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We Need a New Reformation

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I see young people daringly and unconditionally love prodigals.

This October marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Christian Reformed churches and ministries, as well as The Banner, have been busy commemorating the event. Commemorating the past is important, but I am also concerned about our future. I believe the Christian Reformed Church needs a new reformation—not of theology, but of our spiritual posture.

As pivotal as Martin Luther was in sparking the Reformation, the Christian Reformed tradition owes more to another Reformer, John Calvin. Calvin certainly influenced our theology and confessions. But he also deeply shaped our spiritual posture—how we approach theology, church, and mission.

William J. Bouwsma, in his biography John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait, observed that there were, so to speak, two Calvins at odds within the same person. One was a rationalist philosopher who craved intelligibility, order, and certainty. This Calvin was driven by a fear of uncertainty captured by the image of the abyss. The other, however, was a 16th-century humanist, flexible and revolutionary. This Calvin celebrated paradox and mystery, affirmed experience over theory, and tolerated a great deal of individual freedom. The “theologian of the Holy Spirit” Calvin’s fear was symbolized by entrapment in a labyrinth. This internal tension was part of Calvin’s genius.

When I look over our denomination’s history, I believe our dominant spiritual posture defaults to the rationalist Calvin, losing the counter-balancing side. We crave boundaries, order, and certainty, fearing our own versions of the abyss. But in the process, we may have unwittingly entrapped ourselves in a rationalist labyrinth of our own making. As a result, have we insulated ourselves from embracing the Holy Spirit’s untamed flames and unpredictable winds of revival?

Don’t get me wrong. I believe the Holy Spirit uses our intellect and reason. But is it possible that we have excessively relied on rules, boundaries, and theological certainties and so fallen into spiritual pride, losing sight of freedom and flexibility?

Many factors account for our denomination’s declining membership. But I believe it will take more than our rationalist defaults—five-year plans, structural changes, church order revisions, study committees, church growth techniques, retrenchments of tradition—to turn us around.

We need a new reformation. I see signs of this in the CRC. I see some of us leaning more into Calvin’s more flexible side. I see many putting God’s mission above their need for certainty and fear of chaos. I see churches taking more risks, being more flexible, allowing more freedom, and getting messy, in order to seek the lost. I see young people daringly and unconditionally love prodigals. I see more people being sensitive to the Spirit’s guidance—even when they are not sure how it ends. I see these as signs of relying more on God and less on ourselves. We need more of this. We need to embrace a new reformation. The future of the CRC depends on it.

Editor’s note: The Banner is commemorating the Reformation’s 500th anniversary by publishing a series of articles on each of the five solas, culminating with Karin Maag’s feature in this issue (p. 18). We have compiled all these articles, with discussion questions, into a Banner Study Series for online and free PDF download at thebanner.org/study-series.

P.S. In response to the anti-Semitic and racist acts at Charlottesville, I have called us to prayer, self-examination, and action. Please see my online article “Are We Part of the Problem?” [https://thebanner.org/departments/2017/08/are-we-part-of-the-problem]  Also see Colin. P. Watson’s statement.

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