confessions, along with the ecumenical creeds, are subordinate in authority to Scripture. They are derived from it and are held accountable to it. What the Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney has written about creeds applies just as much to confessions and other secondary statements of basic Christian doctrine: “He who would consistently banish creeds must silence all preaching and reduce the teaching of the church to the recital of the exact words of Holy Scripture without note or comment.” 

Confessions are also the answer to the problem of “Calvinism,” or making one theologian the standard of Reformed orthodoxy as I pointed out last week. As J.V. Fesko argues, doing this means diving headlong “into the pitfall of theological genius—defining doctrine by the cult of personality rather than through the church’s careful and prayerful deliberation on Scripture in dialogue with the church throughout the ages.” Reformed confessions are the products of the best theological minds of their eras. They carefully summarize the doctrines of the faith for the broader church, ensuring that the theological issues of their time are given due attention and correction.

As good as confessions are, however, they can be weaponized. Some individuals can hide behind a strict literalism that fails to engage with the underlying anthropological foundations on which those doctrines rest. One of the most famous memes from Philip Derrida’s collection of evangelical countersignaling memes shows a man saying that he affirms the ecumenical creeds but rejects the basic, commonsense truths of sex and gender. This is clearly occurring in the controversy over Side-B and Revoice. Like in a game of Jenga, followers of these movements subtly remove the foundational pillars of the created order, one by one, until the edifice suddenly collapses.

Some also fail to heed the straightforward teachings of their confessions. It would be interesting to see how many so-called strict subscriptionists who have later deconstructed ever assented to the Westminster Larger Catechism’s teaching on the duties that inferiors, superiors, and equals owe to each other as part of the Fifth Commandment. My guess is, they never did. And their pastors either neglected to discuss those points or actually helped undermine the teachings of their confessions.

Like the U.S. Constitution, confessions are functionally useless absent good men who will ensure that those under their care stay within its boundaries. What American Reformer’s own Timon Cline has written about the case of “strict subscriptionists” who blanch at their confession’s teaching on the civil magistrate holds true no matter the specific doctrine being jettisoned: “If you are going to say you are a confessional Protestant, rooted in tradition, you had better have a good reason for repudiating aspects of said tradition, whatever your theories about why those aspects were maintained and, well, preached with overwhelming consistency.”

Hiding Behind “Expository” Preaching

Another tendency in the Reformed world is pastors using “expository” preaching as a tactic to avoid courting controversy, as Pastor Matt Marino discussed during the most recent episode of the Old Paths Podcast. In a piece Marino wrote that sparked excellent conversation on the podcast, he explained, “Sermons are not expositional unless and until they expose not only God’s meaning but our obstacles. God’s meaning must penetrate our whole heart and permeate our whole lives.” Explaining a passage’s context, history of interpretation—and even the passage’s connection to Christ—is essential, but it’s not enough.

Marino argues that part of the definition of expositional preaching is to connect orthodoxy to orthopraxy. That means taking on the top challenges of our age, which are mainly anthropological in nature, as Marino makes clear:

As a Christian parent, how should one speak to their son or daughter to prevent the deception of transgenderism? How should the parent relate if the child is too far gone along that path? How should we counsel those who are being bombarded with the notion that “whiteness” is a kin [sic] to the unpardonable sin? How should Christian civil leaders lead in their own communities as the twin tendencies of statism and globalism further coalesce into an unprecedented brand of tyranny? And by what law of Scripture are we bound to live with fellows who have cast off all recognizable bonds of civility—Christian or otherwise? To deny pastors the authority to speak to these issues, especially when Scripture most certainly does, is so far removed from true exposition and the true gospel that we must begin to call this what it is. 

This doesn’t mean that pastors should preach partisan politics from the pulpit on Sunday mornings. According to the French Reformed theologian Franciscus Junius, pastors and theologians draw from “the natural principles in the divinely inspired science,” which is distinct from “political science.” Johannes Althusius taught in Politica that pastors and theologians “must not leap readily across boundaries and limits, carrying from cognate arts what is only peripheral to our own.” An additional consideration is that theologians—modern ones especially—tend to spiritualize politics, further proof that they ought to stick to studying and preaching the things of God. 

All of this, however, does not preclude pastors from drawing out the “civic implications” from the “moral law in the text,” as Marino argues. Preaching the full counsel of God includes applying Scripture to the lives of congregants, both internally and externally.

Marino contrasts this right way of preaching with using Scripture as “a jackhammer on the conscience of our hearers” by mandating that congregants adhere to a pastor’s political judgments. Examples of this could include a pastor who teaches that the Bible commands a flat tax or that congregants must support the foreign policy objectives of a specific nation.

Reformed Gatekeeping

Finally, there is a marked tendency in certain corners of the Reformed world to weaponize the very word “Reformed,” attacking anyone who has a theological view they don’t like—even if it has a pedigree in the Reformed tradition. 

I’ve seen this play out online time and time again. Hypothetical universalism? Not Reformed. Good works being the way to heaven? Despite all evidence to the contrary, not Reformed. Holding to the Reformed consensus view on the civil magistrate? That’s not Reformed either. What about Reformed Two Kingdoms theology? When the modern version is wrongly read back onto the tradition, as did a recent reviewer of Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism, that is somehow Reformed. I could continue on for quite some time, but I think you get the idea.

Using the term “Reformed” in this way is akin to how movement conservatives who were left flat-footed after Donald Trump’s rise have employed the term “conservative.” The word stood for a cardboard cutout version of Reaganism, which was then elevated to the status of a self-evident truth. Conservatism was equated with thinking that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were just, the hollowing out of domestic manufacturing was a blessing of liberty, and the world outside our borders consisted of over seven billion potential Americans. Calling someone “not conservative” was supposed to be a death blow to his reputation, deeming him unworthy of being taken seriously ever again.

Likewise, the term “Reformed” has been used much in the same way: marking someone as toxic and not to be discussed in polite company. Arguments never need to be refuted, and answers never need to be given. Such people tend to promote a highly restrictive version of the Reformed tradition. Feast days are verboten, and Psalm singing without instruments is the only acceptable form of worship. Though the Reformed tradition undoubtedly includes churches with these distinctives, it is broader than that, as OPC minister Alan Strange pointed out years ago.

However, avoiding the pitfalls described above is not enough to foster a healthy movement. Reformed churches should be a vibrant place that features an ecumenicism among congregants of the different Reformed churches and also among Christians of other denominations. It should have reverent worship that includes the hearty singing of hymns and psalms, the orderly delivering of the sacraments, and preaching that is careful with the text of Scripture and bold in speaking to the issues of our day. And it should be a safe harbor for families and a place where men and women can practice gendered virtues.

I pray that churches in the Reformed tradition keep standing strong for generations to come.

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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.

4 thoughts on “The Reformed Reckoning Continues

  1. Certainly the Confessions are important, but they can be weaponized, as Sabo said, and used to attack fellow believers for whom Christ died. Though on a formal level, the Confessions were not written as an attempt to replace the Scriptures, they can be used on to do just that on an informal level. That occurs when we put the Confessions on too high a pedestal or do not distinguish when the Confessions are addressing non-essential items from when they address essential items. Putting the Confessions on too high a level also occurs when the Scriptures cannot be interpreted in any other way than how the Confessions interpreted them. The problem with putting the Confessions on too high a level calls into question the practice of being or requiring one to be a strict subscriptionist.

    Another way of avoiding putting the confessions, and other Reformed traditions too, on too high a pedestal is to make the distinction between respecting traditions from being a traditionalist. The latter believes that one’s traditions have everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them. Such an attitude is arrogant and arrogance is not smiled on by the Scriptures. Those who have a healthy respect for their traditions value what is good and them and can identify errors made in them. The ability to spot errors in ones pet traditions is a great help in preventing one from putting their favorite traditions on too high a pedestal.

    Another point to be made is that we shouldn’t automatically look down on current piety and beliefs. Here, we need to be like the Bereans who examined everything that Paul had to preach by comparing his words with the Scriptures. And so we need to do the same with both the Reformed traditions and what is being taught today.

    Finally, we need to be less threatened to what science is discovering about people and the world. Reformers like Luther and Calvin perhaps damaged the reputation of the Gospel by not just refuting Heliocentrism, but by doing so in bombastic ways. Today, science is making discoveries pertaining to sexual and gender issues. And their discoveries should not threaten what we hold to be theologically true about sexual practices and gender identity when we remember that nature has fallen with Adam’s sin. So we have things to learn from science about sexual practices and gender identity that might help us to share Biblical truths about those subjects both firmly and compassionately.

  2. To Psalm and Ryan,
    You’re missing the point. I am not the subject of the article, hazards that entrap the Reformed community is the subject. My comment only pointed some traps that the article missed.

    So what do you see are the traps that the Reformed Community is facing?

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