I do not think it means what you think it means

In a post at Euangelion, Michael Bird responds to R. Scott Clark who responds to John Piper who responds to N. T. Wright who responds to the Apostle Paul but none of that is important right now. What is important is Bird’s correction of Clark’s usage of the word “Reformed.” It wasn’t long ago that no one would get anywhere near the word but now in the year where folks are throwing birthday parties for Calvin there are some like R. Scott Clark who want to guard it like it’s their “precious.”

Probably like you I run into this all the time. Folks ask me, “Say aren’t you guys reformed?” or I venture off the reservation in a sermon and they say something like, “what a minute that’s not ‘reformed’ theology, how can you be ‘reformed’?” I don’t think all the confessional recitations and birthday celebrations this side of Geneva will ever settle such an issue but I do think Bird offers a few helpful thoughts here:

On “Reformed”, Clark objects to this description being applied to those outside the Presbyterian and Confessional churches. This is why Clark writes: “Are there as many definitions of ‘Reformed’ as there are definers or is there is fixed, stable, public, ecclesiastical definition of the adjective? I say the latter is the case.” Now every time Clark writes the word “Reformed” I feel like quoting the movie the Princess Bride – “You keep using that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means!” Now far be it for me to lecture a historical theologian on adjectives of the Reformation, but surely, just from usage alone, we can observe that “Reformed” is a polysemous term. From my fallible experience and limited readings, I think that “Reformed” has three primary usages: (1) it can be used historically to signify those Christian groups that emerged during or from the Reformation (Lutheran, Anabaptist, Presbyterian, Anglican, etc.), (2) it can be used theologically to describe those who hold to a Calvinistic and Covenantal theology (though we could ask which part of Calvin is essential and whose covenant theology – e.g. Kline or Murray – is pristine?); and (3) it can be used ecclesiologically to describe those churches that stand in the Continental/Scottish Presbyterian tradition. To say that Piper is “Reformed” it is to mean it in the sense of (2) not (3). I suspect that many do not like applying the term “Reformed” to Calvinistic and Confessional Baptists because it lowers the currency of the term “Reformed,” which they feel should be reserved exclusively for themselves (I have to confess that this entire discussion reminds me of Paul’s debate in Romans 2 about who is a true “Jew” and Philippians 3 about who is the true “circumcision”). I can resonate against making the term nebulous, but I doubt that Clark’s own idea of “Reformed” matches the historical and public reality of how the adjective is used.

4 responses to this post.

  1. So Clark is committing the reductionist fallacy? He is narrowing the meaning of Reformed too much? Or are non-Presbyterian Calvinists committing the reductionist error by narrowing “Reformed” down to the five points? I know plenty of Calvinistic dispensationalists, who are obviously/therefore not Reformed.

    I think classifying Lutheranism as “Reformed” is a little too loose. I don’t think any conservative Lutheran theologians would assent to this.

    But do you need to subscribe to covenant theology and pedobaptism to qualify as Reformed? I tend to think so.

  2. I read Clark’s blog and am amazed at how much the confessions mean to him. I like a lot of what those folks have to say, but sometimes I think that they get a little hung up on confessions and the semantics of a term like “Reformed.”

    I may be wrong on this, but I also think that practice of the Regulative Principle for Worship is also a hallmark of what it means to be “Reformed” in Clark’s view.

    What I do appreciate about his writing is not so much that I think he’s right, but it does make me more carefully watch my use of the term. I would have previously described myself as holding to “Reformed Theology,” but now I prefer to identify myself as Calvinistic or as holding to the Doctrines of Grace. What seems to irk Clark to no end is calling any 5-point Calvinist “Reformed” while they have the temerity to sing hymns as part of the worship service.

  3. Posted by caleb kolstad on June 26, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Thanks for this post Paul-

    It’s funny how “terms” and “labels” can be quite helpful and illuminating in certain contexts and how they can be quite confusing and/or divisive in other contexts.

    Together for the gospel is what really matters!

    “I am of Paul

    I am of Matt

    I am of Rich Ryan”

  4. Posted by Timothy Massaro on June 26, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    I think you guys need to read this article by premiere Calvin and Reformation/Post-Reformation scholar, Richard Muller: http://kimriddlebarger.squarespace.com/how-many-points/

    Terminological honesty is important even when it runs against what we ‘like’ to be called. The term ‘Reformed’ is not fluid but has a historical definition. The confessions are important because of Christianity’s historical nature. What you guys are saying is tantamount to saying that I am Lutheran because I hold to justification sola fide et sola gratia. No, the Book of Concord defines that.

    Bird clearly has no historical theological knowledge if he lumps the Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican with the Anabaptists who were decried as heretical and of the same errors as Rome by the Protestants.

    If what you are all saying is true, then honestly Immanuel Kant has won. Form and content of religion can be separated. We can have an ‘essence’ of Calvinism without the form (i.e. the ecclesiology of Calvin, and the Confessions that were made in full-light of his writings).

    Hasn’t modern Evangelicalism taught us that we cannot separate the formal principle of sola scriptura from the material, solus Christus and our being in Him sola fide et sola gratia, without compromising both?

    Respectfully, you (pl.) need to read Clark and the Confessions more closely and the historical theological implications of what is meant when a 20th Century writer in Netherlands named Herman Bavinck writes a series of books called, Reformed Dogmatics, and what he means by “Reformed.”

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