Throw Open the Shutters! Why the Reformation Matters to Us Today!

Cynthia L. Rigby, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

<  Audio of Class Discussion  >

Introduction: (a) Always be Ready (I Peter 3:15-16); (b)  From Reformation to Lutheran and Reformed; (c)  Reformed traditions and Christian traditions.   

  I.  Who Thinks of Themselves as “Reformed”?

 - According to a 2010 Barna study, 32 percent of Protestant pastors in the US identify themselves as “Calvinist or Reformed.”  32 percent identify themselves as “Wesleyan or Arminian.”

 “Among the youngest generation of pastors (ages 27 to 45), 29% described themselves as Reformed, while 34% identified as Wesleyan. Pastors associated with the Boomer generation (ages 46 to 64) were evenly split between the two theological camps: 34% Reformed, 33% Arminian. Pastors who were 65 or older were the least likely to use either term: 26% and 27%, respectively.”

“Regionally, Reformed churches were most common in the Northeast, while least common in the Midwest. Wesleyan/Arminian congregations were equally likely to appear in each of the four regions.”

“Denominational background made a significant difference, but the dividing lines were not always straightforward: 47% of mainline churches were described by their pastor as Wesleyan/Arminian, while 29% of mainline congregations adopted the Reformed categorization. (Mainline churches include American Baptist Churches, Evangelical Lutheran Churches in America, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church USA, and United Church of Christ.) In contrast, non-mainline churches were more likely to self-describe as Reformed (35%), although 30% of the non-mainline pastors identified as Wesleyan/Arminian.”

“The study found that 31% of pastors who lead churches within traditionally charismatic or Pentecostal denominations were described as Reformed, while 27% identified as Wesleyan/Arminian. This is somewhat surprising given that these denominations – including Assembly of God, Vineyard, Foursquare, and Church of God-Cleveland – are generally viewed as stemming from Wesleyan or Holiness traditions.”

“Despite the common public view of Reformed churches being doctrinally conservative, a greater proportion of these leaders described themselves as “theologically liberal” than was true among Wesleyan/Arminian leaders (17% versus 13%).”

 II.  Some Problems with how “the Reformed” are Perceived

A.  Stereotypes of Calvin

     (1)  then: 

          (a)  in Calvin’s day (born 1536, died 1564):  accusations of determinism

         (b)  early 17th c:  TULIP (actually - Synod of Dort, 1618.  Calvin died 1564)

       (2)  now (e.g.):  Atlantic Monthly, circa 2007

         (a) - Well, you sometimes feel as if you’re punching the air. You wish they’d say, “No, excuse me, John Calvin was right, and you’re going to hell, buster.”

          (b)  - Kathy, a Protestant, is so thrilled by John Calvin’s “terrifying affirmations” of her “foreordained damnation” that she keeps returning to his “spiritual pornography like a dog to its vomit.”

   B.  The New Calvinism:  How does this continue shaping perception?

       (1)  Description in Time (not intended to be negative)

- “Today, more and more top songs feature a God who is very big, while we are...well, hark the David Crowder Band: "I am full of earth/ You are heaven's worth/ I am stained with dirt/ Prone to depravity."  Calvinism is back, and not just musically. John Calvin's 16th century reply to medieval Catholicism's buy-your-way-out-of-purgatory excesses is Evangelicalism's latest success story, complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination's logical consequence, predestination: the belief that before time's dawn, God decided whom he would save (or not), unaffected by any subsequent human action or decision.

(2)  More Calvin than Barth (why?)

(3)  Critique:  Jonathan Merritt, Religion News Service[5]

problems with neo-Calvinism, according to Merritt:           

         (a)  isolationism (Calvinist blogs all the time)

          (b)  tribalism (including and defending those in your sphere)

           (c)  egoism (as the “elect”) 

III.  The Hard Questions:  Why does “Reformed Christianity” have such a constricted, constrained, reputation?  What about this reputation is a matter of misunderstanding (correctable, at least in theory, by education and example), and what is endemic to Reformed theology itself.

               Note:  built into Reformed theology itself is the possibility to change anything about it that is inconsistent with the Gospel.  “Reformed and always reforming, according to the Word of God” – a Reformation principle.

A.  Getting at the dissonance:  circle what you would identify as “Reformed Christian values” from of the list, below.

Personal Control over the Environment 
Time & Its Control 
Future Orientation 
Action/Work Orientation 
Practicality/Efficiency Materialism/Acquisitiveness  Providence[7]
Human Interaction
Group’s Welfare
Birthright Inheritance
Past Orientation
"Being" Orientation

B.  Brief Reflection: 

   (1)  Where do Reformation Values – Christian Values – seem to conflict with cultural values in the US/our context?  Where do stereotypes about Reformation/Protestant theology conflict?

    (2)  My focus, next (in IV):  where is there more commensurability than you might expect between Reformed theology and the things we value, in our context. 

IV.  Opening the Shutters:  Thinking Expansively about some Key Reformation (especially “Reformed”) Ideas in Conversation with our Best Values:

A.  POWER (to change; have a better future)

      Reformed emphasis/term:  the sovereignty of God

      (1)  What “governance” looks like, when it includes the manger and the cross.

              a.  not losing at monopoly with your kids, on purpose

                b.  not “prince and the pauper” (divine self-limitation is real limitation)

        (2)  What power looks like, when it is grounded in the sharing of life (Trinity)

                                    “perichoresis:  dancing around/mutual endwelling

        (3)  Why it is important not to do away with “omnipotence”: sovereignty licenses

             prayer; God is held to account.

        (4)  Such an understanding of power might have appeal, these days!      

B.  INCLUSION (interfaces with the value of “equality”)

       Reformed emphases:  the priesthood of all believers; extra calvinisticum

        What election is really all about!

         (1)  The intention of election: pastoral care!

          (2)  The benefit of “election”:  remembering job descriptions.

            (3)  Treating everyone as though they are elect.

            (4)  Remembering that the Logos, incarnate in Jesus Christ, is not exhausted by him (possibility for interreligious dialog for mutual learning and growth)

        (5)  We are all equally, and ever, and everywhere, to be listening for God’s crisis-causing Word, which is Word of transformation for both us and the world. 

          (6)  effect:  egotism is undone; we walk humbly with God, who makes the final judgments.  We are free to learn (and can learn from anywhere God speaks – Barth mentions in a Mozart sonata, Pure Land Buddhism, and/ or a dead dog!).

  C.  IDENTITY (takes into account what is valuable about individualism)

       Reformed emphasis:  made in the image of God; christocentrism; baptized

                        (1)  made in God’s image:  sin is an aberration (Calvin)

                        (2)  made for freedom:  Calvin’s three freedoms

                        (3)  centered in Christ:  Wesley’s pro me (for me!)

                     (4)  baptism as celebration of identity (with expectation that, or after this has happened, that the baptized person will want to make what is real actual in his/her life.

                      (5)  the Table is for the baptized.  This is not about excluding, but about celebrating the new identity we take on/new creatures we are as those who are committed to living into the objective reality of God’s claim on us.

                        (6)  In a context that fears loss of identity, Reformed theology gives us ways of claiming particular identities without shutting others out.

 D.  JUSTICE (building a better future)

   Reformed emphasis:  the coming Kingdom; eschatological reservation (Barth)

     (1)  we don’t make the future (conflicts, possibly, with American values) but we are invited to participate in facilitating its coming to earth as it is in heaven (thy will be done!)

   (2)  Reformed theology at best resists both determinism and triumphalism, understanding the fact that the future is a “sure thing” that rests in God’s hands to free us to act, to risk, to . . . do justice without thinking of ourselves as little versions of the Messiah.

     (3)  God’s Word always stands “with countermovements against injustice,” says Barth.  Wow.  Where does he get this?  It follows, he says, from his reading of Scripture and his Christocentric theology – Jesus always took the side of the marginalized.

      (4)  We advance the Kingdom through obedience and participation in Christ, but we can never complete it.  All our efforts are provisional until Christ returns and “takes us to himself” – that is how important we are to God’s “project” (in contrast to deterministic stereotypes). 

E.  AGENCY (work orientation)

  Reformed emphases:  partnership with God; participating with gratitude; vocation; freedom

     (1)  Reformed theology emphasizes not only what we are saved from but what we are saved for.  We are saved for participation in the life and work of God, in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

      (2)  Think of Mary, in Luke 10, choosing what is better.

      (3)  Think of Mary, Jesus’ mother, making an essential contribution to salvation. 

     (4)  It is as partners that Jesus calls us “friends” (Jn. 15), wants us to pray with him in the Garden, and calls us to be empowered by the Spirit to continue ministering in the world. 

    (5)  Partners share the “freedom to use God’s gifts for God’s purposes:” their primary end is to “love God and enjoy God forever.”  But this end does not dissipate the individual; rather, it enables us to actually be who we really are, as God’s beloved creatures.   

Final Comments/Discussion 

What other possibilities are there for thinking expansively?

            A brief summary of what we’ve got so far:

Power includes weakness (of manger, cross)

Inclusion leads not to complacency but to being undone and remade, again and again, by     the crisis-causing Word of God.  Watch and Pray!  Stay alert for it!

Identity isn’t about excluding, but about taking responsibility for becoming who we are.

Justice orientation might be recognized as “impatient hope.”  Seeing the future that is real, it acts in the present to make it so.

Agency is made possible in Christ who not only empties himself to justify us, but lifts us up to participate in what God is up to.

Notice how much of the above is not included in “stereotypes” about Reformed theology! We have the chance to reclaim all of these possibilities and more as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and think about shaping our future legacy.

Why the Reformation Matters to Us Today!

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