The Rev Dr Gary Johnson writes to say that yesterday he was alerted that a new “Reformed” congregation is opening “its doors here in Mesa.” They call themselves “Desert Haven Reformed Church.”
Gary is a friendly fellow. He called them up to introduce himself. He “asked if they were part of a denomination” and the church secretary said
“‘No, not presently, but there are a group of other churches like this one that may soon form a denomination. We are a Reformed Catholic church.'”
Gary asked her to repeat herself. She says, “‘Reformed Catholic.'”
“Exactly what is that?” Gary asks.
“‘We hold to the Five points of Calvinism but we also hold to seven sacraments and have Mass every Sunday morning.'”
“What about the solas, do you hold to the Reformation’s solas?
“I don’t think so, I am pretty sure we disagree with the sola fide thing.”
Predestination, seven sacraments, and the mass and no “sola fide thing.”
There’s a word for this amalgam: Jansenism. That was the attempt to synthesize a high doctrine (double predestination) doctrine of divine sovereignty (with an Augustinian doctrine of original sin) with Romanism. This synthesis had existed prior to the Reformation in a number of late medieval theologians. It provoked a powerful response by the a variety of Roman theologians and some of the most interesting theological dialogue in the 17th century.
What is fascinating about this development is that, assuming the receptionist got things right, is that it’s probably only the beginning of a series of mutations of the spirit that animates elements of the FV movement. I was having conversations with Anglo-Catholics (mainly ex-Baptists and ex-fundamentalists and theonomists) in Oxford in the early 90s and I saw the same thing.
As I talked with these folk it became clear to me that we were going, as it were, in opposite directions. I was heading toward the Reformation and they were headed away from it. It seemed to me that the folks leaving the Reformation never really knew it or embraced it fully. They hadn’t taken the time to really get to know Geneva or Wittenberg or Edinburgh at all. They had never been part of a historic Reformed church. They had never really been integrated into the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformed churches.
Obviously from such a brief report about a brief conversation one can only draw so many conclusions, but it is suggestive. In what follows, I’m not speaking about this new congregation or confederation or whatever it is that might be forming, but rather I want to speak to the spirit that animates such movements.
There are commendable things about this movement. They want a connection with the past. They want to be part of something larger than themselves. They want continuity. They’re tired of the vacuousness of American religion. They’re tired of the individualism and the incessant and tawdry conversionism of the revivalists. They see the need for mediation of grace. I understand all that. The problem is that they are in danger of trading one form of magic for another, of trading American revivalist magic&madash;just pray this prayer and whammo x will happen‐ for a mediated magic. There’s nothing wrong with Genevan robes (we wear them at OURC) and a high view of the sacraments (the confessional Reformed Churches confess that the Lord’s Supper IS the “proper and natural” body and blood of Christ!). There’s nothing wrong with Protestant collars (it’s white and goes all the way round vs. the Roman collar that has the little tab in front; I’m amazed to see allegedly Reformed ministers going about in Roman, tab collars). Priestcraft, i.e., transubstantiation and priestly absolution (“I absolve you”), however, is just mediated magic versus revivalist immediate magic.
There are a lot of people frustrated with fundamentalism and some of them come to embrace the doctrine of predestination (and associated doctrines) but they never actually get situated in and connected to the Reformed confession. They drift in, hang out, and pass on to the next thing. Why? They never really challenge their assumptions in the first place. They’re still looking for what the Baptists or Pentecostalists or Mega-churches didn’t give them without asking whether they are seeking the right things. Yes, they should flee those places to the Reformed Churches, but it takes time to become Reformed.
Why do they keep moving? I call it the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty. The QIRC might explain how it is that folk would be interested in trying to resurrect late medieval predestinarian theology, piety, and practice and have the unmitigated gall and the unrelieved ignorance to call it “Reformed.” Because they are still basically American evangelicals and fundamentalists. They’re still making it up as they go along. They’re not really in submission to the church. They’ve not married any tradition. They’re still autonomous, ecclectic, individualists. Say what you will about Robert Sungenis, but at least he had the integrity to follow through on his principles and join the Roman communion. At least he got married, as it were, to a real tradition, at least he stopped making things up on his own. Obviously, from a confessional Reformed point of view, we would say he got married to the wrong wife! Some of us might, in our more cantankerous moments, that he married the whore of babylon, but at least he got married.
American religion, to the degree it is distinctly American, is entrepreneurial. It’s a business. It’s a product. It needs a market, a niche. My guess is, and I may be wrong, these cats are selling smells and bells just like the emerging folks are selling cell groups, candles, and whatever. This gets us to the other Q (and they go hand-in-glove): QIRE, the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience. Schleiermacher sent most modern religion down the subjectivist path of trying to recover Jesus’ religious experience. The Holy Grail of modern religion has been the search for the ultimate religious high, the most intense religious experience. Whoever has the best product draws the largest number of customers. Evangelicals want nothing if not the best religious experience and, having overcome their phobia of robes and candles—post-fundamentalism—they’re ready for it. How many times can you sing “Shine, Jesus Shine” until your ears begin to bleed? Okay, if the Qs are still determinative, what next? Why not an Roman/”Reformed” amalgam? Who is to say it can’t be done? This is America!
Finally, what have we learned from this episode class?
Predestination is not enough. Say it with me: “Predestination is not enough.” Lots of theologians and congregations, who are not Reformed, have been “predestinarian.” Predestination is a necessary condition (one can’t be Reformed without it) but not a sufficient condition (just having it doesn’t make a congregation Reformed) of being Reformed.
What defines the Reformed faith? It is the Word of God as confessed by the Reformed Churches in the Reformed confessions. We understand the Word of God to teach only two holy sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. If you want to have seven sacraments, fine, if you want to play at being papist without placing yourself into submission to the Roman see, fine, but please, for the love of all that’s good and true, don’t call yourself Reformed: we don’t know you.