Why is the Reformed tradition in decline?

On his blog The Ecclesial Calvinist (HT: Aquila Report) Bill Evans offers some insightful reflections on the declining influence of conservative Presbyterianism (or of the confessional Reformed tradition) in America. I don’t agree with every word Evans says, but I do agree with his general perspective. What Evans captures especially well is the way in which Presbyterians have increasingly turned inward, becoming more and more obsessed with intramural squabbles over secondary and even tertiary points of doctrine, and even with turf wars between ever shrinking (proportionally) seminaries and denominations.

Presbyterian and Reformed Christians seem to view unity and solidarity as a luxury or utopian dream rather than as a command of Christ. They tragically underestimate the way in which this division and intramural conflict is destroying their credibility – and therefore their survival.

As Evans writes,

There has been a decided turn to intramural theological squabbles in conservative Presbyterian circles since the 1970s—the Shepherd controversy, theonomy, Federal Vision, the Pete Enns controversy, literal six-day young-earth creationism, 2K.  The list goes on and on.  Some of these issues reflect historic fissures in the tradition, while others are evidence of the breakdown of earlier theological consensus and the loss of a sense of proportionality.  Not every issue requires that one go to the mat… when such issues consume us it is both a distraction to those inside and off-putting to those outside.

Evans isn’t arguing that none of these issues are important. He is suggesting, rather, that they have inappropriately become all-consuming. What helps blow the various controversies out of proportion is the way in which they become tied to institutional turf wars.

Not surprisingly, some institutions have looked for something distinctive—a particular view of confessionalism, or grace, or ministry, or being “missional,” or biblical theology, or whatever—to give them a leg up in the market.  But this has, in turn, contributed to the theological “Balkanization” of the conservative Reformed community and it has also, on occasion, led to unseemly and snarky internet squabbles.

Evans is talking about seminaries here but he later extends the point to denominations as well. Far too many of us are concerned about our denominational identity and traditions, rather than about the gospel and church of Christ.

Perhaps Evans’ most insightful point, however, is not the pervasiveness of narrowing vision and consequent intramural squabbling. Perhaps his most penetrating suggestion is that Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have had their sense of mission and faithfulness distorted by their impulsive conservatism. Evans doesn’t say it this way (and I don’t think he would want to), but have theological liberalism and the cultural turn away from Christendom confused far too many Reformed Christians into thinking that their calling is to be conservative, rather than to be Scriptural?

To be sure, most Reformed conservatives would insist that those are one and the same thing. But that, it seems to me, is precisely the problem. The legitimate recognition that theological liberalism has seriously undermined the orthodox Christian faith, and the determination to defend that faith, has evolved into the assumption that the conservative position is always the biblical position. No longer do we confidently witness to the liberal (i.e., generous and earth-shattering), powerful and transforming work of the resurrected Christ; now we batten down the hatches, bolster the fortress, and try to hang on to our posts for dear life. As Evans writes,

What we have said above suggests that the prevailing theological impulse in conservative Presbyterian circles is, well, “conservative”; it is oriented toward the conserving of a tradition, and theological discussions sometimes seem like exercises in historic preservation.  To be sure, we have a goodly heritage and one that I embrace, but are there areas where further work is needed?

Evans describes the commitment of many Presbyterians to an increasingly rigid, or fundamentalist understanding of the authority of Scripture. He also worries about an exaggerated confidence in the ability of confessions to productively shape (or leverage?) Scriptural interpretation. When our obsession is with preserving our own micro-traditions, pale imitations of a once great theological and ecclesiastical stream, the temptation is overwhelming to manipulate Scripture for our own purposes, ignoring the difference between the Word and human interpretation of that Word. When we have an exaggerated understanding of the exhaustive significance of 16th and 17th century confessions designed with 16th and 17th century problems in mind, our theology, preaching, and church life quickly become more like artifacts in a museum than like the faithful witness of Christ’s church in 21st century America.

No doubt things are not quite as bleak as this blog post might suggest. And neither Evans nor I are suggesting that Reformed believers abandon the authority of Scripture or vigorous allegiance to our confessions. The problem is not with historic Reformed theology at all, per se. But what Evans seems to be suggesting, and if so, I agree with him, is that the church needs to reexamine whether a tragic preoccupation with tradition and with the forms, practices, and controversies of the past is actually undermining the authority of Scripture, the role for which our confessions were historically intended, and our faithful witness in the present. One thing seems clear. In terms of size, influence, and prospects, the Reformed tradition is, and has been for quite some time, in serious decline. We have a lot of soul-searching to do.

Advertisements

About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on February 25, 2013, in Calvinism, Confessions, Conservatism, Unity of the Church and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Why is the Reformed tradition in decline?.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: