The Problem of the Minimalist Definition

Yesterday someone sent a link to an essay posted on a seminary website. In the comments that follow I am not speaking to the seminary per se but I do want to challenge the implied premise of the essay. The fundamental question here is this: what must one believe to be Reformed? The second and closely related question is who defines what “Reformed” means?

Of course these questions have been on my mind for several years. They are the major questions that fuel Recovering the Reformed Confession. On one level it is exciting that there are a lot of young, restless, and Reformed folk out there. We see them in worship every Sabbath. By the grace of God we try to offer them cognitive and ecclesiastical rest, as it were. Obviously, a sinner only finds his true Sabbath rest in Christ and in his finished work for sinners (Heb 4) but that rest is administered in the visible church, i.e. the divinely instituted covenant community of Word, sacrament, and discipline. We see the same sorts of YRR entering seminary. It is truly exciting and encouraging to be able to fellowship with the students, to learn from them, and to help form them for a life of ministry.

On another level, the renewed popularity of the Reformed faith brings certain challenges. First of these is the definition of the adjective “Reformed.” The first truth of the Reformed faith which which most evangelicals come into contact is the doctrine of election or predestination or “the doctrines of grace.” These doctrines are absolutely essential to being Reformed. One can no more be Reformed without them than one can be a human and not breathe, but just as there is more to being human than breathing, there is much more to being Reformed than the doctrines of grace.

This essay argues that the great problem of minimalist definition of the adjective “Reformed” is that it tends to narcissism, i.e. defining it in our own image. Instead, we ought to seek to be defined by it and to that end we need a proper, objective definition of “Reformed” according to the public, ecclesiastical confessions of God’s Word by the Reformed Churches.

In fairness, the essay to which I’m responding does offer some acknowledgment of this truth. It does make a passing reference to the Westminster Standards and a single brief essay can only do so much. Fair enough. Yet this essay, it seems to me, makes a couple of mistakes that are too common when it comes to defining the adjective Reformed. It turns essentially to the Five Points of the Synod of Dort and to them it adds two more points: evangelism and personal responsibility in the world. I’ll address these two points in order.

Now the Canons (Decisions) of Dort, written in response to the Remonstrants (Arminians) are non-negotiable for Reformed folk. Indeed, those who’ve actually read the Five Points know that the free offer of the gospel is clearly taught in them (2.5) and that is the fundamental act of evangelism. This is not, however, how evangelism is defined in the essay to which I’m responding. This question would draw us into another essay but let it suffice to say that the definition and practice of evangelism in Evangelism Explosion was unknown to the Synod of Dort.

I say this as a certified EE trainer (Del City, OK 1980s) and past practitioner. Nevertheless, over the years, I have concluded that it is a form of individualized revivalism. When classical Reformed theology thinks of “evangelism,” it thinks of the public proclamation of the gospel by ministers of the Word. Do individual Christians have an obligation to give witness to the faith and to their faith? Absolutely! The Reformed confessions, whether Heidelberg Catechism Q. 65 or Westminster Shorter Catechism 88 (thank you Darryl Hart) repeatedly teach that God operates through the “due use of the ordinary means” or “through the preaching of the Holy Gospel” to bring sinners to faith. We pray fervently for the conversion of the world and for the conversion of particular sinners but we expect the Spirit to do so through the preaching of the Word. Lay witness is important (John 9) but it isn’t “evangelism.” Inefficient? Yes, but by American standards Christ’s kingdom is terribly inefficient. The cross is a scandal and the preaching of it foolishness (1 Cor 1-3).

This leads to the second point: cultural engagement. This has been another major occupation of this space. The essay in question seems to assume a certain model of cultural engagement, the “Reclaiming America,” model that, while popular among a certain segment of American evangelicals and fundamentalists, may not have a lot to do with the Reformed confession, at least not as received by the American Reformed and Presbyterian Churches. There is no question whether individual Christians must live out their faith according to God’s Word. That is a given. There is no question whether God is sovereign over all things and whether he has revealed a fixed moral norm (his law) that is binding on all people and places in all times and cultures. He has. He revealed his moral law in creation and inscribed it on the conscience of every human. By that standard every human is subject to judgment and stands, inasmuch as one is outside of Christ, condemned justly.

Further, Christians have a moral obligation to God and neighbor to seek to apply the second table of the law (love to neighbor) in the public square. Because we live in two kingdoms, one spiritual (the church) and one civil we have different vocations in each kingdom. In evangelism (as defined above) we seek to minister Christ’s kingdom in this world by the use of the means of grace and discipline. As members of the civil, common kingdom, we seek to love our neighbors by seeking their welfare and by asking the magistrate to fulfill his responsibility to execute civil justice.

There is, however, much more to being Reformed than these seven points. We have a Trinitarian doctrine of God. We have a doctrine of man as created and as fallen. We have a Christology which we confess. Indeed, for us, Christ is at the center of the Christian faith and the history of redemption. To focus briefly on three topics, the Reformed churches all agree that salvation is administered within the visible church through the preaching of the gospel (which we define as justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone) and the administration of sacraments. We all agree that the biblical doctrines of the covenants of redemption, works, and grace are the organizing principles of our theology. Reformed theology, piety, and practice is covenantal. We all agree that our covenantal doctrine of the church and sacraments requires particular doctrines of BaptismLord’s Supper, and worship. Christ promised to Abraham: “I will be your God and your children’s God” (Gen 17) and he has not revoked that promise. Indeed, he repeated it at Pentecost in Acts 2:39. This distinguishes the Reformed theology, piety, and practice from most modern evangelicals. We also confess that, in the Lord’s Supper, Christ feeds us on his body by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit. This distinguishes us from most modern evangelicals. Finally, the Reformed are unanimous in their theology of worship. We do that in worship which God commands and nothing else. We call this the “Regulative Principle of Worship” and it sets us apart from virtually all evangelicals and from most other traditions which operate from a very different principle (“we may do whatever is not forbidden”). It is true that the Reformed churches have not been very faithful to our confession in this regard but in the spirit of semper Reformanda (always reforming) we have good reason to hope that we are beginning to recover our theology, piety, and practice.

In order to continue this Reformation toward becoming “ecclesia Reformata” (the church Reformed) again we must have a definition of the adjective “Reformed” that embraces far more than predestination and the doctrines of grace, and something other than a populist doctrine of evangelism, and a transformationalist approach to cultural engagement. The problem of minimalist definitions is always that they lead to narcissism. One gets to define things in one’s own image. The Reformed confessions, however, provide us with a public, ecclesiastical, historic, and biblical account of our theology, piety, and practice so that, if we define the Reformed faith according to our confession we avoid narcissism and the problems inherent in minimalism.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Dr. Clark,

    I have been tracking with your discussion, and listened to your authors forum lecture at Christ Reformed. I know you have stated it before, but what would be your stance on those Savoy Declaration or 1689 LBC? I know in reference to the latter you would point to Richard Muller’s article concerning baptism and the reformed.


  2. Hi David,

    What you haven’t started reading the book yet? What’s that all about? 🙂

    Here are some relevant posts:

    Abraham, Moses, and Baptism.

    When is a Church Not a Church?.

    Ishmael and Infant Baptism.

    One way to answer this question is to ask another. Imagine standing up the Synod of Dort (or any of the Synods leading up to it), at the Westminster Assembly, at a consistory meeting in Geneva under Calvin or Turretin, at at consistory meeting in Heidelberg, or in a consistory meeting after the Afscheiding of 1834 and announcing, “I’m with you on predestination and just about everything else, but I just can’t see the continuity with the Abrahamic covenant such that I should initiate my children into the visible covenant community. I think that, in the New Covenant, Baptism is restricted to those who make profession of faith.”

    What do you think that those various assemblies would say to such an announcement?

    You should check out RRC for more detailed argumentation of this point.

  3. Or, imagine telling your Calvinist Baptist pastor: “I am with you on the five points, but I want my child baptized in a couple of weeks.”

    Why is it that when someone isn’t squaring with Baptist convictions that very few are scandalized when the retort is, “Well, son, that’s not very Baptist of you”? Yet, when Reformed question the Reformedness of those who zig when TFU/WCF zags it’s elitist and sub-Christian?

  4. Dr. McNutt has filled our pulpit several times and I’m quite sure he believes in the public proclamation of the gospel as the fundamental act of evangelism. But I agree with you on EE and “reclaiming America”. Maybe he was being charitable given Knox’s affiliation with Dr. Kennedy.

    BTW just ordered RRC today.

  5. Thanks for the repsonse Dr. Clark

    This procrastination has to end. I’ll get the book when the dissertation is done (Okay the final draft has to be in the mail tomorrow) so I’ll also add when I have a means of gainful employment.

    I understand that “at the Synod of Dort, at the Westminster Assembly, at a consistory meeting in Geneva under Calvin or Turretin, at at consistory meeting in Heidelberg, or in a consistory meeting after the Afscheiding of 1834 and announcing, ‘I’m with you on predestination and just about everything else, but I just can’t see the continuity with the Abrahamic covenant such that I should initiate my children into the visible covenant community. I think that, in the New Covenant, Baptism is restricted to those who make profession of faith:’” Let me be clearer in what I am asking. Would you have less of a sense that one is being narcissistic in their use of the term “reformed” who holds to one of the confessions, then say one who would say “I hold to the doctrines of grace,” or claims a reformed soteriology.

    As an aside, I am on a discussion board of people who hold to the 1689 LBC and your book was discussed last week. And I have to agree with one of the comments made that I would rather have a discussion with someone who has enough conviction to tell me I am in error (if I am in regards to baptism 🙂 ) than a mealy mouthed whimp who is unwilling to confront me so as to drive me back to Scripture and the creeds, confessions, and catechisms so as to test myself to see if I am wrong and arguing against God’s rightly administered sacrament.

    Grace and Peace

  6. Hi David,

    Well, the Reformed took (and some of us still do take) the sacraments very seriously. They didn’t even regard the Anabaptists as Christians. They regarded them as nutters, not only because of their view of Baptism but that was part of the equation. It seemed insane to them to reject what they regarded as manifestly apostolic and catholic practice.

    As to holding “one of the confessions,” it depends on which one! There are confessions that deny the Reformed doctrine of baptism, so that’s problematic.

    I’m glad folks are discussing the book! That’s encouraging. I worry sometimes that there is a lot of talk (on the web) about books people haven’t actually read.

    Thanks for the encouragement.

    ps. Congratulations on finishing the PhD. It’s a long haul.

  7. Hi Dr. Clark,

    I am new to the Reformed faith. I have seen a copy of the RRC, but it was my friend’s. And I have not read it. But I hope to read it in the near future.

    My question here concerns the WCF’s position on divorce and remarriage. I am still studying this issue and have not yet made my mind. But I think I am close to accepting what is stated in it.

    Is the WCF’s view of divorce and remarriage accepted by most Reformed churches in the Continental Reformed tradition (e.g. those in NAPARC)? (I do know one non-NAPARC group that rejects it.) Can a person be Reformed and reject the WCF’s position on this? Thanks.

  8. Hi Albert,

    What is about WCF 25 that troubles you?

    As far as I know, the teaching of WCF 25 (I’m reading the edition adopted by the OPC) represents the Reformed consensus. The teaching of the WCF is a little more detailed than that of the Second Helvetic Confession (1561/66) but they have the same basic approach. The Reformed understanding of divorce was still developing in the 16th century. Calvin pioneered certain aspects of divorce regulation, even serving as his brother’s attorney in divorce proceedings when Antoine’s wife was found to be committing adultery. It took time to work out the implications of our Lord’s teaching regarding divorce. It took time to work out an approach to marriage that recognized it as a holy, creationali institution but not a sacrament.

    Thus there is nothing in the Belgic Confession (1561) or the Scots Confession (1561) or the Heidelberg Catechism about marriage and divorce but there is a little bit more in the Irish Articles, Art. 64 (1615). It appears that Abp Ussher picked up ideas and language from Bullinger and that was elaborated at the Westminster Assembly.

  9. Hi Dr. Clark,

    It’s the PRCA of Hoeksema (bless them) that is troubling me. They say they are Reformed but reject the Reformed consensus on this matter. And since they are Dutch Reformed, I had the impression that the WCF’s position on divorce and remarriage was something that the Calvinists in Continental Europe during the Protestant Reformation did not believe at all. I was wrong. I stand corrected on this.

    Follow-up question. So if I understood correctly what you wrote, is it right to say that after the Westminster Standards were written, the entire Continental Reformed community in both Europe and in North America accepted WCF 25 as their consensus on divorce and remarriage? Thanks for the historical info you provided.

  10. Albert,

    I’m aware that some Dutch Reformed folk have taken a more restrictive view of divorce than the WCF. I’m not sure how that happened or when or why. Practically I have noticed that some Dutch Reformed folk seem almost to talk about marriage as if it were a sacrament. I don’t know if this figures into the PR view or not. I don’t teach ethics and haven’t researched it.

    As far as I know the WCF was widely accepted in Europe. I don’t believe that the divines thought they were doing anything odd or unusual. I’m certain that the covenant theology of the WCF represents the European approach in the period. I don’t know for a fact that there was a universal consensus on divorce, but I don’t know of any violent disagreement either.

    As a generality, the practice of some, from the Anglo-Scots-American Presbyterian heritage and from the Dutch Reformed heritage of pitting the WCF against Europe is not helpful nor is it historical.

  11. Dr. Clark,

    I think that sums up how the Reformed doctrine of divorce developed. I agree that it is neither helpful nor historical to pit the two traditions against each other.

    I am looking forward to reading more of your posts about being truly Reformed. Thanks. 🙂

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