From 1964 until about 1973 the Ford Mustang was one of the coolest (as we used to say) cars on the road. It was instantly recognizable. The classic years were arguably 1967 or 1968. In those years the Mustang had grown up a bit. The engine was a little beefier and the car a little more rugged but still clearly, strikingly, a Mustang. Steve McQueen drove a 1968 Mustang Fastback in Bullitt, which featured one of the great car chases in the history of American movies. The Mustang was intentionally made a co-star in the film. In 1974, however, some genius at Ford decided to ruin the Mustang. By 1979 it was an abomination and remained so until 2005. It took 30 years for Ford to come to its senses and retrieve the iconic Mustang look. That lasted for about a decade and since about 2016 the company that gave us the Edsel has been tinkering with it again as Ford seems determined to replay the 1970s.
After all, have you ever looked at a 1979 Mustang? Here, look at this monster.
What had been the epitome of the cool, Kennedy 60s became a symbol of the ridiculous, Carter 70s. Why would manufacturers fool with a brand that was established and popular? Pride. Some designer wanted to put his stamp an iconic brand. My beloved Nebraska Cornhusker football team has suffered at the hands of athletic directors, coaches, and university administrators who sought to put their stamp on or even completely overhaul the brand of Nebraska football. Once known for toughness, power, and speed (symbolized by the famed “Blackshirt Defense”) the Huskers in recent years have been more notable for softness, quitting, and giving up record scores to opponents. How did the once feared Big Red Machine turn into football’s equivalent of the Ford Pinto? Pride. Some of the successors to Tom Osborne tried to re-make Nebraska football in their own image and ruined the product in the process.
It is possible to do this to and in the church. As Christians we do not create the Christian faith. This is the fundamental error of speaking about theology as if it originates with us or as if it is primarily an expression of our ethnic identity or religious experience. Christians are the recipients of theology. God is the principal theologian. He has a theology, which the Reformed theologian Fransicus Junius called “archetypal theology.” Because of the distinction between the Creator and the creature, no human can know archetypal theology but God has revealed a theology that we can know. Thus, the Holy Spirit revealed a theology in Scripture and the authors of Scripture were theologians. Junius called that theology, “ectypal theology.” It is an analogue of God’s theology but it is, to use Calvin’s word, accommodated to our finitude and weakness. As we receive and seek to understand and articulate and confess that theology in this life Junius called it “pilgrim theology.”
Our vocation as Christians, as pastors, as elders, as catechism teachers, and as laity is to be faithful to what we have received. This is the explicit teaching of Scripture. Paul told Timothy, “By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim 1:14; ESV). What we have received is a theology (doctrines), piety (a way of relating to God), and practice (a way of living out the faith). We are not called to put our distinctive stamp on that theology, piety, and practice but to understand it, explore it (fides quaerens intellectum; faith seeking understanding), to give witness to it to each other and to the world—Jesus was crucified for sinners, he died, was buried, was raised on the third day, he has ascended, and is reigning at the right hand of the Father— to worship God as he would have us do, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
As a boy born in Kansas, who learned to drive in a pasture, and who grew up in Nebraska, when I see the word brand it is difficult not to think of the act of branding cattle. In a sense, Christians have a brand. We have been bought with a price (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23). As Reformed Christians we confess that we are not our own but belong to our faithful Savior (HC 1). Truly, the call to discipleship is to crucify one’s “brand.” In baptism we are given a new name: Christian. The name of the Triune God is placed on us. In living out that baptism we constantly seeking to die to self, i.e., to our brand, and to live to Christ. He is our brand, as it were.
This does not mean that all changes are bad. Ford released a retro version of the Thunderbird in the early 2000s. It was more credible version of the Thunderbird than had existed for many years but in the case of the Mustang, the Beetle, and the Thunderbird the companies were most faithful to those iconic brands when they preserved them. When they sought to remake them in the image of a new designer, the original genius of the brand, the quality that made it what it was, was lost.
Reformed Christians have received a clear articulation of the Reformed understanding of Scripture, of a theology, piety, and practice. That brand does not need our stamp. It demands our fidelity. The virtue most necessary for maintaining an iconic brand is humility, the recognition that we are not creators of the brand but heirs and stewards.