What Does It Mean to be Reformed: Are we Evangelical, Catholic or Both? Part One

Darryl Hart in Deconstructing Evangelicalism in an Age of Billy Graham writes that in 1981, as Evangelicals began throwing political weight around, Calvin College historian Ronald Wells was “on the verge of writing a letter of resignation from the evangelical movement.” Of course this was said a bit tongue in cheek, since an inherent problem of Evangelicalism is that it is anti-institutional in nature. Where and to whom would one actually send such a resignation? There is no door upon which to “hammer one’s theses” and officially repudiate and actually leave. I certainly can relate. Having embraced confessionally Reformed Presbyterianism, I have myself renounced wider Evangelicalism. But the proverbial crickets chirp.

Unfortunately, though, I cannot get away from it; like a virus, it floats around everywhere and seems to manifest itself when I least expect it, even under staunch Reformed banners. I might as well say I renounce the common cold. I wish there were a better way to tell those around me that my move is more than one of mere preference for a denominational church over the “community” church down the street, since that is how my move is generally interpreted. Almost as if being clairvoyant I can hear it thought, “They must have had a better youth program or doughnuts or something.” It isn’t because a place like Calvin CRC has nicer pews, friendlier people, and better general likeability—the way most Christians shop around for their home communions anymore. It is because of the system of theology and worship, however imperfectly expressed at a place like Calvin CRC, is always better than the one perfectly expressed in wider Evangelicalism.

Wells decided not to pursue such a course of ceasing and desisting once he read that Christian Reformed believers like himself were considered on the fringe of Evangelicalism. I guess he was satisfied to be located there even though it was “more often an embarrassment than an asset.” I am not. If I could do more to distance myself from Evangelicalism I certainly would. It’s only the fact that there is no way to do so is all that keeps me from it. At least one may officially withdrawal from Roman Catholicism since it remains institutional.

Well, what is it to be Evangelical versus Reformed? Bill Clinton once tried to delineate Republicans from Democrats. He used the social upheavals of the sixties as a focal point, saying that if you think that what happened then was mostly good then you’re probably a Democrat; if it was mostly detrimental then probably a Republican. Hart offers something similar to this subject:

“If Protestants in the sixteenth centuries had looked to baptism, the Lord’s Supper, preaching by an ordained minister, and a system of family worship and catechesis as the staples of Christian devotion, Protestants in the pietist and revivalist orbit questioned the authenticity of such church-based activities. Instead, private Bible reading and prayer, small groups, personal evangelism, and exemplary deeds of mercy became for the born-again Protestants the way of genuine Christian devotion.”

Does one have a high view of the institutional church, church membership, forms, catechisms, creeds, confessions, liturgy, ordained office, baptism and the Lord’s Supper as actually edifying? Or are these things, at best, necessary evils nobody really understands but perpetuates out of a vague sense of tradition or leftover devotion? This is what I call the low view/high opinion approach. Or, at worst, are these things suspect and more an obstacle to true faith, what I call the low view/low opinion which is well expressed in Finney’s “paper pope” charge? Is there more comfort in the experiential heart religion that transcends these things, the stuff of the inward life? Would one be inclined to forego Sabbath worship for a bevy of weekly parachurch-type activities? Try something else more Clintonian. Is the phenomenon of Billy Graham mostly a good thing or a part of the problem? I would say, in my experience with both, the implied answers to these things help to divide the Evangelical from the confessionally Presbyterian and Reformed.

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6 Responses to What Does It Mean to be Reformed: Are we Evangelical, Catholic or Both? Part One

  1. RubeRad says:

    Nice distinction, Z, although I think EvanJellOcals would protest that they hold baptism and communion in high regard. Did you mean “as actually edifying” wrt just those two, or was that a modifier for the whole list? I guess if you meant that to apply to just the sacraments, then yes, Evangelicals would have a lower view of their “actual edifyingness”.

    Anyways, a few things you can add (or make more explicit) in your list: church government (Presbyterian-ness, Denominationalism) and church government (discipline of church members)

    I think when you identify this vein of low-church Evangelicalism cropping up in Confessional/Reformed/Presbyterian contexts, you are marking the target that Federal Visionistas have overreacted to.

    (if this blog is going to get anywhere, we’re going to have to start abbreviating CRP!)

  2. Rick says:

    The Billy Graham phenomenon is a problem, right? Joke. But the right answer.

    A wonderful post to get us started here.

    One thing is evident, I need to read more Hart.

  3. Zrim says:

    “Nice distinction, Z, although I think EvanJellOcals would protest that they hold baptism and communion in high regard.”

    Rube, they might, but then they’d only be talking in low view/high opinion categories. A high opinion is not the same as a high view, which was part of my point. I don’t quite follow your question about “actually edifying…” other than to say that they do have low views/low to high opinions of all these things.


    Your confessional instincts are…right. It will draw all sorts of howls, but BG is a problem.


  4. RubeRad says:

    Did you mean just “baptism and the Lords’ supper as actually edifying”, or “institutional church, church membership, etc. etc. as actually edifying”?

  5. Zrim says:

    I meant all those things to point toward that which we confessionalists find to be elements that actually edify us…at least, in theory. Sometimes one wouldn’t know it inasmuch as we seem unduly influenced by broad Evangelicalism. If you ask me, most of us seem to have the low view/high opinion approach. Witness what is happening in the CRC with regard to the revision of the FOS. I’d like to post on that some day soon. It reflects what RS Clark has diagnosed amongst my denom as a move “toward broad Evangelicalism and away from its confessionalism.” I agree. The revision speaks highly of our forms, but it’s still a low view.


  6. Pingback: What Does it Mean to be Evangelical? II « The Confessional Outhouse

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