What Does It Mean to Be Reformed? Part 3: A Particular Revelation From God

Original Opinion Piece for September 25 (’14)

The Reformed Faith is a rich heritage.  When it comes to answering today’s question in this continuing series, that is no less true.  Thousands of more capable theologians and pastors have answered this question in seminal books, pamphlets, articles, and confessions or catechisms.  I will forever be indebted to the faithful and careful thinking of such men and women.  The way I answer this question isn’t necessarily unique but is born from my perspective as someone who has worked with youth in and outside of the Church for 15 years.  I have watched the natural development of their Faith, and it often (though not always) follows a certain pattern.  First, they realize who they are (my first post).  Second, they realize who God is (my second post).

imagesThe comparison creates a dramatic shift I can only liken to an asteroid creating planet-wide destruction of what existed.  Over time, a new planet emerges from the ashes.  “Conversion,” certainly, but also rebirth.

John Calvin, the man whose works play almost a more important role as the Church fractures today than they did 450 years ago, captured this well in the opening words of his defense of the Reformed Faith to his Catholic King, Francis I, who could’ve paved the way for Reformation in France (but didn’t).  In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin begins by saying,

“Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and our ourselves…we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone…Accordingly, the knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him” (I.1.i.).

It’s hard to tell in kids which comes first.  It’s hard to tell in me.  But who God is always humbles his children.

Third in the development of their faith, and this is the subject for today, they want to know how they can know what is, and is not, from God. The Bible to a new Christian is a mysteriously inviting book.  The vastness is intimidating, but the Author is intoxicating.  The genres are difficult to grasp, but the pay-off is exponential.  To a man, they all want to know it, cherish it, and be changed by it.  They want to know about the Bible from which they first heard the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth. Wouldn’t you, too?

Being Reformed means you embrace a particular revelation from God, and that you believe his revelation has three characteristics I call the What, the How, and the Why.

What: 66 books. This distinguishes us from Roman Catholics, but it also distinguishes us from many Protestants.  In many “Christian evangelical” churches, the Old Testament is rejected in full or in part, sometimes on purpose, sometimes through unintentional neglect in which the pages from Genesis to Malachi become yellow with disuse and get that 1950’s library smell.

Some have no idea what to do with the Old Testament’s 39 books.  They may learn heavily on Genesis 1-3 and 6 to argue the Devil’s presence in Modern Science, parts of Psalms (especially the happy, extroverted ones), most of Proverbs, and a few verses from 2 Chronicles and Jeremiah they believe teaches them how much God loves them and America and has a wonderful plan for our destinies. As Danny Hoffman put it, “Intensive exegesis and contextual analysis, utilizing all the latest background research and hermeneutical theories, reveals that Jeremiah 29:11 is a message for the High School students of early 21st century America.”  Jokes aside, that really is how too many treat the OT. 

The Reformed rightly respond with a resounding:

We should, however, grieve such destruction of God’s Word. And it is destruction.  It also violates the principle we preached in our first post: humility before God’s agenda. He sets the course, we do not.  If he speaks, we must do anything in order to understand and love what is said, passing our devotion and understanding to our children (cf. Deuteronomy 6 which explicitly teaches this).  If we do this with our sports love, why wouldn’t we with our ultimate love?  Any church which preaches the Christian faith by only preaching the New Testament or selected proof texts of the Old Testament is barely the Christian Faith, much less Reformed.  It distorts and is not worth defending.  When Paul said, “All Scripture is God-breathed,” he was referring to the Old Testament.  The New had not been completed and collected.  This cuts deep.

Years ago, Carl Trueman, a pastor and history professor, wrote an article called “The Marcions Have Landed”.  In it, he deplored the functional atheism of Evangelicalism towards the Old Testament.  Marcion was a heretic of the 5th century.  He believed the God of the Old was not the same as the New.  He rejected the Old Testament and much of the New, too.  Trueman argued that the American Evangelical church functions as a Marcionite church.  Is he right?  Review your church’s sermon collection.  Review your own reading.  Where are you?  On the side of Marcion, or the side of God?

It was Marcion’s publishing of a list of biblical books he believed were really the Bible that lead the Early Church to first publish their own list of what the Church had always believed was genuinely from God. Marcion’s list was significantly reduced.  The Church’s was what we honor today, 1600 years later.  Contrary to Dan Brown and other conspiracy theorists who mock Constantine and say he created the Canon, Marcion’s rejection of historic Christianity is what led the Church to say, in writing, “This is what we’ve always believed.  Who are you?  Shoo!”  It is not the Church that creates the canon, but the canon that creates the Church.  It wasn’t Constantine who did it.  It was necessity, the mother of invention or, in this case, the mother of needing-to-refute-an-upstart-cult.  Marcion promoted heresy, so called because it was against what the Church had always known and taught.

The Church came into being because of God’s revelation in these books.  It has always been this way, and the Reformed Faith accepts the full revelation from God.  Trueman is worth quoting here:

So what will be the long-term consequences of this Marcionite approach to the Bible? Ultimately, I think it will push ‘the God who is there’ back into the realm of the unknowable and make our god a mere projection of our own psychology and our worship simply into group therapy sessions where we all come together to pretend we are feeling great. God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—take that identity away and what do we have left? As the OT is the context for the NT, so the neglect of OT leaves the NT as more or less meaningless. As our reading, our sermons, and our times of corporate worship neglect and, sometimes, simply ignore the OT, we can expect a general impoverishment of church life and, finally, a total collapse of evangelical Christendom.

That is the “What” of the Bible.  Now, the How: Inerrant and Infallible.

The Bible was not written with scientific precision in mind per se. We ought not take it this way.  Moreover, it wasn’t written to be an encyclopedia or Wikipedia.  But does it make sense that when God speaks he errs?  Does it make sense that the same God who made the tongue and a mind that reasons is unable to guard a man’s handwriting?  The Reformed believe the Bible is a God-document.  We also believe it is a human document.  2 Peter 1:20-21 summarizes both saying, “Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”  Not produced by the will of man.  It is produced from and by God; men spoke as inspired to do so.  This is not the “Eureka!” inspiration of Indiana Jones finding the chalice of Christ or the post-modern inspiration that leads teenagers to believe all they are is their sexuality (or the latest fad) or that Twerking is akin to the Tango.  2 Peter 1 acknowledges that the same God who breathed into man the breath of life, and caused him to become a living being, is the same God who directed his revelation in these 66 books in such a way that it becomes His Word, a life-giving series of documents.

We have not the space to show how significant this really is, especially compared with Mormonism, Jehovah Witness-ism, and Islam.  The differences are critical, however.

As Aimee Byrd put it, “revelation” implies “an unveiling of something that is already true.”  There is nothing in these 66 books that is untrue, for it is all already true.  It is without err.  They are not all true in the same way, but are true for what they are given.  For instance, if a biblical character says, “God does not exist,” this is not a true statement about reality, but it is true that the character really said it.  These words are God’s unveiling of redemption and the only way any of us can know what has happened, is happening, and will happen.  This is what the Reformed called the absolute inerrancy and infallibility of the Scriptures.  (Review Murray; Turretin; Calvin; Bavinck, esp.)

Why:  For training in godliness, for holiness, for transformation.  Many people are dissatisfied with themselves.  Christians really have a reason to be: we are not what we once were, should be, or will be.  Christianity is a religion of persons in flux—we’re fluxing, always moving towards a more profound reflection of Jesus, getting there through many ways (suffering [Psalm 119:71], obedience [John 15:14], confession [1 John 1:19], etc.).  Chiefly, none of our experiences, no amount of obedience, and no critical and contrite confession moves us where we should go if done against the written Word of God.  If he said it, would we not do well to learn it, cherish it, and judge all by it, especially ourselves?  Of course, and so Paul says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).  There are many tools Paul could have listed here.  He chose to list only one with such wide-ranging effects: Scripture. It is the banner and rallying flag that defines what we do and where we go and why.

Being Reformed means you embrace a particular revelation from God: the 66 books of the Protestant Scripture.  Note that I did not say, a particular revelation of God, but from God.  Prepositions matter.  The former doesn’t reveal origin; the latter does.  These are words not just about God, but from God. And that makes a world of difference when the young (and old) get to questions about textual error and inspiration, i.e., whether all the Bible is true or only parts.

Before part 4 of this series, we’ll post three posts, one on the four characteristics of Scripture that make it so critical for Reformed churches, another post on Scripture’s view of itself (or whether it even has one), and third on how the two previous are demanded when reflecting on the character of God revealed therein.

“The Marcions Have Landed” may be found in a collection of short essays in The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historic and Contemporary EvangelicalismYou may also access the full article here.

We highly recommend this short book by Herman Ridderbos that strengthens understanding on how the Bible came to be: Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures.  

You may also read parts 1 and 2 of this series here:
A Particular Position Before God
A Particular Revelation of God

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