Homogeneity and Heterogeneity
So wrote the London merchant Thomas Mun in 1664 when discussing the trade and commerce of the Netherlands. Yet he could just as easily have been describing the character of the Dutch Reformation a hundred years earlier. The Reformation in the Netherlands was never a one man, John Calvin, show. Long before anyone had ever heard of Calvin, Luther’s books were being translated, published and circulated. Alongside Luther’s works, the writings of Philip Melanchthon, Andreas Karlstadt and Martin Bucer as well as a host of lesser known theologians such as Otto Brunfels, Johannnes Bugenhagen, Mathias Bynwalth, Casper Huberinus, Balthasar Hubmaier, Urbanus Regius, Hans Sachs, Johannes Stammel, Francois Lambert, John Bale, Thomas Becon and Patrick Hamilton all circulated in a country where it was a capital offence to possess an evangelical book or Bible.
Most of these foreign authors were German Lutherans, but this does not mean that the Dutch Reformation can simply be described as “Lutheran” in its earliest phase. Zwingli’s symbolic interpretation of the Lord’s Supper, the notion that “This is my body” should be understood as “This signifies/represents my body” was borrowed from a Dutch theologian, Cornelius Hoen. Bearing in mind that Luther went on to say in 1527 that he would “Rather drink pure blood with the pope than mere wine with the fanatics” we can see that there were decidedly un-Lutheran traits in the Dutch Reformation. By 1530 many Dutch evangelicals were being won over to the Anabaptist cause through the preaching of Melchior Hoffman – again a decidedly un-Lutheran influence.
The earliest writings of Calvin to be translated into Dutch appeared in the 1550s by which time the Dutch Reformation had been in full swing (albeit underground) for over 30 years. The first Dutch critic of predestination was Anastasius Veluanus who published a layman’s guide to theology in 1554. Close inspection reveals that Veluanus’ theology is decidedly eclectic. On the question of baptism he sided with Luther in permitting emergency lay baptism, but with Calvin in rejecting the notion that unbaptized children are eternally damned. On the issue of the Lord’s Supper he sided with Luther in permitting communion as part of the administration of the last rites but against the German reformer in adopting a non-literal interpretation of the words “This is my body”.
Close inspection of his rejection of predestination, however, reveals not so much an anti-Calvinism as a statement of preference for Melancthon’s rejection of antinomianism. In the later editions of his Loci Communes (1534 and 1544), Melancthon argued against the notion of absolute predestination, affirming that election should be judged not by reason or the Law but by the Gospel, that it is Christ’s desire to redeem all mankind and that the only reason for election is justification. At the same time, Melancthon strongly emphasized the extensive nature of God’s promises, quoting Scripture such as 1 Timothy 2:4 – “God desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” – and maintained that the cause of reprobation is not God’s decree but man’s own disobedience to the Gospel. Anastasius’ openly acknowledged debt to Melanchthon is confirmed by the similarity of their arguments. In the first place, both men were highly suspicious of the “secret decree” of God in predestination. Second, both gave place to the same three factors in conversion – the Word of God, the Holy Spirit and the human will. Finally, neither Melancthon nor Anastasius can be considered a Pelagian, for neither man attributed anything of merit to the activity of the human will, nor said that the will acts by its own powers.
Where does this leave us in regard to the Remonstrant-Counter Remonstrant debate and can this shed any light on where we stand right now as a second generation movement? Clearly, the Remonstrant-Counter Remonstrant controversy has deep roots and the tensions that grew up in the early seventeenth century came to the surface because of the eclectic nature of the Dutch Reformation. There never was a simply Calvinistic Reformed Church in the Netherlands. Evangelicalism there was a much more complex and subtle phenomenon. There is an obvious parallel here for Newfrontiers as a movement. As Matthew Hosier has pointed out, we like to call ourselves “Reformed” and, indeed, in many ways we are, but this is something of an over-simplification. Newfrontiers has always been a curious hybrid – Reformed in many areas of doctrine, especially soteriology, yes, without doubt. However, we have a Baptist theology of baptism, a Brethren-type understanding of the self-government of the local church, a Presbyterian commitment to eldership government. There has even been, at times, a hint of Episcopalianism in our understanding of the oversight of local churches though we have, thankfully, moved strongly away from this direction. All of this is not a problem – we would say that we are looking simply to be New Testament rather than to follow fashions and trends in Church history – unless we ever imagine that there ever has been or ever will be complete doctrinal unity on secondary issues amongst us. This was the mistake that both sides of the Remonstrant-Counter Remonstrant debate made. They both claimed to hold to the original tenets of the Dutch Reformation and when the clash came both sides became increasingly intransigent. The moment we look to be over-precise on secondary issues becomes the moment we fracture.
One of our greatest strengths as a family of churches has been our ability to live with theological tension. In no context was that seen more clearly than at Together on a Mission when we had Rob Rufus as our main visiting speaker in 2008 and Mark Driscoll in 2009. Rather than aiming for “balance” (a very dull concept) we were fathered by a leader who was able to live at the polar opposites that Rob and Mark represent. We should firmly resist any tendency to gravitate to either polar extreme. We need to live at both ends of the spectrum.