Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Reformed Catholicism v. Reformed Catholicity, no. 1

I have a confession to make: I like the Mercersburg theologians, too. That may sound strange coming from someone who spends his time thinking and writing about 19th and 20th century southern Presbyterians, but while I was at seminary, I spent a great deal of time reading John Williamson Nevin and Phillip Schaff. And the reason I did was because I was attracted to their vision of "reformed catholicism."

After all, I was raised in a church context that started Plymouth Brethren, moved to a Bible church, and then ended up Independent Baptist (and other variations from there). Particularly for the Brethren and for non-denominational Bible church types, there is an underlying desire for Christians to lay aside their "distinctiveness" in order to be "mere Christians" around the common table of the Lord. The problem was that by not having a creed, there was an unwritten creed of which folks inevitably ran afoul--dispensational premillennialism; separatism; legalism.

By the time I got to seminary, I longed for something that emphasized the larger unity of Christ's church on the one hand (in ways similar to my upbringing) while making explicit our creedal and confessional commitments. That was the major reason I found Nevin such invigorating reading--staunchly Reformed and yet desirous to explore the larger "catholic" reality of the church. Over time I was able to read Nevin both sympathetically and critically--sympathetic to his vision, critical of the intellectual and ecclesial means by which he tried to accomplish it. Especially important in this regard was paying attention to his context and not being tempted to divorce him from it.

And yet, I've never truly given up on the ideas on catholicity which he articulated. For example, one of my first full length essays in the WTJ was on "J. Gresham Machen, Ned B. Stonehouse, and the Quandary of Reformed Ecumencity": how do Reformed churches affirm their own doctrinal commitments on the one hand while working together with other Reformed and non-Reformed churches? While I wasn't fully satisfied with the answers that some gave (esp. Van Til), I felt the pressure--from my past and hopes for the future--to explore these issues. And even after I became Presbyterian, I never saw myself or acted in ways that were "sectarian."

I say all that to set forth my bona fides on this issue. Because at the end off the day, I worry that what I mean by "Reformed Catholicism" and what others may mean represent two different things.

What I mean probably would be better covered by the other label: Reformed Catholicity. That is, from the profound embrace and understanding of our own unique Presbyterian identity, we engage other Gospel-oriented traditions with charity and respect, hoping that we may be mutually encouraged (Romans 1:12) as a result of the exchange.

What I fear that others mean by this label: from the discomfort with and lack of understanding of our own unique Presbyterian identity, we adopt beliefs and practices from other Christian traditions (including, especially, Roman Catholicism) in ways that transform Presbyterianism into something that looks a whole lot like Anglicanism, Lutheranism, or Roman Catholicism.

I'll be quite candid--I don't want to mess with the boundaries what we have typically understood (and what I have tried to represent in On Being Presbyterian) as "plain ol' Presbyterianism." And in saying that, I recognize that this Presbyterian identity needs to be incarnated within our own, unique, contemporary cultural systems, which may cause our beliefs and practices to look different from the 17th or 19th centuries (in the same way that these beliefs and practices will look differently in Japan as opposed to the US). Still, if Reformed Catholicism means that we are drawing beliefs and practices from other, "higher church" traditions to meld with our own, then ultimately we are looking to forge something other than Presbyterianism.

Along that line, it is striking that those who promote "Reformed Catholicism" are only looking to the "high church" or mainline American Protestant traditions to demonstrate their catholicity. And yet, the fastest growing form of Christianity is actually Pentecostalism--for example, there are over 220 million Assemblies of God adherents worldwide. What does Reformed Catholicism look like in the face of global Pentecostalism? It doesn't appear that advocates are interested discussing that question.

And yet, I think the pose of "Reformed Catholicity" actually helps us to do so--because it starts with understanding, affirming, and embracing our own religious identity (our beliefs, practices, and stories). And then, from that starting place of self-understanding, it moves to engage others not to adapt and adopt the best of their tradition nor to paternalistically impart our greater "wisdom." Rather, I seek to keep the main thing the main thing--seeing the radical Gospel orientation and common faith in Jesus, I engage 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.

Thus, perhaps we would be better served to think more intentionally about what we mean by "catholicism" in the language we use. If we mean simply a reformed version of Roman Catholicism, we don't need to seek that because it already exists--it is called Anglicanism. But if we mean an affirmation of our common union in Jesus with others who do not share our Presbyterian and Reformed identity and of our desire to dialogue with them with charity and great respect, then perhaps we should think about "Reformed Catholicity" instead.

And it may be that it is in this way, out of our own sense of who we are as Presbyterians, that we are "catholics" after all.


J said...

Thank you for these words. I appreciate them. Especially the distinction of "catholicism" not in the Roman Catholic sense, but in the "universal church" meaning of catholicism. It's good to be challenged in this sense. I like the phrase "reformed catholicity" because it not only encourages reformed Presbyterian types to slow down and consider that the larger context of God's church is possibly in mind, but it also may make Roman Catholics slow up and consider, 'Why is it catholicity and not catholicism?' And from there some good discussion can truly be had.

-Jim Roach

White Badger said...

Great post!
Thanks for the thoughts.

P.D. Nelson said...

Sir your link (on being Presbyterian) references this:
You need to modify it so that it is this:

Anonymous said...

Well, Sean, then I would humbly suggest you re-read Nevin and Schaff. Their rather Hegelian view of history would seem to indicate that "Reformed Catholicism" means to seek to Reform the catholic Church through open dialogue and recognition of truth wherever it exists. All of this with the hope that, someday, God's people can be reunited. This is why Schaff believed with all hope that Romanism and Protestantism would one day be reunited. This would be the next "move," historically, according to their paradigm. Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis. I have this hope as well, but it very well may be 1,000 years away! Nevertheless, the way to seek after that unity is to recognize where the Reformation has gone wrong, and where the Roman Church has been correct -- and vice versa. This does not mean we should all join the Church of England, but I do think that an "ideal" view of the Church would be somewhere between Southern Presbyterianism and Anglicanism. Obviously, we would never relinquish our beliefs about the Papacy and other such foolishness, but that does not mean we should ignore the historicity of liturgical worship and its various forms, a high view of the sacraments coupled with a high view of individual faith, and so forth. A big problem today is the rationalistic tendency to fallaciously construct an "either/or" in regards to a particular doctrine -- for example, you are either "high church" or you're "low church." This is a false dichotomy. The truth of Scripture seems to be both, because it proclaims both. All errors appear to be errors of a pendulum swung in too far a direction. I love High-Church Calvinism, and I also love personal piety and the importance of personal faith in the context of one's relationship or covenant with God -- as did Nevin and Schaff. It is not either/or, and more often than not, I believe, few things are. Just some thoughts.

In Christ the King,
Gabe Martini

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Gabe:

Thanks for the reply. I'm not sure what in your post should force me to reread Nevin and Schaff. My post wasn't really about them at all, but rather about those within and outside the PCA who are arguing for "Reformed Catholicism" and who are doing so, in part, motivated by Nevin and Schaff's vision (without embracing the specifics).


Anonymous said...

Well, Sean, your comment What I fear that others mean by this label: from the discomfort with and lack of understanding of our own unique Presbyterian identity, we adopt beliefs and practices from other Christian traditions (including, especially, Roman Catholicism) in ways that transform Presbyterianism into something that looks a whole lot like Anglicanism, Lutheranism, or Roman Catholicism. would seem to indicate you have perhaps misunderstood Nevin and Schaff and what they meant by Reformed Catholicism. That's all.

Anonymous said...

Pastor Lucas,

I'm sympathetic to the concerns raised in your post. First, I, too, am from a "Bible church" background, attended a fundamentalist school when I was a kid, and didn't become Presbyterian until later in life. Also, as a history-less American, with no "ethnicity" except bland, suburban white-ness, the angst of living in this post-modern age is very real. Being Presbyterian makes me feel less lost, and makes me feel like I have something I can lean on as a starting point for engaging the world. And I, too, worry about our faith being watered down.

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.

"Veni Domine Jesu."

New Orleans, LA

Anonymous said...

Interesting responses to you, Sean. I liked your post, straight up.

-- Tim Keller

Anonymous said...

Judging from the view of the church/sacraments and plethora of revivalistic hymmns I learned as a Southern Presbyterian youth, I'd say we adopted much more from Baptist theology. And it's rather ironic considering Calvin's much closer relationships to Luther and Cramner than the Baptists of his day...


"we adopt beliefs and practices from other Christian traditions (including, especially, Roman Catholicism) in ways that transform Presbyterianism into something that looks a whole lot like Anglicanism, Lutheranism, or Roman Catholicism."

Anonymous said...

Good thoughts.

I wonder what part Richard Lovelace's Dynamics of Spiritual Life could play in this discussion. Particularly, his talk about missions and the primary marks of the Church.