Of course Reformed Christians want to be well informed but PCA church planter Martin Hedman has been writing some of the most thoughtful and incisive commentaries about the PCA strategic plan. Recently he commented,
…it seems more and more that I am hearing Presbyterian and Reformed pastors talk about being “informed” by the Reformed faith. Personally I don’t want to be “informed” by it, I want to believe and practice the Reformed faith. Because I believe it is biblically sound and accurate.
Like Martin I’ve seen this language. What some might not understand or remember is that the expression “informed by the Reformed faith” was the language of the mainline Presbyterians (PCUSA). As Martin suggests, the choice is between confessing the Reformed theology, piety, and practice or being “informed” by it. The latter expression implies one stance and the former denotes another. I am “informed” by a lot of things. I am informed by the entire Christian tradition. I’ve learned something from a broad variety of sources and traditions. I have learned from them and am informed by them but I am not identified with or necessarily and permanently committed to them. It’s the difference between dating and marriage. It’s the difference between a wine tasting and a good meal.
We shouldn’t be surprised that those whose roots are in modern American evangelical Christianity might only be “informed” by the Reformed faith but it should be distressing to hear ministers and elders who are ordained to ministry in confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches speak thus. At their ordination they took vows. One of those vows says that they “receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures….” The Westminster Confession and catechisms are not mere information. They are not merely one source of guidance among others. There is a hierarchy of authority in the (visible, institutional) church. The Word of God written (sola Scriptura) is the un-normed norm. All ecclesiastical authority is subsidiary to and derived from God’s Word. We confess what we do because the Word says what it says. For this reason the Reformed confessions are an authoritative, binding, ecclesiastical summary of the teaching of God’s Word. In them we confess a theology (doctrines), a piety (a way of relating to God), and a practice (a way of living out the faith in worship and life). Beneath them are church orders and other such documents. The church does not confess a church order. We do confess God’s Word in the confessions and catechisms. This is why we require candidates for ministry in confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches to stipulate to presbyteries and classes if, where, and why they disagree with the confessions (some candidates for ministry find nothing objectionable in the confessions and catechisms!).
To take the stance that the Reformed faith is merely one source among many is necessarily to marginalize the Reformed confession. If this stance is allowed to persist within Reformed and Presbyterian churches they will not long be Reformed. The lessons of history are clear. If you doubt me all you need to do is to spend a few minutes perusing the PCUSA website. What hath Louisville to with Geneva? That’s not the criticism of an embittered, marginalized, sideliner. That is the criticism of PCUSA insiders. The mainline is a train wreck (see the stories linked below). Mainliners regularly describe itself as being “informed by the Reformed tradition.” Borderliners (e.g., the CRC, the EPC) adopt this language too. This isn’t post hoc, propter hoc. The stance implied in the language of being merely “informed” reveals the nature of the relationship to the Reformed faith.
All of us who have taken such vows are bound to the faith taught by God’s Word and confessed by the churches in way that far exceeds and transcends mere information. We have not sworn before God and the church merely to informed by the Word as confessed by the churches but that we embrace it heartily. We’ve sworn to uphold it, to teach and preach it and to order our lives according to the same. The Word of God as confessed by the churches is not merely informative it is normative.
© R. Scott Clark
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- Resources On Defining Reformed
- Mainline Presbyterians Continue Decline
- The PCUSA and Machen Today