Finding Things to Love About Reformed People: An Anabaptist Dialogues with a Reformed

My friend Darryl Dash from Toronto has invited Trevin Wax and myself to dialogue about the strengths of the Anabaptist and Reformed traditions.

You can read his article 3 Reasons We Need Today’s Anabaptists here.

I welcome this opportunity to do some theological dialoguing.

Everything Protestant Except…

I consider myself an Anabaptist Holiness evangelical who teaches at a Baptist seminary. In other words, I’m everything protestant except Reformed. So, admittedly (and repentantly), I find it easier to criticize my Reformed brothers and sisters than find something good to say about them. It’s ok for me to openly admit this antagonistic streak in me because it offers me yet one more reason to submit to the discipline of peace offered in the Anabaptist tradition. For all these reasons, I am so glad Trevin Wax has agreed to dialogue with me on what the two traditions can learn from each other.

Several years back, after writing a book, I found myself in the middle of the missional movement in North America. It made sense to me so I stayed. But, what do you know? Some of the most seminal thinkers and brightest minds in this movement’s history came from the fields of the Reformed, including Lesslie Newbigin (Presbyterian then United Reformed UK), David Bosch (Dutch Calvinist) and Michael Goheen (Dutch Calvinist). It is therefore helpful for me to reflect kindly on the positive contribution of Reformed thought and what it has to teach people like me in the missional movement.

Three Reasons to Appreciate the Reformed Heritage

So here goes with three things I appreciate about the Reformed heritage. Ironically these same three things are often the things that irritate me about the Reformed heritage.

This exercise therefore pushes me (like all good exercises) to see the good in these ideas, to not throw them out with the bathwater, to see, in the end, that Reformed theology has had a net positive impact on my life and thinking. So, for the furtherance of Christ’s Kingdom among us, read along with me on the following three points and tell me what you can add, especially all you Anabaptist leaning souls! Three reasons outspoken anabaptist @Fitchest appreciates the Reformed heritage Click To Tweet

1. The Reformed heritage pushes us Neo-Anabaptists as well as defensive fundamentalists towards a positive engagement of culture.

There’s a sectarian impulse in the history of Anabaptism. As Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder once said to Dutch Reformed Richard Mouw, Anabaptists look at the world first as fallen and then created whereas reformed people (of the Dutch variety) do the opposite: look at the world first as created by God as good then fallen. There is a helpful balance here.

The Reformed tradition, especially of the Dutch Calvinist variety, pushes for us to remember that God has created all things good. Even though humanity has fallen into sin, I can still have a general optimism/confidence that God is at work in the world and very much committed to His creation.

To live into His purposes is to live into His glory wherever that might be. This emphasis of creation and the glory of God are helpful in working against a dour pessimistic view of the world. This impulse is why so many good Reformed people have emphasized missio Dei as a cornerstone for understanding the church’s engagement in the world.

For sure, the world is still the world, and there are parts of the world in rebellion, but it is still God who has created us and all of creation is for His glory. It is on this basis that we shall join with others and work for the common good. Even though our partners can be inside or outside the work of God’s redemption through Christ (what the Kuyperians call antithesis), God is still sovereign, and we can join in to bring God’s good to the world. Reformed heritage pushes Neo-Anabaptists towards a positive engagement of culture. Click To Tweet

This emphasis has had a positive impact on my life. I personally appreciate the presence of the Reformed tradition around the evangelicalism of my youth. Growing up, we tended to be afraid of the surrounding culture. At the very least we did not know what to do with it. But sometime during the 70’s, evangelicals started to be influenced by people influenced by Reformed thinkers, especially Abraham Kuyper. And so, as a teenager, I started reading people like Francis Schaeffer, Charles Colson, Os Guinness and other early Kuyperian knock-offs. In college, Arthur Holmes at Wheaton college taught me philosophy through the eyes of Reformed epistemology (Plantinga, Wolterstorf etc,). These were some of the first authors I read who enabled me to engage my surrounding culture with more confidence.

I don’t know that the (historical) Anabaptists could have pulled my version of evangelicalism out of its hibernation in the same way as the Neo-Calvinists did in such a sweeping manner. The Anabaptists (historical Anabaptists versus today’s Neo-Anabaptists) can get a bit quirky or, another way to say it, sectarian. They have tended to be more focused on the fall’s effect upon the world and have emphasized the redeemed community of Jesus as the hermeneutic to see God in the world.

Years later, I recognize the influence of Reformed theology giving me a more optimistic view of God at work in the world. They helped me see the power of the Word enlivened and illumined by the Spirit as the means to see God at work in the world. Although, today, I now see the limits of this epistemological stance and I now see Neo-Anabaptist thought as a strategy for cultural engagement in our post Christendom times, it is safe for me to say that I am a much better Anabaptist today because of the early prodding by Reformed thinkers.

2. The Reformed heritage pushes us NeoAnabaptists to study the Bible and study it again and then do it some more.

Because of its peculiar history, Reformed theology emphasizes the authority of the Bible as a corrective to a corrupt church that has claimed the authority of Christ for its own. The resulting Reformed emphasis of Sola Scriptura demands that Scripture be placed above the church as a corrective to the church over tradition. This particular emphasis of the Reformed tradition is a constant reminder to me that the church is always reforming, and Scripture, along with its careful exegetical and contextual study, is of utmost importance and we navigate faithfulness for our time.

And so, years later in my development as a theologian and a pastor, I continually look to Scripture to illumine a particular issue I am dealing with. I may come up with a theological insight from my studies, but if it is not ultimately grounded in Scripture and the grand Story of God revealed in and through the Bible, I cannot go further. Theological guidance must be shaped by the Bible.

I’m a culture studies guy. I also study history and ecclesiology. I do much work in theological ethics. But no matter what I say or how I go about the process, I always ground my work in what God has revealed to us in Scripture. This impulse I got from the Reformed in my youth. And to all of you I tip my hat and thank you.

Of course, the excesses of Sola Scriptura also force some problems on us. For instance, how do we interpret, and who gets to interpret the Bible? The Reformed emphasis on Sola Scriptura as it was transported overseas to the frontiers of North American evangelicalism left interpretation dangerously open. No longer guided by the magisterium of Roman Catholicism and the Confessions of the Reformed Church bodies, many of us evangelicals thought we could interpret the Bible with good exegesis and a seminary education.

This, in my opinion, has created a mountain of problems, a mechanical way of looking at the text, a misuse of inerrancy as a mechanical defense of Biblical authority and a proliferation of crazy interpretations. It was why I was grateful to discover the Anabaptist corrective that it is a community’s ongoing way of life in Christ, the recognized gifts of that community, and the history of interpretation that it carries on as a community, that shall ultimately bear witness to a good interpretation as we work it out on the ground engaged in the world. The Reformed heritage pushes Neo-Anabaptists to study the Bible again & again. Click To Tweet

3. The Reformed Heritage forces us to deal with the forensic aspects of the atonement in the cross as a fulcrum of the Christian life.

Reformed theology focuses our eyes upon what God has done in Christ via a substitutionary dynamic in the atonement. In a time when it seems wildly popular to dismiss the substitutionary aspects of the atonement as primitive and violent, Reformed thinkers/pastors press on, always pushing me to get past these popularized critiques of substitutionary atonement. Instead, they probe some the deepest riches of their tradition in understanding what God is doing in taking on the sins of the world in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. I think this is important.

Within the Anabaptist streams I play in, there has been much consternation towards the violence of God implied in some substitutionary view of the atonement. This has led to it sometimes being written off too quickly. But Reformed thinkers remind me again and again how there must be an interplay of God’s justice with His self-offering of love to totally understand what happened on the cross. If we do not take some time to understand these elements we cannot grasp how God in Christ takes on the violence of the world and the consequences of the world’s sin.

It is my reformed brothers and sisters who insist on taking these aspects of the atonement, as witnessed often in Scripture, into account. I consider Fleming Rutledge to be a premier expositor of the depths of substitutionary atonement at work in the cross. Her book The Crucifixion had an impact on me. Although she’s an Anglican, and not Reformed, she’s working to resituate and recover the beauty of substitionary atonement drawing on many Reformed thinkers (including Calvin!!)

I think sin, the effects of sin in the world, the longing for justice in the world and in our own lives, and what God has done by fully entering the world and taking on our sin, must be recaptured for our world. And the Reformed theologies consistently push us in this direction and I have benefited from them doing that to me.

Of course, I prefer Greg Boyd’s ways of understanding God’s agency (or his lack thereof) in the violence wielded against the Son on the cross. God withdrawing and allowing the full consequences of sin to be hurled at Christ on the cross, is the ultimate substitutionary act. I also prefer NT Wright’s ways of emphasizing the representative sacrifice and the role it plays within the history of Israel so that Christ’s substitutionary role on the cross as sacrifice must be seen as a reconciling act of God to restore His presence with His people. As opposed to righteousness being a universal attribute, I prefer Christ’s substitution as more an act of covenantal faithfulness. And, of course, we are invited into this covenantal faithfulness, what God is doing through Israel for the sake of the whole world. The Reformed Heritage forces us to deal with the cross as a fulcrum of the Christian life. Click To Tweet

We’re Not Enemies

And so, what does all this prove? I think this exercise demonstrates to me that we, as a church together in North America, can learn so much from listening to each other and engaging dialogue. In the vast post-Christendom cultures emerging in the West, we Christians are surrounded (as Hauerwas likes to say). There is no sense to treating each other as enemies. Instead, we can learn so much from listening to each other, learning from each other as we seek to engage the changing world we live in. We are always prone to excess: to take our positions to their extreme as we enter into debate. But really, as we listen, we learn new things, and important things for our contexts. It couldn’t be a more important time to learn this lesson.

I encourage everybody to read Trevin Wax’s post on what Reformed people can learn from Anabaptists. That post is linked HERE. And then we both are going to respond one more time to each others’ posts in a few days on each others’ sites. Thanks to Trevin Wax and Darryl Dash for making such a conversation possible!

You can hear all of the audio from our recent event on the Reformed tradition here.

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