Many Reformed churches have progressed from (i) a lack of theological nuance to (ii) a disregard for doctrinal distinction to (ii) an actual repudiation of Reformed theology. It’s no longer that Reformed pulpits and sessions are merely being manned by elders who aren’t theologically keen, which eventually gave way to a general sense, if not firm philosophical conviction, that theological precision and confessional fidelity no longer matters. Today we are witnessing a third stage of downgrade in Reformed pulpits and sessions (and consequently our churches’ pews). We are seeing an outright repudiation of Reformed theology from within. With an insidious air of orthodoxy to accompany it, which lends an element of credence to the less discerning, we gradually slouch further toward Arminianism, Romanism and Secularism.
Even the unqualified want to feel good about themselves:
Nobody enjoys living in tension, especially tension that exposes oneself as not gifted or just plain lazy. So, given a lack of theological understanding, we can see how one might adopt a mindset of Reformed theology doesn’t matter. Such a mentality protects the less gifted and the lazy from self-consciously accepting that they’re not well prepared to articulate, teach and defend the deposit of the Reformed faith. A more suitable alternative would be for the less gifted to remain humble and keep striving, and the lazy to apply themselves better, or else just step-aside. Unfortunately, a more honorable approach has not always been taken by too many. Instead, what we have found in the past several years is a return to pre-Reformation theology, which in the end cashes out as a rejection of the fullness and richness of Biblical Systematic Theology in light of the comparatively unsystematized and unsophisticated medieval and early church theology.
Knowing about the Reformation vs knowing the theology of the Reformation:
This is not surprising once we consider that the formal teaching of Systematic Theology has at many seminaries been relegated to history types rather than to analytical thinkers. This phenomenon has opened the door to subjective and more novel takes on settled theological matters of serious intricacy. The debates of the Reformation period have taken priority over the theology of the debates. Possessing vast acquaintance with multiple sides of any doctrinal dispute has become more academically impressive than possessing an intimate working-understanding of which doctrines are theologically correct and why. Consequently, reinterpretation of Reformed confessional boundaries is now both unavoidable and permissible if only accompanied by a fragile appeal to the standards being a “consensus document” or a scattered few seventeenth century theologians who held esoteric views that did not win the confessional day. The kicker is, one can now earn an honorary degree of “Reformed orthodoxy” merely by possessing an air of historical understanding without actually subscribing to Reformed theology, let alone robustly subscribing.
We may not avoid hard thinking. It inevitably leads to heterodoxy:
As for the minimally Reformed, anyone can assert the Bible teaches both A and B. Yet it’s how we reconcile A with B that leads us to doctrines C, D, E and F. One pastor I recently spoke with from a conservative Reformed denomination was admittedly pleased to teach A and B discretely, yet without further reflection or perceived need to understand the further implications of A alongside B. With all sincerity this ordained servant did not see a moral or pastoral responsibility to systematize the discrete A, B, C’s of Reformed theology so that rudimentary principles of doctrine might not just be consistent with each other but also demonstrate a coherent systematic whole that is worldview explanatory and beyond refutation. This is the unhappy state of the Reformed church. A most serious dumbing down, as it were.
For example, I have found that too many seminary students, graduates and ordained servants within the Reformed tradition affirm the following points of theology (most of them unwittingly), which aren’t just theologically incorrect but directly impinge upon other foundational doctrines and philosophical considerations to the right of the dash (–). The list below overlaps yet doesn’t include doctrinal confusion cited here.
Hypothetical Universalism – The gospel and God’s numerically one undivided will
Libertarian Calvinism – God’s aseity, independence, unique eternality and exhaustive omniscience; moral accountability; compatibilism vs incompatibilism
Egalitarianism – Ministry of God’s Word; Equality vs Sameness; merely arbitrary vs naturally fitting gender functions that transcend church and family
Radical 2 Kingdom – Corruption of the Spirituality of the Church and the crown rights of King Jesus
Limited view of the Fall and Total Depravity – Roman Catholic nature-grace dualism; Pelagian tendencies; Concupiscence; Apologetic methodology; Natural Theology; Seeker sensitivity and worship practice
Peccability of Christ – Hypostatic Union and Nestorianism; Narrowly Logical vs Metaphysical modalities
Those are just a mere smattering of false doctrine (and doctrines they impinge upon) held by Reformed servants, and often times they don’t even know it.
Suffice to say, it should be obvious; this is no small matter. A growing number of pulpits and sessions are at least partially manned by men who are comparative liberals relative to Puritans and Continentalists. Yet in the context of a distinctly pre-Reformation theology, these false teachings are now all in play.
A proposed preventative prescription:
To look for deep theology prior to the Reformation era is like seeking to nourish oneself from dumpsters behind fine food restaurants in the hope of finding some tasty morsel that is not on the menu. Obviously, it’s madness. Clearly, there’s much on the Reformed menu that does not entice.
Those with an insatiable appetite for pre-Reformation theology should at least put forth what they believe is lacking in Reformed theology, which by Reformed standards swallowed up any and all orthodoxy prior to the Reformation in toto! Until such time, one is wise to consider the patristic and medieval fad-rage a smokescreen for a multifaceted agenda that is just beginning to take form.
As a path forward, the new wave of Trinitarian theologians, who think they’ve unearthed some non-Reformed yet orthodox doctrine of God, should be scrutinized and held accountable to a deep confessional systematic theology that should be able to be articulated, taught and defended against the onslaught of doctrinal impurity from outside the Reformed tradition, to the end that Jesus’ sheep might be nourished by the pure milk of God’s word, if not unto meat.