Reformed and Reforming
I realise that this fact is widely recognised and might possibly be seen as a question of semantics but it is nevertheless an important point. Many might agree that the Church cannot simply base its teaching on a static theology that derives from the 16th century. Newfrontiers, as a movement, is hopefully not static! This is especially the case in light of its openness to newness in the Spirit. I would suggest that what should be aimed for is a balance between being reformed and reforming. One can, that is, continue to affirm those doctrines that are considered sacred, that were highlighted during the reformation and that are fundamental to what might be expressed as a biblical Christianity. One may also, though, see the need to critically engage with the reformers in the reforming task (as Matthew Hosier and Andrew Wilson model) even on those issues that we affirm as central. Further than this, the reforming task is one that takes seriously the fact that the Spirit is at work in the Church of the present as that which brings truth and clarity.
There may be a number of aspects of reformation theology that are foundational to the self-understanding of Newfrontiers. For example, many might want to say that the insights of John Calvin on God’s sovereignty and election or Martin Luther on Justification are fundamental and need to be retained. Even then, though, it might be recognised that there is more to say than either Luther or Calvin said on these two doctrinal issues. Using those two doctrines, (election and justification) I will attempt to show what a reformed and reforming attitude might possibly look like. It should be noted that my suggestions are not meant to be taken uncritically; particularly with reference to those theologians that I draw from who others may not agree with. However, those who do not agree with me on particularly doctrinal issues may hopefully feel that the methodological points that I am making are of value.
To take the first example on election, it might be emphasised that, with Calvin, election is that which is from all eternity a gracious act of the sovereign God as opposed to something that the human can do for him- or herself. As Calvin says of the doctrine:
“It is useful, necessary, and most sweet. Ignorance of it impairs the glory of God, plucks up humility by the roots, begets and fosters pride. The doctrine establishes the certainty of salvation, peace of conscience, and the true origin of the Church.” (Calvin, Institutes, Chapter 21)
One might also suggest, though, that there are certain aspects of this doctrine that need to be further developed; elements that Calvin, as it were, leaves undone. The trouble is, as soon as I make this suggestion, I find it very difficult not to in turn undo Calvin’s explanation of the doctrine. My personal proposition is that, on this issue, Karl Barth provides helpful solutions (though I acknowledge that others may strongly disagree with me here). He too explains election as ‘the sweetest of all doctrines.’ He affirms with Calvin that election is entirely God’s free decision and that humans are not capable of choosing God for themselves. Barth, however, provides a helpful corrective in that he shows that election is not just about a sovereign decree directed toward humanity. Rather, election is something that should always be thought of Christologically. Election, for Barth, involves Christ as the electing God and the elect man. What Barth adds to the reformed understanding is a making of election something that is not just a result of a divine dictate to humanity, but rather a divine involvement with humanity. So Barth:
“In the beginning, before time and space as we know them, before creation, before there was any reality distinct from God which could be the object of the love of God or the setting for His acts of freedom, God anticipated and determined within Himself [...] that the goal and meaning of all His dealings with the as yet non-existent universe should be the fact that in His Son He would be gracious towards man, uniting Himself with him” (Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2)
One might say that there is room for this understanding within Calvin’s basic framework but that he just didn’t fully explore this Christological dimension. With regards to a reformed and reforming theology, we may say that Barth provides one possible avenue for developing Calvin’s understanding in that he is working within the reformed and reforming framework. He is, therefore, someone useful to be interacted with.
With regards to justification, and here I will be more brief (possibly at the expense of clarity), we may agree with Luther’s basic insight that justification is a gift from God and that there is no biblical basis for a justification by works. We may also listen, though, to N.T. Wright, for example, who wants to remind us that justification is tied up, in the historical context, with Israel, and subsequently the Church, in terms of her covenantal membership with God and calling to be a righteous community. Admittedly, as several of Andrew’s posts have illustrated, Wright’s presentation has led to confusion over whether he is advocating a view of justification as imparted rather than imputed. But this is where the awareness of the need for a reformed and reforming understanding comes in, as does the need to be biblical. To what extent are we willing, that is, to have our dearly held reformed principles rocked? I, for one, do not fully agree with Wright on this issue, but my basis for that should not be that I hold Martin Luther’s view uncritically or without openness to the Spirit’s leading. I should, therefore, be open to having my view unsettled by someone like Wright. This is further the case in the context of agreeing with so much of what he says elsewhere.
The illustrative examples are not meant to be exhaustive but rather act as pointers toward what a reformed and reforming theology might look like. In other words, my suggestion is something of a methodological one as well as a specifically theological one. The reformation theologians can, I would suggest, be seen as touchstones for our present and future exposition of biblical themes. They are, if you like, our accountability measure or safety blanket. We should, though, be willing to swim in the risky waters of modern theology at large in order to ensure that we are fulfilling the reforming task by the Spirit.
Alister McGrath helpfully points out the following with regard to Calvin:
“His ‘theological heritage’ has proved fertile perhaps to a greater extent than any other Protestant writer. Richard Baxter, Jonathan Edwards, and Karl Barth, in their very different ways, bear witness to the pivotal role that Calvin’s ideas have played in shaping Protestant self-perceptions down the centuries.” (McGrath, The Blackwell Companion to Protestantism)
To a large extent I agree with McGrath’s insight, though again I would also encourage us to be willing to risk certain static forms of Reformed theology for the sake of the continuous need to be a spirit led reforming community.