Towards a Contemporary Reformed Witness

Towards a Contemporary Reformed Witness (1): Personal Reflections Pt. 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Towards a Contemporary Reformed Witness

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I love reformed theology.
I love the doctrines of grace.
I love our body of truth.
I love our fathers who witnessed in life (and in many cases, in death) to the truths I hold so dear.

But I have to confess to being a little disillusioned at times when it comes to being in the reformed family.

You see, the reformed family is pretty awesome but we’re not without our issues. I’ve waxed lyrical about my issues with some in the family already but in this series of posts, I want to move past that and think about how it is that we can effectively communicate the great and glorious truth of the reformed faith in our modern context.

I want us to think about how we can effectively communicate the truth of God’s Word in contemporary culture without watering down what we believe and without wavering on why we believe it.

The Reformation was both a historically-rooted and culturally/socially-relevant movement and I believe we can do the same. That’s my heart in this series – to use a phrase that will feature heavily in this extended conversation: a fixed and flexible reformed witness.1

Before we get through the heavy theological and historical lifting required to effectively handle this discussion, I want to begin with a few personal reflections as to why I would take up this series. Why do I think it is so important for us to have a contemporary reformed witness that is both fixed in what it believes and teaches and flexible in areas as well? Three thoughts:

(1) Sometimes we confuse what is fixed and what we can be flexible on

For a theology forged in the fires of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, reformed theology is incredibly relevant to the day in which we live.

However, speak to most folks who have had a cursory brush with reformed people in the past and you’d get the perception that reformed theology is anything but!

To an extent, that cannot be helped. We value the apostolicity2 of the faith we confess – we can trace these truths back to the Apostles and their teaching in the Scripture. We value the catholicity of the faith we confess – that the church is universal in its scope and not restricted by geographical boundaries. We even value the historicity of the faith – this faith is the faith of our fathers, not just ourselves. Faithful men passed these things on to other faithful men who were able to teach others also and we are very standing on the shoulders of giants when it comes to the faith.3

That all being said, there is a danger in our circles which I fear we either don’t believe to be a danger or (even worse) we think to be a badge of honour. The danger is that often we confuse those elements of our reformed conviction that are fixed and those things which, if we are honest, are a little flexible such that in the final analysis, we are simply unintelligible. (More on that to come.)

If we are to maintain a witness to the reformed faith that communicates intelligibly and intelligently to today’s world, we have to do justice to the reality that while the core truths of our faith should never change, our presentation and communication of these things must change to be understood by the people we seek to reach.

In reference to the use of spiritual gifts, Paul laid out a principle we would do well to bear in mind:

There are doubtless many different kinds of languages in the world, and all have meaning. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker will be a foreigner to me.4

What is the key principle Paul teaches us in 1 Cor 14? Communicating in such a way as the things we say have meaning to those who hear us. That’s a principle we cannot afford to ignore or dismiss as reformed people in the 21st century.

I’ll pick up with a second personal reflection in the second part of this series.

  1. And this will be quite a extended conversation – don’t expect this to be done in two or three parts []
  2. I pretty much invented a word here…I think. []
  3. cf. 2 Timothy 2:2 []
  4. 1 Cor 14:10-11 []
Towards a Contemporary Reformed Witness

Towards a Contemporary Reformed Witness (2): Personal Reflections Pt. 2

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Towards a Contemporary Reformed Witness

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Picking up from where we left off in the opening part of this series, I want to take a second thread of personal reflection as we begin thinking through how we can have a robustly reformed witness in our contemporary culture.

(2) Sometimes we are not willing to listen to and look at the world around us

Now at this point, I have to begin in the negative. What I do not mean is that we go and ask the world what they want to hear. Paul is clear in 2 Corinthians 4:

But if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case, the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.1

The unbelieving world around us are blind to the Gospel, unable to grasp spiritual things and in regards to spiritual things, we don’t get our cue from them (cf 1 Cor 2:14.)

I also do not mean that we borrow the sinful methodologies of the culture to reach it. So sorry…something such as this doesn’t pass muster:

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We don’t borrow from secular culture to reach secular culture!2

That all being said…there is a kind of aloofness to the world around us which we seem to think is a mark of godliness and holiness which is actually unhelpful in light of our call to be in this world while being decidedly not of this world.

As I said in part one, I believe that believers with a worldview steeped in the truth of Scripture as expressed in the reformed faith have a wealth of answers to offer to this day and age – however a failure to communicate to the age in which we live stems massively from being unaware of the issues which directly affect this culture.

Cornelius Van Til, the famed reformed thinker and apologist, is reputed to have said that the Bible is the Word of God in all that it addresses and it addresses everything. Politics, the arts, science, history, philosophy – Biblical principles apply to everything!3

Oftentimes we communicate in such a way as to suggest that these areas simply do not not matter – that because unbelievers think about a subject, it must inherently be beneath us to think through from a Biblical worldview.

If we are going to communicate faithfully to this age, we have to communicate with an understanding of the issues which are on the minds and hearts of the culture in which we find ourselves. We see this in the apostolic witness where Paul, in Acts 17 (an oft-cited passage for contextualization which we’ll look at in our next post together), isn’t afraid to quote from the thinkers of the day, while proclaiming the powerfully antithetical message of the Gospel in response to the major beliefs of the day.

Paul does not yield an inch of ground to the culture and yet he was conversant enough in the major worldview issues of the day that he could speak right to those issues in a pointed way.

If we are going to make any kind of powerful impact today, we must be willing to listen in on the cultural conversation of the day and to take a look at that which is shaping that conversation in order to pull down the right strongholds with the Gospel message (cf. 2 Cor 10:3-5)

  1. 2 Cor 4:3-4 []
  2. more on that in a later post in the series []
  3. Not in the same measure and to the same amount of detail to be sure []
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Towards a Contemporary Reformed Witness (3): Personal Reflections Pt.3a

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Towards a Contemporary Reformed Witness

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My third and final personal reflection before we start dealing with some of the tools at our disposal for having a robust, contemporary reformed witness is this:

We tend towards a lobsided view of history – both in relation to the past and to the present

C.S. Lewis coined a phrase which has become a personal favourite of mine. He wrote:

Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

Those two words – “chronological snobbery” – have haunted me ever since.

There is a real sense in which, particularly among the young, there is the danger of not quite appreciating that there was indeed a fully-functional world before the one into which we were born. A failure to appreciate history and to learn from it is arrogance of the highest order and something from which we ought to repent.

That all being said…

In reformed circles, I don’t think that’s our thing to fear. We embrace the reality that the particulars of our theological system were forged in prior generations, most notably the sixteenth through to the eighteenth centuries. Of course – we’re reformed as in the Protestant Reformation. 

In itself, that should be no issue – the history of the Church, though not flawless, is the story of two thousand years of Christ’s power manifested through imperfect people who believed in and stood for Him. We still use terms and definitions forged from the past to define critical Christian doctrines, we still cite with great reverence those who went before us, expounding the Scripture and we still ask the question, “How have God’s people always understood this issue or that?”

In and of itself, that is not the problem. The problem is chronological snobbery…but of a different kind. We’ll pick up this train of thought in part 4.