Wednesday, October 31, 2018

"On Being Reformed" - A Review

On Being Reformed, Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, Scott Clark, Crawford Gribben, and Darryl Hart.
Christianities in the Trans-Atlantic World, (London, Palgrave Macmillam, 94 pages.)

If you are interested over the question of what constitutes being in the ‘Reformed’ tradition, what its special genius is and what its limits are, then ‘On Being Reformed’: Debates over a Theological Tradition, is for you.   It is the first of a series of debates,  Palgrave Pivots, a series devoted to ‘Christianities in the Trans-Atlantic World’. The contributors are Matthew C. Bingham, (Oak Hill College), Chris Caughey, (Queen’s University, Belfast), R. Scott Clark, (Westminster Seminary, California), Crawford Gribben (Queen’s University Belfast), and D.G. Hart, (Hillsdale College, Michigan), and the book is published by Palgrave Macmillan. 

I shall take a little time giving the flavour of the four chapters, and then making comments from further away. In this debate, the authors of the first two chapters, Caughey and Gribben together, and Bingham alone, are left in the hands of Clark alone and Hart alone. So the reader truly crosses the  Atlantic in debate, but an important strand of influence in the exchanges is found in the neo-Calvinism of the Gospel Coalition,  and groups of Reformed Baptists in the States, even the Banner of Truth Trust, who don’t have a spokesman in this debate. That I reckon might have issued in a change to its terms, which are, perhaps it is fair to say, focused on the works of print history. All contributions work to a high academic standard, well-read and well-informed, supplying the reader with numerous facts and ideas, in footnotes and evidence of out-of-the-way learning.

The advocates of a hard-line view of what ‘Reformed’ implies are Darryl Hart and Scott Clark, who have published extensively.  So they are given the last says, Darryl Hart ‘Baptists are Different’ and Scott Clark’s ‘A House of Cards? A Response to Bingham, Gribben, and Caughey'. They have the first two papers  ‘History, Identity Politics, and the “Recovery of the Reformed Confession”’ , by  Chris Caughey and Crawford Gribben, and ‘Anachronistic Oxymoron or Useful Signposts’, Matthew Bingham.

The ‘hard line’  is the view that the numerous early Reformed Confessions,  including of course advocacy of paedobaptism and a state or city-wide divinely warranted to take political charge of the welfare of Reformed churches.  But the state church element was surrendered, trumped by the American Constitution. Caughey and Gribben make the further point that there are numerous early Reformed confessions, each of which have changed over time, which they document,  making the plenary view untenable, for ‘Reformed’ is invoked by those who differ among themselves theologically. So they advocate that judgment should be exercised, involving a core of doctrines, surrounded by a periphery. Denominational distinctives, with the Baptists in the interstices between the different Reformed confessions, plus difficulties in policing confessional boundaries, make recovering the original position futile, from a historical point of view. Gribben and Caughey identify Clark’s strategy, and its weakness.  (15) And aren’t 16th and 17th Confessions now ‘dated’? 

Matthew Bingham centres on the term ‘Reformed Baptist’, minted during the post Banner of Truth era, identifying the resurgence of interest  in Reformed theology  in various parts, on both sides of the Atlantic. What are the losses and gains of calling others, and of being called, ‘Reformed Baptist’? From personal experience those who bear the title are not generally speaking confessional sensitive. (Would more of them were of a 'predestinarian stripe’)  (54)  They bridle at the 1689 Baptist Confession’s commitment to divine simplicity, and pass it by. Others  (the ‘really Reformed Baptist’ perhaps), are more like some Presbyterians are with the Westminster Confession, fully confessing it still, after nearly 500 years.  Nevertheless in a book almost exclusively contained with the printed word, there is surprisingly little attention paid to the remarkable fact that three Calvinistic confessions, The Westminster,  the Savoy Declaration,  and the 1689 Baptist,  are substantially the same, and identifiably Ref0rmed, what else? No mention here of open or closed communion in the Baptists, or the formation of  'union' chapels of Baptists and Congregationalists  in the past, with alternating ministers. Anyhow,  Bingham opts for 'Reformed Baptist', which is fair enough, but perhaps off the target of the book.

Hart has produced a more institutional approach. I think he could have saved a bit of effort by not calling his well-received survey of Reformed institutions, Calvinism but, say,  The Reformed World. He distinguishes between the historical methods of  lumpers and splitters, following J. H Hexter. (55 f.) He classes the Reformed Baptist sympathizers in the book as lumpers in their irenic attitude to those who count themselves as Reformed, while he himself is content to be a splitter, along with Clark. It seems however, that lumpers a la MacCulloch or Carlos Eire (and perhaps DeYoung, a traitorous splitter?)  each make lumps of different shapes. I do not however believe that the lump shaped by Reformed Baptists contains 16th century Anabaptists (or Mennonites), (a rare breed in the UK) in preference to, say, Calvin and Rutherford. Hart’s chapter is wide ranging, but it was a transatlantic mis-routing to allow him devote an entire section to ‘the 600-pound gorilla, Lutheranism', as there is hardly a Lutheran congregation in the entire United Kingdom. Despite the provocative nature of Clark’s position (adorned with a great deal of  theological learning, I 
was puzzled by his view that John Owen is regarded as a Reformed theologian (63), and even more surprised with Michael Allen’s view that John Owen and Jonathan Edwards are ‘the greatest Reformed theologians”. (41) The latter is certainly politically incorrect among some Reformed hardliners. And Clark's  'truly Reformed'  position cannot  withstand his judgment on Owen.

I’m not sure about there being a current debate on this topic in England, though
maybe one could be started. Perhaps there’s the makings of a debate in Scotland and Northern Ireland. That’s because of the fact that there Presbyterians are the most conspicuous in having as their history the history of reformation confessional - writing of the seventeenth century. Yet even uncommitted or unconcerned readers can benefit from the learning and diversity of the debaters, with the greatest stake being in how their history can be ‘read’ as we enter new phases of culture. In reading of their endeavours we get clearer about what a tradition is, and about what in the eyes of some brings a tradition to an end or causes it to flourish. 

However, without being ungrateful to the debaters for their learned labours, I cannot help thinking that there is a one-dimensionality about the debate. It has busied itself solely with documents as validating or invalidating the identity of complex human institutions. There is more to them than keeping their founding documents to the fore, as if this were all!  Reading the book we come to learn more about the way the foundational purpose of confessions have been to certain churches and denominations. But what are the churches, and the congregations of these churches, for? What are their co-confessors like? Do they have any friends across religious divides? And where is their heart, and centre, that makes them tick? One thing we know from church history is that churches can die while their foundational documents are still displayed and revered, but untouched.

This debate has smothered a different approach, that of verstehen, of 'smelling the coffee'. It is one thing to argue the (false) claim that our confessions of faith have remained unchanged since the Reformation, another wonderful thing to live by their gracious doctrines. With others, to rejoice in the privilege of being 'in Christ'. As already stated,  it is a singular, remarkable providence that three of our English confessions are word for word almost identical in Reformed soteriology, including  the classic catholic trinitarian and incarnational positions. We could therefore unite here, and encourage each other thereby, even strengthening our grasp of our respective confessions, like iron sharpening iron.  Is that not a distinctive form of Reformed religion,  whether or not we are credobaptist or paedobaptist, even if different in our ecclesiology and in the administration of baptism.  At a time when the faith is increasingly under threat, and our family life as Christians is being undermined, and as there are various popular distortions as well as ancient heresies freely peddled, to have the strengthening of distinctive Christian fellowship is a traditional activity that should outweigh  our marginal confessional differences.  Perhaps fostering such fellowship requires a little more social ostracism, and perhaps that will come.