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by Matthew van Maastricht
What is your only comfort in life and in death?
That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…
What does it mean to be Reformed?
I fear that we haven’t done great P.R. of late, leading to some sobering definitions and associations with our tradition. Many have been taught that being Reformed is all about the “five points” (even though those five points are mislabeled, taken out of context, and given an authority much greater than was ever the intention) — that is, to be Reformed is nothing more than a certain soteriology (a doctrine of salvation). For others, the word Reformed calls to mind a person who is overly legalistic, patriarchal, and closed to anything outside of a narrow box. And for others, to be Reformed is to be cold, imagining God to be a cold and loveless giver of decrees and little more.
For me, to be Reformed is about belonging.
I am a Reformed Christian of the Dutch tradition. It is related to the Scots Presbyterian tradition, though nuanced differently. It has absolutely nothing to do with the “Young, Restless, and Reformed Movement.”
There is a warmth to the piety of the Dutch tradition. Even the Canons of the Synod of Dort, where the misnamed and misunderstood “five points” originate (as a judicial ruling) and the atrocious acronym TULIP, are filled with pastoral sensitivity and warmth. The ideal of the faith formation is not didactic lessons in a classroom, but learning about God at the feet of one’s grandmother.
From a Reformed perspective, it has been said that the most important theologian in one’s life is their mother, from whom they learn the most about the God.
There is a warmness in the Dutch Reformed tradition that is somewhat unique, I think. And if the Reformed tradition has anything to offer the world (and I am convinced that it does), it is not primarily our soteriology (which is not unique to us), nor our eschatology (also not unique), or anything of the like. I think that what the Reformed tradition has to offer the world is a thoughtful and warm faith, not speaking about faith in theological abstracts or parsing the nuances between infra- and supralapsarianism, but to understand that our only comfort in life and in death is that we belong to Christ. A faith which informs both heart and mind, and helps us love God with both faculties, never sacrificing one for the sake of the other.
Have we always lived up to this? Of course not. I am not going to argue that the Dutch Reformed tradition has always radiated warmth. But it is our ideal, and ideals are important to have something toward which to strive. And I think this ideal is important in the world in which we find ourselves.
My church communion, the Reformed Church in America, is on the verge of tearing itself apart, and I feel this very deeply in my being. The thought of the Reformed Church no longer existing, or the Reformed church being reshaped by a theology that’s more rooted in fundamentalism than in the warmth of our tradition makes me grieve. I do not grieve because the Reformed Church is the only church, or because the Reign of God is somehow dependent upon the Reformed Church, or that the Reformed Church somehow has a corner on truth. None of these are the case. God’s action in the world surely doesn’t depend on our tiny church communion.
I grieve because I think that the Dutch Reformed tradition has something unique to offer the world.
In a world which is hurting, broken, and divided, might the Dutch Reformed tradition have something to offer?
Our guest writer today, Matthew van Maastricht, is a pastor, a church historian, a church polity teacher, and a writer. He serves the Altamont Reformed Church in Altamont, New York.