Why Neo-Reformed Theology Won’t Jive With Mission: I Plead My Case

I’m hanging out at the ecclesia network’s church planter training week. Last night, we all enjoyed some fellowship at a local establishment – and a fight broke out – ok not really. But a real good discussion happened as I tried to explain to a few “Presbyterian” friends why I think Neo-Reformed theology can’t lead us into mission amidst the post Christendom cultures of the West. After we all professed our love and esteem for Tim Keller (and I’m serious here), I argued that Reformed theology, extracted out of Medeival Europe and transplanted to the frontiers of N America, (almost automatically) becomes individualistic. Without the monolith of European Roman Catholicism to reform, the Reformation’s principles – the so-called sola’s – cannot provide a foundation for the Christian life. As hard as “they” might try, such a people formed around the “sola’s” will eventually devolve (once separated from its European culture) into an internalized, transactional individual faith. OK, that’s my case. But let me try to expand with questions
The Reformation Reformed a Church that Was Already There

The Reformation’s claims for a.) Sola Scripture (Scripture alone), b.) Sola Fide (it is by faith we are saved – by no other means), c.) Sola Christus (in Christ alone, we need no other mediator including THE CHURCH!!) were assertions made over against a corrupt church. They provided a corrective to something that was already there. In relation to a.) the church’s interpretive authority needed the call to submit to Scripture. In relation to b.) the church’s excessive penitential demands upon its people (which had made salvation about works) needed the call to recognize salvation was a work of God in Christ by trust in Him, not the church. And in relation to c.) the church itself had become a corrupt controller of al things having to do with salvation including the Eucharist and absolution. The church needed to be chastened from being the controller of God’s blessings in Christ to being the servant thereof. So in simplest terms, the Reformation reinserted the authority of Scripture over (and in) the church, the role of faith in one’s participation in God’s salvation in Christ, and that the church is God’s servant not controller.

But, within medieval Europe, these “Sola’s” did not wipe away a.) the church’s interpretative role in understanding Scripture, b.) the importance of the sacraments and disciplines (the eucharist, confession, serving the poor, etc.) to lead the individual into holiness, or c.) the church as a social reality by which the witness of Christ is carried on into the world. These “sola’s were meant to reform these practices not wipe them away.

Without Something to Reform, Reformed Theology Devolves into Individualist Christianity

Many years later however, transplanted into the United States, Reformed theology has nothing to reform. The “sola’s” are left standing alone as the foundation for a Christian life together.  This worked for many years as long as the cultural consensus came along with the Reformed communities from Europe. But once the Reformed culture began to lose its hegemony within a given context (whether it be the Dutch in Grand Rapids, Swiss or Scottish Presbyterian cultures of the north etc.), the church’s life will devolve into individualism. We get a.) individualist interpretation of Scripture where I – “the individual” becomes the authority for what Scripture means, b.) decisionism – where salvation becomes an individualist transaction all about me where by faith I get pardon for sin and eternal life, and c.) the church becomes the invisible church, a collection of individuals to whom the church must now appeal to.

To me this is what happened as Reformed theology devolved into its current Souther Baptist formulations so prevalent in certain parts of the so-called Neo-Reformed New Calvinist movements. Do you agree? Do you see this in the current manifestations of Neo-Reformed New Calvinism?

What This Means for Mission

This is important for me because I contend such an individualism works against the church taking up a communal, incarnational particpation in God’s Mission in the world. In relation to a.) such individualism too often makes the church an ideologizing entity which uses Scripture as prooftexts to rally people around one position over against another. We turn into a defensive and/or antagonistic people. We do this because we no longer see the church’s role in guiding interpretation. As a result we lose our ability to come together as a people in submission to one another to discern interpretation of texts for new issues we face in the culture. In relation to b.) salvation becomes an individual transaction for me instead of something God is doing in the world to make all things right in which I participate through conversion. We make Jesus private. We lose Mission. And in relation to c.) church becomes eventually something that we must offer as appealing to individuals. We set ourselves up for attractional and/or consumer church. We lose the ability to be shaped by church into a way of life in God’s Mission in the world.  In short then, I contend that Reformed theology has much to offer and learn from. But it is eventually ill suited to shape a people in Mission within Christendom. It remains ecclesiologically functional within Christendom type cultures (like Dallas Texas, Nashville Tenn and Grand Rapids MI). This is why I’m an Anabaptist with Catholic appreciations.


OK, so I’m asking: is this a fair analysis of Reformed theology hitting the shores of N America? I’m obviously not the first one to argue in this way. Reinhard Hutter made a similar case in Suffering Divine Things. Stanley Hauerwas recently quoted Bonhoeffer (here) saying that “American Protestantism is Protestantism without the Reformation.” Bonheoffer alludes to the conditions I’m discussing here.  But there are many, like Richard Mouw and Jamie Smith who would contend that I have described something that is not Reformed theology. Indeed they argue that the Neo-Reformed theologies are not Reformed at all, they are something else – usually described as Neo Puritan Pietism or something like that. I contend, that yes, the Neo-Puritan Neo-Reformed theologies of folk like Piper, Mohler and Driscoll might not be classically Reformed theology. But still, this is what happens when we separate Reformed theology from its reforming task within Christendom. Are we not seeing many of these individualist tendencies within the Neo-Reformed movement for these reasons?

OK, I have plead my case. I’m expecting and welcoming push back. Shoot, I’m willing to convert. I just need to know where I’m wrong. What say you?

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