One of the particulars of Protestantism that Eastern Orthodox and Papists can not wrap their heads around is our ability to be sectarian. They claim to be unified in all things, even though after a little letting your fingers do the walking for you that it becomes apparent that they manifestly are not. For starters the EO and Papists are separate as a result of the Great Schism and since then the Patriarchs have not been able to call a counsel due to all of their differences. And on the Roman side there is a reason Jesuits and Franciscans are notable groups. So, united my eye, they just like to pretend that there are no divisions.
Yet on our side of things we, historically, have had no problems with raucous debate that occasionally ends with us shaking hands or fists at each other and going our separate ways. And that is a feature not a bug. We have a unique ability to recognize where there are actual mysterious, grey, or unclear areas of doctrine, that there are enough of those in scripture alone without tradition heaping on a crap ton more, and that we can make educated guesses as to how they work which occasionally we differ on. We don’t wander around in manufactured mysteries and hope that our shared appreciation of a complete and total lack of answers or logic is enough to keep us all together in our pointy hats. Again, admitting our differences and going our separate ways is a feature not a bug. It is manful and honest. It causes the clash of ideas, it is iron sharpening iron, which is a violent process.
A Melting Pot
Our differences matter and it is time for the Reformed community to give a more robust defense of them. For the past fifteen years or so we have enjoyed an ecumenism which has been coming back to bite us over the last six or so. We got here by good and understandable means but there was a side effect we didn’t see coming. It began with the Reformed recognizing that there were some tertiary issues that the old school split over but were not insurmountable for fellowship. We could still remain distinctly Baptist or Presbyterian and be solidly reformed. We just agreed to disagree on things like baby splashing. We were Together for the Gospel as the conference called it. We formed Gospel Coalitions outside of our denominations. And it was glorious. We became a voice, a movement, we suddenly had a seat at the table in evangelicalism like never before. By no longer being outsiders, we were given inroads into culture, we became “winsome.” And that was also good, ten years ago.
Now we find ourselves not so much with a seat at the table but having been dumped into the pot of American Evangelicalism. And a particular orange cook has been slowly turning up the heat on us. This is an unfortunate turn of events largely because of who we find ourselves simmering alongside of. In all our good willed ecumenism we ended up with the Pentecostals, the Free Will Good Ole Boys, and a lot of people who think they love Jesus but clearly worship the Orange Cook who is killing us. These are the people who watch more cable news than read their Bibles (and even then their idea of Bible reading is Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling book of heresy), they tour the capitol aggressively to protest lost elections, they are true Q-anon, and happily tell pollsters they are evangelical. When they are, most likely, not even Christians to begin with.*
Clarifying our Position
There is a process in cooking where the dross is removed and a previously opaque liquid is made clear, this is called clarifying. It is time for the Reformed to purge the unhelpful attachments and be clear who we are. We should be so obnoxiously loud about this that it becomes impossible for us to be seen as connected to religious types who are more interested in the flim flam prophesies of Paula White than Scripture. It is time for us to go back to being that weird group of people who believe passionately in predestination. Or let me approach it this way, part of our winsomeness should include Tim Keller going on CNN and mocking Kenneth Copeland in a routine that is considered, “Basically standup.” We shouldn’t just denounce the prosperity gospel in disapproving tones while allowing that there may be some genuine Christians in those “churches.” We should let our speech be seasoned with the salt of words like, charlatan, grifter, snake oil sales men, and brood of vipers. We should keep at the forefront of our thinking that we are not criticizing fellow believers we are mocking and jeering at the devil.
“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”—Luther
These are people that are so far entrenched that they will not be reasoned out of their conspiracies or deceptions, therefore I propose that a sharp satirical rebuke is in order. They must be jarred out of their delusions, rattled, made to see their ridiculousness and called to repentance.
At the same time we should double down on our distinctive. We should not just be protestant but proudly so. At one point I think Mark Dever preached a sermon called Brothers We Are Protestant. If he didn’t someone should. Semper Reformanda should be on our lips. We should regularly affirm against the papacy. We should quote Puritans, have large book tables or stores packed with reformed classics, not the new pop theology. We should cultivate an environment that leaves no room for ambiguity about what we believe. We should make it impossible for anyone secular to say with a straight face that we are the voting block that participates in Jericho Marches. Notice no one says this about Unitarians or Papists. They are distinct because of their heretical distinctives. Why are we letting the heretical distinctives of others into our own fold?
The problem on the free will, Q-anon, Pentecostal side is idolatry. And as Calvin points out:
“The human heart is a perpetual idol factory, churning out new idols like the conveyor belt in a manufacturing plant rolling out new widgets.” – John Calvin
One of those idols that can be particular to the Reformed is our tradition, and heroes. As Bryan Loritts once said, “For some of you young Reformed guys J.C. stand s for John Calvin not Jesus Christ.” So we must avoid the pitfall of loving the reformation and our distinctives more than we love the God who predestined us to be saved by his only son.
Related to that would be in our rebuke and call to repentance to fail to equally preach what they are turning toward. It is not just away from Benny Hinn but to Christ. And this is important because it is also what we call the lost liberal world to. So we must always copy Bunyan: “Come and welcome to Jesus Christ.”
Finally it would be an error to do all of this merely as a response to political twists and turns. These should be principals. Semper Reformanda is a call to the constantly be refreshing our base. We return to the sources: Scripture, Christ and reform, we keep it lively by these means. This is what the Five Solas remind us of. In the past the Reformed got a bad name because of becoming curmudgeonly, and as much as that appeals to my sensibilities, it did not work out well for us. If I dare to paraphrase Lewis:
“We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it… None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern theology. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading Scripture.” – (paraphrase) C.S. Lewis, Introduction to On the Incarnation
It would not be the worst thing in the world to cease being lumped in with the crazies who claim to be part of us but were never from among us. It would be very good for our independence to be undeniable. Aaron Renn wrote recently along the lines that we should just suck it up and accept our category companions. I reject that. I don’t think that we have really tried. Because as the Papist and EO would point out, splitting is right in our wheel house, it is our jam. And even if we fail… Well we will have had a hell of a good time trying.
*For evidence see this report form NPR about the ReAwaken Tour that points out how the attendees have replaced regular church attendance with gatherings like this for “community.” It also begs the question about how pastors may have shoved these people into the arms of the My Pillow Guy by drifting or al least never criticizing the left…