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Theology Matters, 2016


Fall 2016

Learning to Speak Thoughtfully of Jesus: Calvin’s Way With Heretics by Karen Petersen Finch

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 Mark Patterson

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.1 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 vital2 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. 

The Vertical: “Be Reconciled To God” A Sermon to the 222nd General Assembly  by Jerry Andrews [2 Corinthians 5:16-6:3]

Excerpt: I have argued that the Church has a Faith without which she cannot live faithfully. That Faith declares that a loving God sent a crucified and risen Savior, in whom God reconciled us to God and is now reconciling the world. That truth is announcement before it is agenda. The vertical orients the horizontal. This truth, I have attempted to persuade you, is the truth on which the reconciliation of, and within, the Church is founded. This is the Faith that we are invited to reaffirm: God reconciled us through Christ. In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. Past tense, notably— the best tense for the announcement of the Gospel. God “has” provided for our salvation. See what God “has” done in Christ. And this is the faithfulness which it invites: Entreating each other to be reconciled to God. Urging each other to do so now.

We are the first generation of Presbyterian officers not to have in our ordination questions a sentence with both words, truth and unity, such as, “Will you maintain the truth for the sake of the unity of the Church?” The Faith tends toward faithfulness, Truth toward unity. This is Paul’ s message. 

Allow me a further word. It belongs to Augustine who, commenting on being drawn to God, with a heart wide open to God, and once having been alienated from God, yet desiring God with great affection, knowingly writes: “Give me a man who has been in love, he will feel what I now say. Give me someone who yearns. Give me one who is travelling in this wilderness, thirsting and panting after the springs of the eternal home. Give me such, I say, and they will know what I am saying.”

A Reformation Day Sermon by David McKechnie [Eph. 2:8-9]

Learning How to Help Each Other by Managing Editor Reverent Richard Burnett, PhD   
Invitation to take the Theology Matters readers' survey (click through to participate).

Summer 2016

Does Theology Matter? by the Rev. Richard Burnett, PhD.

The new executive director of Theology Matters answers the question. He maintains that what we say about God has a profound effect in shaping individuals and societies—even when the theology is unacknowledged, even when its adherents may be atheists who reject God as they conceive him. For the church, theology is not just any talk about God but our response to what God has said about himself in his Word. Theology is a necessary tool for the church to respond faithfully to God’s self-revelation. Theology, to borrow Calvin’s phrase, guides us in determining “what [we] ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to what end [we] ought to relate its contents.”

Burnett notes, however, that it has been a constant struggle to keep the proper focus on the truth that God has revealed in Jesus Christ. Especially in America and even in its Reformed churches, there has been a tendency to subordinate theology—to make it a useful servant of individual and social betterment. Doing theology with integrity is hard work, but it is indispensable work when Christians face complex issues in the church and world. Burnett closes by affirming the commitment of Theology Matters “to the ongoing task of doing theology for the church with deeper love and greater joy.”

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.

Spring 2016

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.

This issue also contains the announcement of the appointment of the Rev. Richard Burnett, PhD., as the new Executive Director of Theology Matters.