Thursday, July 7, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Prolegomena (Part 2)

Thematic markers of a Reformed Church

The Reformed Church is a church rooted in history. As I have mentioned, two markers of the modern age have been a trend towards the priority of individual piety, and a trend towards divorcing the church from her history through the centuries. The Reformed Church reject both of these trends, while desiring to be biblical and historical.

Before we move on to the specifics, what are the thematic markers of the Reformed Church, markers which form the foundational pillars for a Reformed view concerning the faith and the church? The first thematic marker is that of the unity of the internal and the external. This runs counter to the first trend. But what does this actually mean? The "internal" or "individual" refers to one's individual piety. Thus it refers to private reading of the Bible in private devotions. It refers to one's time of prayer before God. It refers to personal fasting and any other exercises of piety (if any) a Christian may be engaged in in his personal time.

In contrast to this the "external" or "corporate" refers to what one does in the public setting of corporate worship. Therefore, it refers to going to the public worship at church. It refers to partaking of the Lord's Supper. It refers to going for prayer meetings at church, fellowship events at church, and participating in any event done in public in the life of the church.

The Reformed church holds that the internal and the external should be linked. They are not to be equated, as if going to church is the same as reading the Bible by yourself, but neither should they be pitted against each other. Therefore, a Christian ought to attend worship on the Lord's Day, Sunday, as well as reading the Bible by himself. Neglecting personal devotion is to fall into the error of formalism, that is just going through the motions of religion. But neglecting to join in the church's worship is to fall into the opposite error of pietism or spiritualism, that is pretending to obey God by being "spiritual" while denying what God has actually told us to do.

The second thematic marker is that the Church is a historical Christian church. Primitivism, or the error that always desire to go back to the example of the apostolic church, is rejected by the Reformed church in her purest times. Primitivism is wrong not because the apostolic church is wrong but because trying to emulate the apostolic church flattens out historical differences.

Think about it: We recognize there are changes in a language throughout time, and cultural values change over time, so why should we think that there are no real differences that should exist between the church today and the church during the time of the apostles? In the Reformed church, we hold to real historical progress, but this progress is one of the movement of God's redemptive plan, not of Man's advancement in knowledge. True biblical progress is a progress of God's plan through time. Man's idea of progress, especially as coming from the Enlightenment, is all about Man getting better and better. The Reformed church believes in the former progression of God's plan while rejecting the latter view of human progress that downplays and denies sin.

The progression of God's plan implies that God is constantly at work in the Church. Therefore, the church is always situated in history. While we ought to always take Scripture as our authority, yet we ought to interact with and appropriate the treasure and insights given to us by the pastors and theologians that come before us.

So what does this look like? It means that we see how God has developed his Church and critically engage our forebears and adopt their insights where biblical, on the issues that we might face. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and do not have to re-invent the wheel every single generation. It means that when we come to any topic we might be interested in, we learn how Christians before us have thought about the topic and critically engage it with the Scriptures.

The church in older times have given us much in this regard. Besides the writings and reflections of Christian pastors and theologians through the centuries, what stands out are what we call the creeds and confessions of the Church. Creeds and confessions are official documents issued by the church to tell us what they hold to be true. They are not private reflections on biblical topics, but public statements on those topics, and thus they have an air of authority around them. The creeds and confessions come into being as God's plan progresses through the history of the church, and thus they acquire an important place in the life and beliefs of the church.

The Reformed church, as a historical church, holds to the Christian creeds and confessions. Of the Christian creeds of the catholic faith (not Roman Catholic, but ancient catholic and early medieval catholic), we hold to the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed (or Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed), the Athanasian Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon. Of the confessions of faith, the Reformed church has formulated various confessions depending on where they are located (whether they began in France, England, Netherlands or Germany) and depending on their interactions with each other and the Lutherans. Of the Reformed Confessons, there are the Three Forms of Unity (Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession of Faith, Canons of Dordt), the Second Helvitic Confession of Faith, the 39 Articles of the Church of England, the Westminster Standards (Westminster Confession of Faith, Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms etc), the Savoy Confession of Faith and the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith. Depending on which path Christians have followed and will follow, they would confess one or more of these Reformed Confessions. Some of these confessions differ from each other on doctrines that are important yet do not affect the essence of the Reformed view. Thus, various Reformed churches might differ on important doctrines without either of them being un-Reformed.

So, in conclusion of this section, the thematic markers of a Reformed Church are as follows:

  1. We hold to the unity of internal and external piety
  2. We hold to a historical progression of God's plan in the history of the church
  3. Therefore, we hold to the importance of consulting the wisdom and insights of our forebears.
  4. Therefore, we hold to the importance of the creeds and confessions of the historic Christian church.

These are the thematic markers of the Reformed church, which is to say the framework the Reformed church utilizes in thinking about doctrines and all other topics, to which we shall look at next.

[to be continued]

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