Reformed Theology: Between Ideal and Reality
1.Making people enthusiastic about reformed theology – this is one of the aims which is being worked upon at this moment in the Theological University in Kampen. To reach that aim, it must be clear what reformed theology actually is.
Is reformed theology still worth fighting for? There is enough reason to take time to consider the question. A positive answer definitely does not speak for itself.
150 years ago, the churches of the Secession, founded a school in Kampen for reformed theological education. In the decades which followed, reformed theology blossomed bountifully, not only in Kampen but also at the Free University in Amsterdam. Men such as Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck and later Klaas Schilder spearheaded new impulses. They engendered enthusiasm for reformed theology in many students. But how is that today?
The Kampen Professor, Lucas Lindeboom, founded a monthly magazine in 1900. From 1912 onwards, it was known as the Gereformeerd Theologisch Tijdschrift (GTT: Reformed Theological Magazine). Theologians from Kampen and Amsterdam worked on this magazine for a century. At the end of 2003, the last issue appeared.
The Reformed Churches (synodical), the Nederlands Hervormde Church and the Evangelical-Lutheran Church have fused to become the Protestant Church of the Netherlands (PKN). In connection with this, the ministers' association of the Reformed Churches (synodical) decided to discontinue its work. In this way, the GTT, which was closely tied up with this ministers' association, was brought to an end.
The church fusion as much as the discontinuation of the GTT have to do with theological developments in the Reformed Churches (syn). At the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the GTT, a thick jubilee issue was published, entitled Theologie op de drempel van 2000. Terugblik op 100 jaar Gereformeerd Theologisch Tijdschrift ('Theology at the threshold of 2000. Looking back at 100 years of Reformed Theological Magazine'). The last issue of the GTT, spring 2003, offers a sort of follow up to this, entitled Heroriëntatie in de theologie ('Reorientation in theology')1In both issues, a very honest expression of how people have grown away from the reformed theology in the tradition of Bavinck and Kuyper since the sixties of the last century. Their theology, under the name of neo-Calvinism, has become a piece of history.
That the enthusiasm for reformed theology in the classic sense of the word (or: the 'neo-Calvinistic' theology) has drastically decreased in the 'synodical' churches, is well known. But how is that with us 'liberated'? According to more than one writer, the Reformed Churches (lib.) are at this moment in a time of confusion. We see much radical self-criticism. Many former attainments appear to be out of date and are thrown overboard. This is true of things which are known as 'typically liberated', but also the word 'Reformed' has clearly lost its lustre. What Rev. H. de Jong wrote some time ago, is very familiar:
Reformed – for many it means the same as rigidity, shortage of flexibility, strictness, gloom, clumsiness, and a lot more, even including hypocrisy.2
The Nederlands Dagblad has scrapped 'Reformed' from its sub heading. Instead of this, the formula 'involved in a Christian way' has been chosen. Not because the ND does not want to be a Reformed newspaper. On the contrary. An important reason why the word 'Reformed' has been removed from the front page is, that it no longer calls forth the positive associations, desired by the editors.
Practising theology does not stand above all this. Various reformed (liberated) theologians say that they seek their inspiration in all sorts of sources. Undoubtedly, the familiar Dutch reformed theological tradition has a place in this, but it no longer holds the prominent position that it once had amongst reformed (liberated) ministers and theological students.
Here, at the Theological University in Kampen, the connection with our own reformed theological tradition is still strongly present. For this I can point at the book Gereformeerde theologie vandaag ('Reformed theology today').3But that does not mean that the theological sparks are flying off it, or that we would succeed in filling a reformed theological magazine (as for instance Theologia Reformata, which also appears in the Netherlands) with inspiring articles.
What is reformed?
Is reformed theology still something worth fighting for? If you want to answer this, you must of course, first agree together, what you understand by 'reformed theology'. For this reason, this is the question to which I give attention now. The emphasis in this shall not lie upon the word 'theology'. In other words, it will not be about the characteristics of academic exercising of theology or the relationship between theology and other disciplines.4I am concentrating upon the adjective 'reformed' as hallmark of our theology.
The great reformation
What is reformed theology? What is characteristic or distinctive in this? One very important characteristic of the theology of Kuyper and Bavinck is the emphasis upon the absolute authority of the Scriptures. It is not for nothing that Kuyper's speech against liberal criticism of the Bible is one of his most famous publications. The fundamental conviction with regard to the inspiration, the infallibility and the authority of Scripture permeates many reformed theological publications of the first half of the 20th century. Many 'synodical-reformed' theologians have by now, already distanced themselves from the 'neo-Calvinistic' reformed theological tradition. This farewell has everything to do with an altered conviction with regard to the Bible. In the recent, already mentioned edition of the GTT, this is frankly recognised.
But the reformed theology did not start with Kuyper and Bavinck. Nor is it only something thought up by Kampen or the Free University. Reformed theology is also practiced in our sister institute in Apeldoorn, and by reformed theologians elsewhere. Nor is reformed theology exclusive to the Netherlands. Kuyper and Bavinck would have not neglected to point this out. The word 'reformed' brings you unavoidably to the great church reformation of the sixteenth century. Then, in opposition to the Roman Catholics and the Anabaptists, the three sola's were forged; sola fide, sola gratia and sola scriptura. Three sola's which culminate in one solo: solo Chris to, by Christ alone.
What was then rediscovered, was written down and defended in confessions. Since then the convictions laid down in the Confession de La Rochelle, the Belgic Confession, the Catechism of Geneva, the Heidelburg Catechism, the Second Helvetic Confession, to name no others – were to be decisive for reformed theology. To these, in the seventeenth century, the Canons of Dort and the Westminster Confession were added.
H. Bavinck: God at the centre
But not everything in these confessions is exclusively reformed. For example the 'sola fide'. This was confessed with no less conviction by Martin Luther and his followers in his Augsburg Confession than by Calvin and the Reformed. And, to quickly step into our own times, with regard to the doctrine of Scripture, many evangelicals and Reformed people can go a long way together down the same road. What is then distinctive about the reformed and their theology?
In the preparation for this speech, I pulled volume I of Herman Bavinck's Gereformeerde Dogmatiek ('Reformed Dogmatics') down from the shelf. He gives his four volume standard work extensive prolegomena (introductory opinions). I assumed I could expect that he would not only pay attention to the term 'dogmatics' but also to the adjective 'reformed'. He does this up to a point: he offers a very interesting description of the history of reformed dogmatics, from the sixteenth century until his own time.5
Bavinck begins that section with a description of the characteristic difference between Lutheran and Reformed Protestantism. The last began with Zwingli, but received its fixed form through Calvin. What are the characteristic differences between these two types of Protestantism?
According to Bavinck, it is characteristic of Luther's followers to think anthropologically. The central question for them is how man reaches salvation. Justification is the subject with which the church stands or falls. In contrast to this, reformed people think theologically. They climb up to God's eternal decision. The first question is: 'how does God receive his honour?' Election is at the heart of the church.
The reformed believer has no peace before he has traced everything back to God's decision and has found the dihoti (the why, GK) of things and gone forward to make all things serve God's honour; the Lutheran is satisfied with the hoti (the that, GK) and enjoys in the salvation which he has received through faith.6
Characteristic of the Reformed conviction is thus, according to Bavinck, that God, his honour and his election are central. And this is, at the same time, characteristic of reformed theology. Bavinck still lived in the time in which theology was just about the same as dogmatics, although the end of those rough days was in sight.
No favourite themes
Bavinck's description of that which is characteristic of reformed theology certainly gives insight. Nevertheless, there is one disadvantage. The impression could be given that for reformed people a preference for certain themes, such as God's honour and God's election, is characteristic. Opposite which, the Lutherans would have their own favourite themes, and the Roman Catholics or the evangelicals of today, as well.
But that would do no justice to the intention of the Reformed of the sixteenth century. For them it was not about their own preferences, for which they claimed a place next to other preferences and idiosyncrasies. They did not want to be a special, separate group within the whole of the church. They wanted to be catholic indeed. They wanted to hold onto the ties with the church of every age and with her faith. I suspect, by the way, that Bavinck would be one of the first to recognise this.
C. Trimp: Everything which is Scriptural
What is reformed theology? In this connection I still find very instructive what C. Trimp wrote in 1964.7At the background of his writing is the fact that very different theologians claim to be 'reformed'. He names, for example, the nineteenth century modernist J.H. Scholten and the twentieth century theologians Karl Barth and Hendrik Berkhof. Besides this, the struggle about binding to the reformed confessions, which would end in the church split in 1967, plays a part.
Amongst other things, Trimp discusses Helenius de Cock's view. De Cock was one of the first four teachers at the Theological School in Kampen. According to De Cock, the confessions state what is reformed. Everything which is written in the confessions is reformed; what is not stated therein, is not; what opposes this, is not reformed. The Holy Scriptures say what is true. But the question of the truth is a different question to that of 'what is reformed?' The last question bears a pure historical character.8
Trimp's objection to de Cock's approach is, that in this way, the confessions threaten to become a complete whole over and against the Holy Scriptures. But that is just what the reformed confessions do not want to be. They want to be transparent before the Holy Scriptures. They want to reflect the truth revealed in Scripture. They want to confess the catholic faith and not codify the doctrine of a certain church federation.9
Trimp states that whoever wants to decide what 'reformed' is, must open the Bible. For this he refers to article 5 of the Belgic Confession: "we believe without any doubt all things contained in them" (the canonical books, GK). And according to article 7:
we believe that this Holy Scripture fully contains the will of God and that all that man must believe in order to be saved, is sufficiently taught therein". In this way the reformed churches have expressed themselves, what reformed people believe and what every person must believe. In the time of the Reformation it was not about certain favourite opinions. "The Reformation lets itself be brought down to the simple formula: Back to the Word of the only Master.10
That inspired Trimp himself to the simple formula, as answer to the question 'what is reformed?': "everything which is Scriptural, is reformed."11
In this Trimp demonstrates his agreement with the founder of the Gereformeerd Theologisch Tijdschrift, Lucas Lindeboom: "it is characteristically reformed to teach nothing, to want nothing but what the Scripture says." 12
- Reformed theology wants to go back to the word of the only Master. But how much does this actually happen in practice? Is there not so much already decided? Is there room for increase in insight?
Everything which is scriptural is reformed. This expression does justice to the intentions of the 16th century fathers of reformed theology. In this the character of reformed theology can be described further. Characteristic of reformed theology is that it wants to do justice to what God Himself wants to teach us from the Old and New Testament Scriptures, not only parts of it but from the whole.13God has the first word. For this reason what He says in the Bible must also have the last word in all theological discussions.
But alongside an intention – or, if you like: an ideal – is its realisation. From this basic conviction, reformed theology has taken on a certain historical form. The Bible was followed, not in a timeless way, but in a historical situation. In this historical situation certain questions were topical, such as those of the justification of sinners, of Christ's presence at the Lord's Supper, of the possibility of swearing an oath, and of God's election.
In that connection, it is often about great, wonderful things. What is greater than knowing that you do not have to prove yourself to God? But that He, if you call on Him, accepts you as you are? And that He does not leave you as you are, but makes a new, eternally living, man out of you through the Spirit of Christ, starting from your inner self? What gives more certainty than the sense, that your Father in heaven had his eye upon you even before creation, to make you share forever in Christ's love through all the temptations of a life in a world full of sin?14
Reformed theology is fascinating. For it gives you the opportunity to reflect on a religious conviction according to which small people do not have to act as though they are greater than they are, but are completely freed by the greatness of God, his mercy, his love. But as mere people deal with such great things, accidents can also happen. I think now only about the emphasis on election. Rightly Bavinck pointed out how central the position of this doctrine had become in the historical development of the reformed theology. But much has gone wrong in the course of the centuries. Sometimes election became the dominant perspective: before you could be sure of God's promise of forgiveness and life, you had to be certain about your personal election. Indeed, this was not scriptural and thus not reformed, but all the same 'reformed theology' could be associated with this misrepresentation in the course of time.
Just as with many terms, the word 'reformed' can in due course take on a meaning which has drifted far away from the original intentions. I value the word 'reformed'. The convictions to which this word refers and the theology attached to it, are still worth fighting for. Especially because of the catholic intention, the decisive role of the Holy Scriptures and the respectful recognition of the majesty of God and Jesus Christ. I would be very glad to see the word 'reformed' calling forth warm associations for many Christians again. As teacher and president of this academy, I want to work towards that; and my colleagues share this conviction – I know them well enough for that.
Yet there is but one name through which we must be saved, and that is not the name or the term 'reformed'. It is the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). This unique name, is what it was all about for the reformed people of the sixteenth century, and for many of their descendants of later times.
Corrections from Scripture
All being well, as reformed theologians, we want nothing other than to be faithful to the common Christian, catholic faith. In the light of the Bible, of the whole of the written word of God, we want to reflect on the questions which Christians, the Christian church and theology are confronted with in our time.
This does not mean that all theology simply and directly can be derived from the Bible, without making use of other sources. The simple fact alone that we have a Hebrew or Greek grammar book next to our bible, indicates this clearly. It does mean, however, that all our human thoughts are compared with the word of God in Scripture, and that they must be examined for compatibility with God's word as the supreme arbiter in all our disputes. I shall quote once more from article 7, Belgic Confession:
it is unlawful for anyone to teach otherwise than we are now taught in Holy Scripture." And: "We may not consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with the divine Scriptures; nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all.
Therefore this is also true of all thoughts which have been developed in the course of the history of reformed theology. It is equally true of the Belgic Confession and our other, confessional documents themselves. They are always open, not only to addition, but also to correction on the basis of the Scriptures themselves.
The reformed doctrine with regard to the Holy Scriptures, with elements as inspiration, authority and infallibility, is no exception to this. In the twentieth century this doctrine has played a decisive role in the confrontation with other theologies and in ecclesiastical discussions.15Nevertheless it is typically reformed to say even of this basis conviction that it is never definitely closed. Reformed theology can only be reformed theology if she keeps researching the Bible, also with regard to what the Lord teaches us about the character of His own word. That was the original intention behind the old reformed rule 'Sacra Scriptura sui ipsius interpres': the Holy Scripture is her own interpreter.
A light for our path
At this moment thus, I can do nothing better than open the Bible in order to consider with you for a few moments, the role of the Scriptures in reformed theology. This evening we read Psalm 119:97-112. I ask your attention for the most familiar verse in this text, verse 105: 'Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path'.
The person speaking in Psalm 119 is talking about 'your word', the word of the LORD. First he thinks of God's law, his commandments, recommendations and ordinances. In short: God's guidelines for our lives. But these words from God are never unrelated to His other words. This is true of the praise of God's law in Psalm 119 as well. In this very psalm God's word is also a promise of life to his servants. See verse 107: 'preserve my life, O Lord, according to your word' (see also v. 65).
It is a word with which God sets up a relationship with his people. And what sort of relationship is that? One in which He promises us love and life and asks for our hearts, our faithful love and childlike obedience. It is, in short, the word of love or covenant from our Father in heaven; the word which ultimately receives its power from the work of Jesus Christ.
Psalm 119:105 says of this word of God, that it is a light for our path and a lamp to our feet. That is not a light which takes away all dark moments from all dark places where you and I would like to look. The word of God does not answer all our questions. It does not solve all the problems of the world. It does not make empirical research of the creation and the way in which people function, unnecessary. It is a light for your path, and a lamp to your foot. It gives you light in the place you are standing. It makes clear to you how you can walk safely and where you must go, in your place in history.16
It is not as though you can decide that all alone. The first-person speaker in Psalm 119 seems in many ways to be on his own, nevertheless he knows himself to be united with others who also keep God's words. He even begins by saying so (vv. 1- 2):
Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD. Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart.
If that is not clear enough from Psalm 119, then it is certainly clear from the New Testament. Only 'together with all the saints' are we able 'to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge' (Eph. 3:18-19). The word of God, the Bible, has been given to Christ's church, so that we – just as the Jews in Berea (Acts 17:11) – can read and examine together what our God has to say to us.17
And even together we do not find everything that we might want to know, but we do receive the help we need in our circumstances: there where our foot is and where our path may be. But just there we really have light. So that we, if necessary, can say with conviction: 'this is what the Lord wants'.
If we say so, we do not fix things so unchangeably, as though we do not expect any chance of better insight until the Last Day. We receive light for our time, confess God's truth and follow His word. Then we can commit ourselves to what we have found together, also for the future. But we do not need to do so for all centuries yet to come. These are in God's hand. Also then, His word shall be a light on the path of Christ's disciples.
Open to growing insight
Reformed theology which is not open to growing insight, has forgotten her basic principle. That is that everything which is Scriptural is reformed. Nor has she read Psalm 119 properly. The first-person speaker in this Psalm recognises that he has strayed like a lost sheep (v. 176). He says also – it sounds anything but modest:
I have more insight than my all teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts.
Now I do not know if the poet of Psalm 119 was a very special man, somebody who had a sort of Solomon – like wisdom. Nor do I know if he says this, because as writer of a Psalm, he was aware of a special guidance from God's Spirit. But I do know that our Lord Jesus Christ said that every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven, is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old (Matt. 13:52).
This supply, the storeroom of God's word, is open to all of us. Naturally, teachers know more about the Bible and about theology than students. One has more knowledge of Scripture and a more direct access to the languages in which the Bible has been written, than the other. But if reformed theology at rock bottom wants to be nothing other than biblical theology, then the students may fully join in the discussion.
Someone said in this last year, that as student you are a client. In other words: the teacher is responsible for supplying the educational product, the student takes it. I agree completely. But here, at this reformed Theological University, a student is always more than a costumer. He is somebody whose input is not only desirable but also necessary. If it is about insight into the Scriptures, all the saints may join in this and we need them all.
In our present culture you often hear things like 'I see that differently' or 'I feel that differently'. Such feelings are relevant, also at our Theological University. Here students can help teachers to keep their both feet on the ground. Please say so, if you feel something like this rising within you. But not as the end of the discussion. See it as the beginning, the beginning of a discussion in which God's word itself must ultimately be decisive.
Is it Biblical?
Reformed theology wants to be faithful to the catholic faith. It wants to talk about the questions which arise with God's Word as the touchstone. This means that not only the insights of students are welcome but also that everything can be integrated that can actually stand the test of the biblical criterion, whether it is presented under the heading of reformed theology or not.
It is very understandable and right that the question is often raised: 'is this now still reformed or not?' You can see this question as a grateful recognition of what we have received in our own confessions and in all the development of convictions surrounding these (that is to say: in our reformed tradition). But it must not be your only question, nor your first. The first and decisive question must be – whether or not something can stand before God's word. Only then is it truly reformed.
Now I understand that the reality is often different from the picture which I just drew. That is also true for myself. I realise very well, that in our tradition we have not always tried as hard as possible to gain deeper understanding, and especially that there has not always been the stimulus to seek also new insights. Small people are busy with great things. That will always be so.
I do hope that I have offered a contribution towards thinking anew about what for us as reformed theologians our principles, our task and yes, our ideal must be. Everybody may hold us to this. That is what we want to aim for. Because as long as reformed theology is true catholic biblical theology, is studying here an effort worth making. Then we can do our work, with enthusiasm.