The fundamental problem with conservative Reformed theology is . . .

. . .  is that it’s structure of the universe is law-based.  I generally consider my outlook “Reformed” in in terms of seeing redemptive history as good creation by God, corruption by evil, and redemption by God, which ultimately will make the world the way it is supposed to be (see part 4 below). However, I strongly distance myself from just about anything having to do with the various conservative sub-cultures of Reformed theology (especially those who call themselves the Truly Reformed TR). While I know lots of good people in these environments, but systemically it seems to lack the relational presentation of the God of the Bible, and as the president of my school puts it, “Bad systems always swallow good people.” I’ve always wondered why the truly reformed sub-culture systemically tends towards the end of the spectrum away from love and the fruits of the Spirit. Daniel Kirk (Sibboleth) may have provided somewhat of an answer with his great series of posts on the fundamental problem with conservative Reformed theology (BTW: Kirk and I went to the the same seminary; he was  a year ahead of me; I wish I was half as smart as he is). UPDATE: Unfortunately, Kirk took his blog off-line, so all the links are broken. (You can proabably google the blog for the time being and click on the “cached” link).

1.) The Universe (law and the deeper magic); 2.) Ethics; 3.) Atonement; 4.)  What did Jesus Do?: Why the conservative Reformed first loved, then came to despise NT Wright.; 5). Cur Homo (Jesus as man); 6) Why Israel?; 7.) Revealed

In case you aren’t fully convinced that the whole series is worth a sustained read, I’ll try to post enough quotes to really whet your appetite (but they just aren’t as beautiful out of context):

Part 1: The Universe (law and the deeper magic)

. . . The Westminster Standards make this correlation: moral law = covenant of works = Decalogue. . . Westminster Confessional theology is based on the conviction that the Law of God gives ultimate [yes, ultimate] structure to the cosmos.

. . . If you read through Presbyterian books of order, the entire church structure was created with the conviction that the church consists in “courts”. . .. . . When the ultimate structure of the universe is the law, the purpose of the church is then to enforce that law. In other words, the litigious disposition of Presbyterian and Reformed theology is inherent to that community’s understanding of how God’s universe works. . .

. . . Why do folks determine themselves to be in the right if they can crush those who stand in theological opposition?

. . . I don’t believe that Presbyterians can truly overcome their self-devouring dysfunction until they abandon the idea that law is the ultimate force in the universe and the church exists as a court to enact that law on the earth. . .

Part 2: Ethics

“Should the death and resurrection of Jesus transform how we see ourselves acting as faithful followers of God?” The answer I see in the NT is yes, but the legal framework of the conservative Reformed Tradition requires it to say no.

. . . this biblical theology only works by stripping the biblical narratives of the historical particularity which gives them substance—and in so doing leaves Reformed theology without any mechanism for having its ethics influenced by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

On the decontextualization of the texts . . .

[In contrast to this Reformed theology, the NT teaches:] Yes, love your neighbor as yourself. But…We now have a fuller picture of love: Jesus gives us the old command, “love one another,” and yet it is simultaneously a new command: “As I have loved you; greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends…”

. . . Christian ethics are cruciform, because the commands of love are tied to a narrative in which God’s great act of love is shown to us in Jesus’ going to death on the cross. . .

. . . the ultimate “is” of the cosmos is not the moral law, but the love of God put on display in the cross of Christ. Thus the ultimate “do” is not “keep the moral law” but rather “embody the cruciform love by which God embraced you to himself.”

. . . We need, a narrative of salvation, and of the cosmos, that writes us into itself by making us truly “Christians”—little Christs, not as District Attorneys and defense attorneys and judges running about declaring the system to which all must conform, but as self-giving lovers of the creation and creatures that God created for our own and God’s own glory.

Part 3: Atonement

One thing that has been a source of continual puzzlement to me over the years is why Reformed Theology has come to put so much weight on theological ideas that are nowhere found in scripture. Two examples:

  1. “imputation the active righteousness of Christ” . . . Jesus keeps the Law, and his record of Law-keeping is reckoned as the believers–and that’s why believers get to be justified. . . Jesus’ merit becomes our merit. . . So what’s the big deal? . . . no NT writer ever says such a thing, nor is it entailed as the deduction of anything else they say. This is a position required by a theological system, but not evidently the system the NT writers were working with (if they had such a thing).
  2. Limited Atonement—infamous “L” in the T-U-L-I-P of five-point Calvinism.

. . . this leaves the Gospels almost completely out of the equation. They are scoured for the 5 or 6 references to “faith” connected with “salvation” that we can use to substantiate justification by faith, and then we turn the rest into proofs that Jesus really is God.

[But in the Gospels,] Jesus heals sick people: he’s not only on mission to remit sin, but the death and decay that according to the biblical narrative were unleashed when humanity ceded its vocation to rule the world on God’s behalf. . .

[Christmas hymn:] “No more let sins and sorrows grow or thorns infest the ground: he comes to make his blessings known far as the curse is found.” That cosmic picture of restoration is what Jesus brings–not only atoning for guilt, but setting humans at one with God, each other, the powers, and creation. . .

Part 4: Why the conservative Reformed first loved, then came to despise NT Wright: (What did Jesus Do?).

. . . two crucial differences:

(1) Wright sees in the OT’s assessment of the “problem” not only sin but also injustice, persecution, groaning creation, etc. In other words, the restoration of the cosmos is going to have to deal with the powers that war against God’s good purposes–powers that are greater than the sum of the rebellion lodged in persons’ hearts.

(2) For Wright the covenants made by YHWH to deal with the problem are covenants established with people in time. This points to the most significant underlying difference in perspective: For scripture and for Wright what matter are

the actual things that God does in history. Confessional Reformed Theology has taken the covenant language of scripture, translated it into extra-biblical ideas of non-historical covenants of works and of grace, and then read those extra-biblical ideas back into the biblical accounts of how salvation works. Israel doesn’t matter in the least, it all could have been done without her.

What did Jesus do? For Wright, Jesus restored the reign of God, overcoming the powers of sin and death, dying to absorb the penalty due for sin, replacing humanity in its seat as rightful ruler of the world on YHWH’s behalf–and all this as a way of saying, “Fulfilled Israel’s vocation to restore humanity, became the faithful God-honoring second Adam, and offered restoration from ‘exile’.”

For the Reformed world, Jesus kept the law for us, died to take our condemnation, and rises to… well… that doesn’t really matter. . .

[it affects how we view our vocation.]

Amen and amen!!

Wait! he keeps going.

Part 5: Cur Homo (Jesus as man)

. . . God in life, man in death–that’s how, all too often, we parse the significance of the God-man in our reading of the Gospels. . . But what if God’s commitment to the cosmos he created is more foundational than God’s desire to see the Law maintained? . . . Why “human”? Because humanity was created to rule the world on God’s behalf; . . . God will be victorious over this rebellion.

In order for that to happen, though, a man must rule, a man must restore, a man must be the faithful mediator of the word, presence, and power of God. . .

Part 6: Why Israel?

But once the Reformed Tradition has taken the notion of Law and teleported it back from Sinai to the Garden; . . . there is no reason why Israel has to exist except as a contingent container for receiving the truth [a place-holder]. . .

. . . in the scholastic Reformed Tradition, what is “real” is not what happens in history, but the transhistorical entities that hover beyond space and time–abstract concepts of works and grace. . . Even for Vos, the story isn’t the thing, the revelation of the propositional truths about who God is, that’s the thing. . .

Once you have said that Israel matters–that the actual covenants with Abraham and Moses and David matter–then you have cut away the exegetical moorings by which Reformed theology has created its Works versus Grace antithesis, cut away the scriptural “proof” for the Reformed version of the covenantal structure of the cosmos, and thereby undermined the way in which the early Reformed Tradition opposed Roman Catholicism and articulated its doctrine of justification.

. . . “atonement” is about more (not less!) than the law court,

Part 7: Revealed

I thought I was done with the structure of the universe series, but then an e-mail I received and my current trek through 1 Corinthians brought up something else. . .

. . . do we really believe that in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed? This is a point at which I don’t think the Lutheran and Reformed Traditions have taken the Bible seriously enough. . .

. . . his differing set of ideas about the cosmos is at the heart of debates (such as Beale v. Enns) over the NT’s use of the OT. . .

. . . the cross reveals the mind of God in a way that subverts the power games of this world. That is something previously unknowable, but God, by the Spirit, makes it known that his way, and his power, are found in weakness. Revelation. . . Tags: ,

3 thoughts on “The fundamental problem with conservative Reformed theology is . . .

  1. Thanks for the shout out, Ben. Hopefully this series will articulate what a truly Reformed and Reforming theology looks like before all is said and done.


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