All Christians who are Protestant by conviction acknowledge their debt to the Reformers. It is not true, however, that all Protestants are now ‘Reformed’ in their theology. This has been the case for many a long year. While the Puritans saw themselves as true sons of the Reformation (though this is disputed in some quarters), the Arminians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, first under Arminius himself and then most famously under Wesley, consciously departed from Reformed standards at certain points. Wesley was apparently of the opinion that his views adhered more closely to the Bible than those of his Calvinist colleague and friend, Whitefield. Many think otherwise and not without reason.
Wilting before the onslaught of man-centred liberalism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Reformed theology went into almost total eclipse in the British Isles if not in America. In the 1950s, however, under the leadership of the Welsh doctor turned preacher, D.M.Lloyd-Jones, and theologian, J.I.Packer, it underwent a resurgence. At first, at least as I understood the issue, going back to our Protestant roots was intended to enable us to catch our breath, re-orient ourselves, gain a new appreciation of the glories of the biblical gospel and recover from the religious sterility which was the consequence of the arid scholarship of liberalism. It would appear that I was mistaken, for in due course it became apparent that the new orthodoxy was not based exclusively on the Bible but on the creeds and confessions of our forefathers. Despite all the brave talk, we were in principle going back to Egypt. Having escaped disaster on the Scylla of liberalism, we were now to be wrecked on the Charybdis of tradition. By allowing secondary standards such as the Westminster Confession of Faith to govern our understanding of Scripture, we undermined its authority and in the words of Jeremiah went backward and not forward (7:24). Viewing the Bible through the prism of Puritanism, many saw traditional heroes as ‘giants’ (cf. Gen. 6:4) who were capable of solving modern problems but who in fact blinded them to the situation as it really was and remains to this day. Despite occasional warnings that went unheeded or were shouted down, leaders like Lloyd-Jones, who himself was little more than a rediscoverer and regurgitator of an old theology, carried all before them as uncritical and impressionable young men flocked to their standard. Tragically, many of the latter have remained stuck in the rut thus fashioned for them and appear even forty or fifty years later quite incapable of seeing the camels, not to mention the gnats, they imbibed in their youth.
In all honesty I have to admit to having followed in their train for a while, especially since I had been mightily impressed by Packer’s “’Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God” (1958), with the result that in my early Christian days Packer himself was something of a hero to me. However, apart from my apparent failure to realise that a return to tradition on the part of some was in view from the start, at least five things conspired to prevent me from falling into the perennial trap of the unwary: first, as a student at university I became aware of the battle waged between the ancients and the moderns in French literature to the detriment of the former; secondly, as a Lincolnshire man I realised that admirer of Sir Isaac Newton though I was, I would never turn to him if I wanted to learn about modern science, so, if I was consistent I would not regard old theologians as infallible guides in Bible study either; third, having already done my National Service, I was not so young and impressionable as some of my contemporaries at university *; fourth, I went off to New Zealand to take up my first job and was perhaps less exposed than I might otherwise have been to the influence of devotees of Lloyd-Jones. In the event I did not hear and see him in person until I was nearly 40 and was somewhat disappointed when I did. Fifthly, right from the start I had a major problem with at least one aspect of Reformed theology – the idea of the unity of the covenant, which I could not understand. I also found original sin hard to swallow but deferred study of it till later.
According to Scripture, going back is sinful unless it means going back to the seat of authority, the Bible, the inspired word itself. Isaiah puts the matter in a nutshell when he tells his readers not to seek God among the dead but in the word and the testimony (8:19f.). Again, Jeremiah, who had much to say about false prophets (ch.23 espec.), urges his hearers to walk in the good way of Israel’s ancient prophetic tradition (6:16, cf. 1 Kings 8:36). In this he is supported by Jehoshaphat (2 Chron. 20:20) and of course at a later date by NT teachers (Gal.1:8f.). Since Scripture itself is our touchstone, it is clearly dangerous to rely, as the Jews did (Mark 7:1-13), on ancient interpretations of a word that, being inspired by God himself, is living or dynamic and hence, under the influence of the Spirit, constantly capable of being re-assessed (cf. 1 Pet. 1:10-12). This is something the Reformers apparently understood very well. Not only did they themselves take a long hard look at what Scripture, as opposed to the Church of Rome, actually said, but out of the cauldron of their own experience they concluded that perceived ‘truth’ was not ‘semper eadem’ (always the same) but ‘semper reformanda’ (always in the process of reformation). Their own approach was therefore innovative, dynamic, progressive, the exact opposite of conservative. What is more, their conclusions about basic doctrines were reached not only with much soul-searching but at tremendous personal cost. Today, though professing to be true sons of the Reformers and occasionally making token calls for reformation, the spirit of the proclaimed ‘sons’ stands in violent contrast to that of their fathers. They neither move forward themselves nor help those who would (cf. Luke 11:52). In fact, their conduct is reminiscent of that of the reactionaries, like Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, against the Reformation in more ways than one.
For a start, one of the most striking features of the modern situation is the lack of freedom of expression, the constructive interchange of ideas. Getting an article published in modern evangelical journals of one kind or another is virtually impossible even when the subject matter simply clamours for debate. Only ‘commissioned’ or well-known ‘sound’ writers get a look-in. The reason why is not far to seek. Modern ‘disciples of Moses’ relying on their forebears have already decided what the truth is, and only those who agree with them are entrusted with proclaiming what is effectively the propaganda of a mutual admiration society (cf. John 12:43; Rom. 2:29). Thus has the wheel come full circle: the so-called enemies of Rome have re-invented the Roman Index, and would-be modern prophets are to all intents and purposes silenced. Thus Jesus words come true again – for so their fathers did to the prophets (Luke 6:23,26).
What all too many modern evangelicals who claim to be true progeny of the Reformers fail to realise is that being a son implies kinship of character, as Marshall, commenting on Luke 11:48 and Matthew 23:31, indicates (p.501). In other words, actions soon establish the nature of the chip and the block from which it comes. If this is the test of identity, then we need to examine ourselves and ask how Jesus is likely to assess us and with which family he is liable to link us. Let us look further.
Fundamentalism is characterised by a crude literalism in religions other than Christianity. But more than that, it is often tied to a certain type of language as in Islam. It was the Reformers who gave us the Bible in German (Luther) and English, for example. While Erasmus was probably the first to talk of the ploughboy being able to read the Scripture in his native tongue, it was Tyndale who gave his life to ensure that this happened in England. Yet, marvellous to relate, modern traditionalists, who are usually fundamentalists masquerading as true evangelicals, would still have us read the King James Version of the Bible in 2001. As a former teacher of Shakespeare I am only too well aware of the difficulties that Elizabethan English poses for modern students. The unavoidable inference is that the same holds with regard to the Bible. It is hard indeed to imagine the Reformers, were they alive today, imposing such a burden on their protégés (cf. Luke 11:46). They were generally men of a different ilk, standing in stark contrast to the Muslim fundamentalist who is prepared to persecute and even kill in order to have his way, as we have recently become painfully aware.
Persecution of course takes many different forms. An American theologian recently pointed out that it is the habit of fundamentalists, who lack the power to do anything worse, simply to ignore those who challenge their stance on different issues. It was not without good reason that George Orwell, who knew something about hypocrisy, once pointed out that the powers that be could keep people quiet with surprising effectiveness. But it is at the price of honesty. If a particular dogma I have embraced is subject to criticism, then I must either publicly defend it or abandon it. Failure to do this is to place my own faith, as well as that of others, in jeopardy. Take, for example, dogmas like original sin or the ‘literal’ days of Genesis. Since both of these appear to be especially vulnerable, they call for open debate as a matter of immediate urgency. Yet this is frequently denied. However, the plain fact is that, if we are in the business of truth and salvation, nothing less will do.
As I have already intimated, the Reformers are known for their recognition of error and their willingness to repent at the risk of their lives. One wonders if their so-called ‘sons’ are of the same calibre. Rather, are they not in danger of crossing sea and land in order to make a single convert and make him as much a child of hell as themselves (Mt.23:15)? Let him who stands take stock lest he fall. The need for self-examination affects us all. May God grant that we respond appropriately.
The need for a prophetic voice is fundamental in Scripture. Concerned writers warn against false prophets on the one hand (Dt. 13; Jer. 23; Ezek.13) and lament when there is no genuine word from the Lord on the other (1 Sam. 3:1; Amos 8:11). In contrast with much loose thinking, modern theologians have occasionally noted that the prophets of Israel spoke their unwelcome words to their own people, not to foreigners (cf. Ezek. 3:4-7; Jonah was an exception). While it has been claimed that the repentance required of Israel (see 2 Chron. 7:14) does not apply to today’s church, the fact is that judgement still begins at the house of God (cf. 1 Pet. 4:17). It follows from this that a truly prophetic voice in our own day will be one that points up the sins of the God’s own people. Just as revival and reformation are associated with them, so is repentance.
This brings me to my own case. More than thirty years ago I myself completed a book challenging the entire church regarding its basic beliefs. Almost needless to say, I could not find a publisher, as I had fortunately been forewarned. So I had to make do with a raft of excuses. I tried a different tack and wrote a number of articles for a variety of semi-popular magazines. The very first one was strongly rejected: I had committed the heinous sin of using a modern translation of the Bible! And so the pattern continued: my list of rejections might have made it in the Guinness Book of Records had its editors become aware of it. I had another problem, however. No one seemed capable of dealing with my ‘new’ doctrines and call for reformation. In all I wrote three books (though one of these was a non-technical version of the first) and neither they nor my articles, apart from five on covenant theology that appeared in a church paper of small distribution, were published. And so it continues to the moment of writing. Scripture implicitly plays second fiddle to time-honoured tradition or confessionalism, as has so often been the case in both the Bible (cf. Jer. 8:8) and in history. It is the latter, however, which will tell the final tale.
The failure of the churches to listen to Scripture, a perennial problem which Jeremiah in particular would instantly recognise, and to encourage the voice of prophecy is bound to have various unpleasant effects. For a start the church itself becomes irrelevant. It not merely lacks vigour and vitality but it fails to make a significant impact for good on society as a whole. The salt and light, which were so much in evidence in the NT and at the Reformation, are notably lacking. Perhaps the worst insult to Protestant Britain has not simply been an observable drift towards Rome but the widespread movement away from Christianity altogether towards world religions such as Hinduism, saturated with superstition though they are. Even this week in which I write has seen George Harrison of Beatle fame make his final resting place the Ganges. Yet he was portrayed on television as seeking identity, wanting to know who he was and where he was going. But, in the words of Jeremiah, his search for meaning ended with a broken cistern quite incapable of holding the water of life (2:13). Thus has the voice of genuine Christianity been muted by liberalism on the one hand and traditionalism on the other. Both are totally unfitted for meeting modern needs.
Another point must be made. If the Bible is any guide, the present attitude of the traditionalists runs the risk of making God himself our enemy. It is one thing for our forebears to have made great progress in their understanding of the faith once delivered, another thing for us. Are we really to believe that God has had nothing to teach us since the Reformation? John Robinson, in an address delivered to the Pilgrim Fathers in 1609, once expressed his conviction that, great though Luther and Calvin were, God had yet more light to break forth from his word. In the twenty-first century we ought to be similarly convinced, that is, unless we are secret subscribers to what was known a few years ago as the God-is-dead theology! If liberalism was the great enemy of the faith in the fifties, there can be little doubt that traditionalism, along with secularism, plays that role now.
Evangelicalism today is not only hopelessly divided doctrinally, it suffers universally from the effects of trying to operate in a false frame of reference. How come? it may asked. The basic problem is its commitment to Augustinianism. While we can all rejoice at the triumph of grace in Augustine’s thought and our recognition of the sheer inadequacy of the Pelagian stress on works and free will, we must also become aware as a matter of urgency of the unbiblical and heretical nature of some of his other ideas. The worldview that stems from his belief in original perfection, original righteousness, sin, Fall (usually with a capital ‘F’) and cosmic curse is simply false and a major stumbling-block in Christian apologetics. The Bible points in a different direction, one which, in the event, is much more in accordance with the findings of modern science. Others have noticed how comprehensive a role original sin has played in Augustinian theology but how little is said in support of it in Scripture. Considering its dubious foundation in Augustine’s own thinking and the patently insoluble nature of the problems it raises, it is high time it was subjected to radical re-appraisal. But we must go still further and follow up its ramifications in our understanding of covenant, pneumatology, eschatology and so forth.
In sum, to be a son of the Reformation is, positively, to be scripturally goal-bound, negatively, anti-traditionalistic. If the Bible is to be our final court of appeal, even ancient creeds and confessions, far from being regarded as sacrosanct, must be seen to be as vulnerable to criticism as everything else that is man-made. Only by adopting the spirit of the Reformation can we hope to make progress towards the perfection** to which we are called (cf. 2 Cor. 10:5; Eph. 4:11-16; Phil. 3:12-16; Jas. 1:4; 3:14-17).
* About a year after writing the above I have read Gaius Davies’ chapter on Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. It makes instructive reading.
** Writing in1883, Bishop Westcott commented in an essay on The Gospel of Creation: “There is ‘a making perfect’ which is correlative with ‘salvation’” (p.313).
G.Davies, Genius Grief and Grace, Fearn, 2001.
I.H.Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, Exeter, 1978.
J.I.Packer, “Fundamentalism” and The Word of God, Leicester, 1958.
B.F.Westcott, The Epistles of John, London, 1883.