Hallmarks of the Reformed tradition

Last year, James K.A. Smith wrote an article for The Banner [link updated 8/14/2015], a Christian Reformed Church magazine, that urged CRCers to preserve and restore their Reformed heritage, rather than de-emphasize it. Like Todd Billings’ article that I linked to a couple of years ago, Smith’s article points to a tradition that includes the famous Five Points of Calvinism but also a great deal more:

What attracted me to the Reformed tradition? It was not any one thing. Instead, it was a kind of seamless cloth of related emphases that, I think, are the unique “apostolate” of the Reformed tradition, and the CRC in particular. That is, the CRC is a unique expression of the Reformed tradition that tends to hold together an array of gifts that in other places are separated. I’ve especially appreciated the following four distinct emphases:

  1. A celebration of a covenant-keeping Lord. Central to the Reformed tradition is a unique emphasis on both the unity of the narrative of Scripture and a strong sense of our communal identity as “a people.” There is an entire theology packed into the pronouns of Scripture. From the opening us of the creational word in Genesis 1:26 (“Let us make human beings in our image”), to them in Genesis 1:27 (“male and female he created them”), to the plural you of the creational mandate in Genesis 1:29 (“I give you every seed-bearing plant”), God’s creation is laden with plurals!
    And all those you’s throughout the Bible are plural. Those of us formed by the individualism of North American culture tend to read Scripture as if it were addressed privately to each of us (to me). But I think our indigenous and Korean brothers and sisters hear Scripture more clearly on these matters: the you is us. It’s not me, but we. It’s just this sort of communal emphasis that the Reformed tradition’s covenant theology highlights—which is also why it yields a holistic, unified reading of Scripture as the one unfolding story of God’s covenant with his people.
  2. An affirmation of the goodness of creation. Contrary to the dualism and functional Gnosticism of wider evangelicalism—a focus almost exclusively on the spiritual—the Reformed emphasis on the goodness of creation (especially as taught by Abraham Kuyper) is one of the real gems in the Reformed treasure chest, and one that distinguishes the CRC’s heritage from other, narrower versions of Reformed theology.
  3. An exhortation to “make culture” well. Growing out of an affirmation of the goodness of creation, the Reformed tradition values good work as an expression of God’s calling. But it is also discerning and knows that God desires culture and institutions made for the flourishing of creation. It is precisely this emphasis on culture that informs our concerns about justice: think of the laments in Our World Belongs to God [a CRC statement of belief], which recognize the range of ways God wants to delight us but also the plethora of ways that we’ve fallen short, creating institutions and practices that run counter to the grain of the universe.
  4. A connection to our catholic heritage. This might seem a little strange, but for me, becoming Reformed was a way of becoming “catholic.” What do I mean by that? The Reformers were not revolutionaries—that is, they were not out to raze the church to the ground, get back to some “pure” set of New Testament church principles, and start from scratch. They didn’t see themselves as leapfrogging over centuries of post-apostolic tradition. They were re-forming the church. And in that respect they saw themselves as heirs and debtors to the tradition that came before them. Indeed, they understood the Spirit as unfolding the wisdom of the Word over the centuries in the voices of Augustine and Gregory the Great, in Chrysostom and Anselm.

To say the Reformed tradition is “catholic” is just to say that it affirms this operation of the Spirit in history, and thus receives the gifts of tradition as gifts of the Spirit, subject to the Word. This is inscribed in the very heart of the Heidelberg Catechism, which explicates the Christian faith by unpacking the Apostles’ Creed—a heritage of the church catholic.


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