Earlier this year (2012), I was part of a panel of writers asked by Christian Courier to briefly reply to this question: “What is the most important issue currently facing the Reformed tradition?” Below is my answer that was published in Christian Courier, Jan. 23, 2012 issue, p. 3 (online pdf version here). It relates nicely to my previous post on theological blind spots, to which I have a little more to add at the end of the article. First, here’s my article.
I believe the biggest issue facing the Reformed tradition in North America is how to navigate between the two extremes of confessionalism and contextualism. Confessionalism makes adherence to a traditional formulation of beliefs as the ultimate good. Contextualism, on the other hand, makes engagement and relevance to contemporary culture and life as the ultimate good. We need to walk the fine balance between them. We need to take traditional Reformed beliefs seriously without equating them with infallible Scripture. We need to engage and be informed by cultural concerns without letting them dictate our theologizing of Scripture. This tension is present in most recent controversies.
We see this tension between confessionalism and contextualism, for example, in the recent controversy on evolutionary science and the origins of humanity. How much do we let science and its discoveries inform and shape how we read and theologize Scripture? And how much are we willing to go against long cherished beliefs enshrined in our Reformed confessions? I suspect the knee-jerk reaction of many to recent scientific challenges betray a confessionalism confused as faithfulness to Scripture. Even the debates in the Christian Reformed Church surrounding the Belhar Confession, including related topics like the gospel’s relation to social justice, orthopraxis and orthodoxy, are shaped by divisions between those who lean to confessionalism and those who lean to contextualism.
Connected to these disagreements is the deep issue of identity – what does it mean to be Reformed? Confessionalists tend to answer that traditional Reformed beliefs enshrined in the “Three Forms of Unity” for example, or like John Piper and his ilk would say enshrined in the acronym TULIP, are what defines Reformed Christianity. Contextualists might point to the slogan, “a reformed church is always reforming,” and/or other themes. Contextualists might also engage the recent missional church movement more positively.
Entangled in all these controversies are our youth and young adults. I believe that most young adults want a Reformed Christianity that robustly engages contemporary questions yet rooted in the historic beliefs. They do not want either a fossilized but clear theological system irrelevant to their pressing questions or a dynamic cultural and social conscience but fuzzy in its beliefs and identity. And their voices need to be heard and engaged if North American Reformed Christianity is to find a way between confessionalism and contextualism.
In relation to my previous post on theological blind spots, we can say that both confessionalists and contextualists suffer from blind spots caused by either submitting to the past (confessionalism) or to contemporary currents (contextualism). Theologian and missionary Lesslie Newbigin, referred to in the previous post, also talks of the same tension, as quoted here by Mike Goheen:
Newbigin saw two dangers to theological faithfulness. On the one hand, if the church simply repeats theological formulations from the past or from another culture her faith will be irrelevant to the current problems of the present. On the other hand, making relevance to the issues and needs of the present the primary concern harboured the danger of a compromising accommodation. The church would be syncretistically absorbed into the current idols of the culture. Newbigin expresses this twofold danger graphically in terms of a ‘jelly fish’ or ‘petrified fossil’ church: ‘. . . there are Churches which have so evaded the duty of articulate confession that they have become, like jelly fish, incapable of moving in any direction but that of the tide; but there are also examples of Churches which have so identified faith with blind submission to authoritatively prescribed formulae that they have become but petrified fossils, having the form of the Church but not its life’. (Goheen, Michael W. Theology in Context:Lesslie Newbigin’s Contribution, Christian Courier, 2668 (9 July, 2001): 16-17.)
Which of these two – Confessionalism (petrified fossil) or Contextualism (jelly fish) – do you see as a greater threat to the church in your part of the world?
What do YOU think is the most important issue facing the Reformed Christian tradition today?