On consorting with theologians of mean reputation

Taking a little heat recently for hanging around people with bad theological reputations. Geez… they have no idea what kind of people I’m known to hang with.. I have a history of consorting with heathens, heretics and reprobates. Theologians are often worse and sometimes better.

This word “Reformed”. We use it when it when, if and how it is helpful. It’s used so often it often means nothing. Tellingly, if it’s not right out of the heart of the Reformational thought forms it is not Reformed in any way that means anything very important.

When I’m using it seriously I can barely use it at all. It’s a serious word and people apply it like frosting at a birthday party. It can mean almost anything. We say George Whitfield was “reformed”. And Jonathan Edwards. And Charles Spurgeon. On Spurgeon, I’ve said it myself; does that really mean anything intelligible? He wasn’t “reformed” in any obvious sense. He was barely an anything if you’re trying to nail him down to a specific category – and I love him very much. The Prince of Preachers and all that.

Was Martin Luther Reformed? It’s a silly question. Maybe no one is if Martin Luther isn’t but he could never be ordained in my very reformed denomination, not at any level (and we have three offices). We love him from afar like a hero of the Greek poets, pretending he was not a real man and so we don’t have to make a judgment as to his orthodoxy on very important matters.

Could John Knox have been ordained in the contemporary Reformed churches (he started the Presbyterian church)? I don’t think so, he was too forthright a personality. I’ve been to a lot of ordinations in the PCA and I can tell you, I don’t think it’s possible he could make it through committee in most. Can you imagine them sending him off to one of their “ministry suitability workshop” and having him come back approved for winsome ministry by their psychologists and trainers?

And JOHN CALVIN. Really, It’s been a long time since I’ve met a minister that has read him (at least more than the famous footnotes version). Everyone claims him, no one reads him. I know everyone loves Tim Keller and John MacArthur and the other stalwarts of contemporary evangelical calvinistic culture but can you imaging him ordaining any one of them? More likely he would have had them arrested. Maybe, he would have been more serious than that… Anyway, I think he was Reformed.

That’s not to criticize those guys, they do noble and beneficial work but “Reformed”? It’s not even close, right? I mean, we could easily call John MacArthur a “Calvinist” but at that point we are winnowing down what we mean by following Calvin to such a skinny extreme its really lost its temper.

Maybe we can say this, if Calvin would have thought you were a heretic you are probably not a Calvinist. I’m not trying to sound terse, I’d just like a little perspective. (I once saw a U.S. Marine Chaplin excused from the ordination process in a PCA presbytery for holding to a literal 6 days of creation – while ladies were being ordained pastors by the churches. The place of homosexuality and whether the doctrine of the trinity was essential were debated on an ongoing basis. Whatever you think about these issues theologically, that Calvin could have been ordained a Minister in that very Calvinist presbytery is beyond reasonable argument. They would have excluded him for being “divisive” or having a “contentious personality” or more likely for his interpretation of civil applications of God’s law in contemporary settings.)

Maybe you just believe in “predestination” or one of the 5 to 10 reformish versions of it floating around these days that Calvin probably disagreed with. Still, Reformed is a very big word. So we use it colloquially when we don’t want to use it with exclusivity.

Still, when we engage with Atheists, Mormons, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Anglicans, Arminians, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, non-denominational foot washing ana-baptists everything is fine but if they are so close to the Reformed that you could reach out and hit them with the Book of Church Order then people get very nervous. They’re not nervous because the Reformish are far away. We love the people that are far away. We are nice to them. We invite them over for dinner and glow when they come to a church service at a ‘real church’. We love those little tid bits like, “Joe had a conversation with ‘what’s his name’ the other day about theology, and it went very well…” But if they’re only inches away… so close.. then, ‘heretics’.. dividers.. wolves..

And here’s the thing, many of the pro-reformed agitators, I don’t think they are very Reformed at all. They barely know the doctrines. Some actively argue against the findings of the Councils, Creeds and Confessions. I know one that has literally argued against Westminster Confessional Christianity all of his adult life but recently experienced some kind of a conversion to a ‘Pretty Close to the Reformation Reformed Theology’ and now considers himself a public expert on who is not Reformed enough. It’s funny but not “ha ha” funny.

One of the worst things about the contemporary reformed is the inability to distinguish friends from enemies. It’s a primary facet of biblical wisdom but we don’t have it. I would suggest that you not make the mistake of being mildly reformed but not completely reformed, or you’re probably going to get it. As long as you’re reformy but not THAT reformed you’re probably safe but if you’re pretty close but still wrong you’re just a target at that point.

And here’s the rub, the Reformed should never compromise the Reformed standards. When presbyteries compromise their reformational bona fides and admit every kind of evangelical thinker with a head full of clouds to ordination, taking exceptions to the Westminster Standards (“scruples” they call it but it means the places where they are not Reformed), they show that they are not very serious about this Reformed Theology at all. Compromise in nothing and we will live but compromise in everything and we are very much in need of a next reformation that will cure us of dilution. If you want to be taken seriously as a defender of the faith then defend it from the many real and obvious enemies because they are abundant and in the camp.

But if we’re talking about people that do not want to be a part of our tribe, do not hold to our standards, disagree about peripheral matters of faith and practice, what is the problem?

They don’t want to be with us.

And if they have no intention of joining our family they are hardly a significant threat. The threats would be much closer to home.

You are supposed to refute them, entreat them, convince them, and convert them. Not badger, bewilder, berate them and bore them. You should be winning not complaining. There should be debates and conferences and public conversations, and if you cannot win them – perhaps you should not win them.

If you can’t out preach, out teach and out convince them how are you living up to what you claim you are called to do? Where is your vaulted Reformational gospel super-aggression and high brow theological superiority? In the closet with your robe and collar?

Convince, by scripture and sound reason.

That is what the Reformed do.


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