"Summary Judgment" on the Reformed Faith.
I am beginning to try to get back into writing. I do, after all, have a book to write on a theological interpretation of the American order. But I need to clear my chest a little first. So here is a contribution towards that end. It is a little harsh, but . . . well, young men are passionate and I am still a young man (or so my wife tells me). Take it with a little salt--then you'll know how I feel.
What is wont to call itself the Reformed Faith is fundamentally limited by several structural and historical factors. First, the WCF itself is limited and hard to communicate across space and time: it is more historically conditioned than the symbols of the early church; it is in English and not some more universal language; it is composed in the form of a summa and accordingly sought to bring closure to many debates which had not, in 1647, matured.
Second, subscription to the WCF, together with—over 400 years— has tended to have a chilling effect upon the Reformed churches, especially Presbyterianism in America. The WCF has not been supplemented or edited, except in the form of the Savoy Declaration by Reformed Baptists. There has been no synod or council which has revised or expanded the WCF, or published a new confession in response to new heresies or contemporary issues. For Presbyterians, it seems, the canon is doubly closed.
Third, the Reformed Faith tends to assume knowledge of a peculiar people or, rather, two or three peoples: the English and the Scottish and the Dutch. While perhaps of greater moment for America, as Albion's eldest child, the whole tradition tends to be phenomenally Anglocentric. The battles of the seventeenth century become almost pseudo-biblical in significance.
Fourth, the idea of the covenant tends to become a talisman for Reformed Christians, whereas as in reality it is really something of an overblown construct. The covenant is said to be central to theology. The covenant is recapitulated in the strife of seventeenth-century Scotland in the form of a Solemn League. The covenant is recapitulated all over England and America in the form of little covenants and lots of covenanteering. The whole thing is informed by highly voluntarist assumptions, and mirrors social compact theory. At present, however, the "British" form of the idea of the covenant is conflated strongly with the "Dutch" version articulated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the latter, the covenant is interpreted in more or less Romantic terms, as the total organization of life between God and man. Its apogee is in the fifteen or so modes of Herman Dooyewerd. As such, the covenant winds up being metaphysical, rather than historical and positive.
Fifth, Calvinism in particular is deeply infused with Stoic elements, especially in its view of the relation between temporal and eternal goods, and individual and common goods. The result is a convoluted mess.
Sixth, the practice of the Reformed churches remains largely mired in old forms without change, as if the forms themselves were eternal and not historically-conditioned. The centerpiece of this is the sermon and the cult of "preaching." The sermon, as practiced in Reformed churches, dates to the sixteenth century and to the need to, absent mass media and limited educational and library resources, disseminate theological knowledge to the congregation at a time when theological knowledge was becoming increasingly important in terms of political identity, as a means of differentiating "us" and "them." Under the influence of then-current conceptions of rhetoric (about which I am as yet unclear), the sermon was widely practiced as nuanced and time-intensive oratory. In sheer scale, the oratory required in, for instance, Puritan England, was possibly greater than anything seen since classical Athens. Such public rhetoric required a high level of theological education, and provided a new rationale for theological education to replace the old "Papist" rationales of casuistry and hearing confession.
Within the Reformed tradition, theological education, oratorical display, and a professional clergy have conspired to produce a dysfunctional family of a church. The seminary education includes little if any training in ethics or professional responsibility or "management" or self-examination. Yet somehow the man with seminary education can preside over much older men of greater piety and maturity. (It is frequently unrecognized that intellectually-conscious young men routinely pursue seminary, as an alternative to law and politics or business, because of the lure of the ultimate aphrodisiac, power.)
In the worship service itself, the professional theologian performs a strange hybrid role. The sermon is not really purely for the honor of God, because it is also supposed to be persuasive and educational for the congregation. But it is not really all that persuasive, because it is, by nature, "general audience" and has to be pitched a fairly low level. There is a fine balance between round platitudes and brazen speculation. Most sermons do not strike that balance. And the sermon is not really all that educational either. For one thing, there is no opportunity for question and answer. For another, the topic is usually just a few verses, rather than whole chapters, on the one hand, or whole theological doctrines, on the other. Finally, the professional theologian, whose services seem to be so indispensable for the existence of the church, must stand up and perform, week after week, until permitted to take his annual two weeks' vacation. He must preach, and people must sit and listen, rotely and regardless as to whether he really has anything to say.
While the long sermon may have been important and useful in bygone days when bibles were scarce, literacy was lower, and parachurch ministries were nonexistent, the contemporary practice, at least in Reformed churches, is actually mind-numbing. Within the high, narrow walls of the Reformed tradition, men and women can be in church for decades and have mere ignorance and superstition to show for it. Sermon-heavy Presbyterian services are largely a spectator sport. The need for the audience to participate ritually is absent for at least half of the service. Instead, people sit in silence and maybe learn to enjoy the antique flowers of oratory and, if not the flowers, then at least the theological buzzwords and whatever jargon is then in vogue. As a result, sermons by themselves do actually quite little for the intellectual development and epistemological self-consciousness of the members of the audience. The sermon is, however, reasonably effective in evoking guilt, whether genuine and deserved or merely superstitious. As a means of conviction, however, the sermon is not particularly superior to the Mass--indeed, the more liturgical celebration is probably superior upon account of its greater element of catharsis.
Both as a vehicle for conviction, as a means of education and persuasion, the modes of high liturgy, informal bible study, and public teaching are equal or superior to the long sermon. Taken with the long sermon as a mix, they are more effective than the long sermon alone as means of communicating grace and doctrine. They are also a lot closer to what we actually see in the New Testament.
In light of the above, you may perhaps ask me whether I am myself Reformed. Good question! After being born into some a "Jesus movement" group, I was baptized at age 8 or 9 in an OPC church, and have been a member of a now-defunct "independent" Presbyterian church in Warsaw and of an OPC church in Columbus. I attended Reformed Baptist and a Congregationalist churches in College in Michigan. I am presently, irregularly, attending a PCA church in Hudson. But am I "Reformed"? Not really. I am a Christian and, as a matter of intellectual tradition and "party affiliation," I am probably more of a "general Augustinian." Philip Schaff strikes a strong chord with me, but I am probably no more "Reformed" than he. (For one thing, I simply and plainly lament the outcome of the Reformation!)
What value do I see in the Reformed tradition represented by Calvin, SL&C, and J. Gresham Machen? Well, it is an abiding source of inspiration and insight. It is more theologically rigorous (in the sense of obsessive-compulsive) than German Lutheranism or "low" Baptist thought or even Anglicanism. It is no wonder that Reformed thought has dominated that seminaries to the point that it is practically the theological Academy. Having said that, the Reformed thought has no particular "hold" upon me, intellectually. To the extent that it is patently in accord with the evangelical law, I accept it, but it has no separate or higher authority than the evangelical law and the broadly Augustinian tradition of which it is but one part. To the extent that its claims are based upon long chains of inference or concern matters upon which reasonable men may find a rational basis to differ, I regard its claims as I do ideas from Plato or Kant or Vergil or Aquinas or Descartes or James Joyce--as ideas that come, if not well-recommended, then at least from known quantities, and as ideas which must be examined and suspended ere rejected or accepted.