Thursday, April 1, 2010

Evangelical, Reformed ... and progressive?

When in 1998, after over 20 years away, I temporarily returned to my childhood church where I first heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, one of the now-deceased elders immediately extended the "right hand of fellowship." "We know what you believe," he said.

I wish I had thought to say then, "You taught me well."

Indeed, I'm certainly grateful for that background. Even though my current church doesn't subscribe to Reformed theology and I have no plans to leave, I've always considered myself such. The sovereignty of God, irresistible grace and other core doctrines of what is commonly called "Calvinism" just make the most sense to me even after studying other schools of thought.

That said, I have never subscribed to the conservative ideology that often is considered part and parcel of the Reformed faith. Even when I read the Scriptures as a child I could see justifications for a more progressive interpretation of social and political issues, but I never brought them up because the atmosphere I grew up in the 1970s wasn't conducive to such partisanship.

Anyway, we need to remember that all theology is ultimately man-made. If that sounds like an insult, consider that fallible man, despite the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, still doesn't -- indeed, cannot have that much of a handle on Who God is. As I said earlier, I personally believe Reformed theology to be the best, most comprehensive explanation of Scripture; however, it does come with some historical baggage often ignored by its apologists.

We Protestants recognize the Reformation as a watershed moment in recapturing the original witness of the early church. The trouble was that it has as much to do with power politics as anything else, especially since the Roman Catholic Church in those days was itself in practice also a political entity; thus, that's where the battle was often fought. Even nations that had become Protestant maintained official churches. (This was even the case in what is now the United States; all but one state of the original 13 had a government-recognized sect, and "freedom of worship" as we understand it was a novel concept.)

French theologian John Calvin was the first to introduce "separation of church and state," which meant that the church should operate completely free of political constraints. However, Calvin also introduced the concept of "theonomy," which means that a nation should be governed by Old Testament law and believed -- wrongly, in my estimation -- that the state had the mandate to enforce it. Moreover, the Calvinist mentality of that day meant a destruction of the nobility which, as you could imagine, wouldn't go over too well in the Europe of that day; as a result, Calvinists ended up being run out of most countries.

That's where I part company with my theological heritage. The early church was an insurgent movement that didn't have and never sought political authority; rather, it focused on not simply teaching but also living the Kingdom of God in a culture that was clearly hostile. That made it more able to challenge the status quo, whether passively or actively. When faith becomes part of the "establishment," which conservatism seeks by definition, it almost always becomes watered down to become acceptable to its surroundings but in the process sacrificing the power to change lives. It's no accident, then that the European church is all but dead and the American church is by contrast more vibrant but still struggling; meanwhile, the Holy Spirit seems to have caught fire in much of the Third World where Christianity doesn't have that much hold on institutions there. (I mean, when you have political and economic power, what good is the power of the Spirit?)

So what does this have to do with a "progressive" ideology? Well, consider the immortal words of our LORD, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." That is, if he is suffering from some wrong it should be challenged -- even in the political realm if necessary. And that is where the controversy begins.

My deepest shame as a Reformed Christian surrounded the fight over apartheid in South Africa, which was implemented in 1948, codifying into law what had been custom for centuries -- and the folks who did this were, for the most part, Reformed (in fact, it seemed that the more theologically conservative they were the more committed to the system). The primary justification for that stance had to do with a fear of Communism, which I understand; however, I posit that it was a fear of change were apartheid abolished, which of course it was in the early 1990s. I don't think it was a coincidence that, in the book "Nelson Mandela: In His Own Words," a collection of his speeches, the former political prisoner and first post-apartheid president, who I understand grew up Methodist, gave props to every religious group except the Reformed.

As much as I appreciate theology, I realize that it just can't stay there; at the judgment Jesus is going to ask us not how much we know but what we did with the truth He gave us -- and especially how we used it to make this world resemble His Kingdom. The Christian Gospel, after all, isn't about the "afterlife" so much but what God wants to do here to bring a sense of "shalom" before He returns. In other words, theology is something to be lived, not just studied.

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