how to be reformed, evangelically…

Happy Reformation Sunday — for yesterday!

For some reason, I’ve been having a bit of an identity crisis lately. I’ve begun to doubt whether I can legitimately claim what has long been my preferred theological moniker — reformed evangelical Anglican.

It’s not the Anglican and evangelical parts that make me anxious (and even if they did, Michael’s excellent recent series of posts would have done wonders for my nerves). It’s the ‘reformed’ bit that’s troubling me.

As I lie awake pondering primary and secondary causality, I find myself deeply divided. It’s the distinctive language of reformed theology that’s doing it to me. On the one hand, I find that lots of it — primary and secondary causality, divine permission, etc — leaves me cold. Especially when it gets invoked at the start of a discussion, effectively putting an end to the conversation before it can even get going.

On the other hand, though, I often find myself arriving at the conclusion that you can’t faithfully speak about the good news of what God has done in Jesus without the traditional reformed language — or something very much like it. (This is more or less where I got to as I reflected on the sneak preview Mark provides of Jesus’ final defeat of evil, for example.)

I’m not sure I’ve sorted this all out yet. But at the moment my working hypothesis is that reformed language and terminology should only be used in so far as it ‘lives’ evangelically — that is, as it speaks to us of the gospel, and in turn helps us speak of the gospel.

I know this needs unpacking. So you’d be very welcome to take me up on it in the comments.



  1. Mate, the only quick thought I had was that some things (e.g., primary and secondary causality) aren’t strictly ‘reformed’ concepts. Off the top of my head, I think you’ll find primary/secondary causality in aquinas, and also the arminians!

    1. Of course that’s true, Mark. It’s just that I often get the feeling that I’m being mentally pigeon-holed in an ‘unreformed’ box when I express an inclination to do without some of those things.

      I guess it’s maybe a question of how tight a definition of ‘reformed’ is being used. E.g., Do I have to swallow primary and secondary causality to be reformed? What about the covenant theology approach to carving up salvation history?

  2. Ha, thanks Michael!

    Yeah the whole ‘what is reformed’ thing kind of irks me also. The 5 points certainly isn’t it (after all, Turretin was even content to call Amyraut one of ‘our ministers’ albeit with mistakes!). Covenant Theology per se can’t be it, because there’s so many different types of covenant theology! Signing up to a bunch of confessions can’t be it – which ones!? Is primary and secondary causality? Hmm, probably – but I suppose it depends on the other theological kit in your bag. After all, even Vanhoozer’s trying to find another path in speech-act theory…

    I think I’ve softened a bit over the last few years, and I think that the term reformed has a particular level of vagueness that I’m comfortable with! I think I’m generally happy with capital ‘R’ reformed to imply something about confessions, and little ‘r’ reformed to imply something about God’s sovereignty and monergism.

    I found this critique of strong confessionalism by John Frame to be quite instructive in thinking about what ‘Reformed’ means. You might like it too! 🙂

    1. Yes, Mark. I did like it. Anything which draws on ‘family resemblance’ concepts and talks about ‘fuzzy boundaries’ is likely to appeal to me!

      I’m not sure about the conclusion Frame arrives at, though. How does defining the Reformed faith as ‘the consensus of Reformed believers’ not undercut the points he’s (very helpfully) made about original and persisting diversity within the community of Reformed believers?

  3. Yes, that’s probably where the fuzzy boundaries or ambiguity kicks in. A general consensus perhaps? I’m honestly not sure mate… Perhaps a healthy dose of apophatic reasoning could get us somewhere…? Perhaps not… 😉

  4. Evening Gents,

    I once read Paul Helm suggesting that “Paul’s golden chain is a good test of being Reformed in the muddled and confusing Christian would of 2010,” however I somehow doubt that even he would really be satisfied with that explanation.

    I too find the “what is reformed?” question rather disconcerting, not least because it’s usually couched in almost pharisaical terms. Rarely is it asked by someone wanting to embrace the system of doctrine, rather it is usually asked as an exercise in confessing as little as possible and yet still being identified with the hippest theological movement of the moment. Like the self-identifying two-and-a-half-point “calvinist” I met recently, but I digress.

    My above concerns notwithstanding, I find myself in the unusual position of disagreeing with brother Earngey as to what some helpful boundaries markers to “being reformed” might be.

    Firstly, I would think that subscription to a confession is a pretty helpful marker. Of course there is more than just the one confession, but I’m yet to meet a confessional presbyterian who doubts to reformed credentials of those who subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort and Heidelberg Catechism), or vice-versa. The same can be said for other recognisably “reformed” confessions, and those who subscribe to them. Books such as Beeke & Ferguson’s “Reformed Confessions Harmonized” suggest that there is general consensus, among the reformed community, as to the value and legitimacy of confessions other than one’s own. So to answer Mark’s question – “which one?” – the modern reformed Christian is likely, on one level at least, to say “any one!”

    Admittedly, being Anglican does confuse the issue. I, for one, am happy to admit the Articles as a reformed confession, but that Anglo-Catholics and future RC Cardinals can also sign them suggests their inadequacies as a reformed boundary marker.

    Secondly, I would want to affirm covenant theology as an essential component of reformed theology, distinguishing it from other protestant views of Scripture by emphasising the covenantal unity of Scripture. Again, confessions are important here because it is in them that we see this covenantal theology affirmed. The WCF, Savoy Declaration and 2nd London Baptist Confession are arguably the high-point of reformed, covenantal understanding. Each assert fairly important differences, but also contain a whole chapter on the covenants. Covenant theology also speaks to three other reformed concerns: works & grace; corporate & individual faith; and earthly & spiritual concerns.

    Again, the issue for Anglicans is rather more complicated.Certainly the Articles contain no such chapter on the covenants, and I really don’t know what to make of Article 7. If my thesis that “reformed theology is covenant theology” is correct, perhaps I should not allow the Articles as a reformed confession after all, as they once again prove to be alluding to only that fuzzy and ambiguous boundary.

  5. Chrisso,

    Cheers for the thoughtful post. Yes, the confessional thing is tricky. Now, let it be noted that I’m a through and through confessionalist – the thought of credobaptists signing up to the 39 articles is ridiculous to me!

    The ‘Any one!’ answer to the confessional question is fine so long as it’s qualified with something like ‘Any [presbyterian] one!’ or the like. Else, you could get Anglo-Catholics whipping out the 39 Articles (as you point out), or perhaps Arminians whipping theirs out! Also, it might need to be noted that the Federal Vision lot might want to show you their credentials, but how reformed are they?

    Hmm, the covenant theology one is tricky. I’m sympathetic towards it since at the end of the day – if you’re a paedobaptist, you’re some sort of covenant theologian! (I don’t really buy this ‘baptised into the promise’ thing. It’s fine as it is, but I think it needs to be understood synonymously with covenant to be meaningful. But, I’m still working through it at the moment!) Yet, with respect to the covenant theology thing as marker – the question then becomes: which covenant theology? Your answer of the ‘high point’ in confessions makes a bit of sense, but still perhaps there needs to be some conceptual clarity about which covenant theology is intrinsic to a reformed theology? what do you reckon mate?

    1. OK. So I’ve been pondering what you guys are saying. Maybe this is kind of a funny way to come at it, but I’d like to hit ‘rewind’ for a second and ask that we came back to the question I asked Mark: How does defining the Reformed faith as ‘the consensus of Reformed believers’ not undercut the points he’s (very helpfully) made about original and persisting diversity within the community of Reformed believers?

      I think the concern lurking behind this question is something like: What legitimately unites a tradition — in this case, we’re talking about the Reformed tradition — which, as a matter of historical record, displays some significant original diversity as well as more recent diversity (whether we label it ‘development’ or ‘improvisation’ as the tradition confronts new circumstances)? And, how can such unity-in-diversity-and-through-time be maintained without undermining its integrity altogether?

      I’m sure I’m a long way out of my depth when it comes to the finer points of historic Reformed Confessions or the niceties of covenant theology (oddly perhaps, Nicea and Chalcedon is more familiar turf for me). But I wonder, Chris, how earlier Reformed thinkers — like Calvin, for example — would fair if their inclusion within the reformed traditions/community was contingent upon ticking the boxes of ‘the high point of reformed, covenantal understanding’. Even if we could imagine them nodding their heads about everything in those later confessions, surely their own statements are only more or less fuzzy approximations of later (and tighter) systematising. And yet, we would not for that reason want to exclude them would we?

  6. Yep, that’s the crux of the issue I reckon. Very tricky too!

    As Muller’s written – it’s difficult to accommodate Calvin to modern agendas, but there seems to be any early codification of reformed orthodoxy just prior to the synod of Dort. He seems to see Amandus Polanus (who wrote mainly between 1590 – 1610) as the synthesizer of the early reformers. Apparently Polanus didn’t make any drastic changes, but was the first to systematise the early reformed orthodoxy. There were seeds of what would later become covenant theology in Polanus, as was there also seeds of the Pactum Salutis (thus, why Barth also saw Polanus as a crucial figure). Bob Letham calls Polanus a neglected theologian for these reasons. Possibly there might ve fruitful lines of approach in looking to his theology? (Oh, and surprise, surprise – he’s the dude I want to do my project on!).

    Yet, another simple approach might be to simply ask (as Carl Trueman does in his recent, and brilliant blogpost): why are we not Roman Catholic?

    Can the via negativa help us?

  7. Oh, I just re-read the above (I wrote that on my funky phone thing at a coffee shop), and it was a bit of a ramble.

    I think I was just trying to explore how to read history and gauge the progression of reformed orthodoxy.

    On the one hand, I’m not sure that using Calvin as a yardstick yields too much fruit, yet nor am I sure on the other hand, that utilising High Orthodoxy (the period of Owen, Turretin etc) as a yardstick gets us too far. As Muller’s shown, it’s a period of continuity and discontinuity from the early reformation to the post-reformation period.

    I think what I was just trying to get at was, that there’s a trajectory is there (which utilises Aristotelianism, scholasticism, ramism, humanism etc) which can safely be called reformed. Yet, that period of history also rejected a number of trajectories as ‘not reformed’ (Eg., Romanism, Arminianism). That for me, seems to be a safe way to proceed, albeit slightly fuzzy!

    1. Ah, the pitfalls of commenting on blogs from coffee shops!

      I guess we’ve got ourselves into those pesky ‘Newman-style questions about how one recognises the true tradition’ that Trueman passes over in that post you mentioned.

      Speaking of fuzziness, I’ve got a whole bunch of vague thoughts about this (drawn from O’Donovan, Ashley Null and Rowan Williams — how’s that for a combo?). But I’m not really sure about the most constructive way forward. Briefly, I think I’d try to assemble something coherent from:

      1. The way O’Donovan keeps pointing out that the continuity of a tradition is one of shared questions as much as shared answers;

      2. Ashley Null’s careful and nuanced work on how changing historical situations affected the attempt to preserve Cranmer’s legacy (and articulate it faithfully in each fresh situation);

      3. And the work Rowan Williams has done on the Arian controversy — in which it was precisely what appeared to be theological innovation (drawing in suspect terms from Greek philosophy, etc) that turned out to be the only way to remain faithful to the substance of biblical faith in the risen Lord Jesus.

      Not sure if that helps at all…

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