Monday, May 14, 2007

Reformed Catholicism v. Reformed Catholicity, no. 2

I wanted to engage a little more intentionally with one of the comments to the first post. So that others might track along, I'll reproduce it here:

But the gospel calls us to repentance. That was the "hark!" of Luther's first of his 95 theses, which itself was but a reading of Christ's own call: "Repent." (Matt. 4:17) Certainly, there must be a corporate dimension to this, and our own Presbyterian tradition has given it expression in the phrase semper reformanda. As such, it is quintessentially Presbyterian to "look[] to forge something other than Presbyterianism" if that is what a searching out of ourselves in the light of Scripture leads us to do. I think the main thrust of what you are saying is that we shouldn't become something else or borrow from others just for the sake of it (and I agree -- at least to the same extent that we shouldn't stay the same just for the sake of it), but you don't seem to give much credit to the possibility that those who call themselves Reformed Catholics are seeking to appropriate things from other traditions because a very Presbyterian sola-scriptura study of such things has led them to conclude that those things are biblical and that we are missing out on something without them in our lives.

The things I have come to envy in other traditions are NOT the things they have "invented," but the ways in which they have preserved -- in their doctrines, laws, and liturgies -- biblical religion. I believe Presbyterianism has done this well, and that the biblical, "catholic" faith finds beautiful expression in Presbyterianism. As a college student, I was blown away by how the Presbyterian faith helped me understand myself in light of Scripture, and I'm not sure that I would be here typing this comment if it weren't for the Presbyterians that ministered Jesus's love to me then.

But "Presbyterianism" didn't fall from the sky in 15- or 16-whatever. It was a reformation of the Western Christian tradition. And it is therefore patently un-Presbyterian to deny the Presbyterian-ness of pre-Presbyterian Christianity. For example, is St. Giles Cathedral not Presbyterian because it was built long before John Knox ascended the pulpit there and is named after a medieval recluse who healed a deer? That doesn't mean that everything that happened before the Reformation should be embraced as good (such a sentiment would very much be un-Presbyterian), but the entire history of pre-Reformation Western Christianity is *our* history, warts and all, and the genius of Presbyterianism is not our ability to pretend like that history didn't happen but our own way of sifting it and appropriating it for today. Anglicans, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics also have appropriated it according to their own principles (albeit, in ways that are sometimes so far from Scripture as to be unrecognizable as biblical). No wonder then that those who are trying to reflect on what being Presbyterian means as a matter of historical moment should find it helpful to consider these "high church" traditions rather than Brother Bob's traveling salvation show or other low-church novelties. Yes, high-church churches have their own novelties, but at least they often serve as a window into the past that we as Presbyterians share with them rather than just a purposeful repudiation of the past for the sake of repudiating it.

My point is that I think your understanding of what Reformed Catholicism is all about fails to give sufficient credit to the good faith of those asking questions about what the heck Presbyterianism *is* (well before we move on to how it should even change) and fails to give sufficient weight to the motivating concerns of the questions they are asking, concerns that I think nevertheless resonate in your own longing for place and identity as expressed in this post. So don't ditch Reformed Catholicism quite so eagerly. I think it's more worthwhile than either of us could imagine -- as is Reformed Catholicity.

This is a great comment. I think the writer raises a number of excellent and thoughtful points, with which I'd love to engage.

1. The writer points out that the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition is one that stresses semper reformanda ("always reforming"); as a result, it is quintessentially Presbyterian to look for something other than Presbyterianism. While I'm sympathetic to this point, I wonder whether it claims too much--for if this is the case, then to be most faithful to Presbyterianism, we would not be Presbyterian; and that strikes me as an illogical claim. Even more, it strikes me the writer is putting something at the center of Presbyterianism and so takes it upon himself to define what Presbyterianism is--Presbyterians stand for "always reforming." Instead of the markers I might suggest (sovereignty of God, sola gratia and sola fide in relation to justification and sanctification, covenant and Kingdom, nature of the church and its sacraments, representative polity under Christ the King), the writer puts this point of perpetual reformation at the center.

And so, the question could rightly be asked, is this the case? Is perpetual reformation the center of what it means to be Presbyterian? Even more, does this perpetual reformation led us back to ritual practices or religious beliefs that were rejected by the Reformers themselves? That is, does perpetual reformation mean that we forake the communion of the saints across time by seeing something as biblical that the Reformers rejected themselves?

These are important questions--I would tend to argue that in fact "always reforming" becomes a rubric under which a whole raft of beliefs and practices can be imported into a religious tradition. Still, it is worthwhile to raise whether this motto is truly at the center and whether we should tailor our religious practices accordingly.

2. The writer also observed that perhaps I wasn't crediting the good faith of those who are simply asking the question about what Presbyterianism is. But here the answer seems a little easier--Presbyterianism is a historical entity whose beliefs, practices, and stories can be investigated and measured. I hoped that I got at that in my On Being Presbyterian. Regardless of what one could say about that book, it seems fair to say that it represents what historically can be recognized as Presbyterianism.

And I would agree with the writer that Presbyterianism didn't simply drop from the sky (in fact, I make that point repeatedly in my church history classes). It does experience continuity with what went before. But it also experienced remarkable discontinuity as well, as historian Margo Todd (for example) makes strikingly clear. I think that perhaps our current "high church" interest overstresses continuity with the medieval church over historical discontuinity.

It seems, rather, that the question asked is what Presbyterianism ought to be for this generation. And that is a different question--and that is the one about which I am most worried. For I cherish Presbyterianism, not only as a historical entity but also as it is incarnate in particular situations today. And I worry that as we "add" things to Presbyterianism, borrowed from other traditions under the guise of "Reformed catholicism," we will end up with something that is different from Presbyterianism. It goes back to my question--how much "reform" can a tradition bear before it becomes a different (new) tradition?

3. The commentator, however, seemed to miss my larger point--namely, if we are going to be truly "catholic," then we better start paying attention to worldwide Pentecostalism. As Phillip Jenkins makes clear, global Christianity is overwhelming Pentecostal; and so, if we wanted to be "always Reforming," then perhaps we need to be reforming in the direction of this "new thing" God is doing.

I would assume that most who lean toward "Reformed Catholicism" would reprobate this claim, suggesting that Pentecostalism has too many errors for "Reformed" types to take seriously. But this, to me, seems like a double-standard on their part. How can we pay attention to the ritual practices of Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and Roman Catholicism and not pay attention to the Pentecostals, if we desire to be truly "catholic"? What would it look like if we were to incorporate "world Christianity" into our worship? Pentecostal practices? Would it produce something different from "Presbyterianism"? I think so--which raises the real questions going the other way--how much divergence can a tradition tolerate?

This is where my own notion of "Reformed Catholicity" works better, I think. By working out of our own our own religious identity (our beliefs, practices, and stories), it moves to engage others in charitable and humble conversation and cooperation when possible to live out the primary reality that we both share--we are both clothed with Jesus Christ by faith alone in him. It may be that we will learn some things about our own tradition through the engagement; it may be that we will contribute something to others. However, catholicity and catholicism represent two different stances; one speaks of engagement, the other of adoption. I think the our Reformed faith, grand as it is, requires the former, but not the latter.


Anonymous said...

Pastor Lucas,

Thanks so much for reading my comments charitably! Sorry to have posted semi-anonymously, but I didn't have my new blog up and running yet and, in any case, I figured you'd know who I was. ;-)

Regarding your first point in reply, I agree that "'always reforming' becomes a rubric under which a whole raft of beliefs and practices can be imported into a religious tradition." That is why I was careful to qualify it by saying that we should look to forge something other than Presbyterianism as it now is "if that is what a searching out of ourselves in the light of Scripture leads us to do." (emphasis added) I'd say that "semper reformanda" is the application of more central tenets of Presbyterianism (God's sovereignty, sola scriptura) to ecclesiology, and that without those concepts (or, to speak less abstractly, without God) standing over the slogan of "semper reformanda" it is pretty useless. But so is staying the same without a biblical or godly reason for doing so.

Thanks again for the thoughts and the thoughtful reply.

Jordan Mark Siverd ("J.M.S.")
New Orleans, Louisiana

Anonymous said...

We are one Body with many members.

Timothy R. Butler said...

Dr. Lucas,
Thanks for the two posts here, they were helpful (especially after the "introduction" last Wednesday in class). I'm wondering, what do you think it would look like to engage Pentecostal Christianity That's a broad question, I know, but do you have anything particular in mind when you are talking about taking up an attitude of Reformed Catholicity?

Also, do you think perhaps it is inevitable that more traditional Western churches are seeking commonality and adoption in light of the fact that in some ways Anglicanism, Catholicism, etc. seem more "comfortable" and "familiar" than the Pentecostal flavor of world Christianity?

Greg Thompson said...

Hi Sean--Greg here. I've just come across these posts and am very interested in them. Thanks for taking the time to think this stuff through.

I especially like your question about the Pentecostals of the global south. For (while this question doesn't disprove the Reformed Catholic instinct) it certainly does show the complexity of the central question we're all wrestling with. And that question, if I read you rightly, is: How can one be biblically ecumenical and yet still have legitimate and necessary boundaries?

If I'm following you, your answer to this question is largely historical: the boundaries are set by the Scriptural habits, conceptual categories, and ecclesial practices inherent in our own historical tradition, and ecumenism comes in maintaining those boundaries while at the same time living charitably and even, as Schaeffer says, co-belligerently, with other traditions. You seem, in other words, to advocate a winsome and charitable way of being what Presbyterians have always been--Presbyterian.

To the extent that I have it right this is compelling in that it takes both the facts of history and the law of charity seriously.

I sometimes wonder if another way to address this question would be to think not just in terms of historical development but also in terms of eschatological trajectory. That is, to understand our identity--and the boundaries essential to identity formation--not just in terms of what we were or even are, but also in terms of what we will be when the new world comes.

The glimpses of this in the books of Psalms, Isaiah, Acts, and Revelation, and Paul's insistence on the determinative power of the future for how we think of ourselves in the present make me wonder if this eschatological starting point might not be a more fruitful approach than--or at least a supplement to--the historical approach you have suggested.

If this is so, given the breadth of the eschatological church (i.e. that it's not all Presbyterian), this raises some questions for me about the "historical approach ".

These questions began to bother me as I considered your use of the term Reformed Catholicity (a term which I very much like, by the way). Reformed Catholicity, as you define it, seems to make "reformed" an identity category and "catholicity" an ethical category. That is, the key thing is to be reformed--whatever that might mean in our time, as you say--and from our reformed identities, to interact charitably with those in other traditions.

Now, I much prefer this to what we currently have in our church. Given the history of American Presbyterianism, it is a very lovely vision.

But I resist it theoretically for three reasons:

First, it seems to me to lack an appropriate eschatological horizon. This approach seems to me to risk cherishing identity boundaries that the eschaton will, in some sense, relativize.

Secondly, it seems to me to actually underplay the demands of charity. Catholicity, as you describe it, allows us to be what we are, to cherish what we are, and act from what we are in kindness toward others. That seems good to me.

But what is lacking is the fact living charitably toward another often requires us to change what we are. The premise of sanctification is that the self is fully revisable in light of the law of love. (Incidentally, this does not involve a logical fallacy as you suggested--the "un-Presbyterian Presbyterian." It simply requires that one have an eschatological--and not merely historical--understanding of one's identity). But your version of charitable catholicity seems to make room for too much sameness. I resist this because charity is more disruptive than this.

Thirdly, "catholicity" becomes a bit anemic. Rather than the identity marker that Nevin longed for, it becomes either a winsome disposition of the heart or teamwork across fixed ecclesial boundaries.

But catholicity is neither mere kindness nor mere co-belligerence. It is not merely a winsome disposition. It is the hunger for communion.

The question is not how can we, being distinct, encourage one another. The question is how we can BE ONE. And further, how we can reflect that one-ness in concrete ways to the world around us.

Okay, I need to hush. I'm sorry to have prattled on for so long. Let me sum up:

I understand that there is an already-not yet component to all of ecclesial life. And there are necessary reasons--though many (not all) of them tragic in my view--for the boundaries we live within. So, I'm not arguing for a utopian sameness that ignores the deep trenches of history. Truly. There is a lot in those trenches that will find its way into the new world.

I'm simply trying to argue against an essentially preservationist view of reformed identity and an essentially dispositional view of catholicity.

Mere preservationism lacks a necessary eschatological imagination. And merely dispositional catholicity lacks both the self-sacrifice and the concrete union that love requires.

At least this is how it seems to me in this late hour.

What think ye, good sir?

Peace of the Savior to you. GT

Anonymous said...

I have been following this discussion since it was linked to from And I have been thinking much about what you have said. I wonder what the Reformed Confession of the Christian (Catholic) Faith will look like if one of two things happens:

1) Calvinists cease to be humbled bleeding heart and prayerful men of God. Calvinism aught to profoundly humble the proud and fill us with thankful and rejoicing hearts of praise and hymn. Unfortunately the average Calvinist seems to be one of the frozen chosen hypers. See this very unfortunate post over at Phil Johnson's Pyro-blog:


< The strains of hyper-Calvinism that are flourishing today are more harsh and more hyper than any of the historic hyper-Calvinists ever thought about being.
< In a nutshell-for the past several years I've been reading reformed books (modern ones like Sproul Jr.) and they just about killed my faith. After tears and much confusion (and even anger) I came to realize that Sproul Jr. and others like him must be hyper calvinists. I bagged up all my reformed books minus one or two to get them out of the house, never to return.
< The reformed people I have met are arrogant and unloving-period.
< I will take your advice Phil and read the historic reformed writers and give reformed theology another chance. Thanks for the idea.

More than just reading the "truly reformed" historic writers, people need to experience the "bleeding heart Calvinists" humbled and thankful and not judgmental and cold. A Christian cannot flourish from books alone, they need the Church If every parish they encounter that subscribes to the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity are either sodomites or arrogant un-loving fools, who will blame them for joining a Pentecostal church. Will history remember the Reformation as a short lived aberration? God forbid.

2)Presbyterianism and the Reformed Confession ceases to exist because it is subsumed into other Christian streams of doctrine and practice. I believe in Reformed Catholicity and for me that means that legitimate streams of orthodox tradition have much to teach each other. But if one of those streams or families simply ceases to exist or is assimilated or changes so radically that it is no longer recognizable, then the Church will be impoverished.

Ryan Close

Anonymous said...

I also worry that with the widespread success that Eastern Orthodoxy is having in mainstream culture in America, that TR brothers will step up the reaction and rhetoric of misinformation, non-charity, and hate that does not whiteness of the love of Christ. I don't want numbers for the Reformed Churches. I would like the gospel to go forth to all the nations and for Christians to grow up into the full stature of the measure of Christ. I believe that all Christians can benefit from the principles of the Magisterial Reformation but I don't wish for that benefit to happen exclusively in my own family of churches, but to be spread throughout the world and given as an inheritance for all Christians.

Ryan Close

Anonymous said...


Thank you for discussing this topic. I am continually wrestling with how to understand my presbyterianism as an historical and theological subset of catholicism and I'm glad to see that others are wrestling with it as well.

I think Greg has rightly identified the eschatalogical vision of communion as the primary impetus of reformed catholicism. Participation in the eschatalogical church is—or should be—presbyterianism's raison d'etre. Additionally, Braaten and Jenson argue (convincingly to my mind) that the Reformation was about Catholicity. So whether you look backwards or forwards, the reformation is about ecclesial communion.

My participation in the pca is the result of a theological journey that began in denominational tradition (Advent Christian) whose identify was shaped in distinction from everyone else. We weren't like Roman Catholics or Baptists or Methodist or Presbyterians because we were biblical, hadn't compromised the truth, and were striving to safeguard that which we had discovered. The fact that we were small was evidence of our faithfulness. I left behind the Advent Christian denomination and eventually joined the pca, but I did so because I was convinced that the pca was more biblical, did a better job of standing firm and had all the necessary checks and balances in place to prevent any move toward liberalism, or worse—Rome.

Ten years ago, I was looking for a denomination whose raison d'etre was defending the faith, but I no longer find that compelling enough or biblical enough. I find it impossible to believe that the divines were hoping to construct a theological tradition that was to be maintained like a museum until Jesus returns. As Greg mentioned, Jesus commanded his followers to be one, united together in him for the sake of world. It is through our communion, not just our good attitudes, that we will best accomplish God's mission for his church. Of course part of that mission will include defending the faith when necessary, but that only serves a greater purpose.

Again, thanks for discussing this topic, Sean.

Matt Brown
Brooklyn, NY

Sam Wheatley said...

I wholeheartedly agree with Greg and Matt here. In prep for this week's sermon on Eph 4:1-6 I came across this quote by Lesslie Newbigin that was stimulating. It challenges us all to not treat this issue as a sideline, back-burner type topic, but to fully explore in our ministries what it means to seek the unity of the visible church.

"It is common to hear churchmen speak as though they did not really regard Christian unity as a serious question this side of the End. This is a disastrous illusion. Christians cannot behave as though time were unreal. God gives us time, but not an infinite amount of time. It is His purpose that the Gospel should be preached to all nations, and that all men should be brought into one family in Jesus Christ. His purpose looks to a real End, and therefore requires of us real decisions. If we misconstrue His patience, and think that there is an infinity of time for debate while we perpetuate before the world the scandal of our dismemberment of the Body of Christ, we deceive ourselves. In an issue regarding the doing of the will of God there is no final neutrality.
Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998)"

Ray said...


Enjoying your blog -- your posts and the responses. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

Also read Dabney and On Being Presbyterian books covert to cover with interest.

Here is what I hear my friend Jordan saying: When we "borrow" the sursum corda from Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran practice, we are actually just RECOVERING a part of OUR OWN tradition. As I try to define what it means to be a Presbyterian, I know this can't be done apart from our historic roots.

To me, the 800 pound gorilla in the room: Reformed Catholicism is NOT about taking present day Roman Catholicism and sanitizing it with proper Reformed soteriology. It's about sorting out what it means to know that we ARE part of the Catholic Church. The Reformation is a legitimate heir of what preceded it.

We recognize this and then we go about trying to figure out how to faithfully carry the Catholic faith forward under the normative authority of the Bible.

If that's true then Pope Gregory was a "Presbyterian" pope (or a pope to Presbyterians). Patrick was a Presbyterian missionary. Bach was Presbyterian music. My point is -- when we interact with these parts of our history, we're not stepping "outside" Presbyterianism to "dialogue" with some 'other' entity but we are reflecting on what Presbyterianism is in the first place, and what obedience to God means for us today. Calvin does that very well, for example, in the WAY he references historic sources in the Institutes.

I my limited thinking Presbyterianism is an excellent (overall, about the most excellent) and beautiful expression of the Catholic faith. When I have started to think of Presbyterianism as more than that, I have drifted into sectarianism.

hey, let's get a beer at GA.

Ray Cannata
Redeemer Pres
New Orleans

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Ray:

Good to "hear" your voice--very excited about how God is moving through RPC in New Orleans.

I guess I think about bigger things here than simply certain liturgical elements, such as the sursum corda (which after all is a scriptural sentence used responsively). I'm thinking about church calendar; lenten observance with Ash Wednesday; a Lord's Supper approach that feels like approaching the altar; etc. These are things that, historically, Presbyterians have not done in corporate worship, not because they aren't beautiful, but because there was no biblical warrant for them.

I know, I know--I'm raising the "dreaded" "Regulative Principle of Worship." But whether we like it or not, going back to Calvin and Knox, the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition has historically believed that Scripture should regulate our worship. And this was not because they were kill-joys or didn't have asethetic sensibilities. Rather, it was a pastoral concern--they didn't want to bind people's consciences illegitimately (in the way Rome did). The only safe way was to worship only as Scripture mandated.

And it is for these reasons Reformed and Presbyterian worship and liturgy has tended toward "simplicity" and away from "mystery"--it is because the Bible serves to regulate our worship practices so that we do not bind people's consciences. And in a sense, that helps to flesh out Jordan's point a little--the Reformed slogan, "Always Reformed," was really "Always Reformed according to Scripture." Scripture must regulate our reforms and shape our identities.

I happen to believe such reforms will ultimately lead us to Presbyterianism--and which is why Presbyterian identity is not merely self-creation or human choice. Rather, it is a recognition of what the Bible says leads to sovereignty of God, grace, covenant, kingdom, sacraments, means of grace, worship, and polity.

In terms of how I think of Presbyterians "dialogue" with other traditions, I describe that in a response to Jeremy in post no. 3--the image of the family album is helpful to me: we are all Christians and so have a number of pictures in common; but we eventually branch off into different families with different family pictures that are meaningful for us and shape us into who we are now. And it is, in fact, from our own "identities" that we dialogue (in the same way that you as a Cannatta dialogue with me as a Lucas--we share humanity [and who knows, maybe common ancestry], but we dialogue from our own discrete shapedness).

I don't know if that helps, but that seems to be the shape of a response...would love to get together at GA, blessings, sml

Mike Farley said...

Sean, are you rejecting the church calendar in its entirety? You cite Calvin as a defender of the regulative principle, but Calvin and many earlier Continental Reformers were on the side of those who affirmed the church calendar (at least the major Christological festivals) unlike the later Anglo-American Presbyterians. So clearly there are different applications of the regulative principle among those who affirm it as a general principle.

Reformed advocates of the church calendar affirm the idea that liturgical practices should have biblical warrant. The question is the particular kind of biblical warrant that is adequate. Advocates of the church calendar find biblical warrant for a church calendar in a typological application of the OT and in the broader biblical-theological principles embodied in the calendar. Opponents of the church calendar restrict their idea of biblical warrant to specific imperatives and normative examples of apostolic practice in the NT (whiich, IMO is an overly simplistic, primitivist, and unworkable hermeneutical strategy that is at odds with the way that the NT and the Reformed tradition itself interprets and applies the OT.) I think somebody wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on this subject! :)