Global Reformed Theology

In today’s world, the question will naturally arise, though not in the minds of many Reformed theologians, of the nature of Reformed theology and belief in a world where Christianity is shifting to the South and the East. There are many more Christians now in Africa and Asia than in the West. What was representative for Christianity used to be Western, American or European. However, now the picture is different. What does that mean for the Reformed faith? Questions arise concerning the whole approach to theology as well as the confessions.

Certainly, it is necessary for the Reformed world to wake up to this reality. For instance, the Presbyterian Church in Brazil has many more members than the PCA. Even the PCA (which is the largest English-speaking Reformed denomination in the world) is only middlin when it comes to Reformed churches in the world.

One of the main concerns that I have whenever I see attempts to address this question is that social concerns are in danger of swamping the Gospel message. For instance, when people address the Reformed Gospel’s progress in Africa, it tends to be related closely to things like apartheid. Now, the Reformed Gospel has very important ramifications for something like apartheid. However, the Gospel is not to be made equivalent to any particular position with regard to apartheid. Racial reconciliation is a result of the Gospel, not a component of it.

Similarly, is the Westminster Confession of Faith too narrow, too precise, and just too British for the South and the East? Not at all. If we really believe that it is a summary of biblical teaching, then it has no racial or cultural boundaries, anymore than the Gospel itself does. For if we confess that the Westminster Standards contain THE system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture (and not just A system), then we must equate our understanding of the Gospel with the Standards. The Standards are intended to be our confession of what the Gospel is. As such, it addresses the whole human race, and the human sin problem. The solution for sin is the same no matter what race a person is.

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26 Comments

  1. Danny Hyde said,

    February 10, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    this is great, lane. one of our sister churches, the Church of Christ in the Sudan among the Tiv, is the largest of the “conservative, confessional” churches in the world. they adhere to the heidelberg catechism stricly and require catechumens to be instructed for up to 3 years before joining the church, a la, the ancient church. with at and the threat of islam, they are growing by leaps and bounds. i think they have more catechumens than the PCA has members! amazing to see how god works.

  2. February 10, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Perhaps you could enlarge somewhat on the apartheid comments. In fact, it would appear that the seating arrangements for meals in Galatia were very much at the heart of the Gospel, and a failure to grasp the sociological implication of justification was itself a denial of the very heart of justification. Might apartheid be a similar case in point? Having been to SA on a few occasions – before and after the collapse of the apartheid system – I can say that the relational issues remain a very considerable issue.

    That said, I appreciate very much the questions being raised. They deserve careful consideration, especially as we ponder mission and how we serve those who are already doing so very much in the southern hemisphere.

  3. February 10, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    One thing that would help is competent translations of the Westminster Standards into many different languages. How many translations exist already?

  4. G.C. Berkley said,

    February 11, 2009 at 8:54 am

    Where in Scripture is up to 3 years of catechism instruction required before church membership?

    Just curious….

  5. gairneybridge said,

    February 11, 2009 at 10:19 am

    Following along these same lines, I would note that there are almost four times as many ARPs in Pakistan (over 100,000) than there are in the U.S.

    How available is the WCF in modern English for those places in Africa where English (but not 17th century English!) is the official language? One of the reasons the Heidelberg Catechism is so accessible to modern (English) readers is that it is a translation. Perhaps we should think of doing something more “officially” with the WCF. I know the OPC has a modern version on its website, but its receiving is not official, I don’t think.

  6. Benjamin P. Glaser said,

    February 11, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Ditto to Gairney…

  7. Al said,

    February 11, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    gairnybridge…

    Perhaps Wycliffe will take this up and get the WCF into the hands of unreached people groups around the world.

    al sends

  8. greenbaggins said,

    February 11, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    David, as important as the ramifications of social justice are for the Gospel, they simply are not the same thing as the Gospel itself, which has to do with the forgiveness of sins as the result of Christ’s work on the cross. The historia salutis leads to the ordo salutis. The result is reconciliation between God and man. Forgiven man must then go out and reconcile with his fellow believers, and, as far as is possible, live at peace with those who do not believe. What I am concerned about is the usual liberal practice of taking social justice out of the context of prior belief in the Gospel, and pursuing it for its own sake. I would be happy saying that racial reconciliation is a necessary consequence of the Gospel. I am not happy saying that racial reconciliation (especially since this often involves UNBELIEVERS) is part of the Gospel.

  9. Reed Here said,

    February 11, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    GC, the comment was a reflection on the Early Church’s practice, representing the earliest “application” of discipleship following the Apostles’ ministry. There wasn’t any particular Scripture in view. (Unless someone wants to correct me.)

  10. February 11, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    Lane,

    Great post. We all tend to think within our cultural contexts. It’s wonderful to see God’s graciousness in the gospel spread so widely to the ends of the earth. While we in the US and the UK struggle with dead, liberal churches ordaining homosexuals, liberal social “gospels”, and errors like word-faith and federal vision, the Reformed in Korea, China, and Africa are sending missionaries HERE to spread the gospel of Christ. God truly shows no favoritism towards national boundaries.

    I agree that the Westminster Standards should be translated into as many languages as possible. I think that if it had been spread in China in the 70’s and 80’s along with Bibles, the Chinese home churches might have gone more solidly Reformed rather than their widespread Charismatic leanings. But then all things happen under God’s absolute sovereignty.

    Like you, I wonder how many in the PCA have considered these things.

  11. cbovell said,

    February 11, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    “The great variety of Reformed confessions is not simply an accident of history and geography but is rooted in Reformed theology, which was vigorously opposed to all idolatry, including the idolatry of creeds. All creeds are subordinate to the Word of God, and no one creed can presume to be *the* creed.” -J. Leith, Creeds of the Churches, 127.

    It’s been awhile guys. I’ve been so busy, I simply don’t have the time to be online for these kinds of talks anymore. But I wanted to chime in nonethless if I may:

    Lane writes: If we really believe that it is a summary of biblical teaching, then it has no racial or cultural boundaries, anymore than the Gospel itself does. For if we confess that the Westminster Standards contain THE system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture (and not just A system), then we must equate our understanding of the Gospel with the Standards. The Standards are intended to be our confession of what the Gospel is.

    I would amend to say: we believe it is a historically conditioned, culturally embedded summary of biblical teachings that are themselves embedded in history and culture. I would also preface by reminding that in pockets of our present culture it still makes sense to speak of “THE” system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture as if the “systems” of doctrine we devise can be exhaustive.

    Lane’s assessment of the matter is very much open to negotiation in my view, but the real reason I stopped by tonight was to lodge a formal complaint about suggesting to the good people reading this blog that “we must equate our understanding of the Gospel with the Standards.” I heartily disagree with this statement as much as I can disagree with any statement ever written. As much as I would like to argue my point with you guys–like in the good old days–I am simply too swamped with life. I will say, though, that I have a new book due out this spring that tries to explain some of the reasons why someone might adopt such a position as mine.

    That’s all for now, gentlemen. I do hope you guys are doing well.

    Peace.

  12. Vern Crisler said,

    February 11, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    Cbovell provides the following proposition, call it P:

    “[W]e believe it is a historically conditioned, culturally embedded summary of biblical teachings that are themselves embedded in history and culture.”

    Does this mean the Standards are false? If so could we also say that P is also “embedded in history and culture” and therefore false? Or is P exempt from such embeddedness, and if so why?

    Curious,

    Vern

  13. February 12, 2009 at 4:40 am

    RE #11,

    I would amend to say: we believe it is a historically conditioned, culturally embedded summary of biblical teachings that are themselves embedded in history and culture.

    Last I checked, officers in the PCA declare an oath that the Standards “contain the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” I can’t square that oath which I swore to the statement I quoted above. Is the “system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures” only relevant in a particular cultural setting? Or do we believe that the Spirit illumines that Scriptural system of doctrine in every culture, time, and place?

  14. Reed Here said,

    February 12, 2009 at 9:12 am

    Carlos: appreciate your consistency. Please don’t take offense if some of us strongly disagree with you as well.

    My sense is that you take some valid considerations, the “humaness” issues, and elevate these to a level where they trump all other considerations. Very postmodern, in that if you continue with your logic, you will have no place for an external authority. Autonimity will rule, everyone will believe/do as is right in his own eyes.

    Of course, God is still merciful, and keeps most of us from being consistent with our logic. :-)

  15. Ken Pierce said,

    February 12, 2009 at 10:32 am

    Lane,

    Don’t read too much in here. I wonder, though, if the answer is to expect every discrete Reformed church everywhere to tow the Westminster line. Historically, Reformed creeds developed differently in different places. WEstminster itself was the product of a unique historical situation. Considering the Three Forms, the Scots, the Helvetics, and even the 39 Articles, would it not be appropriate for a church in another land to express the same faith in different language?

    I think that’s the rub. I would never argue that the WCF was deficient in terms of the faith. But, that is altogether different than arguing that it says all that it needs to in the current day.

    It seemeth to me that you are arguing that Westminster sticks purely to matters of faith and salvation, and ought therefore say nothing about racial reconciliation, for instance. But, of course that is not true. Westminster has more to say about a host of things other than Reformed theology & soteriology (particularly in its exposition of the decalogue, chapters on marriage, etc.). NB: I am not saying that you do not know this. Obviously, you do. But, how can it then be wrong to tack on more contemporary applications of the same eternal truths?

    What might a current confession add? Well, for starters, something about gender roles in marriage and ordination. Perhaps something about the sanctity of life, if nowhere else, than in an exposition of the sixth commandment.

    To argue that the Westminster Confession is accurate and true is not to argue that it could never be bettered or even replaced. It seems to me that must always be the option for the church/christian for whom the Scripture is the sole supreme standard.

  16. G.C. Berkley said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Reed,

    Re:#9, thanks for the clarification. I thought we were going to have to change the commandment to “repent and be catechized!” ;-)

  17. cbovell said,

    February 12, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    #12 and 14:

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    “…the social source of an idea is usually construed to be relevant to its truth, regardless of the existence of a formal logical relationship: we tend to mistrust information that comes from demonstrably unreliable sources.”
    -Dan Frank, The Word and the World, 44.

    WCF is patently following 17th century public opinion, that’s what I suggest in my new book in any event. (It’s called “By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblicist Foundationalism”). We’ll have to wait and see if I am able to convince anyone.

    All the best,
    Carlos

  18. greenbaggins said,

    February 12, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Ken, of course people can make new confessions dealing with new issues. That is what Dennison’s publication of the 16-17th century confessions is teaching us. Everyone made their own confession in those days. Scott Clark argues that we should be writing new confessions as well. Of course, the danger in that is that people will jump ship when it comes to certain truths that confessional people would rather retain. As I have said repeatedly, true doctrine is progressing, but it is progressing deeper, not sideways. In other words, we discover (and of course, sometimes we actually forget and go backwards) deeper truths about the things confessed. It is not as though we learn new doctrines, but rather new things about the old doctrines. The truth, after all, has been delivered once for all in the Scriptures. No true confession (the truth of which matches Scripture) will become out of date as to what it addresses. But a confession is what the church has agreed is its reading of Scripture.

  19. Reed Here said,

    February 12, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    No. 18: Lane: great observation! Deeper, not sideways. Very helpful!

  20. February 12, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    [...] This blog post excellently illustrates the kind of thing I mean. Note especially this from the final paragraph: If we really believe that it is a summary of biblical teaching, then it has no racial or cultural boundaries, anymore than the Gospel itself does. For if we confess that the Westminster Standards contain THE system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture (and not just A system), then we must equate our understanding of the Gospel with the Standards. The Standards are intended to be our confession of what the Gospel is. [...]

  21. February 12, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    Ken, RE #15,

    What might a current confession add? Well, for starters, something about gender roles in marriage and ordination. Perhaps something about the sanctity of life, if nowhere else, than in an exposition of the sixth commandment.

    GA is coming up in a few months. There’s still time to get an overture through your presbytery. That’s not a joke. I heard folks like Frame and others during the “denominational renewal” say that the Confession is dated and needs more “social content” (my words). Although I disagree, there is a process for making changes to the Confession.

    The historical problem with writing the social issues of the day into a statement of faith is that the social issues water down and eventually eclipse the faith part. Bad move in my opinion.

  22. Ken Pierce said,

    February 12, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    Reformed Musings wrote: The historical problem with writing the social issues of the day into a statement of faith is that the social issues water down and eventually eclipse the faith part. Bad move in my opinion.

    KP responds: and keeping of stews and consanguinity and affinity are issues today?

    Can we conceive of a time when gender and life issues won’t be Christian concerns? Conceivably, with our current ordination vows, we could ordain someone who is pro-choice and who believes in women’s ordination, IMHO.

  23. February 12, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    Ken, RE #22,

    Conceivably, with our current ordination vows, we could ordain someone who is pro-choice and who believes in women’s ordination, IMHO.

    There’s no fool-proof filter for errors. Federal Visionists are currently ordained and/or accepted and/or tolerated in some presbyteries. So are paedocommunionists. Both errors have been rejected by the PCA. The problem isn’t the standards or the rules, its lack of enforcement thereof by officers sworn to uphold them. When we clear up these issues, then let’s talk about making new ones.

  24. Joshua W.D. Smith said,

    February 13, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    All the great confession of the 16th-17th century were conditioned on the conflict between Rome, the Radicals, and the Reformers, and all were conditioned on a set of theological vocabulary and categories that had been in place for centuries. This doesn’t make them false, but it makes them answers to one specific set of questions. As an example of this sort of thing, we don’t have anyone in our congregation here who is anywhere near Rome (one or two who have come from a RC childhood, but who have pretty thoroughly rejected it), yet our pastor often reads the communion service in full, including the part about “this is not a re-sacrificing…” And I always think: “No one in this room thinks that…why are we still stressing this anti-Roman teaching, rather than taking opportunity to dig more deeply into the meaning of the supper?” In the same way, not all of the specific answers even to theological question are relevant to various global contexts.

    The Reformed churches in other lands should study the traditional Reformed confessions and, while not departing from them, write their own. That’s one place I agree with Scott Clark…

  25. February 13, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    Joshua,

    I researched some quick numbers. Worldwide, there are an estimated 1 billion professing Roman Catholics. Compare that to about 400 million or so Protestants. Reformed Protestants number only about 75 million. Those are gross estimates but give a sense of their relative sizes.

    So, you may not have any RCC-types in your congregation, but there are a lot more of them out there than us. I think that we’re burying our heads in the sand if we think that the doctrines of Rome are no longer an issue. Worldwide and in the US, the RCC apostasy still dominates the religious landscape. Justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone, with the Scriptures as our only infallible rule for faith and practice, and all solely to God’s glory, is just as much an issue today as it was 350 years ago. It’s not just anti-Roman teaching, it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  26. Joshua W.D. Smith said,

    February 16, 2009 at 11:56 am

    RefMus:

    That’s a good point. But RC doctrine is a moving target in a number of ways, and certainly post Vatican-II RC theology is not quite terminologically like Trent. Furthermore, after ECT I & II, it is clear that Rome is interested in muddying the water of the 16th century terms. So, instead of using the anti-Trent language of 1647, contemporary Reformed churches should make their confessions clear responses to the latest edition of the RC Catechism. As I said, the other Reformed churches should not depart from the traditional confessions. Besides, the discipline of writing out a confession is one that should be recovered, so that individuals and churches will think carefully about their actual beliefs, instead of just signing on to someone else’s document, which seems to often happen without careful reading.


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