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by Chuck De Groat
I’d written a piece for The Twelve some time ago and a friend dropped a text shortly after saying: “Hey, I saw that blog you wrote. Who are ‘the 12’? And what does it mean that it is ‘Reformed.Done.Daily’? I don’t see anything Reformed about the blog posts I’ve read.”
We got into a bit of a back-and-forth. He cited the Gospel Coalition’s site as something a bit more “Reformed.Done.Daily.” I told him that the writers on The Twelve likely care far more about the sacraments than he does (and yes, I pulled out some John Calvin on him)! We joked a bit. However, our playful little skirmish reminded me of conversations with colleagues about this very same thing – what does it really mean to call ourselves Reformed, especially nowadays, and especially when we’re so polarized?
In high school, I received RC Sproul into my heart about as often as I re-committed my life to Jesus. Sproul’s firebrand theology wowed a generation of young Calvinists, including me, but I heard loud-and-clear in a way that deeply affects me that I’m not the center of the universe, thanks be to God.
Sioux Center to San Francisco (via Orlando and Oxford)
I followed this up by going to Dordt College, where my Scottish Presbyterian rationalism was interrogated by the dualism-hunting Dooyeweerdians. While I’d been ‘Soteriologically Reformed’, now I was convinced that to be Reformed was to see every aspect of creation under the Lordship of Christ, longing for transformation. You might say that I added an ‘Eschatologically Reformed’ golf club to the bag. Add to this courses on Lesslie Newbigin and David Bosch, and I inherited a ‘Missionally Reformed’ golf club. Oh, and those courses on political theory and liberation theology—now I had a ‘Socially Justice-y Reformed’ club. But my bag would further expand in seminary a few years later.
In seminary, I met the Reformed Van Tillians, a quirky cadre of ex-Philadelphians who’d taken their Westminster presuppositionalism road-show south, or so it seemed. Pratt and Frame’s multi-perspectival approach honored the Scriptures in a way I did not experience among the Dooyeweerdians, and my biblical studies experience offered a storied-approach to Scripture. Now, apparently I had a ‘Redemptive-Historically Reformed’ club.
But a summer of study at Oxford focusing on Christian spirituality added a—a gulp, can I admit this?—a ‘Catholically Reformed’ club, as I was introduced to two of my favorite 16th century Reformers—St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross—along with a host of other contemplative theologians—Lady Julian of Norwich, St. Francis of Assisi, Evagrius of Pontus, Hildegard of Bingen, and so many more. I began to see that I belonged, mysteriously, to a family much bigger than I thought. And it kind of felt like this was the way it was supposed to be.
The journey continued with a stint in an Anglican Church (now I was adding a ‘Sacramentally Reformed’ club) before a 2007 move to City Church SF which, to my delight, seemed to have a similar bag of golf clubs. With this move, I also came home to the church of my childhood—the Reformed Church in America—the very first ‘corporation’ in the United States and a Reformed denomination dating back to 1628.
In the RCA, I discovered a strange phenomenon. So-called “Reformed” looked very different wherever you went. Some baptized babies and others didn’t. Some affirmed women’s ordination and others didn’t. Some worship services looked like rock concerts and others like Catholic Mass. After some months, a long-time RCA pastor told me, “When we come together once a year at General Synod, it’s like a big dysfunctional family that both realizes its differences but finds a way to stay connected.” That was something I hadn’t seen. Ever. Perhaps, you’d call it ‘Covenentally Reformed’ or ‘Relationally Reformed.’ I liked that club, and was happy to add it to the bag.
What does it mean to be Reformed? I’m still puzzling over this. But I’ve learned something from each context and community I’ve wandered within. Rather than a set of boxes to be checked, however, these things have increasingly becoming an internal reality–in a kind of lex orandi est lex credendi sort of way—less understood these days, and more experienced, through prayer and through participation in the life of Jesus. Perhaps we can imagine a way of being Generously Reformed, something a world lacking in generosity desperately needs? What might this look like?
What Does Generously Reformed Look Like?
To affirm God’s sovereignty might look like being utterly silent amidst the Presence, enjoying a contemplative intimacy with a recognition that everything in creation would cease to exist at this moment apart from God’s loving embrace. Living in God’s sovereignty manifests in nothing less than humble, self-giving love in the face of one’s radical dependence, making impossible any “Reformed” embrace of sovereignty which arrogantly asserts that “we the pure” or “we the inclusive” have the corner on the truth, that we’ve mastered the Divine. God simply gets bigger and bigger as we recognize the folly of our so-called mastery of the faith.
Affirming God’s Lordship over all things is realizing, as the pagan poet did in Acts 17, that “in him we live and move and have our being.” As quantum physicists discover that our world is less matter and more ceaselessly buzzing energy (I’d like to think of it as Spirit-energy), we realize with St. Augustine that God is more near to me than I am to myself. Or as the hymn puts it, “this is my Father’s world”…which ends any division of sacred and secular, or “we the good” and “those the losers.” God is everywhere. God is here. It is we who don’t show up. All of creation is doing its damnedest to display God’s goodness and mercy, even when we’re not. That’s humbling.
Affirming God’s mission in the world might be less about who’s in and who’s out and more about who has been called to tell others that they, too, are loved and called. And perhaps it’s also less about taking this thing we’ve figured out to others and more about inviting others from every tribe and nation to bring the good news of reconciliation and hope to us, exposing our tribal certainties and interrogating our self-righteousness, whether our self-righteousness has a distinctively conservative or moderate or progressive aroma. Today, we need Gospel missionaries to come to us and give us better news than we seem to have.
Affirming God’s redemptive Story unfolding from Genesis to Revelation, climaxing in the person and work of Jesus, and enfolding our smaller stories is less about throwing proof text grenades and more about participating in the sufferings, death, and Resurrection of Jesus which, of course, means doing the hard work of relating rather than reacting, removing the plank from my eye rather than pointing out the speck in his. A high view of Scripture coupled with a low display of character is more often a recipe for Pharisaism, not faithfulness.
Affirming human depravity is less about heaping shame upon shame (we’ve already got enough of that without a doctrine to remind us), and more an invitation to see the myriad ways in which we live apart from radical dependence. Radical dependence—on God, on one another. I need you. I need you, the person I disagree with, because I have so many blind spots (the noetic influence of sin) that apart from people who think differently and look differently than me, I am lost in self-referential self-righteousness. I need us, because we’re all in process, we’re all growing up, and to think we’ve somehow arrived is the height of arrogance.
Affirming our catholicity is not so much about remembering that Calvin quoted the church fathers but rather affirming the universal church, with whom we experience relationship and mutual love for Jesus in many different expressions. Any notion of finally, once-and-for-all discovering the “true” church in my small, Western-American, Dutch-white enclave is not simply arrogance, but heresy. Any reduction of Christian community to “the ones who check these same few boxes as me that we’ve decided to elevate to creedal orthodoxy” is anathema to the vision of Jesus and the witness and creedal affirmations of our fathers, whether one claims this in the name of a so-called conservative or progressive Christianity.
Affirming the church and its sacraments is no less than embracing the welcome and hospitality of Jesus, as the church is the visible sign of the reconciling love of Jesus. The sacraments are the signs and seals Jesus left us as a demonstration of his love, not to be replaced by extended worship sets or ignored because skeptics won’t get them or eclipsed amidst a kind of cultural syncretism which prizes the big show, replaces font and table with the American flag, and prizes extended monologues over the pattern Jesus left us of serving, blessing, enacting, welcoming, and praying. The Lord’s Table, in 1 Corinthians 11, is in fact precisely the space from which justice emerges, as “discerning the body” means inviting everyone not at the Table and in need of spiritual food.
Affirming the coming Kingdom is recognizing, amidst our sometimes overly-realized eschatology, that we’re not there yet, that we’re not Home yet. My staunchly PCA, politically-and-theologically conservative seminary professor, used to say that he’s counting on the day in the new heavens and new earth when he sees all kinds of people who he thought didn’t sincerely love Jesus and believe the right things, as he did. This affirmation allows us permission (hear this, please) to be imperfect, personally and theologically, as we continue to work out our salvation together. It also gives us hope that our silly disputes will be revealed as childish gibberish, to channel Calvin, the baby-talk of know-it-all spiritual two-year olds. How much more grace would we extend if we could laugh at ourselves and embrace our many imperfections?
I’ve got more, but you get the picture. And I also realize that the silly ramblings of this spiritual two-year old are likely to be revealed as desperately incomplete. But, that’s alright. The witnessing world isn’t waiting for us to figure it out. Our churches won’t start growing magically when we’ve cast out the infidels we disagree with. Maybe our best selves are revealed when we bear witness to Jesus, amidst our messy differences and incompleteness, in repentance – repenting for making it so damn complicated, repenting for holding judgments of each other closer than we hold Jesus, repenting for our attempts to add to the Gospel extra requirements, repenting for how accommodated to a culture of polarization we’ve become, repenting for making the yoke of Jesus difficult and making the burden heavy, repenting for being a church of broken and hurting egos and not a church for a broken and hurting world.
And this is where I pin my final musing about what it means to be Reformed—to be always reforming, which means that we’ve not arrived, which means we’re in desperate need of reform ourselves, which means you and I together can find our way to the Table, someway and somehow, because it’s not about us after all, but the One who longs to become manifest in us