What The Court-Packing Debate Teaches Us About Defining The Adjective Reformed

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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  1. The progressive left loves to redefine words–it’s cherished heritage from their Marxist forbears.

    “Evangelical” has been subject to the same verbal plasticity.

  2. The largest worldwide body of Reformed churches is the World Reformed Fellowship, which includes the PCA, ARP, the Free Church of Scotland, and many other Reformed denominations throughout the world. The WRF affirms several historic expressions of the Reformed Faith, including the London Confession of 1689.

    If it is the Reformed churches that define Reformed, then I would argue that Reformed churches worldwide have spoken on that matter.

    You wrote:
    “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… Thus far I have not received a cogent reply.”

    The cogent reply is that language has changed, and words ought to be defined by their usage today. The difference is that Reformed Baptists now consider themselves Reformed, but Reformed paedobaptists do not now consider themselves Baptists. Usage has changed for “Reformed,” but not “Baptist.” The word “Baptist” is susceptible to change, but has not yet changed in usage in the way you describe.

    • Don,

      1. On your rationale, if I can persuade enough Reformed folk to start calling ourselves Baptists, then the meaning of the word changes, because, you know, the meanings of words change? No. That’s not how it works. Read James Barr. What you’re proposing is mob linguistic violence. I’ve answered this objection dozens of times.

      You still haven’t answered the objection. On your reasoning, Reformed folks can start calling themselves Baptists but you won’t have it. You can’t have it both ways, whereby Baptists get to re-define Reformed but Reformed folk can’t redefine Baptist.

      2. Clever. You describe the WRF as a “worldwide body of…”. The term “body” is ambiguous. It is a body but it is not an ecclesiastical body. It has no standing, e.g., in the United Reformed Churches or in any other NAPARC body. Nothing the WRF does or says has any authority.

      So, what you’ve done is to find a parachurch organization that abuses a word and then use that abuse to leverage the meaning of word. The WRF has no more ecclesiastical standing than The Gospel Coalition or Together for the Gospel, or the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It’s a para-church organization. The two ecumenical groups in which the churches have actually invested are NAPARC and ICRC and in neither will you find any Baptists. Sorry.

      The word Reformed means what we confess. We don’t confess believer’s baptism only nor do we confess that the new covenant is the only expression of the covenant of grace.

      I’ll give you points for being clever but clever isn’t cogent. They’re two distinct things.

      Have a blessed Sabbath.

  3. Hi Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for the reply.

    As to your claim that the WRF has no standing in any other NAPARC body, that is demonstrably false. Both the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC) and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) are members of WRF, as well as NAPARC.

    In addition, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC), the Africa Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Free Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Church in Uganda, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of India, and the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia is a member of WRF and ICRC.

    The WRF has created a “Statement of Reformed Identity.” You can read it here. You will see that it includes the 1689 as an expression of “Reformed.”

    So we see seven major NAPARC/ICRC denominations upholding a statement that 1689 Baptists are Reformed as well. These are not Baptists claiming to be Reformed; these are paedobaptist denominations.

    Yes, the WRF is a para-church organization, just like NAPARC and ICRC. But there’s no reason to claim that NAPARC and ICRC count and WRF, other than the fact that your particular denomination is not a member of WRF.

    I don’t see why your opinion, or that of your denomination, ought to override the seven NAPARC and ICRC denominations that are members of WRF, and thus organizationally uphold the WRF’s statement of Reformed identity.

    • Don,

      The PCA is a member of the NAE and the URCNA has a formal relation to the PCA. Does that mean that the URCs (and I) are obligated to whatever opinions the NAE might utter? I think not. You’ve made repeated attempts to bootstrap your re-definition of Reformed via the WRF but it doesn’t work. The “Holy Spirit Revival Church” is a member of the WRF. Am I obligated to recognize them as Reformed? This is hardly an ecclesiastical body. It’s not even quasi- ecclesiastical.

      Even if the WRF wanted to re-define Reformed, and I suspect that some of the leading lights did want to use the word broadly and inclusively, the WRF can’t re-define Reformed. The WRF hasn’t re-written the WCF or the Heidelberg Catechism. I didn’t take an oath before the WRF. I took an oath before God, as a minister in a Reformed CHURCH. I didn’t subscribe the opinions of the WRF. No one takes oaths in the WRF. We take membership oaths in the visible church Christ instituted. The WRF doesn’t administer sacraments. It has no authority. It can’t discipline. NAPARC can discipline. Thus, they expelled the CRC, which I see is a member of the WRF.

      The URCs don’t send delegates to the WRF. We do send delegates to NAPARC and ICRC. Thus, these bodies have a different status. NAPARC and ICRC actually have some ecclesiastical status among us. It’s part of how we express our ecumenical relations to other Reformed Churches. We hear reports from them at Synod.

      The WRF founded by those who wanted to broaden the definition of the Reformed. It was founded by those who wanted to include Baptists, but that was all very recent (1994). That attempt was always tenuous at best. No denomination or even trans-denominational group ever decided to say: Henceforth, under the term Reformed you can say X and not X about Baptism and covenant at the same time. We don’t care any more.”

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