One Major Difference Between The Reformed And The Evangelicals

American evangelical religion, whether one traces it to Edwards, Whitefield, and Wesley or to the nineteenth-century revivalists (e.g., Charles Finney), has always been oriented around personalities. Reasonably, American evangelical Christians nurtured in the personality-oriented tradition assume that pattern as the norm when they evaluate other traditions. This can be a challenge for evangelicals discovering Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

Most evangelicals seem to encounter the Reformed doctrine of salvation before anything else. Particularly, evangelicals are fascinated by the Reformed doctrine of divine sovereignty and in popular presentations the impression frequently left is that once one has embraced the doctrine of divine sovereignty—an Augustinian doctrine long before it was “Calvinism” or Reformed—one is now Reformed. The newly “Reformed” evangelical proceeds to synthesize his Reformed doctrine of salvation with his evangelical doctrine of the church and evangelical assumptions about the nature of church life. When evangelicals on the road to Geneva find themselves in a Reformed church they can be in for a bit of a culture shock.

Where evangelical congregations, especially megachurches, tend to be oriented around popular personalities, a Reformed church is not. Indeed, in the confessionally Reformed world we have relatively few well-known personalities. For one thing, the entire confessional Reformed world in North America is not much greater than 500,000 people. By contrast, the Southern Baptist Convention is approximately 13.5 million people. American evangelicals (depending upon how one defines evangelical) number between 60 and 100 million people. The Roman communion is about 70 million people. So, the confessional Reformed world is a tiny sub-culture in North America. When someone becomes well known among evangelicals, there is a possibility of becoming known to a significant number of people. By contrast, even were one to become known to every confessional Christian in North America, one will have become known to a relatively small group of people.

We can probably count genuine, living confessional Reformed “celebrities” on one hand: to name them would be invidious, but it is a short list. Remember, we are talking about confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches where celebrity is not something that is encouraged and that is for a good reason.

The Reformed churches are intentionally confessional. Our theology, piety, and practice are God centered and Christ focused. The truth is that ministers come and go but the Word of God abides forever. Our pastors, teachers, and ministers are servants of the Word of God and the sacraments. Their vocation is to point away from themselves and to God in Christ. Their calling requires them to recede into the background. In times past, when ministers dressed more formally to conduct public worship services, they even wore black robes (something like a judge’s robe), which signified their office (minister) and which had the effect of further reducing their physical presence or their individual personality.

That is a rather different culture from the evangelical culture, where personalities and even brands have been a part of the attraction of evangelical religion for a long time, as Harry Stout noted in his 1991 book, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism, Library of Religious Biography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991). Whitefield was, what we today call a star.  He had charisma—not in the theological sense of a supernatural gift given by the Holy Spirit—his was an attractive and powerful personality. As Bob Godfrey reminded us in seminary, he could make people cry simply by saying the word Mesopotamia. The history of American evangelical religion can be fairly told as the history of a succession of powerful, influential personalities from Whitefield to Billy Graham. Indeed, for the first time in a very long time, American evangelicals are somewhat adrift in part because there is no guiding evangelical personality. There is no evangelical pope right now.

Evangelical congregations (and this is especially true of the megachurches) tend to be organized around a single personality. Consider Mars Hill church in Seattle. The whole thing was built around Driscoll and when he fell, the whole movement fell with him. It was, or it became, essentially an episcopacy or even a papacy. Presbyterian and Reformed churches have a decentralized church government. We are connected but we are not hierarchical. There is no single (merely human) person to whom we must all give all give account. Authority and power are shared by ruling elders and ministers. Local ministers and elders are accountable to regional elders and ministers and they, in turn, are accountable to national bodies of elders and ministers. The system works against the rise of celebrities and de facto popes. It also creates a different culture and different expectations within the church.

In our churches we expect the minister to do his job, i.e., to preach the Word in season and out, to administer the sacraments, to visit, to teach, to catechize, and to counsel, but when he is called to another congregation, ours does not collapse. We get what we call “pulpit supply” and we call another a minister. The process usually takes about a year. Most of the time our congregations remain fairly stable. If worse comes to worst, we even have written sermons that our ruling elders can read to us. Our elders and catechism teachers carry on until the new minister comes. Our ministers are a gift from God (as Paul says in Eph 4:8) and we appreciate them and their office very much, but our faith does not hinge on them. Should one of them apostatize, we would grieve but we would carry on because our hope is in Christ, who was faithful to the end and is our faithful high priest (Heb 2:17) and chief pastor (1 Pet 5:4). He never fails us.

We rejoice that you are joining us, but it is a journey to leave behind the evangelical personality-oriented culture and to embrace the culture of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches. We think you should continue, however. You will be glad that you did and so will your children and grandchildren.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Really well said.

    Yet a layman might wonder about the recent, growing, and surprising posthumous personal celebrity conferred upon C. Van Til?

    His status of personality being aided by the growing number of books and parachurch websites devoted to intricate theological wonderings on some of the man’s more confusing or ambiguous ideas (as a recent review noted).

    An appetite for or maybe even a mastery of such speculations appears to be necessary to enter the Inner Rings of current popular video/podcast Reformed theology.

    With a church history spanning from well before and after, say, Augustine to Zwingli, and so many theological schools to contend with, celebrity is almost completely avoided in Reformed circles. Except, it seems of late, regarding Van Til.

    Aside from the five points of Calvinism there appears to be only one man’s school of thought explicitly named, and then solemnly dubbed “the most biblically faithful…” in the BCO’s Recommended Curriculum for Ministerial Preparation.

    That is, Van Tilian presuppositionalism under the apologetics curriculum. Seems odd, given all the Reformed distinctives that could be ascribed to a theologian and that might rightly earn the same approval as “the most biblically faithful…”

    Anyway, to a recently arrived layman on the street, it seems like a veritable “outbreak” of personality and celebrity in the Reformed world.

    “Recently” and “outbreak” of course taken in the sense of “over the last several decades.” Since glacier-like movement seems to be a (usually) pleasant feature – not bug – of Presbyterianism.

    Human nature is everywhere.

    • PM,

      I don’t think much has changed in the way that CVT is regarded among American confessional P&R types. He was so well regarded by the OPC that they added his name to the Book of Church Order. It requires that seminary graduates be educated in “Van Tillian” apologetics. That stipulation made him (rightly, in my opinion) a little uncomfortable. He was well regarded when I began to read Reformed theology in the early 80s. Many students came to my seminary (Westminster Seminary California) to study his apologetic method.

      There are some criticisms of his methods, historiography, and role in Reformed theology. John Fesko’s book is perhaps most notable in this regard.

      I don’t think CVT has any more celebrity than other figures in our tradition and, as far as I know, to the degree they were aware of it they were uncomfortable with it. Luther was right, “Why do people call themselves by my filthy name? Did I die for them…?” (my paraphrase). Calvinist was a nickname given to us, not one that we invented.

      In short, there are some circles where CVT is treated as a celebrity (or more) but I don’t think that’s new or that it’s universal in the confessional P&R world.

  2. I am thankful you have expressed your views on distribution on power in the URCNA. It is valuable and noteworthy.

  3. So powerful to me as a reformed pastor, it helps me alot. In the Reformed church we don’t have episcopal government we have the plurality of elders to decide. Thank you so much to give this history of Reformed doctrine.Amen.

  4. It’s has open mind that in governance in our churches.The Authority and power are shared by ruling elders and ministers.which denying personalities,but prurality only

  5. What I have learned is that we as a Reformed church there should be written sermon for pulpit supply.

    thanks for that history

  6. Thank you, Professor Clark.

    Moving slowly this early January, John Fesko’s January 2023 New Horizons article, “Reformed Confessionalism V. The Genius Theologian” furthered the matter. He sees the potential pitfall for Reformed churches, noting how the Westminster divines refrained from narrowly defining Reformed faith, not personally naming any distinctives of their Reformed forebears:

    “But we should recognize that what binds these theologians is not their theological distinctives but their commitment to Scripture and confession. If we begin to take their unique features and make their distinctives the mark of what it means to be Reformed, then we fall into the pitfall of theological genius – defining doctrine by the cult of personality rather than through the church’s careful and prayerful deliberation on Scripture in dialogue with the church through the ages.”

    Professor Fesko’s article does not claim it, but it is hard to see how Van Tillian presuppositionalism is not just that; if not a cult of personality then one theological genius’s theological distinctive. Having been installed in the OPC’s Book of Church Order, by fiat it gained the heft of a required view to be considered ‘really’ Reformed.

    Even if Van Til was rightly uncomfortable with the kindly motivated honor, the question of what CVT “really meant” does not go away. In The Heidelblog’s December 22, 2022 review of The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til, the otherwise-approving reviewer buried his lede and opined that:

    “Although Tipton desires to show Van Til as a helpful contributor to the Reformed understanding of the Trinity, he fails to rescue Van Til from the mess of his own creation. … That Tipton devotes so many pages to explaining what Van Til meant shows how inadequate Van Til’s language truly was.”

    Apples are not oranges, so this conclusion regarding CVT’s trinitarian theology does not speak directly to the BCO-mandated curriculum of Van Tillian apologetics. But the inadequate and confusing language in both elicits similar conclusions from other critics of Van Til’s distinctive view. For example, from a copiously footnoted and half-book-length article titled, “Christianity and Van Tillianism,” found in Table Talk magazine of August of 2019, we read:

    “… Van Til’s thought, from beginning to end, is simply too ambiguous, vague, and muddled. Van Tillians have spent decades trying to explain what he “really” meant and to build on his thought, but the vagueness of his intended meaning renders doubtful any edifice built on his foundation. … It is more likely that the inherent ambiguity of his system of thought will continue to bear the kind of fruit we have already witnessed over the last seventy years.”

    Three score and ten; a lifetime.

    At any rate, as Professor Fesko concludes in the New Horizons article,

    “We can have our theological heroes and gravitate towards certain pastors and theologians. We can and should follow those whom we believe most clearly point us to Christ. However, through the work of the Spirit and Word of God, the theological spine holding the body of truth upright is the doctrine of the church. Apart from church and confession, people have nowhere to turn but to the biggest and brightest theological celebrities. If we make the theological genius’s unique distinctives the hallmark of what it means to be Reformed, we are swimming in the stream of Enlightenment Romanticism and individualism. Individually, we are free to hold distinct theological positions, but when it comes to defining the church’s corporate faith, our confessions define what it means to be truly Reformed. We must never allow, therefore, the genius theologian to displace the church and the role of its scripturally subordinated confession.”

    Reformed or Evangelical, personalities or theological geniuses are a pitfall. It is our nature to make them or anoint them. The preface to the BCO, explaining its tertiary place in the standards, notes that it (the BCO) “… may be more easily and frequently revised.” If so, if revising means deleting as well as adding, then removing from the BCO the novel inclusion of CVT’s theological distinctive might help prevent more years of unfruitful speculation, and better serve confessionalism under the Westminster standards;

    “… the church’s careful and prayerful deliberation on Scripture in dialogue with the church through the ages.”

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