Pointing to the reality that being Reformed and creative go hand-in-hand, this article shows that throughout church history, the Reformed faith has distinguished between form and content. It is through this distinguishing character of the Reformed and the desire to remain faithful to Scripture that creativeness in mission work can find room.

Source: Lux Mundi, 2007. 4 pages.

Creative and Reformed About Room for Missionary Projects

No, this title does not say that we had better tamper with the Reformed principles. “Creative bookkeeping” is easily considered a sign of fraud and disaster, but with the compound “creative and Reformed” I would rather draw attention to the innovative power of the notion “Reformed”. Reformed and being creative are partners by nature. This is not new at all, for the combination creative and Reformed is actually a redundancy, like “wet water” or a ”round circle”. The adjective “creative” emphasises a quality that is already inherent to “Reformed”.

Nowadays, however, you need to struggle to lay the creative notion of “Reformed” on the table. In the church and in society Reformed and creative appear more like opposites. Reformed people are: austerely dressed, averse from any change, enjoy a traditional menu, hold two church services a day, avoid football on Sundays. The mouldy image of what is “Reformed” makes many people turn a deaf ear nowadays to pleas for the vital importance of Reformed lines, also in missionary projects. But wrongly so! Or is it?

Reformed to the Bone🔗

In the scope of this column I wish to deal with the meaning of the notion Reformed in a missionary and ecumenical context, for example in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Williamstown, Harare, Zwolle, Nairobi, Delhi, Jakarta, etc.

As a teacher of the training department of De Verre Naasten (IRTT) I exert myself for Reformed Theology – so with an emphasis on the Reformed content of this theology. In the decision process to enter into contact with other churches in the world DVN test them by important criterions of approachability on Reformed doctrine and conduct in life. In relations with other churches in the world deputies BBK also use the Reformed doctrine as a key to either open or close the door. And the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC) mentions as an important ground for its existence “to present a Reformed testimony to the world”. Members are only admitted if they “faithfully adhere to the Reformed Faith”. We come across the same grounds in our country with Deputies for Church Unity and, as we may assume, also with the missionary projects that receive financial support from our federation of churches (Enkhuizen, Bergen op Zoom, Lichtenvoorde, Amsterdam, Venlo, Maastricht), or that are in any other way ecclesiastically embedded (Stadshartkerk Amstelveen, Mijdrecht).

Reformed idiosyncrasies are deeply ingrained in us. Apparently they also form a central theme for our church life outwardly. More often than not they are the legitimization for founding and maintaining a separate institute, its reason for existence, therefore. That is why the question of the lasting value of these Reformed idiosyncrasies is so extraordinary exciting, especially because for the rank and file of our churches these things are no longer self-evident and clear. For quite frankly, what is yet the meaning of “Reformed”? And what should it mean in our missionary projects?

Solidification in Forms🔗

A Reformed missionary, who went abroad to plant a church, was given instructions to do so in agreement with the Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort) and the Church Order. More often than not this emphatic demand (which had long been a matter of course) led to bizarre situations. Missionaries considered the Reformed character of their work and the forms of the home front as one and the same thing. Thus it could happen that Papuans had to get familiar with the Genevan melodies, which, depending on the home church, had to be sung metrically or not. The liturgical order of worship specified by the General Synod of Middelburg 1933 was introduced as the standard “order of worship”.

In Harare there is a church building that could be a replica of any village church in the Veluwe (a rural area of the Netherlands). What was typically Reformed embedded itself in outward forms and was identified with them. That was also how it was understood and adhered to by the receivers. On Kalimantan Barat, for example, a change in the liturgy (a departure from the order introduced by the first missionaries) causes much heated discussion. Elsewhere, too, church leaders prove to be fanatic defenders of the forms handed down, and they consider deviation from them a devaluation of the Reformed character of their church. This phenomenon is not only typical of the Reformed mission work, but also of the mission work of other ecclesiastical traditions.

Talented Expressiveness🔗

It was not until the last two decades that real attention grew for contextualization, that is to say that the receiving culture itself gets a firm say in matters of finding forms fitting to the church service. I was in a position to cooperate in that and I have experienced how immensely important this is. For the receiver of the gospel becomes creative with the gospel; he discovers how he himself can and may formulate the answer to the gospel. The forms that he creates – in order to present them before God’s countenance – sprout from his own art of expression, as it developed in his past. He discovers that this God “has crowned him with glory and honour”. It is to Him that he owes his special talents and gifts. The way he is, is the way he finds expression to reflect God’s glory. Therefore no Genevan melodies, no versified psalms, no order of Middelburg or Kampen, no literal Decalogue read in the morning service, etc. Instead of this, he makes use of his own art of singing and his own woodcarving to decorate the church and his own architecture for the building of a church. He also makes use of a way of catechising that corresponds with indigenous didactics and a style of preaching that utilises the local narrative art. Initially all this was looked upon by the Reformed home front with a certain amount of suspicion, but the conviction that things had to be done like this, grew, and that indigenous forms would much more guarantee a real appropriation of biblical-Reformed content. Moreover, would not God enjoy Himself fully, now that his people world-wide reflects to Him the good of the rich variety of his creation in such an authentic way?

Carved Images🔗

Creative and Reformed, this is only possible if what is typical of the Reformed character is not attached to certain forms. It would actually be the easiest way to fix and preserve what is Reformed. We would soon be ready; what our ancestors have developed would be good enough for all times, and we can rebaptize the church a museum. We could close the TUK (Theological University Kampen) for our only aim would be preserving everything in its original state. There is then no need of ongoing understanding, neither of research programmes. Everything is settled. The way in which to interpret the Bible, the liturgical forms, methods of catechising, the style of preaching, the missionary approach. Because of this rigid fixation of forms, much content seems to have solidified and be fixed immovably, with all the dangers of socializing and ritualizing involved; dangers of which the Reformers had liberated the church and also wanted to protect against for the future. When form and content are identified, we run the risk of making God into a carved image again. That is not what Reformed is meant to be. On the contrary.

The Risky Enterprise of Coming Face to Face🔗

Then what? What is the idea? The heart of the Reformation is closely related to the Scriptures. The point is that we listen to the voice of God. The voice of God that is to be heard right through the paper of the Bible. One who listens to the voice of God enters into the world of God. This world and this life thus catch the light of heaven, right through the paper of the Bible. This is how God allows people to meet him. In this confusing world of spirituality and religiousness “Reformed” only wants to be guided by an understanding of the Scriptures. Listening to them is an introduction into amazement about God’s creation; listening to them produces absolute trust in his guidance; understanding that renders a deep experience of the meaning of the covenant that He makes with people. The far-reaching meaning of that word of Scripture incites people to prophesy, to serve, to speak in all languages. That gives mouth, heart and hand to love God and one’s neighbour. Creatively. Doing the same thing over and over again means the silence of the grave. The encounter, the venture of the encounter and in that way of renewal, creation and recreation right through the paper – that produces blossoming.

Divine Scriptures🔗

The Reformed identity becomes apparent where the interpretation of the Bible retains its value as the final argument that all arguments of a different nature have to give way to. The churches of the Reformation have laid this down by way of an anchor in article 7 of the Belgic confession (as also in art. 31 of the Church Order) “It is unlawful for anyone, even for an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in Holy Scripture”. A Reformed person will elevate the “divine Scriptures” for their uniqueness. What they teach is “most perfect and complete in all respects”.

Literalness: a Heresy🔗

Yet this is not all. This is only the start and it shows how difficult this starting point is, and how wrong it can prove to be in practice. Church history can be described not only as the struggle to retain the Scriptures, but also as a constant struggle to understand them properly. At bottom church history is the history of the exegesis and the interpretation of the Word of God. In this history the church discovered, often at its own cost, how to do it and not to do it. Thus the church rejected notarial, wooden literalness in its doctrine of Scripture, a heresy, however, that keeps cropping up. The church learned to preserve the Word of God against Biblicism, against fundamentalism, against the use of a Bible word out of context, against endless allegorising and exemplarising.

Re-sourcing and Renewal🔗

Biblical scholarship is the heart of the Reformed identity. The formulation of the faith uses the results of former times, but because of the starting point that has been laid down (the primacy of the Word of God) it does not fear in the present situation to make different choices both as to form and, if new insight in the Scriptures requires this, as to content. This re-sourcing is essential for the vitality of Reformed theology; it leads to continuity and to renewal. The Reformed churches (liberated) are changing, as disquieted church members often say. Well, it would be really disquieting if these churches were not changing. This is the first thing to be said about it. And the second thing is that any change can only identify itself as “Reformed” if the first mark of “Reformed” (sound Bible-exegesis) is not bartered away.

Points Passed🔗

As regards Bible interpretation and the formulation of the faith, the church in its history has had to define its position time and again, and sometimes to shift its ground. In this way the church accepted its responsibility in distinguishing between spirits. The track was extended, points were passed. Sometimes it can be necessary to retrace one’s steps as far as behind the points, that is if ongoing Bible study requires. We must not deal with the results of good biblical scholarship in a cramped way. Not even when it should mean that positions taken in the past must be altered. At the same time our history often shows us how not to do it. “Reformed” also becomes apparent as a tradition warned, warned against the misuse of the Scriptures, warned against subjectivism, rationalism, liberalism, anthropocentrism, mysticism. What a long list this can become! The thread in the rejection of all these kind of things is: maintaining the first principle of the Reformation, the renewed obedience to Holy Scripture. The church that is keen to listen to what the Spirit has to say through the Word this time.

Warned and Reformed🔗

The intention of this article is to create room and to indicate the boundaries. It is necessary to create room to move for missionary and ecumenical projects both in our country and abroad, but also to define its boundaries in what is more than just a rough draft. Every Reformed church founder is a warned man. He works under the authority of churches that in the past have laid out the track by trial and error and have passed certain points. This has found its expression in amongst other things our Creeds. He will seriously take these into account, he will put a lot of work into his own conviction, and he is prepared to give account for it. Even if he is founding a new church in modern Amsterdam, historically seen he does not start from scratch. That has a deep meaning. It does not mean that with an eye to his target group (people who do start from scratch) he must not be given all room to find, together with these newcomers, new forms to experience the faith and praise the Lord God. It does mean that in trying to find these things he proves to know how to approve what is excellent. He is well-grounded in the Scriptures and he will not run upon rocks that the church has already run upon in the course of history.

Limited(!) Room(!)🔗

As the supporters of this work the churches would do well to put and keep the consultation with the missionary workers about the Reformed content of their work on the agenda. Let that be a constructive and cordial consultation. If that happens we can be generous in giving these projects much freedom to develop their liturgy and religious forms and to discover how creative “Reformed” can be.

Thus mission churches will in a well-considered way develop forms different from those that are common practice in the existing churches. From the existing churches this requires a de-absolutising of the familiar patterns. It has taken far too much time in Papua and in many other places to find room and methods for that. With that in mind let us be more magnanimous and effective with regard to projects at home without from the very start obliging these churches to adapt in the future to what is “common practice” within the federation of churches. When such a mission church develops into a self-supporting church (that is the idea, isn’t it?) they will then be loyally accepted within the federation of churches, and retain their own character. I am convinced that in the interaction that will develop the existing churches will also be enriched. Let us as churches stimulate the Reformed character to prove its creativity and elasticity and that a diversity of new churches can arise which “govern themselves according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head”, Belgic Confession Art. 29.

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