David Noe and John Muether
As Protestants committed to proclaiming the whole counsel of God, we Orthodox Presbyterians have spent the last year reflecting on our Reformation heritage. A series of articles in New Horizons has sought to present to the church both the history of what Luther, Calvin, and others left to us and the abiding relevance of that inheritance.
Most people in the OPC probably need little convincing that this history is interesting, with its cast of heroic characters and the many dramatic episodes. Not the least of these is Luther’s challenge to debate the sale of indulgences, which he issued five hundred years ago this month. But it is the question of relevance that likely requires more defense. Why should we not think that Protestantism has finally exhausted itself? Is the Reformation in fact over, as some claim, and is it time to put this behind us? Are the ordinary means of grace that the Reformers recovered sufficient to sustain us, and why does our small denomination, if we are faithful, remain so culturally insignificant? These are the questions that this article seeks to answer.
First, we must understand the place for a knowledge of Protestant history in the life of our church. Various contributors to this series have capably explained how our commitment to the Reformation principles of the authority of God’s Word and the primacy of Christ’s work affect the way we worship, conduct pastoral ministry, understand our vocations (both holy and common), suffer for the sake of Christ, and more.
We hope it has been clear that we must not view the sixteenth century as a golden age any more than did those men and women who lived through that violent and painful era. As Calvin himself said to John à Lasko, when asked for advice about pastoring the church in London: “Do not make an idol out of me or a Jerusalem out of Geneva.”
Rather than idolizing what God has accomplished through others, we ought to seek a recovery of the lessons of tradition. After all, wisdom does not die with us, and the word Protestant does not mean to protest, as though we sought to overthrow, innovate, or promote a constant state of flux. Rather, it means to testify to that truth that is already contained in the Scriptures and commands our obedience through the power of the Holy Spirit and his illumination. It looks to a fixed and unchanging beacon. The Reformation was not a break from tradition, but rather an attempt to recover it aright, submitting the whole of the church’s teaching to the Word of God. As the Reformers always insisted, they left the Roman Catholic Church in order to continue the church catholic.
To quote Calvin again, from his deathbed address that Beza recorded, “Change is always dangerous and often harmful.” But because of the changing world around us, the Protestant faith always runs the risk of falling captive to the cultural instability that surrounds it. In this light, the call for a Reformed church always to be reforming has been used by some as a license to embrace change for its own sake.
For example, some of our sister denominations continue to feel pressure to ordain women. And there is pressure from Roman Catholic sources as well. Critics like Christian Smith level at the Protestant faith, and at us in the OPC by association, the charge that the Reformation has replaced one Pope with a thousand popes. Still others claim, as the late Richard John Neuhaus did when announcing his conversion to Rome, “Were Luther alive today, he would be a member of the Roman Catholic Church.” Sometimes we also feel pressure from within, as Protestants wonder whether they can invest their lives in a church, uncertain that it will be there for their children.
Implicit in all of the articles in our series has been an important distinction between historic Protestantism and the contemporary state of the church in America. In a word, evangelicalism in its contemporary expression is not the faith of our fathers. In its narcissistic obsession with the present, its anti-intellectualism, its devotion to celebrity, and its longing for cultural relevance, modern evangelical faith and its revivalist commitments are in fact a denial of historic Protestantism.
J. Gresham Machen and others of our founding generation worked hard to distinguish themselves from the forerunners of this movement. In the interests of a confessional, historic faith, they fought first against the modernist denial of the supernatural and obsession with the social gospel, and then against the fundamentalist denial of Christian freedom and disregard for the Westminster Standards. In the words of John Murray, both were “modern substitutes” for the Reformed faith.
During this struggle, Machen was especially prescient in his refusal to compromise on the most basic question: doctrine and life were not to be severed. The Christian faith is as much what we believe as how we live, and vice versa. Much of contemporary Protestantism, on the other hand, represents a denial of the OPC’s founding. But historic Protestantism still remains the reliable path to biblical fidelity, and it is for this reason, not from nostalgia or a rose-colored view of the past, that the lessons of the Reformation matter for us.
Having established the enduring relevance of the Reformation, we must ask whether a commitment to the ordinary means of grace is sufficient to sustain us. First, we must understand that every element of doctrine that forms the basis for our life is to flow from the authoritative Word of God. This was emblazoned as the hallmark of the Reformation when Luther at the Diet of Worms famously said, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Calvin, Beza, and a host of their students and colleagues never tired of explaining the significance of this seminal idea. For in it lies all comfort, stability, and hope. So at the Westminster Assembly, 130 years later, the divines wrote: “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (WCF 1.10). In their warning about “private spirits” lies the antidote to the individualism and “thousand-pope” mentality that plague contemporary evangelicalism.
God’s authoritative Word comes to us not only through the reading of it, but especially through preaching. As Stephen Tracey noted in his article, preaching returned to its place of prominence for the Reformers because in preaching “it is the Word of God that is let loose among the hearers.” Machen in his time admonished preachers to lead men by this proclamation “out of the crash and jazz and noise and rattle and smoke of this weary age into the green pastures and beside the still waters.”
By God’s grace, we also have those “visible words” called the sacraments. The mark of baptism sealing both ourselves and our covenant children, and our regular spiritual feasting upon the broken body and shed blood of our risen Lord nourish our souls. They remind us that our identity is the gift of the Spirit, and our life is hidden with Christ in heaven, where he is seated at the right hand of the Father.
Finally, the Reformers reoriented prayer as a means of grace. “Whereas the monastics offered it as a good work ascending to heaven,” wrote Dan Borvan, “the Reformers saw it as an invocation for God to send down his favor based on the work of Christ.”
This recognition in turn drives us to understand our day-to-day lives and our secular vocations in the light of a prayerful rendering to God. “Nothing could be more Protestant,” observed D. G. Hart, “than the way the Reformers came to understand the ordinary life of the average believer.” Rightly practiced, this entails receiving and using the good things of creation that are of temporal and not permanent value, with joy and gratitude.
Finally, if we can say that in some measure God has enabled the OPC to be faithful, why does our small fellowship remain so culturally insignificant? The answer lies in the comment of the OPC historian of a previous generation, Charlie G. Dennison, that “the OPC has no cultural bridge.” In other words, as a pilgrim church that has no continuing city and seeks a better country, the OPC has been driven by God’s providence away from multiple attempts to be “relevant.” Our continuing smallness is no cause for shame—after all, the Lord would only allow three hundred to go with Gideon against the Midianites. He has for the most part spared us from the dissatisfaction that Paul Woolley observed, earlier in our history, from those who yearned for the church “to have many members and much money and read about itself often in the newspapers.”
Relevance and cultural significance, if adopted as aims, are synonyms for compromise and doctrinal indifference. May our sovereign Lord grant that we be a church that is always being reformed according to his Word, and thus remain faithful, by his grace, to the spirit of the Reformation.
Dr. Noe teaches at Calvin College, and Mr. Muether teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary. They are OP ruling elders. New Horizons, October 2017