Is It Still Worthwhile to be Reformed Today? (II)

What is Reformed?

Originally this word characterised the whole Reformation. All the churches of the Reformation called themselves “Reformed,” namely, reformed from Roman popery “according to the Word of God.” In this broad sense the term is used of Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican churches. The Church of England, for example, was sometimes called the “reformed” Church of England. There had been a Christian church in England long before the Reformation, but during the Middle Ages this church had become riddled with errors and abuses, and in the 16th century it was “reformed according to the Word of God.” In this same broad sense the term was applicable to all the churches of the Reformation, for they all had only one aim: to live by the Word of God, both in the wider sphere of the life of the church and in the private sphere of the life of the individual believer.

If we first take the term “Reformed” in this broad sense, then the answer to the question in the title of this article can only be in the affirmative.

Discussion with Rome

Undoubtedly much has changed in the Church of Rome in recent years, especially during and after the Second Vatican Council. One can speak of a new spiritual climate in large sections of this church. One of the most prominent and most promising changes is the new openness to the Word of God. 1t is quite common nowadays to find Bible study groups in R C. parishes. Among RC. theologians there is a great interest in the study of the Bible and many books on biblical theology are produced. Although some of them show Bultmannian tendencies and most of them seem to accept the critical methods in their study of Scripture, many publications are very good and show a deep understanding of what Scripture teaches. Recently I had to review a new R.C. Dictionary of the Bible and I was astonished by the mass of sound biblical material in it. Take, for instance, what the article on Justification says. “In scriptural language God is just when he does the very opposite of what human justice would demand—he loves the unlovable and justifies not the ‘just’ man but the sinner” (Hubert Richards, ABC of the Bible, 124/5). Of course we may not overlook that the same article also contains a typically R.C. statement: “God justifies the man who holds himself open for God to do his work in him (see FAITH).” Here we have the idea of cooperation again. There are also typically R.C. articles such as the one on Mary and Peter, yet on many points there is a much deeper understanding of Scripture and at times one almost thinks he is reading a Protestant commentator.

Also in the practical life of the church there are many changes. Virtually the whole liturgy of the mass is now in the vernacular, the language of the land concerned. The laity have been given a much more meaningful and active part in the church. Much more emphasis is placed on the authority of the local bishops. For a few years the Pope has had a synod of bishops whom he consults on important matters. In the Netherlands they have a Pastoral Council, in which the bishops meet not only with their clergy but also with representatives of the laity, while Protestant theologians have been invited and have a seat on the various committees. The latter fact is typical of the great changes that have taken place in the relations with Protestants. Up to the Second Vatican Council there was hardly any official recognition of other churches. Protestants were often regarded as rebels and apostates. When John XXIII became pope, all this changed. He loved to speak of the “separated brethren” and he invited representatives of Protestant churches to attend the Council as official guests and observers. At a later stage even the name “church” was given to non-Catholic communities. In our day it is quite common for Roman Catholics to attend Protestant services, to meet with Protestants in Bible study groups, etc.

We cannot but be grateful for most of these changes. And yet the question cannot be avoided, whether all this means a real reformation. Unfortunately the answer must be No. So far the changes have not been in the nature of a second Reformation, but they are little more than “reforms” of certain antiquated customs and long-standing attitudes. There is not a full return to the Word of God. Rome still maintains all its dogmas of the past. The primacy and infallibility of the pope, first formulated at the First Vatican Council of 1870, has been emphatically repeated by the last council. The Mariological dogmas are still fully accepted. Pope Paul VI even added a new mariological title in the “Constitution of the Church,” one of the documents of the last council. He proclaimed Mary as “Mater Ecclesiae,” “Mother of the Church, that is, of the whole Christian people, both of the faithful and of pastors.” The same pope issued an encyclical in which he stated that the doctrine of transubstantiation belongs to the very essence of the Christian faith. Likewise the idea that the mass is, in some way, a repetition and representation of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is strongly defended. Indulgences, prayers for the dead, invocation of saints, etc. are all still part and parcel of the doctrine and practice of the R.C. Church.

In this situation the term “Reformed” in its broad sense is still very meaningful. As Christians individually and also as Christian churches we may regulate our faith and life only by the Word of God.

Modern Theology

Also over against modem theology the term “Reformed” is still meaningful. Nearly all modem theologies are to some extent (sometimes even to a large extent) based on one or another philosophical system. Although they proclaim that the Bible gives the answer to our deepest human questions, these theologies often do not let the Bible speak for itself. It is squeezed into the straight-jacket of preconceived opinions and ideas. We cannot simply accept what the Bible says, but we first have to check its statement against the insights of our scientific world view and have to translate it into our modern, scientific categories. The result of this method is devastating. In the case of Rudolf Bultmann, the “father” of the new liberal theology, it means that we can no longer speak of Jesus as the real Son of God. There is no place for his pre-existence, there never was a real Incarnation, on the cross he did not alone for our sins, he never arose from the grave, he never ascended into heaven and he will never come again. All that is left of the Gospel is that in some miraculous way his disciples discovered after his death that the cross of their Master had a liberating influence upon their lives.

Over against all this we can only say: we want to be “Reformed,” that is, we want to build our faith on the Word of God as we find this in the Bible. It is not in our freedom to do with this Bible what pleases us. We may not lord it over the Bible, but the Bible is lord of our life and thinking. We must not tell Paul and John, Peter and James, Matthew and Luke what the real message is, but we must be willing to be taught by them. Yes, here too we can only be “reformed,” for this term means nothing else than that God’s Word, God’s Word alone, is the absolute and final authority in matters of faith and conduct. As Luther said: “Das Wort sollen sic stehen lassen.”

Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda

The term “Reformed,” however, is meaningful not only over against Rome and Modern Theology, hut also with regard to ourselves! It is always a temptation to take it for granted that we have the Word of God. But this is a very dangerous temptation and it is a very serious mistake. As soon as we think that we have the Word of God, we have really lost it and all that is left to us is our human opinions about the Word of God. God’s Word is not just a collection of static dogmas which one has to accept intellectually, hut it is always dynamic. In this word “dynamic” we have the same root as in the word “dynamite.” Well, that’s what God’s Word is: it is dynamite, because it is the Word of the Living God. The Letter to the Hebrews says that “the word of God is living and active (the Greek word literally means: full of energy), sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12) Therefore we must continually submit to it. We must ask ourselves again and again: What does the Lord say to me today, in the circumstances of my life?

If the term “Reformed” in its original sense means: “reformed according to the Word of God,” then this is a permanent task for us all. It is a task for the church as a whole, as our fathers used to say in a Latin sentence: “ecclesia reformata semper reformanda,” that is, a church that is Reformed must continually be reformed. It is also a task for the individual Christian. A Reformed Christian must continually be reformed. To put it in the words of the apostle Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world (the negative side), but be transformed by the renewal of your mind (the positive side), that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Prof. John T. McNeill rightly says: “The Reformation was not completed in the 16th century; it is never completed. We may for the sake of comfort try to transform Protestantism into a closed system; but it breaks out again. It has no ‘infallible’ voice to silence other voices in decrees that are ‘irreformable’ Protestantism cannot be static.” Another Protestant scholar, the Frenchman Jacques Ellul writes: “The whole history of the Church is the history of the reformation of the Church by the Spirit. That work must not cease, for Satan who attacks the Church from without does not stop, and the Spirit of God which gives life to the Church by reforming it, does not stop either. The permanent reformation of the Church is therefore the obedience of the Church to the Spirit; it means accepting that God leads his Church forward and changes it, that the Church does not settle down in a revelation which it treats as if it were its own property, but rather that it is constantly on the lookout to receive the new order which the Spirit brings.”

But all this is possible only when we do not violate the Word of God through which the Spirit speaks to us. In our day there is much discussion on the Bible, also in Reformed circles. It is a well known fact that in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands the decision of Assen, 1926, has been rescinded. The interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis is not an easy matter and there has always been difference of opinion on this point among Bible-believing scholars. But freedom of interpretation may not mean that every interpretation is acceptable. Our human interpretations can be of such a nature that they rob Scripture of its message. When nowadays it is said that Scripture does not teach an historical fall, that we cannot speak of an historical order of creation, fall and redemption, that there is no such thing as original sin, etc., we can only say that human interpretations begin to lord it over God’s Word. But as soon as this happens the Word of God becomes “fettered” and we are in danger of closing the “mouth of the Spirit.” For Word and Spirit cannot be separated. We cannot appeal to the Spirit apart from the written Word of God.

In a discussion of the unity of Word and Spirit Calvin quotes the following statement from the church father Chrysostom: “Many boast of the Holy Spirit, but those who speak their own thoughts claim him falsely. As Christ testified that he spoke not from himself John 12:49; 14:10), because he spoke from the Law and the Prophets John 12:50), so let us not believe anything that is thrust in under the title of the Spirit apart from the gospel. For just as Christ is the fulfillment of the Law (Rom. 10:4) and the Prophets, so is the Spirit the fulfillment of the gospel” (Institutes, IV, viii, 13). Calvin quotes these words in his opposition to Rome’s claim that it has the promise of the Holy Spirit and therefore cannot err in the doctrines it proclaims. He continues: “Now it is easy to conclude how wrongly our opponents act when they boast of the Holy Spirit solely to commend with his name strange doctrines foreign to God’s Word—while the Spirit wills to be conjoined with God’s Word by an indissoluble bond.”

This issue is today just as much alive as it was in the days of the Reformation. Rome still claims to have the Spirit of God as the infallible guide. Modern theologians claim to speak God’s Word for our time. The Ecumenical Movement claims to be the movement of the Spirit. Pentecostal groups claim to have a special baptism of the Spirit and to receive special revelations through the charismatic gifts of prophecy and tongue speaking. In all this “Babel” of voices there is only one fi rm footing: the Word of God as we find it in the Bible. In his conflict with Rome on the one hand and the “enthusiasts” on the other, Luther wrote: “We must firmly hold to the conviction that God gives no one his Spirit or grace except through or with the external Word which comes before.” This is Reformed in the right sense of the word. This is Reformed “according to the Word of God.”

But the word “Reformed” is also used in a more restricted sense. Here it indicates one particular section of the Reformation, namely, those churches which were deeply influenced by the theology of John Calvin. What does “Reformed” mean in this connection? We shall try to answer this question in our next article.

Dr. Klaas Runia is professor of theology at the Reformed Theological College, Geelong, Victoria, Australia.