Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Protestant Reformation by Rev. Paul C. McGlasson, PhD
The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the onset of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses on the castle church door in Wittenberg. It was, appropriately, high noon, though his posting was intended not so much for dramatic effect as for scholarly discussion among his theological colleagues at the University of Wittenberg. In fact they were written in Latin, the language of learned debate.
The immediate issue of the 95 theses has long since passed from the historical horizon: the power and efficacy of indulgences (though in some ways the sale of indulgences can be seen as an early version of our all too popular prosperity gospel, still very much alive). Indeed, it had already done so during Luther’s lifetime....What follows is a brief attempt to summarize the main thrust of Reformation teaching, especially according to Luther and Calvin, in my judgment its most prominent and persuasive advocates.
Surveying Presbyterian Beliefs “Theological Reflection” and Reformed Theology by Rev. Michael D. Bush, PhD
Recently the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) released the results of a Presbyterian Panel survey entitled “Theological Reflection.” It describes the views of members and ministers in three areas: Interreligious issues, understanding and affirmation of the Presbyterian theological tradition, and certain matters related to vocation and worship. In this article we focus on the second set of issues, the theological concepts and themes. For those who care about the tradition of Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity, there is some good news in these data, along with evidence of considerable misinformation and confusion.
The Catechized Prodigal: When Covenant Children Lose Their Way by Rev. James P. Hering, PhD
Of the numerous passages in the Scriptures which admonish the parent concerning the rearing of children, the Book of Proverbs contains some of the most pithy and memorable. Who cannot finish the folksy rendering of 13:24, “Spare the rod and...”? Such proverbs have endured in the collective consciousness of our society due, in part, to their candid, striking images.
The classic proverbial form suspends the complexity of our human condition between two poles, creating an either-or dialectic in which no mediating resolution seems anticipated. As frustrating as this may be for the modern mind, contrast is the teacher here, not synthesis. The proverb, by virtue of this feature, requires the reader to engage in a process of assessment, a sober self-identification, before practical application is to be made. The ethical implications and responsibilities lie, typically, along a spectrum between various extremes: life or death, truth and lies, fool vs. sage, etc. The reader, like it or not, is called to choose a path, and to a certain degree, challenged to define it, as well. The latter element, defining the characteristics of the particular virtue or lifestyle, constitutes the arduous inquiry into the “way of wisdom.”
Learning to Speak Thoughtfully of Jesus: Calvin’s Way With Heretics by Rev. Karen Petersen Finch, PhD
Most Christians have a basic understanding of the issues that led to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Yet we all tend to downplay the degree of theological uncertainty in which the reformers were working. Challenges to the Roman Church’s theology and practice created a vacuum in which ancient heresies1 came out of their hiding places (so to speak) and clamored for reconsideration. Much earlier, in the fourth and fifth centuries, Christians had affirmed that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were fully God along with the Father (the doctrine of the Trinity); they had also clarified that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine (the doctrine of the two natures of Christ). Yet not everyone in the 16th century was willing to follow their lead. A flourishing of heretical teaching partly explains why Luther and Calvin gave authority to the Nicene Creed (325) and the Definition of Chalcedon (451) respectively as clarifications of biblical thought, even while they were committed to the principle of “Scripture alone” (sola scriptura).
This article explores how John Calvin held to the Nicene/Chalcedonian understanding of Jesus Christ in the face of a particular challenge. It is good to know that Calvin did this, and how he did it, for a number of reasons. First, if we think of Calvin as writing only in response to Roman Catholic theology, we miss out on much of the creative and constructive flavor of his work. Calvin was writing for all Christians, explaining and defending not only Reformation convictions but also the ancient faith. Moreover, the particular way in which Calvin adhered to creedal teaching on the person and work of Jesus is instructive to us today. What should be our response to misunderstandings of Jesus Christ that reappear, in slightly different form, from generation to generation? It helps to begin—as Calvin did—with the early church.
Why Church Leaders Should Study Theology by Rev. Mark Patterson, PhD
In order to lead any organization one must clearly, accurately, and firmly perceive two realities. The first is what the organization exists to accomplish. The second is how well the organization is fulfilling this purpose. Where either (or worse, both) of these ceases to provide guidance and influence, the organization will inevitably become directionless, purposeless, and irrelevant.
This axiom is no less true for the church and those called to lead it. When the church—regardless of whether this refers to an entire denomination or specific congregation—loses sight of its purpose it will inevitably become aimless, distracted, and inconsequential. And where its leaders fail to accurately and honestly assess or, worse, deny its true condition, this drift toward irrelevancy will only hasten. The health and vitality of the church then is dependent upon its faithfulness to the purpose for which it was birthed and its courageous rejection of anything that might distract or turn it from seeing this fulfilled. It is vital then that those in leadership understand God’s intention and purpose for the church and have the ability to assess its true faithfulness in fulfilling this mandate.
Worship Reformed According to Scripture: Hughes Oliphant Old in Retrospect, by the Rev. Walter L. Taylor, D.Min, pastor of Oak Island Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Oak Island, NC.
Taylor reviews the life and work of the recently deceased Hughes Oliphant Old, the preeminent scholar of Reformed worship in his generation. Old endeavored to show the distinctiveness of an approach to worship that is “Reformed according to Scripture.” The key point, as Taylor explains, was how Reformed leaders dealt with liturgical practices that were neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture. They did not follow the Anabaptists in rejecting such practices because they were not explicitly authorized. Nor did they follow the Lutherans in categorizing such practices as “indifferent,” and therefore allowable. Instead the Reformed asked whether such practices were in conformity with the broad teaching of Scripture in context. This approach required a more sophisticated study of the Bible than simply searching for proof texts.
Taylor traces how Old illuminated this distinctive Reformed approach in reference to baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and preaching. Old was a strong proponent of the ancient and Reformed tradition of lectio continua preaching, which proceeds consecutively through a book of the Bible, allowing the Scripture to set the agenda for the preacher. As such, he opposed the move among many Presbyterians toward a Roman Catholic-style calendar of liturgical seasons. Old believed that preaching would suffer as it was yoked to scattered lectionary excerpts matched to the seasons. As Taylor observes, Old was widely respected as a scholar, although his insights were not so widely heeded. Nevertheless, Taylor concludes, Old “has left behind rich resources” for “those who, like Isaac, seek to dig again the wells of their fathers” in the Reformed faith.
John Calvin on the Unity and Truthfulness of the Church, by the Rev. James C. Goodloe IV, PhD., Executive Director of the Foundation for Reformed Theology and a member of the Theology Matters Board of Directors.
Holding together both the unity and the truthfulness of the Church is a struggle in any age, our own as well as the sixteenth century. Goodloe turns to Book Four of John Calvin’s masterwork, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, to elucidate how the great reformer worked through those tensions in his time. First, he considers Calvin’s account of the one true church, marked by the preaching of the Gospel and the celebration of the sacraments according to God’s Word. With this church, Calvin says, we must keep unity regardless of its many other failings. Next, Goodloe discusses Calvin’s contrasting view of the false church which repudiates the plain teaching of Scripture. Separation from such a church is not merely an option, but an obligation.
Goodloe also touches on two points in Calvin that may have particular relevance today. The first is Calvin’s lack of confidence in provincial councils of the church, which may be the closest equivalent to our contemporary denominations. The second point is Calvin’s insistence that a church must have a proper constitution to order its internal life. Goodloe raises the question, suggested by recent actions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly, as to whether that denomination still has a governing constitution.
Is the Reformation Ever Finished? by the Rev. Michael D. Bush, PhD., pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Athens, Alabama, and a member of the Theology Matters Board of Directors.
Bush seeks to discover the original meaning of the popular phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda—best translated as “a Reformed church, always needing to be reformed.” This phrase, often touted as “the motto of the Reformation” and presented as a distillation of John Calvin’s thought, has been used to justify a program of continuous change in the doctrines and practices of the church. That meaning, however, is not what Bush finds in the historical record.
In fact, the origins of the reformanda slogan appear to go back no further than the late seventeenth century—almost 150 years after Calvin. The Dutch theologians who first formulated variants of the phrase were hardly champions of ceaseless theological innovation. On the contrary, they urged a “Further Reformation” to restore the church to its original purity from which it was constantly slipping away. According to Bush, nothing like the reformanda slogan appears in Calvin’s writings, and the notion of continuous reformation would have been foreign to the reformer. At the end of his life, Calvin expressed satisfaction that “things … are not badly constituted” in Geneva and he warned against innovation.