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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Friday, October 03, 2008

Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda

It means "the Church Reformed, and always reforming". It is a regular statement by those of us who consider ourselves to follow in the footsteps of the 16th and 17th century Reformers. Within the Reformed church, however, there's a fair bit of difference on what the "always reforming" part means. For some, I'm sure it simply has reference to moral reformation. For them, the idea of any sort of theological change is mostly if not entirely out of the question. As one Congregational Puritan friend said to me recently, "It's not as if we can have a new Reformation every generation!" And to some degree, that's a true statement. It would be incredibly strange to have a theological and cultural change of such a grand scale every forty years or so. Nonetheless, there have been constant shifts ever since the Reformation in the Western Church, and to pretend that the Western Church hasn't changed since then is simply historical ignorance.

And then there's the whole question of who's truly Reformed. This can be witnessed taking place not only in Christendom more broadly, but in any social order. A general consensus is formed on a set of beliefs, but before long differences arise, forming two or more new factions. A split takes place, and whoever is the largest group left gets to keep the name, irrespective of whether or not they are the ones who truly embodied the principles originally set forth.

It seems clear to me that the question of who's truly Reformed has never ceased being asked since the 16th century. Whether it's debates over the Lord's Supper (as took place between the early Reformers), debates over Ecclesiology (as took place at the Westminster Assembly), debates over the Atonement (as took place in Scotland and Wales in the 19th century), or debates over paedocommunion (as have taken place in our day), disagreement over what it is to be truly Reformed seems to be inevitable. And to hearken back to a glorious pristine time early in the Reformation is to engage in mythmaking.

Having said all of that, I recognize that there has historically been a general understanding of what it means to be Reformed. The standard has been the Confessions and Catechisms first and foremost, as expressions of what the Reformed churches believed Holy Scripture to teach. If one can for the moment put to the side the constant disagreements between the Reformed on various matters, not to mention the differences between the Continental Reformed standards and the Westminster Standards, and the changes made to the Westminster Standards by the American church - one can still find a general consensus that can be called "Reformed".

It's something of a constant struggle for me. I've been a member of the Anglican Church for two years. For some, that would be enough to consider me Reformed. But then, the theological positions of most of the clergy in my denomination is Anglo-Catholic. And even though I'm not Anglo-Catholic, and even though Anglo-Catholic teachings and practices are rarely visible in my parish, many would at that point count me as non-Reformed. I personally (at this point, at least) believe Presbyterian ecclesiology to be the most faithful to Scripture, eventhough I'm technically an Anglican. And then there are my other “non-Reformed” views, such as my belief in paedocommunion, and my sympathies with the Federal Vision and New Perspective theologies. There’s the whole question of liturgy. And that’s only part of it. My church friends and acquaintances have no idea all the weird stuff I think about, as I question whether or not we’re missing the boat on some issue or another.

In one sense, I wish I could be plain-vanilla Reformed. John Owen’s theology, passed down from the mount to him by the hand of the Apostle Paul himself. It would be so much easier. I could join a Presbyterian church, and question nothing again for the rest of my life. (Of course, Owen wasn’t a Presbyterian. He was a Congregationalist. But don’t tell the Presbyterians that.) But that would be the lazy way out. God hasn’t allowed me to go that route, and He hasn’t told me why He’s chosen the route for me that He has.

I have a great love of the stories of the struggles of the Scottish Covenanters. One of my favourite books is Jock Purves’s studies of some of the Covenanting martyrs, called Fair Sunshine. When I first read the book, I was more Reformed, and I sided with the Covenanters against the oppressive and murderous Anglican clergy. And now that I’m an Anglican, I still side with the Covenanters. I side with the Covenanters, because I believe they had a right to worship in the way they believed Scripture taught them to. They were the faithful believing party in the conflict, I believe, and not the Anglicans. And yet, in spite of my siding with them, I believe their approach to worship was incorrect. It’s a messy thing. But looking back to the 17th century, I consider myself a Covenanter.

And yet the same is true when looking to the church prior to the Reformation. The early and Medieval church was as full of faulty theology and practice as it was of faithfulness . And this is true of those we would consider heroes of the church. I would have sided with Augustine in his various battles. I would have been a Catholic, in line with the Bishops with their allegiance to the Pope. But I couldn’t side today with certain elements of Augustine’s ecclesiology.

It’s a crisis of identity. When I first became Reformed, I knew what I was. I had a specific theology, specific aesthetics, specific fathers. Now, I’m watching the church and hoping for the best, as I float between various traditions, unwilling to pretend any one group has everything right. I have a theology, which I believe to be in accord with Scripture and the consensus of the Church, even when others disagree with me. I have certain things from various traditions that draw me aesthetically, though the various traditions often aren’t as appreciative of one another as I am with all of them. And I have many fathers, though were they all to live here today, they would have a hard time sitting down to have a beer together without turning their friendly encounter into a brawl. It isn’t a comfortable position to be in. But idolatry of one’s father is still idolatry, and as the first commandment forbids the worship of any other god than Yahweh, discomfort must be my lot for now. The church is ever reforming, according to God’s Providential hand, and so must I.

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