Reformed Pubs, Evangelical Calvinists, and the Reformed Confessions

Evangelical Calvinists such as myself are a confessional people, we are; seeing as we’re members of the Reformed faith, which is if anything else a confessional faith. Over these last couple of days I became, unfortunately, embroiled in a debate/discussion about a statement I made in the Reformed Pub. The Reformed Pub is an online forum/group within the confines of Facebook, and it boasts a membership of approximately 12,500 people (which is pretty massive for a FB group). It consists of, what I have observed, classically Reformed folk of both the Baptist as well as the
Beer-CigarsPresbyterian types; albeit there is a heavy strain of dominion theology as well as sabbatarianism that permeates this rarified online Reformed space. I became a member of the Reformed Pub a few weeks ago, and then after observing what I saw de-joined because it really was a bridge too far for my Reformed tastes. But being me, I joined back up maybe a couple of weeks ago, and sat idly by checking in on the Pub now and again. Well, last night I decided to post something on the fly, and off the top; it had to do with, you guessed it, the Reformed faith and the confessions. Unfortunately, after spending probably (and literally) four or five hours between last night and this morning debating, clarifying, and discussing my position it finally came to a head. One of my interlocutor’s seemed to be getting impatient with me and from what I could perceive made a snarky comment to me. So getting wild up I responded, not in kind at first (mind you I had about five hours of what I consider collegial debate with these guys previous), and provided more push back to this guy. But I let the moment get the best of me, and after I made the collegial response, I made a pretty low-blow snarky comment. This forum has moderators keeping tabs on all the discussions in the Pub, once I made my snarky comment in response to my interlocutor they both chimed in and told me I was out of line (of course they didn’t say anything to anyone else, except once, as I receive a barrage of comments, some not in the best of tone — in passive aggressive forms). Once that happened I decided to delete the whole post and comment threads associated with it; I resigned myself once more from the Pub; and have concluded that it is not a healthy place for me to be.

All of that is the background to the rest of this post. Unfortunately because I quickly deleted my original post from the Pub I don’t have, verbatim, my original statement about the Reformed confessions. But it went something like this:

The Reformed confessions were originally intended to be regional statements of faith made by local confessing Reformed Christians, and thus not intended to be universally binding statements for the church catholic. This is not to say that these confessions were at odds with the ecumenical council’s settlements; in fact they sought to complement the entailments provided for by the catholic and ecumenical pronouncements made about God’s life as Triune, and His life in the Son as both God and man in one person.

This comes close to the gist of my original post (although my wording here is even more explicit about what the entailments of the ecumenical settlements are). This statement set off a firestorm, which I really wasn’t ready for. The gist of the push back towards me was that the Reformed Confessions actually were intended to have catholic and universally binding force for all Protestant Christians. Further, that the Westminster Confession of Faith should be seen to be definitive for what it means to be Reformed for all Reformed Christians even today. Of course my point was that this just is not the case, and that there are Reformed Christians, like myself even, who repudiate, say, the metaphysics that fund the doctrine of God found in the WCF, as well as other loci like how grace and salvation are conceived (i.e. through substance metaphysics with all of its implications). The response to this (from the commenter who was really pushing back at me) was that if someone rejects the metaphysics of the WCF then they aren’t Reformed; further he responded that if “it ain’t broke then why fix it?” in reference to the Reformed confessions in general.

But all of this really missed the point of my original post (in a way); my original point was that the Reformed confessions, catechisms, creeds, and canons should be received in an ‘open-structured’ way rather than ‘closed.’ At this point in my commenting I offered a quote from our thesis 15 found in our Evangelical Calvinism book. The quote comes from Jack Stotts and it is this:

The Reformed sector of the Protestant Reformation is one that holds to what can be called an “open” rather than a “closed” confessional tradition. A closed tradition holds to a particular statement of beliefs to be adequate for all times and places. An open tradition anticipates that what has been confessed in a formally adopted confession takes its place in a confessional lineup, preceded by statements from the past and expectant of more to come as times and circumstances change. Thus, the Reformed tradition—itself a wide river with many currents—affirms that, for it, developing and adopting confessions is indeed an obligation, not an option. These contemporary confessions are recognized as extraordinarily important for a church’s integrity, identity, and faithfulness. But they are also acknowledged to be relative to particular times and places. This “occasional” nature of a Reformed confession is as well a reminder that statements of faith are always subordinate in authority to scripture.[1]

My respondent looked for dirt, and for his money found what he was looking for. He let everyone know that Stotts is a liberal PCUSA theologian who contributed to the current state the PCUSA is in, particularly with reference to how homosexuality is viewed and even applauded and encouraged. I responded back that it is a genetic fallacy to attempt to marginalize the substance of Stott’s quote by referring to his personal affiliations and views (one way or the other).

But I want to press this “open” rather than “closed” confessional tradition. Those in the Reformed pub represent quite well the sentiment of the classically Reformed tradition in general; it is a mood of Reformed theology that is more concerned with repristinating the past rather than reformulating and/or reforming it (semper reformanda) per the reality of Holy Scripture, who of course is Jesus Christ. The classically Reformed, largely, are driven by ecclesiocentric identity, as far as posture and hermeneutic, rather than christocentric identity; at least insofar as they approach their usage and deployment of the Reformed confessions as boundary markers. But as Karl Barth rightly notes it is this mood that we currently find in the classically Reformed that is at odds with the reality of confession making within the spirit of the Reformed faith. Barth writes (in one of my favorite books from him The Theology of the Reformed Confessions):

The tendency toward confessional unity of these particular Reformed churches is, on the other hand, [Barth is contrasting the Reformed tradition with the Lutheran, which he argues that the latter seeks to achieve ecclesial unity by their singular adherence to the Augsburg confession as a catholic document that stands against heresies near and far] weak in its development. We remember that the section of the Formula of Concord already cited begins with the sentence: “Fundamental, enduring unity (concordia) in the church requires above all else (primo … necessarium omnino) a clear and binding summary and form (forma et quasi typus) in which a general summary of teaching is drawn together from God’s Word, to which the churches that hold the true Christian religion confess their adherence” (M 568). From a Reformed point of view, one can only say No; such a formula and pattern of doctrine may well be very nice and desirable, but it is certainly not that which is “required above all else” for an accord. That which is “required above all else” is that the doctrine of the church everywhere and constantly be grounded upon Holy Scripture, which defines not the confessional unity but the confessional freedom of the particular churches in their relationships to each other. That was one of the first things that Luther noticed in his opponents from the Alps: the unconcerned lack of uniformity in their formulations, which was a sign for him that their doctrine was of Satan (End. 5,294). “The Holy Ghost is a God of unity and grants one meaning, foundation, and doctrine” (53,362). In the sixteenth century, the Reformed were scornfully described as “Confessionists” [“Confessionistae”] because of their many personal, local, and national confessions, and they were quite content to be such. How easy it would have been for Calvin to install a normative Reformed confession, possibly written by him, in the circles and countries open to his influence. But he never sought after such a thing. The fact that he imposed the Gallican Confession of 1559 on the French was not an act of the “pope from Geneva,” as he was called, but rather a fraternal and friendly form of help from church to church. He wrote a catechism, but we find his most loyal adherents—John Knox, John à Lasco, and Caspar Olevianus—all writing their own confessions and catechisms as a matter of course.[2]

Barth would think it is quite ironic that my interlocutors, the classically Reformed in the Reformed Pub and elsewhere, would attempt to use the Reformed confessions as a basis for ecclesial unity and identity rather than statements attempting to freely profess and confess the Gospel and its implications as disclosed in Holy Scripture. Yet, this is what I was up against in the Reformed Pub the last two days, and what so many who are Reformed in the sense that I am are faced with as well.

Surely, just as my interlocutors wiped Stotts away with one fell PCUSA swipe they would wipe Barth away with one fell arch-heretic/neo-orthodox swipe. Be that as it may to do so is not to engage with the material and substantive critiques and developments presented by either Stotts or Barth in regard to the reality and development of the Reformed confessions.

Nevertheless, as evangelical Calvinists we most certainly work from within the ‘open structured’ conception of the confessions (per Stotts), and we see as their regulative reality, Jesus Christ (per Barth) as attested to in Holy Scripture. It is always reforming for the evangelical Calvinists, not always repristinating; it is Jesus Christ as the unitive reality of the church, He alone is her bene esse and the confessions speak after Him, and after Scripture both de jure and de facto! Semper reformanda!

 

[1] Jack Stotts in Rohls, Reformed Confessions, xi.

[2] Karl Barth, The Theology of the Reformed Confessions, translated and annotated by Darrell L. Guder and Judith J. Guder (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 12-13 [brackets mine].

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5 comments

  1. Hi Bobby, nice to see you back at it again! It is certainly tragic that those confessions intended to be a servant of Scripture have now become its master. It’s really no different than the Roman Catholic magisterium.

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  2. Dr. John Stotts died in 2015. I know that as a pastor in the “liberal” PCUSA. I do NOT belong to any of FB groups as Reformed Pub. I read this blog, Reformissio, TF Torrance group and one on the Institutes

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  3. Yeah, I saw that Kenneth (that he died then) — when I looked him up via Google when I was in that debate. What he says about the confessions stands on its own; which is why the way my interlocutor argued against him was fallacious.

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