Godfrey’s “Reformed Dream”

In North America today we have many confessionally Reformed denominations: or example, Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Free Reformed Churches, Korean-American Presbyterian Church, Netherlands Reformed Churches, Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in America, Protestant Reformed Churches, Reformed Church of the United States, Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, United Reformed Churches. Each of these denominations has a distinctive history. Each has struggled in its own context to spread and defend the Reformed faith. Each treasures the Reformed confessions and has sought to live and minister according to them.

Each of these denominations has peculiar strengths and emphases that it brings to the Reformed community. These various denominations are often perceived as expressing Reformed Christianity distinctively: some seem to have particularly strong congregational life, some seem to lay great emphasis on piety and prayer, some seem to stress clear doctrine and maintaining the antithesis between believers and the world, some seem to be devoted to evangelism and missions, and some seem to champion the historic Reformed approach to worship. None of these strengths and none of these histories should be lost.

Yet each of these denominations has weaknesses. Perhaps the clearest weakness is the failure to express the unity of confessional Reformed Christianity. If these churches hold to the Reformed confessions, why are they not united? When members of these groups gather informally, there is often a great sense of connection and appreciation for one another. But too often these denominations allow their individual histories (and suspicions) to block a visible expression of unity. Read more»

W. Robert Godfrey | “A Reformed Dream” | 1997

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19 comments

  1. Dr Godfrey published this article 25 years ago in 1997. I wonder if he would still advocate for this today? There has been a lot of change in these groups since 1997. I can only speak about the PCA but with the advent of “good faith subscription” in 2000 it’s now a bit of a stretch to call the PCA a confessional denomination anywhere but on paper.

  2. and Reformed Baptist.
    The Big Picture-
    Denominations are a part of Protestantism. I think the majority of Reformed denominations connect well with one another without Robert Godfrey’s dream. However, having the organizational structure he dreams about wouldn’t harm what’s really important and reflects unity.

    The Important Picture-
    Within my church there is a variety of reformed beliefs among the congregants and I think some arminians attend. The Pastors/Elders have minor differences. What’s really important is the purity of the local church & keeping confusion out. This is guided by the Pastors/Elders. The Senior Pastor tends to include in his sermons spiritual ‘direction’ for the local church given him from God to shepherd. This ‘direction’ may differ with congregants and other Reformed churches. Through study and prayer and humility their’ Call is accountable to God for the local church they shepherd and again Robert Godfrey’s dream wouldn’t harm that Call.

    • JJ,

      1. The language “Reformed Baptist” is an oxymoron it’s also, as far as I know, a novelty. I’ve seen only 1 use of it (in 1823 and that was ambiguous) before World War II. It was unknown in the classical period of Protestant theology.

      On these claims see:

      • Resources On Defining Reformed
      • “A House of Cards? A Response to Bingham, Cribben, and Caughey,” in Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, R. Scott Clark, Crawford Gribben, and D. G. Hart, On Being Reformed: Debates Over a Theological Identity (London: Palgrave-Pivot, 2018), 69–89.

      The traditional expression is “Particular Baptists.” That’s what they called themselves in the 17th century.

      2. All the Reformed churches confess that there is one covenant of grace with multiple administrations (e.g., Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, New Covenant). Not all Baptists confess or hold this. Some explicitly deny this. The 2nd London Baptist Confession did is ambiguous on this point. It seems to imply that the covenant of grace was revealed in the OT but it doesn’t say that it was present in the OT.

      On this see:

      3. Most obviously, all the Reformed churches confess infant baptism. All Baptists deny it. In Three Forms (Heidelberg, Belgic, Canons) churches, refusing to baptize one’s children is a cause for church discipline. Baptists typically deny that infants have actually been baptized. Hence, they would be uniting with a lot of unbaptized persons and congregations. This would be an odd marriage indeed. See:

      The Reformed Churches Confess Infant Baptism

    • RSC,
      It all depends. Upper case Reformed refers to the Three Forms. Lower case reformed refers to baptists who are at least reformed in their soteriology, as in the so called 5 points of calvinism.
      Granted it’s all about equivocation/defining one’s terms, but in that most Reformed – at least in my experience – can’t articulate what it means to be reformed in doctrine, worship and government, I can cut the reformed baptists some slack. I know what they mean, even if I might not agree with their limited scope and definition of the word.

      As for the Reformed who can’t spell out – largely because they haven’t been taught = what it means to be reformed in doctrine, worship and government, a general vague claim to be confessional and affirm the Three Forms is not good enough. For instance, could we say that most modern P&R churches are reformed in their worship? I would say maybe nominally, but historically no \_(ツ)_/.
      Of course, YMMV.
      cheers

      • Bob,

        I’m unwilling to concede that Baptists are Reformed in any sense. If Baptists are lower case “reformed” then so was Thomas Aquinas, who was every bit as predestinarian as the staunchest Baptist. It makes no sense.

        As I keep saying, the Baptists didn’t call themselves Reformed until after WWII. It was part of a <‘em>de facto deal with the P&R world, which had been decimated by the turn to liberalism. One doesn’t really see the sort of P&R + Baptist partnership until after the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies. Suddenly, the confessional/conservative (not exactly the same) P&R world was isolated and tiny. Via the Banner <‘em>et al we began an alliance. We started calling them “Reformed” on the basis of a grossly reductionist definition of Reformed.

        It hasn’t helped us and it’s cost us a great deal.

        As to reforming the Reformed, well, here I am buddy. Been working on it since c. 2006.

  3. I find it strange that Dr. Godfrey mentioned the Netherlands Reformed Church ( who actually call themselves congregation, not church) but not the CanRC.

    • Don’t know, but there were certainly discussions about unification back then. I myself attended some, so there was certainly an awareness.

      • I have mostly enjoyed my contact with the CanRef folks but in re the URCs uniting with the CanRef there are some serious obstacles. The gravest of which is the presence of Federal Vision sympathizing/supporting congregations in the CanRef. As far as I know (I would be happy to be corrected on this) the CanRef has yet to speak to, or on, or against the Federal Vision. Wes Bredenhof reported on this several years ago:

        The Cost of Doing Nothing at Synod 2010

        Wes wrote:

        In 2104 Wes Bredenhof wrote of the CanRC:

        URC brothers who are paying attention will undoubtedly read some of this with concern. Three local churches wrote letters to our synod stating that “some points of Federal Vision can find sympathy in the Canadian Reformed Churches.” One church wondered whether the URCNA “has a clear picture of the Federal Vision movement.” Though for the sake of honesty and transparency it’s necessary that these sentiments be expressed, I deeply regret that they live in our federation. At least now the URCNA will have a clear justification for their concerns about pursuing full federative unity with us. There are now official CanRC documents stating that there is sympathy for “some points of FV” in our churches.

        In 2010, Bill DeJong, a CanRef minister wrote of his support of the FV.

        4. My sympathy for federal vision is very public. The points where I distinguish myself from popular ideas associated with federal vision are also public.

        Here’s my credo:

        I believe that all children are in the covenant in the same way, that Esau was no less a member of the covenant than Jacob. I believe that baptism is a sociological occurrence in which the candidate is formally received into the body of Christ, i.e. united to Christ, grafted to the vine. I believe that covenant God established with Adam was suffused with grace, that the nomenclature of works is regrettable, and that the reward for prelapsarian human obedience was so disproportionate it could not be administered according to the dictates of strict justice. I believe that “alone” in justified by faith alone is adverbial, not adjectival. I believe that imputation can be utilized as a theological category to describe the transfer of Christ’s righteousness to the believer so long as it is conceived in terms of union with Christ and therefore not as an impersonal transaction. I believe that an emphasis on the distinction between active and passive obedience is confessionally unwarranted. I believe that the distinction between visible and invisible church requires us to think of the church in categories which are more resonant with Platonism than the Bible.

        If this is FV, then the shoe fits and I’ll wear it. I hold these views by conviction, and it hasn’t unnerved me a bit that virtually every church in NAPARC (mainly of Presbyterian affiliation) finds them unsatisfactory. I know I’m well within the parameters of the Three Forms of Unity. The Can Ref have always had to courage to distinguish themselves from Presbyterians; I fear that courage is waning.
        For reason, I take personal offence at your suggestion that Can Ref folk should not be sympathizers or adherents of federal vision, especially when you haven’t defined what “federal vision” is.

        Lastly, lest I be misunderstood, I fully support Can Ref membership in NAPARC; I just don’t think this membership should make us theologically weak-kneed.

        The position of the CanRef in re FV , as I understand it, is an insuperable obstacle to union between the CanRef and the URCs.

  4. Unity that is not based on truth has little value. The PCA is actually a member of the National Association of Evangelicals. There have been overtures to leave the NAE but they have been unsuccessful so far. It is hard enough to achieve unity even within the PCA. Trying to achieve it with other reformed churches seems like a bridge too far.

    • In 1997, before the PCA adopted “good faith” subscription and the strategic plan, Bob proposed that we unify on the basis of our shared confession. That would have been a union based on truth.

  5. That was a very good article, and I do pray that a form of unity can be made as suggested, I was going to present the question but I do see that it has been given since the book was published back in 1997, are there any works of this being considered by the congregations?

    • McKinley,

      The various congregations within NAPARC do receive one another’s members by transfer, exchange pulpits, meet for fellowship (e.g., on Reformation Day/Reformation Sunday). They also meet at NAPARC and send delegates to one another’s assemblies. There were very serious talks between the OPC and the PCA about merging before 1989 but the PCA’s insistence upon the “joining and receiving” (versus a negotiated merger) model was too much for the OPC to overcome. The URCs and CanRef have been in talks for 20 years and the URCs and OPCs are in ecumenical talks. Right now merger seems unlikely though the URCs are closer to the OPC than to the CanRef. The latter has, to the best of my knowledge, open federal visionists and that is a deal killer. The URCs and OPC cooperated on the new Trinity Psalter-Hymnal. That’s a substantial project. There are other ways we cooperate together at the local level. I have always valued the intra-NAPARC fellowship I’ve had across North America.

  6. Wonderful dream. 3 of the 4 NAPARC churches in my town have quarterly shared worship and fellowship, and have worked together in evangelistic outreaches. The joint worship is always enjoyed by all and we all look forward to being with each other.

  7. I question whether the resulting denomination would be worth the nearly insurmountable effort to create it. And even then, would it actually be profitable, or would it merely be a boon for church bureaucrats (and appear to be a confusing mess to the watching world)?

    To illustrate, consider that the proposed denomination would be incapable of hosting a joint worship service among its own members at its General Assembly meetings. The PCA tends to conduct contemporary-ish services at its current GAs, which would be a sticking point for nearly all of the other constituent denominations. And the RPCNA would refuse to participate unless the assembly restricted itself to A cappella psalms (which is their present position on all NAPARC gatherings).

    • Ben,

      One of the reasons I published that quotation from 1997 was to illustrate the very changes you noted. I don’t think the discrepancies were as great then as now. It’s still a good dream but the challenges are significant.

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