What if I don’t want to be “Reformed”?

calvarmA recent paper presented at the URC’s Mission Council suggested that: “the URC’s particular contribution to the life of the Church in the UK at the present time will lie in its grasp of its Reformed identity and that this has the potential to lead to the renewal of the Church and its outreach into the world.” I am at best ambivalent about this statement and at times feel quite distinctly opposed to it for a number if reasons which I will now state in brief and subsequently expand on a little

  1. I do not personally identify as “Reformed”
  2. I do not believe the URC is, ever has been or should be “Reformed”
  3. I believe others are better placed than us to make the contribution suggested in the UK
  4. I believe we do have a distinctive contribution to make that a definitive identification with the Reformed tradition would interfere with.

Any meaningful discussion of this matter will require some level of agreement on what being “Reformed” means. My feeling that currently no such agreement exists. Different participants in the discussion have radically different ideas of what the Reformed tradition is, so I will state the one I believe to be most useful as clearly as I can.

In doing so I recognise that my idea of what that tradition represents is formed out of a particular experience. I am an ordained elder of the Church of Scotland as well as of the United Reformed Church and my academic theological training took place at New College, Edinburgh, an institution that remains a training ground for Church of Scotland ministers (there were around twenty of their candidates there when I was and I was the only URC ordinand). New College attracts students from the Reformed tradition from all over the world, especially from the US and from Korea, where the numbers of Presbyterians are particularly large. Few from the Dutch Reformed tradition go there, but there are some.

This profound connection with the Presbyterian strand of the Reformed tradition inevitable influences what I take that tradition to mean, but the context also means that I have had to struggle with what distinguishes us from Presbyterianism while recognising that Presbyterianism is not, despite what it might think, the only tradition properly regarded as Reformed.

The first thing to say is that I believe that to be a meaningful term “Reformed” has to connect in real way with the fairly tightly defined circumstances in which the in has its origins. It refers, in my view, consistent with the usual use of the term in Church history, to those varieties of Protestantism that are continuous with the reform of the church in a group of city states in Switzerland and Western Germany, most particularly Zurich, Geneva and Basel but also prominently including Strasbourg. 

It is essential to the Reformed tradition, in my view, and I am by no means eccentric in this view, that it is part of the “magisterial reformation”, which it is to say it belongs to that part of the overall movement of reform that was carried out by or with the civil authorities and which imposed Protestantism on an entire political entity by force of law. This basic assumption of the Reformed tradition is explicitly stated in all its main Confessions including the Westminster Confession that is so basic to Presbyterianism.

From the very beginning the Reformed tradition was self-consciously in opposition to the radical reformation and to anabaptism, the wing of the movement that rejected, among other things, the idea of a Christian political order and compulsory and universal church membership. The radical reformation favoured a model of the church that rejected the existing social order as corrupt and withdrew from it into congregations of the elect, separate and apart from the reprobate. The Reformed tradition set its face against and often persecuted these radicals, affirming the Christian vocation of the civil authorities and in Scotland succeeding in eliminating all traces of dissent.

I would argue that the two main bearers into modernity of the Reformed tradition, properly so called, are Scottish Presbyterianism and the Dutch Reformed, both of which passed through seventeenth century Confessionalism with their doctrine of the relation of church and state very much aligned to that of Calvin, whose Geneva church came to be the primary definer of what it was to be Reformed.

This is not to say that the influence of the Reformed tradition was not more widely felt. Anglicanism, through Cranmer and Bucer, was deeply shaped by the Reformed tradition, which on the Protestant side of the rift opened up by the Reformation, was seen as the main alternative to Lutheranism if one were not to go over to anabaptism. If one wanted to maintain a strong link between Church and State then being Reformed was a kind of default position until the rise of a distinctive Anglican theology. Similarly some from the anabaptist tradition came to feel the attraction of the coherent and complete “Calvinist” system worked out by Calvin’s successors in Geneva, so that one comes across “Reformed Baptists” and other anabaptist/Reformed hybrids.

Something like this is found in the Savoy Declaration, which affirms a Westminster Calvinism apart from its sections on Church and State and Church government. On this basis it is possible to argue that English Congregationalism should be seen as part of the wider Reformed tradition. I am unconvinced by this. It is clear that those independents who gathered in 1658 wanted that to be so but in my view the issue of Church and State is foundational to the definition of the Reformed tradition and that the subsequent history of both English Presbyterianism and English Congregationalism prove this, as both struggle with what it means to be both dissenting and Reformed and discover that they are in fact incompatible.

My contention is that the struggle with the established church fundamentally transformed Congregationalism in England such that it ceased to be, in any meaningful sense, identifiably Reformed. It will always be possible to redefine the term “Reformed” so that it includes rather than excludes the Congregationalists and as a consequence also includes the United Reformed Church, but I would contend that to do so has two bad consequences that are better avoided.

First it leads to such a weakening of the determinate sense of the term that it stops being useful in distinguishing one tradition from another and second it distorts the real history and current character of our denomination. I would prefer to insist, as many of those who call themselves Reformed in fact do, that being Reformed requires agreement to some quite specific things, in particular Confessional subscription at some level of strictness, agreement with the quite definite doctrines set out in the classic Confessions, the so called “Covenant Theology”, with its strong emphasis on divine sovereignty, its adherence to sola scriptura (as against the Lutheran admission of some traditional elements), its affirmation of a Christian polity (as against anabaptism) and so on (including the doctrine of predestination, which is not, though as distinctive of the Reformed tradition as is sometimes thought, Luther also being predestinarian),

Second it distorts what we are and should be. Our Basis of Union, while recognising our historic connection with the Reformed tradition nowhere commits us to it. It acknowledges that some of our forebears valued the confessions without saying that we should do so. I believe this to be appropriate to our being a united denomination which has roots in a number of tradition, including the Anabaptist and Restorationist alongside the Reformed. To assert the singular importance of a Reformed tradition redefined so broadly as to allow it to incorporate the non-Reformed elements we historically include distracts us from searching for our particular vocation and task. This is especially unfortunate and unnecessary when there are plenty of others at least as well qualified as we are to contribute a distinctive Reformed identity to the UK scene.

Putting aside the Church of Scotland for a moment there are those within the Church of England who look back to Cranmer and the Reformed strand in Anglicanism and there are the neo-Reformed who wish to reassert a distinctive Reformed identity. Here I would point especially to the successors to New Frontiers, who are certainly now more numerous than we are and who take their Reformed identity very seriously indeed, with extensive discussion, for example, of the place and role of Arminianism in the Reformed tradition.

I do not believe that there is nothing of value in the Reformed tradition, but I do not either believe it is an adequate basis for moving forward into the new period that is opening up, a period in which the Pentecostal descendants of the Methodist tradition are rapidly moving to being the dominant Protestantism. Our calling, I believe, is to carry the hope of a Christianity reunited, of a new life beyond a confessionalism defined by the issues a time long gone. This new Christianity will be shaped out of but not by the old denominational identities and as a denomination defined by the ecumenical hope that is what we have the responsibility to seek and to embody.

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12 comments
  1. “I do not believe that there is nothing of value in the Reformed tradition….”

    There is nothing of value in Calvinism. It is pure Satanism. And you guys can stop calling it “Reformed.” That was a nice trick 20 years ago, but now everyone knows that “Reformed” is just a word the Calvinists are using to try and keep from using the word Calvinists to trick us. The only good Calvinists is one who has already died and gone to hell.

    • This comment illustrates one of the reasons it may be less than helpful to adopt the term “Reformed” as an identity. It is clearly ridiculous either to identify being Reformed with Calvinism or to describe Calvinism (itself a slightly difficult term) as Satanism but this shows the extent to which in the contemporary Church the name Reformed has become identified with a particular style of theology and of practice that excite strong feelings both for and against and which has little resonance in the United Reformed Church.

      • There’s an obvious flaw in your reply. That is, if you don’t see Calvinism as Satanism, then obviously you are a Calvinist. So I guess you should use the lying “Reformed” moniker after all, since it shows what you are: a Calvinist.

      • Anyone who is not against the Calvinists is for them, and consequently is for Satan and the NWO too.

  2. Elliot Vernon said:

    Personally, I think it would be better for the United Reformed Church to drop the term ‘Reformed’. Why not call itself something like ‘The Uniting Church’. It is clear to me, under any kind of ‘trade description’ analysis, that all but very few ministers of the denomination are Reformed in any confessional sense of the word – on the contrary, it is clear that many ministers of the URC hold to positions that the historical Reformed churches would class as grave theological errors (e.g. Arminianism) or even condemn as heresies (e.g. outright universalism). All of this, of course, happened before the URC was founded – as confessionalism was essentially rejected by the URC’s founding churches, but given, as you say, the Reformed baton has passed to other churches – such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales or the various baptist or Independent churches (although, watching a few of their training videos, I am not sure how Reformed the New Frontiers people actually are) – would the prudent course be to drop the word Reformed? I can’t see that it would affect church members, many of whom are liberal and progressive types who find the ‘R’ of URC a bit puzzling.

    As to Congregationalism (in the Savoy sense, not in the separatist sense of seeing an absolute division of church and state) not being part of the Reformed tradition – I can’t agree with you that the two are incompatible. The formulation of congregationalism in its early form (e.g. William Bradshaw, Henry Jacob) or in its Savoy and Restoration era form was to remove the threat to the [royal] supremacy of the state by removing the idea, associated with Presbyterianism, that the church was a mini state within the state (‘imperium in imperio’) that was capable of crossing swords with the civil authority. This is a logical development that those Reformed churches which see the consistorial model as being the one set out in the New Testament can adopt where the state does not adopt it. Such a system looks to a Christian magistrate to use civil law in the place of the wider consistory, whilst asking for liberty of conscience in matters of worship and church fellowship. It also follows that historically the Genevan/French/Dutch/Scottish Reformed model of a consistorial church is not by necessity linked to support from the magistrate. Except in Geneva, these models developed in response to the problem of the church being in a state that was hostile to Reformation (even Scotland was a Roman Catholic state until the post-Reformation era). It seems to me that you are classifying the Zurich/Upper German/English magisterial model and the consistorial model as it worked in Geneva alone as being a principle defining feature of the Reformed churches. Whilst I agree that Reformed models can all be classed as part of the magisterial reformation, the second wave of Reformation meant that many of these models had to find ‘work arounds’ in the face of the fact that the magistrate didn’t support them.

  3. I think I agree with you, on the whole, Elliot. My point is that English Congregationalism as it evolved during the long period of “non-conformity” came to be defined by a “voluntarist” or “separatist” doctrine of the Church which I take to be quite distinct from the core Reformed tradition, which I take to maintain continuity with the Christendom teaching of the magisterial reformation. In looking back to the sixteenth century separatism was an alternative to, not a part of, this tradition (associated primarily with Anabaptism).

    On the other hand I’m inclined to see Arminianism as part of the mainstream of the Reformed tradition.

    In any case it is certainly true that anything closely resembling a Reformed position is small minority within the URC as it currently exists.

  4. Elliot Vernon said:

    Nick, just to clarify, I would also see Arminianism as set in the Reformed tradition (and indeed that is what Jakob Hermanszoon himself believed), my point is that after the Synod of Dort the historical confessional Reformed churches considered it a grave error – particularly the two churches that made up the URC at their outset.

    • In which case I think we’re in almost total agreement (excluding nuances of historical nomenclature – although it might be worth mentioning the explicitly and determinedly Arminian character of parts of the Scottish Congregationalist tradition which dates only from the period of the Evangelical Revival)

    • “Nick, just to clarify, I would also see Arminianism as set in the Reformed tradition”

      So much for sola scriptura. Nobody cares about what the Bible says anymore. They just want to bicker about who’s part of the “Reformed” TRADITION. Welcome to the New RCC, the Roman Calvinist Church.

  5. Elliot Vernon said:

    Nick, on the issue as to whether the Reformed tradition can be entirely classed as ‘magisterial’ – I think there is a tension, even aporia, in Reformed thought the between the Old Testament vision of the godly state where its members are members of both church and state (or more properly church-state) by reason of their baptism and the true doctrine guarded and promulgated by the magistrate and the Pauline vision of the church as the separate community of the faithful looking to the end times. The Swiss-German reformation (Zwingli, Bullinger, Erastus) stressed the magisterial aspect and Geneva managed to hold the two together. For those Reformed churches ‘under the cross’ in France, Holland and in exile in England (and ultimately the English dissenting tradition up until the Enlightenment) the Pauline vision was more prominent. Perhaps the tension is most apparent in the Church of England itself and underlies the disputes and tensions found in the writings of people like Cartwright, Hooker and the later seventeenth century latitudinarians.

    • I agree with all that, I think. In the context of an identity for the URC, which is where this started, it makes it impossible for me to take seriously the idea that a “Reformed” identity is meaningful. The version offered by the Faith and Order Committee is unrecognisable to me as distinctively and genuinely an expression of the historical Reformed tradition.

      • Elliot Vernon said:

        We are certainly in agreement and it seems to me that in the practice of every URC congregation I have come across since at least the 1990s, the ‘Reformed’ identity is not part of what the URC is as an expression of the church – even if many of its ministers and members hold to that theology in abstract or the dissenting tradition as an historical foundation.

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