What’s In A Name?

Holland Michigan Tulip Festival - Windmill and Tulip Flowers

In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15).

It is my hope that this blog will be a hospitable place in cyberspace where all are welcome. While this is a blog hosted by a bunch of Christians, people of other faiths or no faith are certainly welcome here. While this is a blog from a group of decidedly Reformed Christians, we want Christians from other traditions to know that they are welcome here as well. And while the majority of contributors are pastors in the Reformed tradition, I hope this will be an engaging and gracious space, a place where academics won’t get bored and laity or people not involved with church won’t feel wont feel bombarded or overwhelmed with terms they are not familiar with.

So  I thought it best to start off with some discussion about words that might come up a bit around here. Since Christians, maybe especially Reformed Christians, love their Apologetics, I thought I would kick things off by talking about two very loaded terms. Terms that are often taken for granted and perhaps we should again consider their meaning: Reformed and Apologetics. Allow me start with the latter and then spend a bit more time explaining my understanding of what it means to be Reformed. My hope is that this is just the beginning of a beautiful conversation.

As the verse above from 1 Peter suggests, there are times when it may be necessary for Christians to provide an explanation, perhaps even a defense for the hope we have in God, the God we confess is revealed in Jesus Christ.  This is typically what is meant by Apologetics. 1 Peter comes up because the Greek word there, translated into English often as “defense” is ἀπολογία (apologia) from which our English word apology is derived. But words of course can be tricky. I don’t believe the Epistle writer is suggesting that we apologize for our faith. The much broader ancient word connotes providing a reason, logic or explanation for something. And it it can certainly mean defense, like in Plato’s Apology where Socrates defends himself against his accusers.

The context in 1 Peter does suggest some level of antagonism going on between the Epistle writer’s congregation and their onlookers. But it is nothing too severe: “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated” (1 Peter 3:13-14). At the beginning of the Epistle, the audience is also made clear: Christians, scattered throughout the Roman Empire (1 Peter 1:1). We would do well to remember this is a pre-Constantinian (that is, not yet predominately-Christian) Roman Empire. Roman emperors were known for being especially heinous. Tiberius had stockpiled an island with male and female sex slaves. His successor, Caligula had incestuous relationships with his sisters, made it a practice to regularly rape dinner guests and to have sex with his foreign hostages. He also launched an imperial brothel, serviced by the wives and sons of Roman nobility. This was the vision of “the good life” cast by the people at the top of the food chain in Peter’s day. The Epistle also makes it clear several times that Peter’s audience is largely made up of Gentile converts to Christianity, who unlike the Jewish people scattered throughout the Empire would have once aspired to such a life (check out 1 Peter 2:9-10 or 4:3-4). They have now turned their back on their old ways and on the civil religion of their day: literally Emperor worship . Perhaps in that context then “defense” is the best interpretation of what Christians were being asked to give to outsiders. Outsiders who in this case would have been their friends, family or coworkers who did not understand the Christians’ new way of life.

But I am an American Christian in the early 21st Century. I was raised by a christian mother. I have witnessed a couple of parties where some things got a little out of hand, but nothing quite like what was going on at  Caligula’s place. The vision of the good life for our time and place includes as it did in Peter’s world some distorted notions of power and coveting after wealth and influence. But  it also includes the vision of a house, a picket fence and 2.5 kids that was cast largely in the 1950’s. And we don’t have an Emperor. We have President who is a professing Christian, despite the fact that some Christians might disagree with him about guns, marriage equality or health care. And despite the narrative that Fox news tries to sell me, no one is trying to take away my faith or my right to celebrate the birth, life or death and resurrection of Christ.

In fact, as I find myself once again working in the public sphere (I am a Reformed pastor currently without a call, moonlighting as a cashier) I find fewer, and fewer, non-Christians seem interested or want to ask me any questions when they find out that I am a Christian, especially when they find out that I am a pastor. In fact, in the cosmopolitan center where I work, I find that more and more non-Christians of various stripes (Buddhists, Muslims, agnostics, atheists) have grown weary and worried that I will be the one to interrogate and demand an answer of them, for their perceived lack of adhering to my beliefs. While I think “explanation” is still the best interpretation of  ἀπολογία in 1 Peter 3, I sometimes wonder in our context if an apology might also be necessary to give to my non-Christian neighbors. They are sick of people leaving them tracts with stingy tips as they wait tables to support their families; sick of hearing conservative commentators (often in the name of Jesus) declare there is a civil war around the corner; and sick of being told what they “should” believe by Christians unwilling to enter meaningfully into a relationship of mutual respect and mutual learning.

I sympathize with my non-Christian neighbors because I have suffered a similar inquisition at the hands of other Christians, perhaps most often at the hands of my fellow Reformed Christians. Which, as promised, brings me to offering my understanding of the word Reformed. I was not raised in the Reformed tradition. My mother modeled a deep faith for me most of my life. She was raised Roman Catholic but quit the church for a number of years. In my early childhood she began taking me and my siblings to worship every Sunday, whether my father went with us or not. It was a decisive breaking with her Catholic upbringing. We attended a variety of congregations, but always in a Protestant and decidedly revivalist tradition. The Christianity of my youth was focused on personal experience of God and individual salvation from Hell after one died. It was also, for the most part, skeptical of higher education and intellectual inquiry. For all of the riches I inherited from the Christianity of my youth, including a strong emphasis on radical reliance upon God’s Spirit, it was in the end a little too individualistic and other worldly for me to embrace as I grew.

The Reformed emphasis on God’s sovereignty, on covenant community and on the importance of education has forever changed me. Among other things, I am the first in my family on either side to get a college education. I went to a Christian College in the Reformed tradition to study religion. When I went on to pursue a Masters of Divinity I was not given much emotional support and zero financial support by my family or the church I was raised in. Seminary was not really considered something that was necessary for ministry. Still, I am forever grateful for the emphases on religious experience and reliance on God’s Spirit that I’ve inherited from my charismatic background. I think it has made me acutely sensitive to the language of union with Christ and the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, language that fills up the pages of John Calvin’s institutes and the Reformed confessions but has I believe been lost on much of the subsequent Reformed tradition, especially in America.

But the Reformers didn’t invent this stuff. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul’s descriptions of new life “in Christ” are quite radical and have far reaching implications for all of our interactions in the world. It is a life in which everything old in us has passed away and become new! A new life that gives us the mind of Christ. A new life in which we are buried with Christ by baptism so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, so we too might walk in newness of life. Newness of life now! This is the true “good life.” In contrast to the vision of wealth, pleasure and might cast by societal elites (of the first century or of our time) this is good news that has the power to transform how people conduct all of there affairs in the world: a slave owner is expected to receive his former slave as a beloved brother in the flesh because they are brothers in Lord! In this new community there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all who are in Christ. The vision of this new life is so great that some of the Church Fathers and still today our sister and brothers in the Eastern Orthodox church call this ongoing newness of life theosis (roughly meaning to become like God). They use this term to indicate that “life in Christ” is a radical life in which the participants are being transformed daily into the image of Christ. Historically, Reformers have preferred to use terms like growing in “union” with God to avoid confusion or making misstatements about becoming God or demigods.

But again, the Church Fathers, the Eastern Christians and earlier generations of Reformers got this stuff from the Apostle Paul. Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” 165 times and the similar phrase “in the Spirit” about 20 times. For me, it was the reformed tradition and  the writings of Reformed thinkers like John Calvin and John Williamson Nevin (a 19th Century American theologian) who helped me see this vision of Christianity as a new life in Christ. And their writings opened my eyes to the fact that it was a vision that was indeed rooted in scripture.

But in seminary I soon found that despite the valiant efforts (and I imagine the consternation) of some of my professors, these ideas seemed lost or at least secondary to some of my fellow seminarians. We talked a lot about community. But we talked about it like it is imagined on an NBC sitcom, as a group of people coming together for a common purpose or goal. But we talked very little (outside of the classroom) about how the gospel invites us to a whole new way of being and how that newness of life is marked by the sign and seal of baptism and is nurtured in some real sense when we participate in the Lord’s Supper together. In the hallways, library and gathering spaces of the seminary I witnessed and heard a lot of emphasis on individual learning and growth and individual salvation from suffering after death. In my estimate, the relativist and individualistic patterns of Christianity that dominated my youth had invaded the halls of my seminary and (at least for some) the only difference was the Reformed emphasis on God’s sovereignty led – as admittedly it did for Calvin – to a belief that God chose before the beginning of time the individuals who would be “in” and who would be left “out.”

For this group of students, subsequent Christians thinkers outside of the 17th or 18th Century, thinkers who considered themselves a part of the Reformed tradition but deviated at all from this particular understanding of how Election works, were not really Reformed. This includes important theologians and pastors like Karl Barth or Jürgen Moltmann. Barth was so Reformed that he published a study guide to the Heidelberg Catechism (a 16th century German-Reformed confession that has become very important to Reformed Christians ever since). But whoa, I heard some pretty nasty stuff in those seminary hallways about professors or other authors we were reading who sympathized with Barth’s view of election. And Moltmann, while he was only required reading in two classes (one which was an elective) his sensitivity, high esteem and interaction with liberation, feminist or environmental theologians – sensitivities I also share – were definitely considered suspect by some of my fellow students. I am of the mind that if we can’t engage critically and gracefully with folks in our own tradition, we will have little or no hope of engaging critically and gracefully with Christians of other traditions, or non-Christians.

I think all – or at least most – of us who would like to count ourselves as Reformed Christians would stand behind the Reformation motto of Sola Scriptura: scripture alone. This indicates that scripture alone reveals God’s special revelation in Jesus Christ in a unique way. It does not mean that scripture alone is the only thing relevant to the Christian life. But there were several other reformation mottos, one of which gives some balance to Sola Scriptura, and that is Ecclesia semper reformanda: meaning  the church is always to be reformed. This presumes that at all times and in all places, Christians will inevitably get some things wrong and will need to be reshaped by the good news of the new life in Christ. It presumes the necessity of at least some ongoing conversation in each generation. In seminary I came to an awareness that there are – in very broad terms – two different kinds of Reformed Christians in this early part of the 21st century. There are those who think essentially that the Reformers got it right in the 17th and 18th Centuries, that their answers to questions that many people in our time are not even asking should forever be our framework for interpreting scripture. And then there are those of us who think that is not the case. We would consider ourselves deeply committed to the Reformed tradition. But we would also posit that there is probably a lot we can learn from Christians in other traditions, people of other faiths and even from the questions and wisdom of skeptics who might sit on the outside of any faith community.

So why did I feel the need to kick things of with some opening remarks about Apologetics? Well as much as I am discontent with the term and a lot of what goes on under the banner of “Apologetics” I am an enthusiastic and perhaps a born Apologist. I am so excited about the new life, the life that is offered in Christ and mediated by God’s Spirit, a life explicated a lot by the Apostle Paul, but born in Jesus’ proclamation “Behold the Reign of God is at hand!” It is a life pregnant with implications for how we should live here, today, right now! We are invited to participate in the very life of the one who declared that the Spirit of God rested on him to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the time of the God’s favor! I am excited about this and I want to share it. For the last several days, several contributors and I have brainstormed  about how we wanted to launch this site. Someone asked the very important question of who the  site is for: who is our chief audience? I expressed my sentiments in the opening remarks of this post: I want everyone, all people to feel welcomed here. That is who I desire to share my explanation for the hope that I have with: everyone! And that is who I also believe I can learn from: everyone I come into contact with, regardless of  how their religious commitments or viewpoints might differ from mine.

And so what is in a name? Why “That Reformed Blog?” The other contributors and I have had conversations about what the site should look like, what kind of topics we would like to write about and how often we would write. But our most lengthy discussions was about what the  site should be named. There was some serious discussion as to whether or not the word Reformed should even be in the title. Here is my train of of thought on that issue: While my understanding of the Christian faith and practice is deeply indebted to books with titles like “Simply Christian,” “Mere Christianity,” and even “Orthodoxy” I think an apologetic for our world today must be as forthcoming as possible about the plurality of viewpoints within the Christian tradition, what stream we are swimming in as well as the personal context of the author. In my case I am an unabashedly Reformed Christian, who is also deeply indebted to my revivalist roots, to our brothers and sisters in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, to the influence of Jürgen Moltmann and to the streams of liberation, feminist and environmental theologies his writings opened me up to (more on that on this blog to come, I promise). I am also a poet deeply influenced by the arts, but especially popular music and film.

The other contributors to this blog do not all have my story. We don’t all read the same authors, watch the same films or listen to the same music. We don’t all believe the exact same things. I do believe however that all of the contributors that I have invited are deeply Reformed. But as I surveyed cyberspace, I could not find a place that gave me voice or where I felt invited to speak up about matters of faith or about how a robust notion of the Christian faith, from a Reformed perspective might impact and shape a whole host of important issues: from family, parenting, sex, dating and marriage to public and political life, to engagement with arts and culture.  Despite that fact that the top 50 Christians blogs are said to be dominated by “Reformed” Christians, I don’t feel they speak for me or to me for the most part. So I invited several friends and created a space. We are That Reformed Blog. A blog written  primarily by Reformed Pastors and hopefully some laity and professional academics as well, but hopefully for the masses. We are certainly not the only Reformed blog or the quintessential Reformed blog or anything like that. But we are Reformed and we have a blog. So would a Tulip by any other name still smell the same? I guess we will find out. Let the conversation begin.

Towards Shalom,

Wayne

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8 thoughts on “What’s In A Name?

  1. Just one caveat. Sola scriptura, like the other “sola’s”, is not a nominative but an ablative, meaning, not “only scripture” or “scripture alone” but “only by scripture” or “by scripture alone.” The Reformed view is that scripture is the only rule, the only regula, but not the only source, not the only help, not the only comfort, not the only wisdom, not the only witness, not the only concern of study and understanding, but the only test of all of them.

    • Daniel, that is what I was trying to get at. But thank you for your comment which is more precise and accurate getting at the concept I was trying to convey. I should expect nothing less from an expert in BCO 🙂 Anyhoo, thank you for your gracious interaction. Blessings! I really do hope you will stop back in here from time to time.

    • Daniel, thank you so much for this comment! I agree that this is an important caveat. The Reformed tradition, unlike some other denominations and traditions, does not refuse to look at things like natural revelation and human experience as sources, but those other sources are not our rule. Those sources are helpful insofar as they enhance our ability to understand the truth of Scripture, and at times they can challenge the way we’ve understood the truth of Scripture. But always, we go back to the source – ad fontes – as we seek to find our way.

      — April

  2. So that’s what it means to be apologetic? Sheesh, who knew? I just figured I had to keep apologizing for being a Christian 😉 This was a great read, Wayne. You have a knack for making the high-brow a little lower, for what its worth. Your piece was incredibly informative and engaging. I’d love to continue the dialogue around the concept of Reform-ing: what does it mean to adhere to a faith that is steeped in tradition, ruled by scripture, yet constantly growing deeper, wider, higher and taller (and sometimes getting covered over by whiteout and eraser marks).

  3. There’s a popular scene in Donald Miller’s book “Blue LIke Jazz” where the Christian’s on the campus of Reed College set up a booth. I’m not sure if something posted on the outside or not. I seem to remember that the booth is set up like a confessional with the implication being that the heathen student body could confess their sins and turn from their evil ways. The surprise, of course, was that it was the Christians who did the confessing; confessing their sins and turning from their evil ways. I thought it was great.

    My years at Hope College (a reformed, but really an evangelical institution) were just the opposite. There was some crazy guy who visited campus occasionally with his threatening sign and vicious words for passers by. There were rumors of Christians praying outside the doors of the Muslim hall mates and other things of that nature. Homosexuality was not as much of an issue until my time there was wrapping up (1999). Never, however, was there an apology from Christians to those who weren’t. It may be that the Reformed tradition (and the Dutch version especially!) is most in need of such a practice.

    Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits.”

    With all of the splits and schisms in our version of the reformed tradition, one would have to wonder if we’ve all been led astray. If the authors of TULIP confiscated land, ex-communicated their opponents, and even beheaded someone (I think) is it fair to say that their judgement may have been off when it came to theological matters as well?

    Every season of Lent (those 6 weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter when we try to figure out what it means to take up our cross after Jesus) I wrestle with our view of Jesus and the cross and the substitution, as we call it. I’m done apologizing for it. We can do better. We can do a lot of things better. So, here’s to hoping this blog contributes in some way.

    P.S. TULIP might need to be the topic of the next blog post. It’s hard not to use jargon.

    • Peter, you bring up so many good things in the comment. I really like that scene in Blue like Jazz as well. I think the violence in Jesus’ name goes on, especially verbal violence. I had in the back of my mind writing this post when I mentioned “bad apologetics” this tv show where Kirk Cameron and his ironically named friend Ray comfort go out asking people on the street if they have ever lusted or been angry with their brother. Once they badger the typical “pagan” into saying yes they say something like “Do you realize according to God’s inherent word you are an adulterer and a murderer and worthy to go to hell?” I think verbal violence continues when I read reviews of Dr. Brownson’s book, or when I watched synod on line in shock and horror this past summer.

      I saw a comment the other day in response to this line in Brownson’s book: “The intimacy of sexual expression must be a place where people can be most authentically their true selves.” (Brownson, 254).

      The comment was: “My true self is a sinful piece of garbage that would enjoy murdering people and stealing from others. That seems quite a low height to aspire to — and a terrible foundation for marriage/intimate relationship/life.”

      I wonder if the emphases on wrath and violence that you are wrestling with almost necessarily lead to this kind of self image. This view of self surly makes it harder to love neighbor and enter with empathy into his or her plight. How can we apologize to people we wish we could murder?

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