Thursday, February 2, 2012

Reformed - Always Reforming

When I got back to church after lunch yesterday who should be there but our church member who is also our presbytery's past moderator, Dave, who had stopped by the church.

He had been in a conversation with our associate pastor Paul and seemed to be on his way out the door but then said, "I will ask John the same question..."

"Fire away," said I.

One never knows, when one is a pastor, what kinds of questions will come along. Often they have to do with emergency repairs to the building (the toilet runneth over, etc.) or the temperature of certain rooms (some like it hot, some like it cold). I learned less about this in seminary that I should have. Sometimes the questions have to do with the church calendar or my own, is this room available on such and such a date or am I able to be in such and such a place at this or that time? Important but not necessarily questions of biblical proportions. Sometimes they are questions that test my memory, such as do I remember what someone said at this or that committee meeting in the year whatever? I have been told, by experts who study such things, that one can keep only seven things in one's short term memory at a time, and since one of those is my name that leaves only six, so usually those kinds of questions are conundrums unless I have kept copious notes.

Thankfully, Dave's question was not along any of these lines.

He wanted to know just what it means, in a Protestant context, to be Reformed. Wow! A GOOD question! The kind that we loved to study at seminary, and would chew and muse upon into the wee hours. The kind that every young pastor thinks will be the norm in the realm of questions that will come her or his way throughout the unfolding years of ministry.

I gave him my answer which was essentially that we follow the theological insights of the great reformer John Calvin, and we think of his work as foundational, but by the same token, we are not stuck in the 1500s or at 1640 or whenever, because we are the "Ecclesia Reformata, semper reformanda," which means "the Reformed church, always to be reformed." In other words, open to the ongoing guidance of the Holy Spirit in understanding matters of faith and practice as revealed in Scripture.

Certainly when Calvin preached and taught in Geneva, in that great cathedral where his sermons could go on for several hours (pay attention my flock!), Calvin did not intend that his words be the last words on any matter, theologically speaking. He knew they were not the first words and depended on the words of the Biblical authors, and he depended on what the Church Fathers such as Augustine had to tell us. And yes, he probably hoped that he had considered each matter so prayerfully and carefully that his insights would stand the scrutiny of the centuries. However, Calvin was a wise man and wise enough to know that the Holy Spirit would continue to fill and inspire and fire and challenge the Church in every age yet to come.

I count on it. So do the leaders of our Church. We remember and revere our Reformed roots and are ever connected to them, even as each new season brings its own flowering of the faith and fruit of the Spirit.

Wekiva Presbyterian Church, along with all other churches in the Reformed tradition, follow in the line of the churches that developed in the Swiss free cities and cantons, in the non-Lutheran regions of Germany, as well as in Bohemia, Hungary, and parts of France, in the early and mid 1500s. Their concern was to be congruent to Scripture; that is, to believe and live as the first followers of Jesus believed and lived, as attested to in Scripture, especially in the Book of Acts. We have elders who govern our churches because the very first church had elders who govern churches ("presbuteros" is the word for "elder"; hence the very Biblical word, "Presbyterian" means ruled by elders). It is fair to say that the very first congregation, in Jerusalem, was as I like to call it: "The First Presbyterian Church of Jerusalem".

In Reformed theology, we follow and seek to demonstrate certain ideals that characterize how we live in God’s world. Central is our belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, a belief we share with every Christian denomination. Next we believe that Scripture is our highest authority. Other important authorities such as tradition, doctrine, personal experience and reason are subordinate to what we learn from the Bible. Many fine (but not Reformed) Christians think that tradition, or personal experience, or reason would trump the Bible. In the Reformed tradition, the Bible is our highest authority.

Next, we believe that the Church is the group of people called out (the word for "church" is "ecclesia", meaning "called out" from the world) and claimed by God to be followers of Jesus Christ both for their own salvation and to bear witness to this Good News (Gospel). Some Christan groups don't have that two pronged approach, and may have no interest in reaching out in evangelism and mission. Churches in the Reformed tradition are always reaching out with the Word of the Lord and with compassionate help (activities such as evangelism, mission, and working for social justice thereby being hallmarks of churches in the Reformed tradition).

Churches in the Reformed tradition believe that God has a powerful claim on every aspect of our lives, and our church's life, and our nation, and world. There is no part of God's creation that does not owe its existence and allegiance to God. No wonder we seek to do justice and demonstrate mercy in Jesus' name, wherever we may be.

John Calvin is not the only leader of the Reformed tradition, but he is foremost perhaps because of his great work "Institutes of the Christian Religion" (which grew thicker and thicker as Calvin grew older and older; in today's world he would probably blog) and his commentaries on every book of the Bible, save one (Revelation). Other early theologians in the Reformed tradition include: Ulrich Zwingli, William Farel, Heinrich Bullinger, Wolfgang Capito, Zacharias Ursinus, Johannes Oecolampadius, Caspar Hedio, Martin Bucer, Caspar Olevianus, and Peter Martyr Vermigli. Did they all agree on every matter of theology? Hardly! If you go to the Reformation Museum across from the cathedral in Geneva, you can see a wonderfully creative "dinner conversation" between some of the Reformers, on one finer point of belief, to experience their nuances of difference. Yet, together, they helped create the Reformed tradition.

And whether we know it or not, all Christians in the Reformed tradition are standing on their shoulders, today.

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