Since about last Friday, the expression “court packing” has received a marvelous new definition. From the “things you should have learned in school” file, it was president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Thirty-Second President of the United States, who, in 1937, threatened to pack the court with sympathetic justices in order to get his New Deal approved. FDR was frustrated that the Court kept comparing his New Deal legislation to the Constitution of the United States and, after so doing, striking it down. For 83 years we have all agreed on the meaning of the expression “to pack the court.” It has meant to expand the number of justices so that the Court is no longer the final (supreme) court of appeal in the United States but rather becomes an unelected, super-legislature designed to approve whatever the President wants to do. Since 1937 most law schools and most civics classes (if anyone still teaches American Civics any more) have denounced court-packing as a dangerous scheme. In the last few days, however, some who oppose the current president’s latest nominee to the fill the vacancy left by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have begun to describe the process of filling vacancies on the Federal Judiciary, including vacancies on the Supreme Court, as “court packing.” The same folks who have effectively destroyed the American educational system now seek to capitalize on that destruction by bamboozling the public into thinking that the Senate is doing something immoral or possibly illegal.
As I listened to the debate this morning it struck me how similar it is to the debate about the meaning of the adjective Reformed. One of the arguments that has been made most frequently in favor of the relatively recent attempt to re-define Reformed along minimalist, theologically inclusive, and even latitudinarian lines, has been: the meaning of words change. This argument has been made to me in the comments box in this very space. Never mind the fact that the meaning of Reformed was established around the middle of the 16th century and remained stable until about 15 years ago. As I documented in my essay in On Being Reformed, those Baptists that first began to identify with aspects of Reformed theology did not dare describe themselves as Reformed. They called themselves Particular Baptists. The Reformed did not recognize them as Reformed. They called them Anabaptists. The existence of Reformed Baptist Churches is virtually unknown to history until very recently indeed.
The notion that the word Reformed can mean what it only began to mean 15 years ago quite ignores the fact that confessional Reformed churches still confess and seek to practice the sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Reformed confessions, e.g., the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster Standards (to name only 6). Nevertheless, there are those who, under the cover of a passion for an evolving language, assert that “the meanings of words change” and therefore those who deny essential aspects of Reformed covenant theology as taught and practiced by the Reformed Churches, who deny the Reformed reading of the history of redemption, who deny the Reformed understanding of the nature of the covenant of grace, are now ostensibly Reformed.
I raise the question about the apparently newfound passion among Baptists for the fluidity of language because I perceive that their support for this approach to the meaning of words is selective. E.g., I have asked some of those Baptists who seek to re-define Reformed to include Baptists, if this means that we Reformed paedobaptists may now be considered Baptists, since we affirm things that Baptists affirm, e.g., the baptism of hitherto unbaptized adult converts? If Baptists can be Reformed, why may we not claim the adjective Baptist? Thus far I have not received a cogent reply. As I observe the debates about “court packing,” I wonder how many Baptists are appalled at the attempt to re-define the phrase “court packing” who heartily support the argument that Baptists can be Reformed?
© R. Scott Clark 2020. All Rights Reserved.
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- Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, R. Scott Clark, Crawford Gribben, and D. G. Hart, On Being Reformed: Debates Over A Theological Identity.
- R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession
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