This was a speech delivered at the conference of World Reformed Fellowship.
When we speak of Reformed fellowship, we are speaking of the Church, the Koinonia, the communion of the saints, the elect, those who were once “no people” but now are known as “the people of God.” Let us focus on the doctrines of creation, the fall, redemption, and sanctification.
In the perfection of creation, human beings were not isolated, autonomous, self-affirming individuals. They were made for communion. This is a necessary inference from the fact that we were made in the image of God. Who is God other than that perfect communion, that intimate interaction of the three Persons of the Trinity—in a relationship of love? God is a “relational” being. He is One in the sense that there is no other, but He is not one in the mathematical, monistic sense that Arius, fourth-century Greeks, and the world’s Islamic cults assume. God is One in a dynamic, relational sense.
If God is essentially relational, then all being—everything that God has made—exhibits relational qualities. There is a relational content built into the very notion of being. “To be” is to exist in relation to others. This theological understanding of reality is attested by the science of physics. If you probe the elemental nature of physical being, what you discover is a mass of interaction protons, neutrons, electrons moving in patterns that give shape and form to the physical world. Matter and energy are in kinetic relationships. Our universe is not static, but relational—planets circling stars, and moons circling planets -dynamic action and interaction, from the tiniest molecule to the swirl of the cosmos.
If relation is the essence of being, it is no less so for us who are called human beings. Uniquely among all of creation, we were made in the image of God. So from the very beginning, in our very essence, we are a community of persons. And God said, “‘Let us make man in our image’…so God created man, male and female he created them…and God said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply….”, We need to make a critical distinction—the distinction between individuals (a secular term with which our modern culture, infatuated with schemes of self-actualization, is enamored) and persons. God is a triune community of persons and that is the image in which we were made. Jeremy Begbie (Ridley College, Cambridge) finds that music offers a richer way to describe the Trinity than one can obtain with spatial descriptions. When one strikes a chord on the piano, each note is heard in relation to the others. The resonance of each note, while distinct, is enhanced by being in relation to the others, and the resulting chord is greater than the sum of its parts.
The core human community is marriage, a God-ordained institution wherein two human beings find their fulfillment in relation to one another. The male-female union is not a merger, but a relationship of persons in which each enriches and enhances the other. Radical feminism was correct to protest male domination, a sinful distortion of God’s intention for humanity. But it was tragically wrong to engender a self-affirmation movement whose focus is on the individual as opposed to persons in relation. Radical feminism ruptures the human community every bit as much as does male domination. Both violate God’s order of creation.
Looking beyond the primary human community, marriage, to the wider dimension of human community, consider the image of persons on the perimeter of a circle. How do they relate to one another? In the individualistic paradigm, they would define themselves in contradistinction to others and thus form clumps along the perimeter. But this does not lead to community. One person’s movement toward one person or group of persons necessarily separates him from other persons on the perimeter. This is the problem that is inherent in politics. Only if we all move toward the center of the circle—what Augustine calls the point of common affection—can we all enter into relation with one another. Augustine’s definition of community is a body of persons that is characterized by a common object of affection. What happens at the core of the circle is personal, not individual. It is not the clumping of self-affirming individuals, but an interaction of persons in relation to the core of the circle and thus relation to each other.
Human sin, essentially the act of self-affirmation, a declaration of autonomy by the imperial self, constitutes the fracturing of community. In their sin, Adam and Eve turned the garden into a jungle. Their sin fractured the divine-human communion. We read that Adam and Eve “hid” from God, causing God to say, “Where are you?” Their sin also fractured human communion. Adam blamed his wife and his God for their sin: “This woman whom you gave to me, gave me this fruit.” Their sin also fractured the order of nature (thorns and thistles, and ground that must be tilled with the sweat of one’s brow).
Whereas life had been characterized by all of these elements in harmonious relation, now, in the wake of man’s autonomous self-affirmation, fractured relations between man and God, man and wife, and man and the ground, lead to ultimate separation called death. If the essence of life as the Creator intended it, is community, then death, its opposite, is ultimate isolation, the seventh and final ring in Dante’s Hell. The moment we declare ourselves autonomous, we sign our own death certificate.
But God—the divine, triune community -would not allow His creation to remain in chaos. So He sent into the midst of His creation the very One through whom creation came into being: His Son, the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us …and we beheld his glory …. ” What we have here is the perfect answer, the only answer to our fractured, individualistic, fragmented existence: God the Creator has come to us as God the Redeemer. Creation could only be restored by the One who created it. There is an inseparable connection between creation and redemption. That is why Scripture calls those of us who are redeemed, “the new creation.”
Thus, redemption is re-creation. We die to the chaos of fractured relationships and are reborn to a divinely-appointed reality. And what is this divinely-appointed reality? It is the Church. Therefore, the Church is no mere human association. It is the creation of God. “On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The Church is sustained, not by our efforts, but by God’s providence. The Church is permanent because God is permanent.
Coming together in the center of the circle, we meet Jesus Christ and we experience worship. We are drawn into communion with the Triune God, and in this worship experience, we realize a communion with one another that transcends any human association, not only for those of us who are physically present, but that wider communion, the communion of the saints that transcends boundaries of time and space.
Worship therefore, is not something that we do. It is not an accomplishment. It is not a performance. It is not a technique. (Many of these human-centered activities occur today—sadly, many committed by so-called evangelicals—under a label called “worship.”) Reformed worship eschews gimmicks, bells and whistles, embellishments, multi-colored plumage and other artificial adornments. Instead, Reformed worship prefers simplicity -an open Bible, the atmosphere of prayerful submission. Worship in its truest sense, is what theologian James Torrance calls, “participating through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with Father.” In true worship we recognize that there is only one way to come to the Father, namely, through Christ in the communion of the Spirit, in the communion of the saints, whatever outward form our worship may take. In complete submission to the Triune God, we experience His glory.
The Church is nothing less than creation as God intended it. The Church is a reflection of the divine community, a communion of persons whose being is discovered in relation to God and to one another. Here in the center of the circle we witness the marks of the Church where the SCriptures are rightly preached, the sacraments are rightly administered, and diScipline, our mutual accountability under the Word of God, is faithfully adjudicated. Note that all three of these marks of the Church exhibit a relational dimension—the Word preached, the sacraments administered and discipline adjudicated.
The Church is a witness to a broken world of God’s intention for creation, of creation rightly ordered, the restored community. Where the Church bears that witness, new possibilities for community can flourish in this fractured, broken world. Marriage can be renewed as a redemptive community of persons in relation. The state can develop forms of association that maximize the value of persons within its body politic. Monism—as is seen, for example; in the Islamic tradition tends to work itself out politically as totalitarianism, and other forms of authoritarianism; whereas the Christian knowledge of God as a triune community of persons tends to work itself out in political forms that respect the integrity of persons. Herein lies the beauty of Reformed fellowship. And why do we call it beautiful? Because it comes from the hand of the Creator. It reflects the symmetry, harmony, and order that God alone can make possible, the God who created all that exists and called it “good,” our translation of the Hebrew word for perfection, the perfect circle.
Here then, is how Scripture describes our Reformed fellowship: “Since we are encompassed by so great a cloud of witnesses (communion of the saints without boundaries), let us lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that has been set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God.”
All of the elements of Reformed fellowship are here: the encompassing of the fellowship; the mutual accountability of the fellowship; the sense of purpose that vectors the fellowship; the presence of pioneer and perfecter, who leads the fellowship and completes its Godly work; and the vision of the triumphal Christ with whom, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we enter the love of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that holy communion that will never end.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Parker Williamson is editor of The Presbyterian Layman.