Saturday, December 06, 2003
I am a convinced Protestant and Reformed Christian. However, there are certain concerns that I have about the manner in which some people see these traditions. One problem we have is that many of the most formative documents within our faith are primarily reactions against error; they were not designed to be foundational declarations of the truth. This would not be a problem if we were more conscious of their original purpose. However, as some have given these documents foundational importance, there is a tendency to understand ourselves by defining ourselves against other groups and positions rather than by positively declaring our faith. Dogmatics can be reduced to the realm of polemics. Our distinctives become more important than anything else. The Canons of Dordt are a case in point. For many people the acronym TULIP is the standard definition of what a 'Calvinist' is. This occurs despite the fact that Dordt was primarily designed to be a response to Arminian error rather than a full-orbed declaration of the Reformed faith. The Reformed faith is far far bigger than Reformed distinctives against Arminians. The book of Galatians is another case. In the book of Galatians Paul is primarily concerned with battling error. We can learn an awful lot about the gospel from a reading of Galatians but we should not presume that Galatians was intended to be a complete declaration of the gospel. Unfortunately, many are inclined to treat it this way. The name 'Protestant' defines us as being against Roman Catholics. Churches who see themselves as 'Protestant' are always at risk of reducing their faith to the fact that they are not Roman Catholics and becoming a reactionary tradition. However, our identity is far broader than 'Protestant' distinctives. Even documents intended to provide a more positive declaration of our faith have often been hampered by these problems. For a tradition that has largely been hammered out in the context of heated polemics it always pays to reassess who we are and what we believe in a manner that downplays this polemical aspect. This tendency, of course, is far broader than the Reformed or Protestant circles; even as 'Christians' we are at risk of this. Many groups have a tendency to see the 'Christian' as little more than someone who doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, doesn't dance, or go to the cinema (of course, many of us know good Christians who do all these things). The Christian can become the worldling minus. I believe that as we come to a deeper knowledge of the fact of what we are, rather than simply what we are not, we will be better equipped to reach the world with the gospel and promote unity within the Christian church. Polemics have a very important place. However, we should always be careful to avoid them going beyond their place and taking over.