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.

About the Author

Shiao Chong is editor-in-chief of The Banner. He attends Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont.

Shiao Chong es el redactor jefe de The Banner. El asiste a Iglesia Comunidad Cristiana Reformada en Toronto, Ont. 

시아오 총은 더 배너 (The Banner)의 편집장이다. 온타리오 주 토론토의 펠로우쉽 CRC에 출석한다.

You can follow him @shiaochong (Twitter) and @3dchristianity (Facebook).  

See comments (5)


Amen! Praying for a new reformation.

You said it well: "This internal tension was part of Calvin’s genius."  All good theology has an element of tension to it.  Calvin is full of tension (Book III of the Institutes is one of the best examples), and this is what makes him such a preeminent theologian.  
It is easy to pigeonhole churches as needing to be 'more flexible / experiential' or 'more rigid / rationale'; we all have a bad habit of doing that, both those of us on the right as well as those on the left.   What Calvin is calling us to be is 'flexibleexperientialrigidrationale' all at once.  Living that way is as much of a struggle as trying to read that compounded word.
I'm not sure a 'new' reformation is what's needed.  I think it would be better to characterize our need as a 'refamiliarization' with the tension evident in the teachings of the Reformation and our confessions along with a recommitment to the true understanding of ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.
Thanks for the thought provoking article.

Bless your heart, preach it!  Thank You Lord!  I am laughing and crying at the same time... and thanking God that I'm seeing this in black and white in a CRC publication...  I think this is amazing (if not a miracle ;)!   and a huge answer to prayer...   so yesterday, I was just reading an article on God's Presence... and one of the key things we can do is pray and ask God to pour out His Holy Spirit...  so this is going to be our focus at a prayer gathering later this week...  based on Luke 11:11-13...  "...how much more will our Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!"  so that's what we are asking!

oh, and someone shared with me the first reformation with Augustine emphasized God the Father, the 2nd reformation with Luther emphasized God the Son, and so thinking the 3rd reformation will emphasize God the Spirit =)


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Thank you.

another thought... 

BOQ 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. EOQ

i want to encourage a Kingdom perspective, thinking beyond the CRC and to the entire Kingdom Church... this isn't about our/CRC survival, this is about God's glory... we can tend to make it about our CRC survival... I think it would be healthy to expand our vision beyond that...

I will keep praying for these shifts toward more reliance on the leading of the Holy Spirit and His ways, instead of leaning on our own understanding, to continue in the CRC and beyond