Heavens to Murgatroyd


Lee Irons is taking a shot at those who want to make a distinction between “Reformed” and “Evangelical.” Is he hitting the target the way he thinks he is, or has shot himself in the foot…mirror…whatever?

Saith he:

“It’s good to see that there are still some Reformed people these days who embrace the label ‘evangelical’ (see the posts by Stephen Nichols and Sean Lucas on the Ref21 site). I don’t sympathize with the Reformed trend that utterly scorns and detests the label. I have no desire to set myself apart as a ‘Reformed Confessionalist’ who has nothing in common with evangelicalism. This separatist attitude is wrong for several reasons:

“(1) It smacks of spiritual pride and elitism. I consider myself to be a Christian first, then a Protestant, then an evangelical, and only then Reformed. To exalt ‘Reformed’ über alles is to downplay our central identity as Christians. To exalt the Reformed confessions is to downplay the primary New Testament confession that ‘Jesus is Lord.’ I’m not a Reformed person who happens to be a Christian. I’m a blood-bought Christian who happens to believe in the Reformed understanding of the gospel. And I do not view myself as a superior Christian for having this belief. It is only by the grace of God that I understand what I do of the grace of God, and even then I betray it all too often in my practice.

“(2) The current disdain for ‘evangelicalism’ in Reformed circles is also wrong because it places the accent on the distinctives of Reformed theology and practice instead of on what we have in common with evangelicalism. But what we have in common with evangelicals (being Christ-centered, cross-centered, and gospel-centered) is far, far more important than our distinctives (our Calvinistic soteriology, our covenant theology, our view of the church and the means of grace, etc.). The distinctives of Reformed theology and practice are useful only to the degree that they undergird and clarify the gospel, the evangel.

“(3) Being ‘Reformed’ but not ‘evangelical’ undercuts the importance of seeking fellowship, unity, and love with all Christians who confess the historic ecumenical creeds (Nicea and Chalcedon) and the basics of the gospel (justification by faith alone, substitutionary atonement), regardless of our differences over secondary matters. The apostle John is fairly clear in his epistles that if you claim to know God but do not love the brethren, then your claim is proven to be empty. Confession of Christ as the Son of God and love for the brethren go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other.

“None of this means that we cannot be critical of the excesses and problems that we see in evangelicalism. Yes, there are many who claim the name ‘evangelical’ who are false teachers and wolves in sheep’s clothing (I’m thinking particularly of the prosperity gospel and some of the more radical emergent types). But the same is true of many who claim the name ‘Reformed.’ A search on the keyword ‘Reformed’ on the PC(USA) website turns up 3860 results (compared with 552 results on the OPC site). Consider also the very existence of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. If you think the term ‘evangelical’ has been distorted beyond recognition so that you no longer want to use that label, then to be consistent, you shouldn’t call yourself ‘Reformed’ either. Instead of being too proud to call ourselves ‘evangelical,’ we should join with those who strive to uphold the historic meaning of the term.”

“Utterly scorns and detests the label”?

I’m not exactly sure where to start, but it might be that Irons himself begins with something of a wanting understanding of the term “Reformed.” He erroneously seems to suggest that it doesn’t already include such terms as “Christian, Protestant and evangelical.” In fact, I would add one he seems to have forgotten: catholic. And another: apostolic. What he seems to miss is that “Reformed” is simply shorthand for a diversity of perfectly sound terms.

What is ironic when Protestant folks in our circles speak this way is that they actually end up perpetuating the very religious elitism they mean to explode on our part. Why is “evangelical” so much more important than “catholic” that the latter doesn’t even make the list of self-descriptors for Irons? Does Irons have something against being catholic? He is obviously after unity—that is what catholicity means, so why is it absent his list? Does Irons know that the e-word, insofar as it conveys the solas of the Reformation, is what keeps us Protestants anathematized by Rome? So much for “evangelical” getting everyone together. Like a simple vowel makes all the difference between the doctrines of solo scriptura and sola scriptura, upper and lower cases can help in these broader categorical discussions. A brief scan of Irons’ quote shows he doesn’t make that distinction: I have no problem at all saying I am evangelical and catholic, but I’m not an Evangelical or a Catholic.

He claims that “The distinctives of Reformed theology and practice are useful only to the degree that they undergird and clarify the gospel, the evangel” since, even as he admits, we ought to be “…critical of the excesses and problems that we see in evangelicalism. Yes, there are many who claim the name ‘evangelical’ who are false teachers and wolves in sheep’s clothing.” He agrees that clarity of the evangel is necessary as it is obscured by those who claim exclusive rights to it. But that is exactly why it needs to be found comported under “Reformed,” so it can be properly defined and clarified.

Another key distinction he seems to lack is any cognizance of the visible/militant and invisible/triumphant church. It would seem to help immensely his angst in point three. He seems to be after “fellowship, unity and love,” a commendable ambition no doubt. But these are simply of a different order for the two churches. The invisible church enjoys these things unblemished and immediately. The visible church does not enjoy that luxury; that’s why one is called “triumphant” and the other “militant.” But this is the reason she labors for doctrinal precision, in order to maximize—not minimize—fellowship, unity and love for the brethren. Irons seems to be confusing “Fundamentalists learning to be Presbyterian” with actual Presbyterians. I have great sympathy; I cut my religious teeth on an entrenched Fundamentalism. But I rejected it as deliberately as I embraced Reformed confessionalism, since the two are mutually exclusive. Ironically, though, I was never as schismatic as when doing the sort of Evangelical tolerance Irons champions, and never as ecumenical as when I embraced the intolerance of Presbyterianism. Talk about counter-intuitiveness. Is the answer to “Fundamentalists learning to be Presbyterian” really “Presbyterians longing to be Evangelical”?

Moreover, I am of the persuasion that a key difference between confessional orthodoxy and that poor man’s version called Fundamentalism can be found in the further distinction between cult and culture. Even if we grant that Fundamentalists began with cultic interests they went utterly bankrupt as they slid into being primarily culturalists and it just got worse from there; bring me a self-proclaiming Fundamentalist and I’ll show you someone who cares very little for both doctrinal formulation and how it relates to praxis, as well as someone who is neck-deep in culture wars to lesser or greater degrees. It is mystifying how Irons, such a close student of Kline’s, doesn’t make the cult and culture distinctions in order to separate out the differences between abhorrent forms Fundamentalism and the project of historical, confessional Reformed orthodoxy.

Well, more could be said. I will leave you all to feed on it while I am gone on vacation. (On second thought, don’t bring me any Fundamentalists—I’ll already have my hands full vacationing with some next week. Then comes a weekend with some Roman Catholic family in August, then some mainline Liberal family in September. The in/visible church and cult/culture taxonomies make the s’mores and weenies taste so much better.)

p.s. I can’t resist a parting shot though: At the end, Irons makes the point that terms are subject to being “distorted beyond recognition,” which is why those who employ only “Reformed” because “Evangelical” is too fraught are inconsistent and to be criticized. But Irons says at the top, “I consider myself to be a Christian first, then a Protestant, then an evangelical, and only then Reformed.” Without a doubt he is correct that terms are subject to distortion. But are the terms “Christian” and “Protestant” somehow less vulnerable to distortion? Has he really circumvented anything here? If it’s consistency he wants I have no idea why he is still calling himself a Christian or Protestant—those are older and more general terms and thus even more vulnerable to distortion. Now what?

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17 Responses to Heavens to Murgatroyd

  1. sean says:

    “I don’t sympathize with the Reformed trend that utterly scorns and detests the label. I have no desire to set myself apart as a ‘Reformed Confessionalist’ who has nothing in common with evangelicalism. This separatist attitude is wrong for several reasons”

    This is why I’m somewhat amazed that people who make a vocation of holy callings, blog (yes, I’m aware he is not currently filling that role). If it’s a shot at Clark or Hart, he seems to have missed his mark, if it’s a shot at confessionally reformed adherents, by definition, he just impaled himself to the dart board. It makes you curious of what and or if “back-channel” conversations he may be responding to.

    It’s interesting, I think most people who would define themselves as reformed confessionalists would both defend him against those in the OPC who opposed him, and characterize him, at least doctrinally, as being well within the camp, certainly to a more particular degree than can be claimed any longer by those who merely refer to themselves as evangelical, and all the entaglements that label brings with it, at least in the american scene.
    I understand the desire to defend and hold onto the term historically, but I’m not sure it’s a fight worth waging in our current context. From a ministerial point of view, there seems to be a much greater advantage to at least say “I’m not an evangelical in the sense in which it is popularly understood, these days.”

    I’m particularly sensitive to his desire to not limit himself to confessional orthodoxy as it was adjudicated in his case, and quite frankly I agree with him. Letting the church courts “hammer” it out is one of the points at which I look cross-eyed at Clark. Still, I don’t have a better solution. It brings in to bold-relief for me the need to not only take measure of the doctrine held and proclaimed but to take equal measure of the men who minister it to me, and may ultimately rule on my fidelity. This dual measure I think is clearly delineated in Timothy’s epistles.

    This measuring of men, is what makes me queasy with some confessionally reformed churches, and why I have skynyrd’s “Give me back my bullets” on an endless loop on my Ipod. Alright, I’m ready let me have it.

  2. David R. says:

    Thanks for this. I was hoping Clark, you, or someone would answer him. That charge of “elitism” slices both ways.

  3. Mike Brown says:

    Well done, Zrim. Lee’s post is very disappointing. I can’t help but wonder if he ever would have said this if he were still in the OPC.

  4. Joe Brancaleone says:

    Wow. A lot could be said about this. I’ve recently ran into some of a distinctively Reformed spirit that I just don’t understand. One view is that there is no true church apart from what is explicitly defined in say the Belgic Confession, which some take to imply that only churches holding to the Belgic/3 Forms ought to be considered true churches (seriously).

    Or that ANY non confessionally Reformed professing believer WILL necessarily migrate towards a confessionally Reformed church if they are elect.

    Or refusing to pray with say Reformed Baptists because they reject the sacraments. The list goes on.

    Is this what being confessionally Reformed is about? If not, why not? Who are the more consistent confessionally Reformed?

    I sympathize with Lee’s concerns since I know views like explained above are out there. Because it is absolutely true that the biblical definition of a confessing of the Gospel is much, much simpler than the 3 Forms or the Westminster Standards. Romans 10:9 is one place which gives the criteria for a credible profession of faith.

    Yes, the label Christian itself does come liabilities just like every other label. But its the only biblically defensible label, if you understand what I mean by that. It is shorthand for one who confesses “Jesus is Lord” and thus the *primary* self assigning label by which one will demonstrably stand or fall on judgment day. Not everyone who says to him, “Lord, Lord”, will be received. But those who can say “Jesus is Lord” from the heart are those who are known by him and will be received by him.

    Another thing. The fact that so much of the Pauline epistles are spent clarifying and properly expounding the meaning and mechanics of the Gospel presupposes that significant numbers of the apostolic churches were confused, in error, or not properly working out the logical implications of their basic confession of faith. Yet that appeared to be no obstacle to Paul’s express sense of fellowship, unity and love for the brethren no matter their lack of understanding.

    Just as one example, Romans 9 was written to the very Christians in Rome he had already commended for their great faith in chapter 1, yet here he anticipates at least some of them having a HUGE problem wrapping their head around this notion of divine election according to God’s eternal purpose without reference to the moral decisions of those being predestined (“YOU WILL SAY TO ME THEN . . . “).

    And this doesn’t contradict the fact that false teachers were opposed by the apostles with anathemas, i.e. those who deliberately worked to negate the work of Christ by demanding something other than salvation by faith or a false Christ who was not the Son of God in the flesh. These sorts of crisis issues are categorically different, as evidenced by each circumstance.

    zrim sayeth:

    “there seems to be a much greater advantage to at least say “I’m not an evangelical in the sense in which it is popularly understood, these days.””

    I guess I don’t really know how “evangelical” is popularly understood these days. How is it popularly understood? By what poll do we know? “Evangelical” could refer to a lot of things in people’s minds. From my lights, very often the mainstream culture seems to refer to evangelicals as people who seem a little stupid or nuts for believing this Jesus guy who lived died and raised from the dead is the only thing of ultimate value in this life and the next. Fine. Simple and crude, but now that I think about it I’ll gladly take on that mantle of reproach.

    just some thoughts


  5. Rana says:

    I don’t usually get involved in deep and meaningful posts at the OH, but distinguishing yourself as Confessionally Reformed as opposed to Evangelical is very helpful in a place like GR where the CRC has watered down Reformed teaching to the point that in some churches you have people on pastoral search committees who are not reformed and couldn’t tell you what the 3 forms are. Something tells me this issue is magnified in GR and that in So Cal, where Lee is, you have the opposite trend; people are coming to Reformed/ Presby churches from fundie/ evangelical backgrounds like Calvary Chapel and Grace Community Church. A lot of those embracing Reformed teaching are also starting independent churches with little or no oversight, etc.

    I would invite Lee to visit the local PCA and a couple of OPCs in GR, then ask him where he fits in. The churches I have in mind are no different than other churches which are not reformed.

    The other day we were so excited when we met a Lutheran guy who knew who Mike Horton and the White Horse Inn was! In the 2.5 yrs we have been through CRCs we have met only 1 person who is familiar with Mike Horton’s books and WHI. Today I met one other CRC/ Calvin prof who knows Mike Horton and WHI, Quentin Schultze – so make that 2.

    Lest someone think I am saying that MH and WHI is the spiritual path to being Reformed, I am not. But I am giving them a LOT of credit for teaching the So Cal Evangelicals about Reformed basics.

    In a place like GR where you have CRCs and RCAs on every corner teaching everything from Bill Hybels to Beth Moore the distinction makes sense. I can’t speak for Cali since I have lived there in 8 yrs!

  6. sean says:


    To be fair to Zrim, he did not make the reference about the “popular” understanding of evangelicalism. I did. And I stand by it, the next time I talk to a bible-church fundie, and ask them what the gospel is and I DON’T get some hodge-podge of how the country is going down the tubes, and those darn liberals and alternative lifestylers have ruined public education, and we should really ask ourselves WWJD and who would Jesus vote for…..” The next time I DON’T get an answer that resembles the aforementioned in some fashion, will frankly be the first. That is not an exaggeration. Then there’s the TV personalities who give us Tony Robbin’s leftovers, and the Swaggart’s who cry about it, to show they really mean it…….this time. We even have our own brand of psychics who are forever establishing timelines for our savior’s return and what nations NOW compose the ten nation confederation or is it twelve now? It’s been awhile since I’ve heard Van Impe. Of course how could I leave out my favorite snake-oil salesman John Hagee and his merry band of Zionists. Do I need to mention Osteen and his lithium devotees? All neatly assembled under the banner evangelical.

    Yep, I feel a need to seperate and make distinction.

  7. Zrim says:


    Good thoughts, thanks. I wish I could take more time to engage. Unfortunately I am about to leave for my un-plugged vacation for a week (at the library getting my wife a book…she’d kill me if she knew I stopped in!).

  8. bret says:

    I agree that Reformed and confessional Christianity needs to make the kind of distinctions that communicate that evangelicals, while Christian, are Christians who are dwelling in a far country.

    If the culture is to be healed the cult must be protected.

  9. Darryl Hart says:

    One of the odd things about Iron’s post is that it shows no recognition that trying to be evangelical has made Presbyterians less Reformed. If OPC and PCA churches in GR aren’t that different from other churches, it’s not because being Reformed is bound up with being evangelical. Reformed used to sing only psalms. Then some sang hymns. But praise songs? What about Sabbath observance? What about the reading of the decalogue? What about a second service? The way Irons puts it an evangelical identity seems to make these matters less important than what Reformed and evangelicals share in common. Since when was the first table of the law something to be disregarded for the sake of unity? (Oh, that’s right, Irons studied at WSC when John Frame taught there.)

    The other remarkable aspect of this post is Irons’ conception of evangelical identity being more basic than being Reformed (I guess because more unifying or because historically prior). At a time when evangelicals want to claim religious identity to be as politically meaningful as race, class, gender, or sexual orientation, they have thinned out religious identity to include only a few items of faith — say, the gospel. If being evangelical were a way of life, then comparing it to ethnicity might make sense. But evangelical identity is so sparse — because it seeks a lowest common denominator — it can hardly claim to be a basic identity. In effect, Irons is affirming an assimilationist model of evangelical identity while also apparently wanting to claim it is as fundamental and total as other identity groups.

    Zrim, Happy Trails. Don’t forget to write.

  10. sean says:


    if anyone ever doubted the negative effect of american evangelicals just look what they’ve done to my guy Roy Williams! TD Jakes got in his head, and he may never see the playing field again. Stop messing with my ‘Boys. Go lobby your congressman or write letters, but stay away from Valley Ranch. Geesh.

  11. I loved Lee Irons post. Right on, brother! What we might need in America is a good dose of persecution. I talked to some Presbyterian missionaries in the Mexican state of Chiapas (real heroes), and they said that when they experienced persecution all the believers in Jesus clung together for support, denominational labels be damned. Amen.

  12. Zrim says:


    More importantly, I remembered to read. “Better Country” kept me company very well, thanks.

    I have always suspected this sort of thing was brimming to get loose from Irons, so I can’t say I am at all surprised. Disappointed, yes, but not surprised. OK, maybe a bit satisfied that my intuition was affirmed and that I can now say something about it.

  13. Zrim says:


    Speaking of being at once un-surprised and affirmed, your plaudits do not surprise me. I wonder if irons realizes that such posts are like a Kevin Bacon joke: such sentiments make one about two steps removed from Jack Hayford. Now what?

    The other book I ate during respite was Muether’s autobiography of CVT. Whatever esle I might blanch at in him one simply cannot do any better than his sense of unrelenting Reformed militancy. The genius of this sense was how in it he saw true ecumenism. It is counter-intutive, but that is part of its genius. It reminds me of something someone else just said:

    “I was never as schismatic as when doing the sort of Evangelical tolerance Irons champions, and never as ecumenical as when I embraced the intolerance of Presbyterianism.”

  14. gospelmuse says:

    Lee hit a nerve.

  15. Zrim says:


    He did, yes. Seems it takes nerve to hit one.

  16. GLW Johnson says:

    Long before the term ‘Fundamentalist’ was coined Reformed folk like Charles Hodge, BB Warfield and WGT Shedd had no problem calling themselves ‘Evangelicals’. They used the term to define that group of Reformation descendents who embraced the ‘Solas’. As such the termed linked likeminded Presbyterians,Lutherans,Baptists, Methodists and Episcopalians. Warfield ,in particular, was quick to point out that when ‘Evangelicals’ began drifting from their committments to the doctrines at the center of the Reformation, they likewise ceased to be Evangelical. You will recall that Warfield declared that the Reformed Faith was in fact simply the most consistent form of Evangelicalism.

  17. Zrim says:


    What has endured are denominational terms over against terms like “Evangelical.” Part of the problem, it seems to me, is the priority given the latter type terms.

    I have always been sketchy on how Methodists comport under evangelical given a soteriology so close to Rome. There is a category called Radical Reformation that seems better for them, which is “Not Roman Catholic but not exactly mainstream Protestant.”

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