The World Reformed Fellowship is an admirable association, including in its ranks many good and godly men. Last year they released a Statement of Faith which generated a bit of discussion. Being interested in the Reformed faith and its various manifestations across different nations, we naturally found our interest piqued. Much of the online reaction was negative, which might seem curious, since all we are really dealing with here is a statement of faith for a parachurch ministry with voluntary membership. The WRF’s website, however, gives the following description for the Statement of Faith, which lets us in on its estimation of its own significance:
[T]he WRF began work in the year 2000 on a statement of faith which would draw together the common core of evangelical Reformed theology from a wide variety of ecclesiastical traditions and would apply that core to the issues which are facing Christ’s church in the 21st century.
In other words, this statement of faith is seeking to summarize “evangelical Reformed theology” for international dialogue. It might even be a step towards an ecumenical confession.
On the second page of the document itself, written by Andrew McGowan, we also find a clue to its intended purpose. Two sections are worth quoting:
All of our Confessions were written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and were largely designed to state the Reformed faith as over against medieval Roman Catholicism and, in the case of the later ones, Arminianism. None of the Confessions deal with the major issues which have faced the Church throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as Liberalism, Pluralism and Postmodernism.
… all of our Confessions were written in Western Europe, whereas the leadership in the global church has now moved to the southern hemisphere. I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen when scholars from Africa, Asia, Australasia and South America joined with theologians from Europe and North America to engage in such a task. European and American theologians have played a dominant role in the world church in recent centuries, it seemed right that we should now work together with theologians from the global south.
So we see that this document also intends to be a modern voice, addressing challenges that were not present in previous eras, and that it wants to incorporate the “world” influence by giving a voice to theologians who are not European or North American. Again, we see the potential for a modern and global Reformed identity.
We will not give a comprehensive commentary on the contents of the WRF Statement of Faith. That has been done elsewhere, and it is not, to our minds, the most interesting or important part of the discussion. The document is theologically average. It seems consciously to omit certain traditional language about the Trinity, choosing to say that the Holy Spirit conceived “the Incarnate Son” (not the “eternal Son”, pg. 9). This is a fairly common move in contemporary Evangelicalism, but it is a departure from the tradition and has not yet, as far as we are concerned, attained the status of consensus. The Statement of Faith also chooses to avoid precise theological language throughout, sometimes leading it into outright contradiction, such as when it affirms that the divine nature “cannot suffer or die” but then goes on to say, in the same paragraph, that Jesus Christ the Son of God “suffered and died” in “his two natures” (pg. 8).
Apart from these points, the theology is largely unobjectionable. It does assume a congregational church polity (pg. 16), a position which will certainly not find universal agreement among Reformed bodies internationally. It is also interesting to note that there is no mention of infant baptism. The sacraments are reduced to one paragraph, with minimal explanation. And this seems to show a specific view of ecumenical relations. Ecclesiology is very clearly subordinated to general theology and ethics. The document’s strengths and, evidently, its passions are to be found in the statements about the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, complementarianism, and sexual ethics. We can assume that these issues are the “contemporary” challenges that most prominently face the “global” Reformed world.
This description is not intended to necessarily be a criticism, though criticisms can certainly be expected from many Reformed churches. This is because many modern Reformed theologians have mediated theological and ethical discussions through ecclesiology. The WRF’s Statement of Faith seems to admit that such an approach will not work for international ecumenical relations. Is this something that the Reformed world can become comfortable with? Or will the acknowledgement of this reality itself have to exclude, in some measure, certain members of the international Reformed community from the conversation? The answer to this question might well mark the the degree of real catholicity that is possible within Reformed doctrine.
Similarly, we should ask a few questions about the nature of such statements of faith. Are they intended to serve as “confessions,” and if so, by whom? As we’ve said, this is very clearly a parachurch document. Are certain ecclesiastical bodies also expected to affirm this statement, or is it intended to exist alongside ecclesiastical confessions?
We might also wonder where this Statement of Faith’s authority is drawn from. Is it verified by the fact that individuals agree with it? It is not inappropriate for individuals to write their own statements of faith. The great Doctor Warfield did exactly this, though his was quite evidently but a summarization of the Westminster Confession.
But if the WRF’s Statement of Faith really is a summary of the minds of individual believers globally, what might this tell us about how an “identity” is crafted?
And finally, it’s worth investigating some of the assumptions about “global Christianity” and the global face of Reformed theology. Is it really true, as the WRF Statement of Faith says, that “the leadership in the global church has now moved to the southern hemisphere”? If so, why is it the case that WRF’s International Director is from the United States and the Chairman of its “theological committee” is from Scotland? Numbers and influence are not the same thing as leadership.
And how much theological diversity and innovation should be legitimized simply by its presence across the globe? Sometimes the reader is given the impression that new theological formulation simply must occur when the faith moves into different countries. But is this true, and what is the rule to judge the validity of any such new formulation?
There’s also the unfortunate assumption that one sometimes gets when interacting with literature on “global Christianity” that believers and thinkers in places like “the global south” are not interested in traditional dogmatic theology and careful dialectical articulation. Rather, we are often encouraged to move more quickly to the “practical” issues. But this has not been the case with past evangelism and the spread of Christendom. In earlier eras, new cultures were eager to engage in dogmatics and primary theological principles. And typically these cultures viewed themselves as heirs to the ongoing tradition and theological conversation. Surely we should expect the same of the global Reformed communities.
In many ways we share the aspirations of the World Reformed Fellowship. We would like to see a pan-Reformed identity emerge on the global scene, and in many ways, this website is our contribution to that identity. Still, we should make a few observations on how any international Reformed ecumenism must work.
We agree with the WRF’s Statement of Faith that the local congregation must be treated as “the church” and the most basic faith institution. This is because, very simply, the Church is constituted, not by administrative bodies or clerical unions, but by the Word as it is actually read, preached, prayed, and sung. The local church just is The Church, and it is only through the local church that any Christian ever participates in the life of the Church. As such, even “catholic creeds” are subordinated to the local believers, and believers receive them only as faithful consensual exegesis of the Holy Scriptures. This point of view is actually inscribed in the older Reformed Confessions (WCF 1.10, 31.4) and is seen in concrete historical examples. John Calvin, we continue to remind readers, refused to subscribe to the Athanasian Creed, even though he agreed with the substance of its theology. So too, Lancelot Andrewes once proclaimed, “And this is the main question between them and us, Who have the true means to interpret? They have the Fathers, Councils, the Church, and the Pope. We have not so” (A Pattern of Catechistical Doctrine 5.3).
Since any Confession of Faith is something that will have to be received by local congregations and promoted as consistent with the teaching of the Bible, it should be minimal, seeking to lay out the clear and essential teachings of the faith. Matters of adiaphora should not be included, since they are admittedly not in the same category. This will have, invariably, the function of greatly limiting the amount of “practical application” that any confession of faith can have. Confessions must be content to deal in principles, leaving the majority of application to the prudence of individual bodies. In fact, confessions are really local catechetical norms.
And this means that there really can’t be a “world confession.” There can only be world consensus. The confession becomes a confession as it is received. And since consensus is the goal, world conversation is the means to that end. This should be a principled conversation, with a rationale goal in mind, but it should also be carried out in charity. In fact, that conversation itself is charity, charity in the mode of discourse: it is the specifically intellectual and discursive mode of catholic communion. TCI is our contribution to that conversation, and we would suggest that it does not have to begin from nothing. Rather the future of “global Christianity” ought to be a continuation of its past, building upon the great tradition and applying the true (and therefore unchanging) principles to the various contemporary issues.