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The Perils of Taxonomy and History

Brad Littlejohn has a helpful post on the different ways in which “the marks of the church” were used among the magisterial Reformers.  He makes a plea for greater agility when identifying key theological terms and their significance for ecclesiastical unity.  This is of a piece with our own historical narrative at TCI.  No doubt many will feel that we are too optimistically combining disparate theological schools into one big latitudinarian heap. This isn’t the case, because our harmonization is principled.  It would also be a mistake to assume that we are interested in narrowing the Reformed tradition in some revisionist way, arguing perhaps for a Hookerian primacy.  As we’ve tried to show, there are places of key disagreement between Calvin and Richard Hooker, even as we still maintain the two men’s fundamental unity when it comes to the principle of the spiritual kingdom.

We could add the question of how to classify the Puritans to this conversation.  Patrick Collinson has argued at some length that the terms “Puritan” and “Anglican” cannot easily be applied to the late 16th and early 17th century English churchmen without  large overlaps and incongruities.  Further, the consistent use of “Puritan” to describe variants within Puritanism is itself elusive.  If the argument was about church polity, then  Puritan bishops would be contradictory, and yet there they are- with James Ussher and Joseph Hall leading the way.

In future essays, we plan to argue for the positive contributions of Puritanism in the realm of experiential piety and manner of life, even suggesting the possibility of something like a “New Puritanism” to compliment “The New Calvinism.”  In addition, or perhaps even contradistinction, to the obvious candidates who self-apply the term, we might offer up the example of Johnny Cash as a more authentic specimen of The New Puritanism.  But of course we don’t want to spoil all the fun with that now.  It’s just one more example of the ways in which themes can cross ordinary taxonomic lines.

And in this ongoing project, we are not suggesting something very different from Richard Muller’s own explanation of the historical “continuity” of the Reformed tradition and the reconsideration of previously accepted polarities like “Humanism” and “Scholasticism.”  In the recent collection of essays, Drawn Into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth-century British Puritanism (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011 ed. Mark Jones and Michael A. G. Haykin), Richard Muller argues that his support of the modern historical resourcement  and continuity thesis “has not [argued for] an equally monotonous ‘Calvin for the Calvinists'” (12).  The earlier assertions of radical discontinuity, “Calvin vs the Calvinists,” has not been simply reversed, with the confessional statements enshrining the final and climactic stabilization of a uniform Calvinian tradition.  In fact, Muller has argued that something as significant as the extent of the atonement was never made uniform among the Reformed.

Despite very common assumptions, it is actually not obvious that the Westminster Confession successfully persuaded its signatories to affirm a singular polity.  And even if it had, it would surely be important to note that the English Church eventually declined to adopt the Westminster Standards, thus representing something of a failure of their original aim.  Rather, those standards went on to achieve influence through the Scottish Church and ultimately through the Americans.  The American Presbyterian Churches have, of course, made consistent changes to the Westminster Standards and the proper interpretation and reception of them.  The principle of animus imponentis is in its own way inescapable, but it should also be admitted that it is now denominational, with different adopting bodies making different interpretations.  The Confessions do not, then, fully or even mostly exhibit the nuances of the Reformed tradition.

And so we must not seek to illegitimately restrict the relevance of the historical data, no matter how complex the resulting picture might be, even as we also must retain the intelligibility of a distinct “Reformed tradition” as opposed to Roman Catholic, Anabaptist, and even Lutheran ones.  There is a Reformed tradition, even though vast and variegated.

Relevant to our previous discussions, however, is the obvious pastoral and political question which arises from these historical observations: What sort of principles can allow for this historical diversity?  It has been true in the past that various sub-traditions have distinguished themselves by denying the legitimacy of the other sub-traditions.  Arminius began his career as a Reformed theologian, but he did not end it as one.  Thus there must be a principle of unity, even if it exists amidst significant diversity.

There is a contemporary danger posed by the popular revival of Calvinism in the 20th cent.  As beneficial as it has been to restoring the collective memory of John Calvin and Reformed theology, this revival has been mostly of a narrowly defined sort.  Banner of Truth and even Westminster Seminary have both contributed to this narrowing in their own way.  Calvin, the Puritans, TULIP, and Abraham Kuyper have been strung together under the mere title of “Reformed theology.”  Added to this mix from other sources of influence might be Francis Schaeffer and John Piper.  All of this has been of great practical benefit, no doubt evangelizing and discipling more people than ever before.  But it does tend to also communicate the unspoken implication that these names are mostly theologically continuous and those who are discontinuous with any of them are themselves discontinuous with Reformed theology.  This is no doubt an overly simplified account of the recent history, but it seems a relatively accurate description of the popular experience (and a sort of explanation for why the contemporary expression of Reformed theology is always on the brink of combustion).  It must also be noted that this popular experience has actually produced more pastors and popular-conference speakers and authors than the more strictly academic schools have.  Thus, the popular experience has influenced the majority of our churches and members.

And so the earlier question about the principles which can allow for diversity has critical relevance.  Have we been careful to allow the conditions for our own diversity, or have we, even if inconspicuously, cut off our own legs by gerrymandering “the Reformed tradition” and its “true” and “authentic” representation into something which possesses edges too rigid to tolerate its own plenitude?  Again, what principles are required to maintain the actual Reformed identity as supported by the historical record?

These principles will influence our view of the past as well as the present,  They will affect the parish and the city.  In other words this sort of conversation is overwhelmingly practical.  And at this point it should not surprise the reader that we believe the answers to these questions must be be irenic.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.