When I started my first “official” pastoral role in the late 1990’s, I immediately hung a painting of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son on my main office wall.
Several states and offices later, the same painting greets me each day, reminding me that I’m often lost, frequently anxious, regularly stubborn, but always held and loved.
Amidst challenges and disagreements on the finer points of theology, I often return to the image and the story that inspired it. And with a deep breath, I relax into the astounding reality that the Father/Mother God is always home, that God never, ever left.
This is a departure from the Reformed theology of my youth when, at large conferences featuring distinguished theologians, I’d often come away feeling like I was within a hair’s breadth away from eternal punishment.
I don’t ever remember God described as “loving” in those days. Omnipotent, yes…sovereign, of course…but never tender, close, motherly, patient. In fact, it wasn’t until I read Calvin’s Institutes and Letters in 1991 at Dordt College that I questioned this narrative.
A few years later in a course with Alistair McGrath, I was introduced to the contemplative tradition, and discovered the “Further Reformation,” Reformed pastors who encountered God in this warm, loving embrace.
When I first discovered Western Theological Seminary (where I currently teach), I experienced an affinity that I could not put words to. It took some time to understand, and my colleague Tom Boogaart, who retired this past December, articulated what I felt in my bones for so long. He writes:
I came to WTS as a student in the 1970s with only a vague notion of what it meant to be Reformed. I remember sitting in Dr. Eugene Osterhaven’s theology class and learning from him about WTS’s place in the broader Reformed tradition. He told us that soon after the Reformation took hold in the Netherlands, some reformers felt that a Further Reformation was needed. Beset by theological controversies, they feared that the church was too focused on head-knowledge and right thinking and was losing sight of Calvin’s emphasis on the heart, faithful living, and thankful service. The proponents of this Further Reformation were enraptured by the fact that God, the all-powerful Sovereign, had lowered his scepter and drawn his beloved people into his presence, and they celebrated the joy and peace of heart that came when believers were held in the arms of God. Dr. Osterhaven told us that WTS stood in the tradition of the Further Reformation and celebrated the love and intimacy that God shows to us, not the power and control that God has over us. He taught us that the heart of WTS was captured beautifully in the parable of the prodigal son in which Jesus portrays God not only as a Sovereign but also as a Father who longs for his rebellious children to come home. The Father’s eyes scan the road; his feet are ready to run; his arms are ready to embrace; and his heart is ready to forgive. I cannot fully describe the effect that this understanding of Reformed theology had on me.
Tom shared this story in a public talk last summer during a time when my Doctor of Ministry cohort was in town, and we debriefed afterwards. Of the 14 (mostly) pastors in the cohort, no one had ever heard about the “Further Reformation,” about pastors like Teellinck and Witsius and the a’ Brakels and Saldenus, Reformed “contemplatives” whose pastoral theology is rooted in the intimate embrace of God.
I can relate when Tom says about his early experience of the Reformed tradition when he writes, “it would be fair to say that the God my Reformed community presented to me was distant and aloof, and that this God, like all the male role models that I knew, showed no emotion except anger.”
I’m also mindful as a therapist that sometimes we demonize the past or remember things in terms of drastic polarities that don’t quite match the reality. I think Tom would say that he’s made peace with his past, and I’m working on it too. I look back to what I was reading long ago and I now remember the warm embrace of God in Packer’s writings, the stirring grace-filled sermons of Steve Brown, evening sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism, and more.
Perhaps I wasn’t ready to experience the warm embrace until my heart was ready, until that summer of 1997 in that musty Wycliffe Hall classroom under the tutelage of McGrath, until a season in which I felt lonely, lost, fragile, and insecure. No matter, since then it’s the story of God’s warm, loving embrace displayed so profoundly in that painting that has come to define my theology and my ministry as pastor, therapist, and now professor.
Tom is retired now, but he lived this story before us in the five and a half years I served as his colleague. I still remember my first anxious conversation with him—a “senior colleague”—who instead of reminding me of his long tenure and authority said, “Chuck, in my last years here it’s my intention to decrease as you increase, to support and encourage you, to empower you, to help you and others assume the mantle for the next generation.” Such humility. Such security.
Tom didn’t need to remind us that he checked the right theological boxes about God’s sovereignty or authority. His deep sense of security and surrender was a mark of a life lived Coram Deo, in God’s sovereign, secure, loving presence.
Sometimes, theology is best displayed in pictures, in images, in a Rembrandt painting that hangs on my wall and in a wise old colleague we liked to call “Gandalf,” a man whose loving, secure presence was a daily invitation to a lived theology of grace and the warm embrace.
For more on this, read:
Tom Boogaart, The Heart of Western Theological Seminary
Arie deReuver, Sweet Communion: Trajectories of Spirituality from the Middle Ages through the Further Reformation