Following up on Pastor Wedgeworth’s post regarding “Reformed Irenicism,” I thought it important to explain a few points regarding the relationship of this term to the idea of “Reformed Catholicism,” as it is often called. As it turns out, different people mean very different things by the label – though I think they (broadly speaking) could be fit under two groups:
1. Those who believe the “catholicism” supplements something which is not already innate in the adjective “Reformed.”
2. Those who think that the “catholicism” is innate in the adjective “Reformed” when the latter is living by its own historical ethos.
The first group tends to have a sort of abstract sentiment for the church fathers and tradition – both of which we allegedly “need” in order to avoid sectarianism (at worst) or reinventing the wheel (at best). A couple of arguments in favor of “reading 2” are in order.
First, it is clear that respect for the church fathers and for tradition are not foreign to the Reformed tradition. However, such respect is not based upon any innate absolute authority of either, but rather rooted in simple wisdom. The history of the church is the history of the interpretation of Scripture and the history of living out Scripture. To try to do either without consulting them is, in a word, stupid. The exact same logic applies in many other fields and areas of life. But, as in those parallels, the past has no authority as such. It is just simple wisdom to listen to those who went before us – with both natural and special revelation having the innate authority. Put most simply, we do not believe in the succession of office, but in the succession of the word – which is received from but also judges previous hearers of its voice.
This same ambiguity can exist within the recent emphasis on the church as a “community of interpreters” (along with its second cousin, the “theological interpretation of Scripture”). This can mean, “Don’t be stupid. Read the Bible with other godly and wisdom-seeking people.” Or perhaps the simple idea is that we need to be aware that we never approach Scripture “out of the blue,” but always within many communities and contexts which tend to influence our hearing of God’s word. Indeed – though these are not absolutely determinative. But this emphasis can also sometimes wrongly imply: “The community has innately authoritative interpretation to which yours is subject” (with differing degrees of authority depending on who is making the point).
Second, it is important to clarify a little bit concerning position 2. When I say catholicity (and an implied openness to others) is latent with our own first principles, I simply mean that we take it as a matter of principle that we are finite and that we can always grow in the knowledge of God’s word and the living out of that word in practice. And so we consult “the other” precisely because our own principles demand such consultation as a matter of common sense and maturity. Not to praise ourselves, but this is why Reformed dogmaticians (even the cranky ones) read Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox theologians far more than they read us.
This underscores Pastor Wedgeworth’s point about maturity and responsibility. At the end of the day, Reformed Catholicism (of this sort) is both an individual and communal commitment to recognizing our ever-present need for greater maturity. But it is also a recognition that this maturity is pursued responsibly. This implies the consultation of others, but also the evaluation of others. The mediation between us and them is not their innate authority over us, but in the words of Luther, “Scripture and plain reason.” This is a key point. It is understandably tempting for evangelicals raised outside communities that practiced this sort of wisdom to exchange Protestant principles (if not affiliations) for the alter-ego to their own experienced insularity. But pendulum swinging from immaturity will tend to breed more immaturity. We’ve all met the confident college student who, freshly removed from parents, thinks they grasp all of reality. The antidote to their immature use of reason is not to find others who can reason for them, but rather to persuade them and to help cultivate them in their comportment to reality – that is, to help them grow up. Certainly this can lead them to see the limitations of their personal reasoning or even of reason in general. But it never means the abdication of their reason or its delegation to surrogates.
In short, Reformed Catholicism is just Protestantism under another name.