10 Popular Misconceptions of Reformed Theology

1. Reformed Theology is a Biblicism

In the discipline of Philosophy, epistemology is the study of knowledge: what knowledge is, what counts as knowledge, and the mechanism through which the person apprehends knowledge. The assertion of Biblicism is an assertion of epistemic (mental) authority. Biblicism contends that the Bible only is the rule for faith and life for Christians. Neither science, nor church tradition, nor conventional wisdom are our authorities in life, only the Bible. Biblicism is expressed in catch phrases like, “we have no creed but Christ and no authority but the Bible!” Reformed Theology, in distinction to this, posits that the Bible is the only infallible authority regarding the most necessary matters of faith and salvation (Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone). Here, infallibility means impossibility to err. Thus, Reformed Theology is not Biblicism in that it does not readily throw out the creeds, councils, and confessions of the church – nor science or history. It simply doesn’t place subordinate authorities (creeds and confessions) on the same level as Scripture. Whereas the Scripture alone is the norm of norms without norm (it cannot be subject to any higher authority), the right interpretation of Scripture is a providential concurrency between the individual and the church, the former generally submitting to the latter. Scripture alone is infallible but it is not the sole authority; God providentially guides the church into the correct (though not infallible) interpretation of Scripture.

2. Reformed Theology is Calvinism

In modern usage, Calvinism has been reduced to a system of salvation (which answers to the question of how men get saved). Historically though, Calvinism referred to the entire substructure undergirding the written corpus of John Calvin. Thus it included not only his doctrines of predestination, providence, and salvation but also a view of the church, Sacraments, creation, and ext. Reformed Theology is not co-extensive with either of these two definitions of Calvinism; so-called “mere Calvinism” is an essential aspect, but not the whole of full or broad Calvinism (the structure of Calvin’s thought). And the structure of Calvin’s thought is not the whole of “Reformed Theology” though Calvin and his thought were necessary, historically, in order for the full budding of Reformed thought to flourish. Calvin’s thought, therefore, furnished the ground for later confessional developments (the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Synod of Dort, and Helvetic Confessions, and ext). In other words, Calvin is an indispensable Theologian within the Reformed tradition, but he is a part not the whole. Likewise, the doctrines of grace (mere Calvinism) are indispensable doctrines with regard to the whole of the Reformed system of Theology, though they are not by any means the whole. Reformed Theology encapsulates an entire worldview, not just a view of how someone “gets saved.”

3. Reformed Theology is a Manicheanism

If you recall, Catholic Theology is a “Sacerdotalism.” Sacerdotalism contends that God “deposits” grace into the Catholic church for the salvation of persons. This grace is then dispensed via the co-operative act of clergy and layman through the Church’s various Sacraments (The Lord’s Supper and Penance for example). The individual, therefore, is always dependent on the will of the priest and Church in order to attain salvation. Reformed Theology repudiates such dogma. According to the Reformed there is, in fact, no mediator between God and man except Christ; and Christ is not apprehended through works done in righteousness but through the act of gracious reception (i.e. faith). The individual sinner apprehends God through faith due to of a prior act of grace on the part of God (regeneration) which is caused, not by his own “free-will,” but by free-grace of God. Due to Reformed Theologies’ total rejection of man’s works as primary in salvation, many opponents have accused Reformed Theology as being a “Manicheanism” wherein, salvifically, one simply waits upon God to effect his work being unable to do anything within the process. The “Manicheans” advocated a passive approach to God’s grace, hoping Him to simply “effect” his grace upon them. Reformed Theology, against Manicheanism, posits that man is always to attend to the various “means of grace” which God has appointed. The “means of grace” in Reformed Theology refer to the primary means alongside which God has promised to do His work of salvation (the reading of Scripture, the hearing of the preaching, prayers, and the Sacraments). Thus, Reformed Theology states that God is not bound to the church, her sacraments, the Bible, and ext. as a universal, necessary rule; rather, he has bound us to them consequently and as by promise. Though God is free to transcend the means of grace (the church, her sacraments, preaching, ext), He has willed, according to His promise, to come to do His work of salvation alongside them. Reformed Theology posits that God does not work through various channels (as in Sacerdotalism), (as in Manicheanism) but alongside these various means, mysteriously, at His own pleasure.

4. Reformed Theology is anti-sacramental

Similar to the objection above, many accuse Reformed Theology as being anti-sacramental. This is understandable due to the implicit rejection by many evangelicals of a full and robust Reformed Theology in favor of a “mere” Calvinism. Accordingly, these so-called “Reformed” people have nothing in common with the Sacramental heritage of our confessional documents. The Theology of these so-called “Reformed” people is more akin to the Zwinglian and Anabaptist wings of the Reformation, less so with the other magisterial reformers (Luther and Calvin). In short, a sacrament is a rite wherein the grace signified in the rite is really conveyed by God alongside that rite at His own discretion, in His own time. In other words, the thing which is signified in the rite (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) is really conveyed to the person who apprehends the sign by faith according to the Spirit’s work. In Zwinglian Theology, the sacraments are mere instruments for remembrance (God does not utilize them in a mysterious way to convey that which is signified). Likewise, in the London Baptist Confession, the particular Baptists use the language of “ordinance” to describe Baptism, whereas the Westminster Confession uses the language of Sacrament. All of this to say that in Reformed Theology, the Spirit works alongside the Scriptures and the sacramental rite in order to mysteriously effect that which is signified. In the case of Baptism, the salvation signified therein is not tied to the moment of it’s administration (those infants that are baptized are not necessarily saved at the time of their Baptism). Nor is the grace signified in the Lord’s Supper given to those who partake of it by a mere act of eating; rather, the Sacrament, in God’s providence, arouses faith through which God sovereignly bestows the grace signified in the rite. Reformed Theology, therefore, retains the high regard for the Sacraments without making them Lord’s as in Lutheran and Catholic Theology.

5. Reformed Theology is anti-ecclesiology

Similar to the objection above, it is supposed by some that Reformed theology is anti-ecclesiological (in other words, Reformed Theology has no place for the church). This, again, I believe is due to the practical reduction of Reformed Theology to merely the place of a system of salvation (the five points of Calvinism). The Reformation, before it was a reformation of our view of salvation, was a reformation of worship. As the story goes, the Roman magisterium was knee-deep in idolatry and the Reformers wished to rid the church of human traditions by introducing worship according to the Word of God alone. In this vein, the Reformed tradition by and large has recaptured and pioneered doctrines such as the regulative principle of worship (we worship only as God as explicitly and implicitly commanded us in His word), the reality of the Lord’s day Sabbath (the command of God to worship Him on His appointed day, weekly), and the providential care that God has shown to His people in giving them church officers (ministers, elders, and deacons). In addition to this, Reformed Theology places primacy on the preaching of the Word of God as the Word of God and the setting-apart of the Sacrament as a sacrament by the Word of God. In short, the Word of God, in Reformed Theology, is never divorced from the church of God. The Word of God rules the church; the church of God ministers to her own according to the Word of God.

6. Reformed Theology is anti-philosophical

This objection is a by-product of the Biblicist revolution spoken of above. If the Bible alone is the sole authority for faith and life and an implicit rejection of tradition and human philosophy is contained within that doctrine, then we must repudiate both tradition and philosophy. This is erroneous because it fails to distinguish between the traditions of men and the tradition of God and because it fails to distinguish between the philosophy contained within the Word of God and the philosophies’ of men. Scripture itself contains it’s own tradition (a body of doctrines which constitute a whole), which together constituted form a worldview (a philosophy). What is rejected in the Scriptures is man-made tradition and man-made philosophy. This is not to say that the structures and true findings of man-made philosophy cannot be apprehended by the people of God in order to better serve our flourishing (Moses learned from the Egyptians; Paul and Apollos from the Greeks). Rather man-made philosophy, like church tradition, is always subject to the Word of God as God clearly speaks in Scripture. To this point, there is an entire trajectory within Reformed Theology which utilizes the philosophical categories of Aristotle in order to clearly set forth the totality of Reformed Theology (this school is the Reformed Scholastics; their greatest representative is the Theologian Francis Turretin).

7. Reformed Theology is Revolutionary

Having in large part inherited much from Luther’s reformation, Reformed Theology is categorized as revolutionary in a way similar to Marx, French Revolutionaries, and Enlightenment Philosophers. According to this line of thinking one must dare to think for oneself, trust no tradition of those come before you; burn it to the ground if it doesn’t make sense to you. In contradiction to this, Reformed Theology is largely a Conservatism and a Humanism. It is a Conservatism in that it looks upon the fathers of the church with high regard, only throws out custom when contrary to the Word of God and seeks to preserve the inheritance which it has received from those who’ve come before. As a Humanism, it adheres to the mantra Ad fontes! Ad fontes means “back to the sources.” The Reformers were attempting to go back to the Scriptures as the infallible authority and retrieve the doctrine of the early church fathers (Iraneus, Tertullian, and, most notably, Augustine).

8. Reformed Theology is a Determinism

Reformed Theology is deterministic, but it is not a determinism. To be clear, Reformed Theology emphasizes the absolute sovereignty of God, not only in our salvation, but in the total array of human affairs. God is absolute and from His absoluteness He predestines, governs, and guides all things which do come to pass, even and especially men’s salvation and damnation. Yet Reformed Theology always insists upon the mysterious unity of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility; all that is necessary to predicate man’s responsibility is contained within the providential sovereignty of God. How this works is admittedly a mystery but at-least this much is certain: men are not computational machines (robots), who are effected by God as though He were a puppet master; rather, God has so constituted the universe as it’s sole primary and ultimate cause but has instituted secondary causes in order to effect his ends. In addition to this, and contrary to natural determinism, men are not mere animals. Men are rational animals. As such, they have the implicit ability to transcend their natural impulses according to higher rational standards (unlike the birds, bees, rocks, and trees). Further, regenerate men are definitively free from sin and thus have the capacity to transcend (though not perfectly) the sin nature (unlike the unregenerate). Men, in other words, within Reformed Theology, are in all the best ways free; and being free, they are radically responsible for their actions.

9. Reformed Theology is an Intellectualism

This may be one of the saddest errors in our circles today. Anthropologically, people who categorize themselves as “Reformed” practically relegate emotional life of Christians to a secondary status. “The heart is wicked, so don’t trust it!” they say. Their doctrine is that heart refers to the emotions of persons, whereas in Scripture the heart refers to the fundamental-personal commitment of individuals which undergirds their actions, thoughts, and feelings. Thus, it is not the feelings that are bad rather it is the fundamental disposition of the person. Again, it is not actions “as such” that are bad, rather it is the heart that is bad. Mind is good, but an unregenerate mind is bad. For this reason, Reformed Theology has been categorized as an “Intellectualism.” The intellect is good and immaculate; it is the body, the emotions, and the will that are evil. Reformed Theology states that undergirding all phenomena of the human person is a fundamental heart commitment to either God or the Devil, the flesh or Christ, the kingdom or the world. To be fair, there are intellectualists within the Reformed community, but it is by no means a fundamental doctrine to the entire system – they could be wrong.

10. Reformed Theology is fully codalized

There are a significant amount of Christians who act as though Reformed Theology and thought is fully codalized. They treat it as though it admits of no error in principle and any deviation from the confession of faith is, as a transcendent principle, an error. Though this may in fact be an error (and usually is). It is an error in consequence, not an error in principle. It is an error because the system of the confessions is true, not that the origin of these confessions is such that the confessions are incapable of error. We revere the confessions of the Reformed tradition because of their faithfulness to the Word of God and because they are our fathers whom we honor. Yet in our own day, as in days past, there are disagreements between aspects of the Reformed Confessions and even more-so amongst Reformed Theologians. Thus, treating any one of the confessions as absolute is the contradict the spirit of the whole; rather, they should be seen as subordinate authorities which work together as a wide pond which many different brethren swim in. Contradiction to the greater mass of the confessions, though, should be definitively regarded as outside the bounds of Reformed Orthodoxy (which is not the same thing as catholic or Christian orthodoxy, nor Protestant Orthodoxy). Doctrines which are contrary to Reformed Orthodoxy would be those which contradict the mass of our confessions and Theologians or which strike at the vitals of our system as a distinct interpretation of the Word of the Lord.


Photo Credit: J.J. Jordan

Kant, Burke, and the French Revolution

It is by now a cliche that ‘ideas have consequences.’ That notwithstanding, the thinking Christian knows too well that in order to understand ideas, it is not enough to analyze them only a priori. Due to the noetic effect of Adam’s disobedience, as well as the natural limits of reason, some ideas are better exposed and ‘analyzed’ over the course of time. Putting Kant’s politics in historical context is what Reidar Maliks has done (1), and whose book this short essay borrows from. Hopefully, the analysis of this history provides some insight into Kant for the philosophizing theologian.

The French Revolution was the political background to Kant’s political work. Excited about the French Revolution, it was personal for Kant. For, he knew that his own “Enlightenment” principles were embedded in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, which emboldened the revolutionaries’ spirits.

France was, for the Prussian philosopher, a “laboratory” according to Maliks, “that would be the true test of an ideal constitution. He surveyed the events like a scientist with a hypothesis, eagerly awaiting news about the revolution and bringing it up in conversation with friends.” Many of those friends were former students. However, several students turned critics once they came under the “direct influence” of the great orator and father of conservatism, Edmund Burke.
Yet, initially, his former students were content. In fact, Maliks tells us that:

“Friedrich Gentz’s December 1790 letter to Christian Garve contained a typical statement: ‘the Revolution constitutes the first practical triumph of philosophy, the first example in the history of the world of the construction of government upon the principles of an orderly, rationally constructed system.’”


Not the only former pupil to do so, Gentz switched sides, doing a complete Burkean turn-around.
In fact, Gentz, Rehberg and Herder, “came under the direct influence of Burke,” so much so, in fact, that Gentz later wrote, that “the philosopher create systems, the rabble forges a murderous weapon from them.”


In the earlier years of Kant’s political theorizing, he was seeking to provide a non-theological justification for political freedom. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that the concept of moral freedom necessarily entails the concept of an external political freedom. This likely may have been connected to the fact that Kant saw the state government as the primary institution that creates and enables our moral freedom. But is the move from metaphysical freedom to political freedom legitimate? Is it (morally) necessary? Suppose that it was, say, before the Fall. Would the loss of moral freedom due to the Fall (which Kant denied) then have consequences in the political sphere?
Maliks explains that “Kant defended freedom as an equal juridical status of independence from the choices of others grounded in an a priori concept of right.”

The Burkeans, however, held that the a priori can only provide the form of right, not the content of right. Therefore, the a posteriori must also be involved. It is helpful to see how Kant reasoned, as follows (loosely, since this is based on Robert S. Taylor’s slight development and interpretation of Kant).

Moral Autonomy      (necessitates)    Political Autonomy
     (leads to)                                                  (leads to)
Personal Autonomy (necessitates)    Civil Autonomy

This is all enthralling. It is clear, therefore, that both egalitarian-liberalism and libertarian-liberalism both find their birth in Kant. The former students turned Burkean-critics responded by rejecting Kant’s rationalism as “a mistaken application of metaphysics to the political domain.”

If this is critique is true, then this is fascinating since Kant himself wanted adamantly to separate practical reason from pure reason (metaphysics) when it came to matters of, say, theology. But at any rate, Gentz and other Burkean conservatives held that Kant’s mistake was a categorical mistake. That is, a non-sequitor; moral freedom does not necessarily entail, either an is or an ought, in the realm of political freedom.

Now we understand more of the liberal-conservative divide. Unlike his students, Immanuel Kant argued that equal political freedom is an “innate human right,” and that this principle is not necessarily anarchistic, though it means the erosion of old power structures that God created providentially. Therefore, I submit the following breakdown for public consideration:

Kantians

Burkeans

Political principles derived ONLY a priori

Political principles derived both/and

Moral freedom entails political freedom

Moral freedom does NOT entail political freedom

Political freedom is a universal human right

Political freedom is a localized privilege

Government enables moral autonomy and moral self-realization

Government’s job is law and order, (justice and continuity) all else flow as by-products of this

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Author

Bobby Joe is the founder of the Reformedconservative.org  His blog is dedicated to the union of historical Conservatism, Reformed Theology, and public witness. He graduated from Reformation Bible College with a degree in Theological studies and is currently studying Conservatism with Sir Roger Scruton.

Citation

(1) Reidar Maliks, Kant, the State, and Revolution,  https://www.academia.edu/8462986/Kant_the_State_and_Revolution.

 

Intrigue and Belief

The epistemologies of intrigue and belief are starkly opposed to one another, even when they appear similar and, in some cases, nearly identical. Intrigue involves fascination, an almost-sensuous thrill when one considers the object or the Other. But this fascination is distant — it prevents the object/Other from laying any kind of claim upon the fascinated person. The thrill of the intrigue, the admiration, is enough; one cannot, or does not, go beyond that thrill. Indeed, the longer one persists in fascination, the more one becomes convinced that the fascination is a kind of devotion, a commitment to the object/Other.

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John 3.1-2: Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.  This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Nicodemus is seen here as an admirer, a fascinated person. He recognizes the divine mission of Jesus, sees the miracles performed by God the Son. The anticipation he experiences upon witnessing these miracles leads him to definite conclusions about the carpenter from Nazareth. “We know. There is no doubt that you have come from Above, and I am fascinated by that fact; I greatly admire you for it, and I will even show you with the praise of my words — no one could do what you do unless God is with him.”

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Fascination grows with knowledge. The more one learns about the object/Other of admiration, the starker that admiration grows, until it reaches, in some cases, a nearly feverish pitch. The desires of a person are stirred up within, thoughts of deep affection cloud the mind and block out other considerations, and the admirer grows in his fascination until, by sheer emotional display, he proclaims himself the most devoted to the object/Other. And those around him without knowledge of the distinction between intrigue and belief agree — that man, he is the most devoted, and he is the one we should strive to be like: for see how fascinated he is!

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John 3.3: Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Jesus knows what is in man, so He cuts through Nicodemus’ admiration and exposes the necessity of the new birth, the first sign of which is not admiration, fascination, intrigue — but belief. Faith is the lynchpin upon which hangs all the thoughts and actions of the new creation, formed and sustained by God. For belief, true belief, does what fascination cannot, what it does not — it reposes its confidence upon the object/Other in the same moment that it recognizes the claim that the Other has upon it — indeed, this reposing of confidence is surrendering to that claim.

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How is it that fascination creates distance between the admirer and the object/Other? When I am fascinated with something, with someone, I must step back to engage in admiration. I must disengage from any form of solicitude, from relating with intentionality towards whatever is at hand. If I display my fascination while relating to the object/Other, there will be in inevitable reaction, and that reaction demands a response, which in turn will provoke another reaction, etc. But when I create distance, I can stand afar off and look on without needing to bother with such exchanges. This is also how I manage to persuade myself that my devotion for the object/Other is real, for I experience it, actually experience it, even if it is never directed towards that which I so greatly admire. But how can one be devoted to something or someone unless this devotion is actually displayed?

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“Passion and reflection,” says Kierkegaard, “are generally exclusive of one another.” And what is intrigue but a kind of reflection — since reflection is self-referential and cyclical, never expressed outwardly towards that upon which I reflect. Thus reflection produces a kind of objectivity, whereby all are made into objects, even the Other — for there is no real, subjective engagement between me and the Other when all I do is admire with a loving but distant gaze.

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And what is faith but passion? For passion is always projected out from the soul; it must find a home elsewhere or it dies, it must hit its mark or it evaporates. When I truly believe in something, or someone, I will repose upon that object/Other, and state with the same certainty as Nicodemus: “I know.” But I will be more certain than he, for I have tested the theory, so to speak, tested it through actually following my devotion to the point of crisis, to the point of surrendering to the Other’s claim. Thus will I dwell in true solicitude with the Other, and thus will I gain true knowledge, beyond the theoretical, for my admiration will be embedded in my experience of surrender.