Trevin Wax and David Fitch have been in a dialogue in which each of them has published a post expressing appreciation for the other’s tradition. Wax identifies as Reformed and Fitch as Anabaptist. The reader can draw his own conclusions as to how much Wax and Fitch have in common with each other as opposed to how much they have in common with historic, confessional Reformed theology.
Here, however, I wish to engage Wax’s characterization of the adjective Reformed. In Recovering the Reformed Confession and in this space, I have argued that there is a stable, historic, definition of the adjective: God’s Word as confessed (theology, piety, and practice) by the Reformed churches. As a matter of history, there was no doubt as to what was meant by the qualifier Reformed from the mid-16th century until about the mid-20th century. Martin Chemnitz knew what Reformed theology was in the 1580s. Robert Bellarmine knew what Reformed theology was in 1615. The Synod of Dort knew what Reformed meant in 1618–19, when they rejected Arminianism. As I documented in RRC, Charles Hodge indicated that there was no doubt about what it meant in the mid-to late 19th century and there is no evidence of any substantial shift in meaning until after the mid-20th century. That shift began quietly. It was not a matter of ecclesiastical action nor the result of scholarly historical or theological reflection. Rather, it was a matter of what is today called “branding” or marketing. In the 1950s some Presbyterians (the Dutch and German Reformed not so much) and Particular Baptists began to refer to the latter as “Reformed Baptists.” At the same time the neo-orthodox movement, led by Karl Barth (1886–1968) was asserting radical new directions in Reformed theology in which Barth, who had become the world’s leading “Reformed” theologian, had radically re-defined Reformed theology by rejecting the Reformed view of Scripture, the distinction between law and gospel, the covenant of works, infant baptism, and much of the rest of what had been confessed by the Reformed churches since the mid-16th century. Indeed, as my colleague Ryan Glomsrud has argued (here and here the early assessment of Barth was correct) Barth became an Anabaptist.
Gradually, led largely by evangelical, para-church entities, it has become common place to use the adjective Reformed so broadly, so disconnected from the history and tradition of the Reformed churches, that the word is in danger of losing its meaning. Wax’s essay is a clear example of what happens when we abandon the historic and objective definition of Reformed. He raises the question of how Fitch defines the “contours of the Reformed heritage,” whether he is thinking of the “Reformed tradition in its distinctively Calvinistic soteriological position.” This, he says, is one possibility but there is a “broader framework” by which one may define Reformed. Whom does he want to include within this framework? He begins with Os Guiness and Charles Colson, as examples of those who have adapted the “worldview and its distinctive approach to creation, fall, redemption, and restoration” of Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920). Wax concedes that he identifies with the tradition but does not himself “line up exactly with Calvinist soteriology” but “appreciates the worldview emphasis one finds within this tradition.” Most strikingly, however, he wants to include “John Wesley under the Reformed moniker, even though he was an Arminian with his own Wesleyan twist on the doctrines of salvation.” Wax concedes that, e.g., N. T. Wright and Wesley would not line up with the “classical” Reformed tradition but he argues that Fitch is wrong to juxtapose Wright with the Reformed tradition. Wax argues that Wright operates “within the basic Reformed worldview and outlook.” According to Wax, this breadth “indicates the beauty and strength of the Reformation tradition.”
John Calvin, John Owen, Thomas Boston, and Charles Hodge were Reformed. How do we know? Because, despite the diversity among them on certain issues, they all subscribed essentially the same theology, piety, and practice as reflected in the Reformed confessions, whether the Genevan, the Westminster, or the Savoy. There is a certain diversity of thought among them but much of that is due to the different circumstances in which each found himself. Calvin was a mid-16th-century pastor and theologian. A century later Reformed theologians found themselves addressing more sophisticated opponents in Bellarmine, the Socinians, the Amyraldians, and Remonstrants. In the 18th century, Boston combated a renewal of neonomianism within the Scottish Church. In the 19th century Hodge was facing the hydra of Enlightenment rationalism, empiricism, and Higher Criticism. So, though these writers are all organically related by their core commitment to the same system (outline and particulars) of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice, it took on a somewhat different cast in each case.
To include, as many do, Karl Barth, and to include (as Wax does) Chuck Colson, N. T. Wright, and John Wesley in the “Reformed” house makes the definition of Reformed so difficult as to be border on incoherence. However influenced Colson might have been by the neo-Kuyperian social and cultural agenda, he compromised the article of the standing or falling of the church (justification) in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together project. Wright is a leading proponent of the “New Perspective on Paul.” Again, this movement rejects the Reformed confession concerning salvation. The same was true, of course, of Wesley, who was an “evangelical Arminian,” who opposed the Reformed soteriology with might and mane. Further, his definition of theology and method was radically different from the Reformed. If the Synod of Dort has anything to say about the definition of Reformed, and they do, they described the Remonstrants (Wesley’s theological forefathers) as Pelagian. What hath Pelagius to do with Geneva?
The first problem with this approach to defining Reformed is its relentless reductionism. After Wax is finished, what does Reformed actually signal? Evidently not much other than divine sovereignty and a “worldview.” Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas were strong advocates of the doctrine of divine sovereignty but none of them were Reformed. As important as “worldview” is (and it is), we do not confess it. If the adjective Reformed is a house where late-modern evangelicals wish to dwell, should not that house have more than a few two-by-fours left standing? By contrast, as defined by the Reformed churches and summarized in their confessions, and reflected in their theology, piety, and practice, the Reformed house is fully developed.
Second, both Wax and Fitch admire Kuyper’s social agenda but Kuyper himself would not recognize Wax’s reductionist characterization of his theology, piety, and practice. Kuyper was a confessional Reformed minister. He stood before God and the church and literally subscribed his name beneath the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. He swore an oath before God and the church to uphold, teach, and defend the same with all that was within him and he did that with great energy and skill. The confessions were a part of Kuyper’s marrow. In other words, Kuyper’s doctrine of sphere sovereignty had a theological context. It also had a cultural and historical context. It may (or may not) be possible for broadly evangelical predestinarians and self-described Anabaptists to appropriate his social theories but it must be recognized at least that Kuyper was neither a neo-Kuyperian nor a late-modern, broad, predestinarian evangelical. He was not not a Baptist nor an Anabaptist. As an accomplished scholar of the Reformed tradition, Kuyper knew the sharp and irreconcilable differences between the radical subjectivism of the Anabaptists and the Reformed confession.
If there are as many definitions of Reformed as definers, then the word has lost all meaning, it means whatever the user wants it to mean. For those of us still living in the Reformed house, however, this is a problem. Namely, because we still live here. We still make the Reformed confession with “heart and mouth” (Belgic Confession). The Reformed confession is not a mere relic of the classical period. So, with all due respect and affection to our predestinarian and neo-Kuyperian evangelical friends, the house still stands. You are welcome to admire it but we prefer that you not deconstruct it just yet.