On being Evangelical, Reformed and Baptist

Michael Horton’s presentation

Michael Horton begins chapter 6 of For Calvinism,  by explaining why the Calvinist view of the Christian life is neither an antinomian nor a legalist perspective, despite its often being charged with both of these errors. “New covenant saints are still obligated to obey the moral law” (124), and we do not bring our works to God to satisfy his holiness, but because of our faith and love. Consequently, Calvinism fosters both passivity and activism. In relationship to God, we are always receivers, but the gospel activates us for righteousness (126). We are free from commands that are not required by Scripture, but we are members of the church whose head is Christ. Whereas evangelicals typically understand piety in “individual terms, without formal connection to church membership, the means of grace, and the disciplines  that Scripture actually commands” (127). By contrast, Calvinists emphasize the public means of grace (the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments), and the spiritual disciplines that Christ ordained for the church as a community. Horton suggests that, as a result:

“When Reformed Christians talk about being baptized, catechized (not only in church but at home), learning to participate in public worship, making public profession, receiving the Supper, and loving our neighbors primarily through our vocation in the world, many evangelicals do not recognize their spiritual priorities on that list” (128).

From Horton’s perspective, “evangelical spiritualities tend to move from the individual to the family to the church,” but “Reformed piety moves in the other direction: from the public means of grace to the family to the individual” (129). But Reformed piety also overlaps with evangelical concerns for “personal witness to non-Christians, encouragement of fellow saints, regular Scripture reading, and prayer—in private as well as in family and corporate worship” (128).

Unlike Lutheranism, where “orthodoxy and pietism became warring traditions,” the Reformed tradition experienced less tension between these. Its leading theologians were also pastors, and Calvinist leaders right up to the present have written both weighty doctrinal tomes and devotional writings.

Horton sums up well both the distinctness of justification and sanctification in Reformed theology, and their inextricable relatedness in daily practice (133-37), and he discusses at length the difference between Calvinist and Arminian understandings of sanctification (144-50). His description of the Reformed understanding of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are also helpful, including the way in which these embed the life of Reformed Christians within the church, rather than focusing on an individualistic relationship to God (137-38). He states the regulative principle that “nothing can be done in public worship that is not commanded in Scripture. either directly or by good and necessary inference drawn from Scripture” (140).

Personal reflections

I found this chapter fascinating, in light of two personal experiences.

On being “Reformed” and being “evangelical”

My first experience occurred in 1974-75 when I was studying at Westminster Seminary, in Philadelphia. We were supported as missionaries by a wonderful congregation affiliated with the Independent Fundamental Churches of America (IFCA). They had been significant supporters of my parents’ 20 year ministry in India, and my wife and two sons lived in the same accommodation for furloughing missionaries that I had lived in when I was a child. It was probably unprecedented for a missionary of this church to study at Westminster, and I recall that members of the church would ask me if Westminster was “fundamental.” I would assure them that this was the case, that the Seminary had been formed because of the liberal-fundamentalist controversy, and that its original faculty had been leaders among fundamentalists of their day. It was nice to be able to build that bridge for these dear Christian people who had little experience outside of their own church fellowship. But I never thought of myself as “fundamentalist.” I self-identified as an “evangelical.”

It was with that evangelical identity that I arrived at Westminster, and it did not take me long to realize that I had entered another community different from my own experience to date. I quickly discovered that among those people, one needed to be “Reformed,” and evangelicals were somewhat suspect. One of the major features of evangelicalism has been its trans-denominational character. The evangelicalism of the 1970s had grown apart from fundamentalism, and I quickly learned at the IFCA church that Billy Graham was bad, because of the wide range of Christians with whom he was willing to cooperate. In the evangelicalism that had been my environment as I grew up, on the other hand, Graham was a significant leader, and I recall my delight at getting to shake his hand when he was in India and my father was assisting in his work.

(In the picture above, my father is to Billy Graham’s right, checking his watch. The picture was taken on the day that Graham had a meeting at the Hyderabad airport, en route to a longer engagement. My Dad had previously been involved in the training of counselors for the crusade in Bombay, but this was the day that my Dad introduced me to Graham.)

From the perspective of the folks at Westminster, the problem of evangelicalism was precisely the breadth which I had come to appreciate. Evangelicalism was a big tent in which Arminians fellowshipped with Calvinists, and Baptists with Presbyterians, and even Pentecostals were beginning to join the mainstream. This was troubling to the people in the IFCA, but it also troubled most of the Reformed people I met at Westminster. With their grand confessional tradition, and their historic conflict with Arminius and his heirs, they tended to circle the wagons and to see evangelicalism as potentially dangerous because Arminians and Dispensationalists, Pentecostals or charismatics, and various heirs of the Pietist movement, were all as much a part of the evangelical family as Calvinists were.

So I commuted that year, in more ways than one. I very much enjoyed the 20 miles that I drove from Limerick to Chestnut Hills, but I was also an “evangelical” commuting from the “fundamentalist” to the “Reformed” world. It was a year in which my own identity as an evangelical was actually enriched in significant ways, by my experience in two Christian communities which were both new to me. But it was also a year in which I often felt somewhat alien much of the time. I believed the fundamentals of the Christian faith, but I was not a fundamentalist. I delighted in the monergism of Calvinist theology, but I was an evangelical Baptist, not a “Reformed” church member. I was ordained and commissioned as a missionary by a fellowship of evangelical Baptist churches in Canada, in which Calvinists and Arminians, cessationists and charismatics, worked and worshipped together. And I was a member of an evangelical mission which had similar theological breadth.

While reading this chapter, I was reminded of my experience at Westminster. I heard again from Horton that sense of Reformed distinctness, and I realized again that, although I have been fundamentally in agreement with Horton as he worked his way through Calvinist soteriology, my Baptist ecclesiology and my evangelical piety suddenly put a gap between us. I found his work helpful though, in explicating the ways in which the experience of Christians growing up within an intentionally Reformed community have formed them differently from my own spiritual formation in evangelical communities. I am a particular kind of evangelical (a Calvinist) but I am also a particular kind of Calvinist (an evangelical Baptist), and all of this creates subtle tensions.

On being a “Reformed Baptist”

The second experience of which Horton’s chapter reminded me had to do with my connection with the “Reformed Baptist” segment of Christianity. After I became a Calvinist, my growth in both Calvinism and Christian faith was significantly affected by a number of people who identified themselves as both Reformed and Baptist – people like Albert Martin and the Reisinger brothers; people who saw themselves as heirs of the grand tradition developed by C. H. Spurgeon, and who actually published a paper named  “The Sword and Trowel,” after the paper that Spurgeon had published. I read many sermons by Spurgeon and books by other Calvinistic Baptists.

As an ordained member of an evangelical Baptist congregation, I used to attend the monthly meetings of the Fellowship for Reformed Pastoral Studies (FRPS), and I enjoyed those gatherings. Many who attended were from the same Baptist fellowship as I, but some pastored churches which had left it because they wanted to teach and worship in intentionally Reformed ways. Their churches identified as Reformed Baptist churches, and I enjoyed fellowship in those churches and their conferences. While remaining in the broadly evangelical church world, I saw myself as Reformed Baptist in theology.

In recent years, I have had conversations with a number of Reformed pastors and theologians about the validity of individuals and churches identifying themselves as “Reformed Baptist.” From their perspective this is an oxymoron, but I have explained defended my hybrid identity and its nomenclature. Horton’s chapter has been one more bit of input that contributes to my understanding of why Calvinists within Reformed churches (which  are pedobaptist and presbyterial in ecclesiology, with a more sacramental understanding of what Baptists have traditionally called “ordinances”) dislike it when other Calvinists put “Reformed” and “Baptist” together as a single designator.

Right now, I am reluctant to speak of myself as “Reformed Baptist,” in deference to members of more classically Reformed churches, in the Heidelberg, Belgic and Westminster confessional traditions. I think of myself as Calvinistic, in the London/Philadelphia confessional tradition, which intentionally appropriated what it could from Westminster. But I grant that my credobaptist ecclesiology and my evangelical spiritual formation all contribute to making me somewhat un“Reformed,” in the confessional and traditional sense that Horton is defending.

On the other hand, I find it ironic that the ecclesiology of the Reformed tradition should be made so important in defining the boundaries of Reformed faith and church identity, when so many Reformed scholars (both philosophical and theological) have moved from monergist to synergist perspectives, but remain uncensured within Reformed churches and institutions. I grant that differences regarding the sacraments were immensely important in the turmoil of the 16th century, between the Reformed and Lutherans on the one hand, and the Reformed and Radical Reformers (largely Anabaptist) on the other. But I wonder what doctrinal hierarchy Calvin himself would have brought to the current situation. Having been so strongly attracted to the monergism of Calvin’s doctrine of God, both in his providence and his saving work, I tend to see that as the primary defining characteristic of Calvinism, so that I view monergistic credobaptists as more authentically in continuity with the Swiss Reformation than synergistic pedobaptists.

Since I speak from outside the network of formally associated Reformed church bodies, however, I acknowledge that my perspective carries little weight. I would be very interested to see what would happen if an association of Calvinistic Baptist churches applied for membership in an organization such as the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the International Conference of Reformed Churches, or the World Reformed Fellowship. It may take such an application to precipitate a more formal judgment of the “Reformed” legitimacy of credobaptist churches. Since Congregationalist bodies have been readily accepted in such groups, church order is clearly not of the essence, but the boundaries of an acceptable doctrine of baptism still need to be probed. How much room is there for differences between Protestants who affirm the supreme authority of Scripture but disagree about its interpretation on this point? What makes all of this particularly ironic is the extent to which the so-called “young, restless and Reformed” are being nurtured under the ministry of Baptist pastors.

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Part 4.

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5 Responses to On being Evangelical, Reformed and Baptist

  1. Dan Reid says:

    Terry,

    Interesting reflections! We may have compared notes on this before, but I was at WTS 1974-75 as a first-year M.A. student (and you aren’t the only one that I didn’t get to know that year but have since!). The WTS distinction between “evangelicals” (= mostly Arminians!) and “Reformed” made a big impression on me as well! I love the Graham picture. I too, as an MK, grew up in an environment where Graham was highly regarded (with an extra dosage of my mother’s growing up with Ruth in China). So the Graham “problem” was nothing I was familiar with.

  2. Rick Wadholm Jr. says:

    Thank you for sharing this Terry. I deeply appreciate your openness about your own experiences and perspectives. (As we’ve discussed sometime in the past) I self-describe as “Reformed” and “Pentecostal”…yet I pastor in a fellowship that is anything but “Reformed”. I may be more “Reformed” in some of my own reflections than how you have described yourself, yet I am in no way a strictly “Reformed” member of the Church. Perhaps, my own hybrid form is outside of the boundaries of those who are ecclesiologically and historically “Reformed”, but I (at least at this point in time), still prefer to describe myself as “Reformed” instead of “Calvinist”. Thanks for the food for thought on this issue which I continue to also wrestle with.

  3. Al Hiebert says:

    Thanks, Terry, your reflections stimulate many of my own. I’ll try to be brief.

    I’m as concerned about “sound doctrine” as anyone since Paul. I’m pleased that other conservatives share this concern. Hence, I’m not surprised that today we have some 35,000 Christian denominations on earth. I’m also not surprised that writers like Christian Smith think that those who hold a high view of Scripture as a divine-human text thereby “make the Bible impossible,” in view of the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” that we conservatives express.

    50 years ago my PBI fellow grad Ingo Luhmert (a male nurse from Germany) focused his “Senior Sermon” on his guess that it was taking Jesus so long to prepare the “many mansions” for us in heaven, because of the apparent need for so many walls around the sections of heaven for these some 35,000 Christian denominations. Surely, e.g., the experience of heaven would be destroyed for the Reformed if they were there to meet or see Baptists, or Anabaptists, or charismatics, or Arminians, or Anglicans or Catholics and vise-versa.

    I’m happy to identify as an Anabaptist who delights in the Cape Town Covenant of 2010 generated by over 4000 delegates from 190 countries, as a 49-page confession of faith and call to action as we reach out to a world that urgently needs the saving good news of Jesus, whether that message is hated, ignored or unknown to them.

    Theological precision is fun to try to sort out. But we need to keep our primary focus on reaching our world for Christ’s kingdom and keep appropriately humble (1 Cor. 13:12) about the finer points that divide us, knowing that we need to protect the integrity of the saving good news of Jesus from the many distortions of cults, liberals and Christ-rejectors who need to be loved and won into Christ’s kingdom. On this focus, Billy Graham was right, true and faithful, in spite of his myriad of critics (even if he was never in Hyderabad when I was).

  4. Chris Wettstein says:

    Thanks for this reflection, Terry,

    I find that Clint Humphries offers a helpful categorization of various “Reformed Baptist” folk:

    1. The Neo-Evangelical Stream.
    Leading Example: John Piper
    Characteristics: Calvinistic convictions arrived at from within the broad mainstream Neo-evangelical ethos.

    2. The Dispensational Stream.
    Leading Example: John Macarthur
    Characteristics: Calvinistic conclusions arrived at out of the generally ‘3-4 point Calvinist’ circles of ‘Dallas’ dispensationalism.

    3. The Fundamentalist Stream.
    Leading Example: Spiritual heirs of TT Shields
    Characteristics: Distinguished from other Fundamentalists by Calvinism and at times non-Premillenial eschatology. Yet still Fundamental in ethos and association (cf. Paisley in N. Ireland, Bob Jones University, etc.)

    4. The Reformed Baptist Stream.
    Leading Example: Al Martin, Tom Ascol
    Characteristics: Often connected with Presbyterians, possessing the same view of the Law’s implication for Christian living, particularly in the form of Sabbatarianism, and 10 commandments as normative for Christians.

    5. The New Covenant Reformed Baptist Stream.
    Leading Example: John Reisinger
    Characteristics: Derived from the Reformed Baptist stream, but broke away from those circles over disagreement about Sabbatarianism and the relation of the Law to theChristian. Tended to emphasize a more Christocentric view of the Law (i.e. Law is fulfilled in Christ entirely, therefore the idea of Sunday as equivalent to a Jewish Sabbath is incorrect). Can draw from Progressive Dispensational circles as well as other eschatological perspectives.

    I found this at: http://www.challies.com/church/the-reformed-baptist-renewal

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Thanks Chris. Those are helpful identifications. I wasn’t reading blogs back in the days when Challies posted that one. He ministers in the church where one of my brother-in-laws is also active. It is a lovely congregation.

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