The idea of being a “reformed” church crops up in the Church of Scotland’s Theological Commission Report on same-sex marriage. But after reading the whole report now, I’m left wondering whether the “Reformed” credentials are valid.
What is “reformed” and does it matter much?
Labels can be a killer – being labelled homophobic is like modern day leprosy, nobody will hang out with you. It seems, reading the report, that the Church of Scotland is working really hard to present itself as being reformed, or within the reformed tradition. Clearly the label matters a great deal to the report’s authors – irrespective of whatever value people in the pews attach to the term.
So what does it mean? The idea of being reformed, unsurprisingly, harks back to the Reformation. Before 1560, the Church in Scotland was formally Roman Catholic in character. But Scotland was happily influenced by Europeans (proving that not everything Europe offers us is bad), particularly John Calvin. Calvin was one of a party of men who could no longer accept Roman Catholic doctrine in a wide range of areas. Some of them were ejected from the Roman Church; some left the Roman Church to join those ejected, but did so taking as many with them as they could. Whatever their path out from under Roman Catholic doctrine, the new scheme they moved under was characterised quite distinctly from the Roman Catholicism.
Is there a “reformed” litmus test?
The Reformers held five solae statements – the “alones”. These are perhaps the key test of a reformed church – how do we relate to the solae of the Reformation? These are:
- Sola Scriptura – the Church and the path to salvation is governed by Scripture alone. In Roman Catholic doctrine, Scripture is not alone in providing a rule of faith. Alongside Scripture, the tradition of the Church is a rule, and the pope speaking ex-cathedra carries authority. The Reformers stripped away all the peripherals, and left Scripture as the only rule of faith.
- Sola Fide – we are justified by faith alone. In Roman Catholic teaching, good works co-operate with faith, to secure justification for us. The Reformers taught that good works were a necessary evidence of faith, but that in themselves add nothing to our salvation.
- Sola Gratia – we are saved by the grace of God alone. Related to Sola Fide, Roman Catholic teaching implies a degree of cooperation with grace, for example in receiving grace through rightly observating of the sacraments, or other meritorious good works. The Reformers taught that salvation was entirely the free gift of God, for which any merit would add an element of purchase, and mean in was no longer free.
- Solus Christus – we have only one mediator between God and humankind, i.e. Christ alone. Roman Catholic doctrine establishes a sort of series of subordinate mediators: Mary, the Apostles, the Saints in glory. The Reformers, while not seeking to dishonour Mary or the Apostles, taught that they had no role in interceding for the saints on earth, but that only through Christ’s intercessory work, in his life, death and resurrected life, can we have access to God.
- Soli Deo Gloria – God alone is due the glory. The Roman Catholic teaching of “sainthood” is that some Christians are elevated to particular status, or canonized by the Church – that the Church on earth has authority to elevate men to some glorious higher status. The Reformers recoiled from this, and taught that no believer – all of whom are “saints” – can be elevated in this way, but that all believers give all the glory to God.
These five points were the key distinctives of the Reformation Church. A Church today that wants to call itself reformed can of course talk about “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” (A reformed church, always reforming – i.e. always re-examining itself to ensure it is faithful to God’s purposes). But a reformed church would have to be really bold if it were to depart from the five solae (like Federal Vision, or New Perspective on Paul acolytes, you’d have to argue that the Reformers essentially misunderstood Christian doctrine).
Yet, here’s what we find in the Revisionist position in the Commission’s Report (emphasis mine):
“Nowhere is this subtlety and complexity more evident than in the crucial area of the interpretation of Scripture. As Reformed Christians, as members, Elders, Deacons and ministers of Word and Sacrament of the Church of Scotland, we take as our starting point the recognition of ‘the word of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament’ as our ‘supreme rule of life and faith’, but within that deliberately ambiguous formulation there is room for many different approaches to discerning the will of God, using the many different resources which an infinitely imaginative Creator has provided; the written words of Scripture; the inner conviction of the Holy Spirit; human reason and experience; Church tradition, to name but a few.”
I don’t fully understand all the ins and outs of how the Church of Scotland got to a point where an office bearer can suggest that there is a rule of faith besides Scripture, but that is exactly what this passage is arguing.
Bear in mind, we’re not talking in this report about how an individual Christian discerns God’s will. Answers to individual questions, like, “Where should I work?”, or “Who should I marry?” don’t bind the conscience of all office bearers within the Church. So it is quite legitimate to come to your own understanding of God’s will, based on “the written words of Scripture; the inner conviction of the Holy Spirit; human reason and experience” – if you’re in a charismatic fellowship, you could even add in words of prophecy!
But we cannot formulate binding rules for the Church in the same way – ours is not a God of such confusion, as would inevitably result. To suggest the Church rely on tradition as a help to settling matters of doctrine flies in the face of the Reformed principle of Sola Scriptura. If anything, such a step is not Re-forming, but De-forming: a retrograde step back into Roman Catholic doctrine.
The point of highlighting this is not to poke holes in the Church of Scotland. Thankfully, the Traditionalist case fits snugly into the Reformed characteristics outlined above. But it does show that there are some, probably many, within the Church of Scotland who do not share these Reformed credentials. Given the trajectory the Church of Scotland is on, not just recently on this issue, but for many years on many issues, it is impossible to claim the Church of Scotland is entirely within the Reformed tradition.
A Broad Church?
But, the Church of Scotland is a broad church. Aye, good and well. But the Reformed Church in Scotland helpfully established a few other characteristics of a healthy church – and presumably we take “reformed” to at least share healthy characteristics.
A true, or healthy, church will hold to the correct use of Scripture, the Sacraments and Discipline.
That final point is really important. Discipline matters. A denomination must deal with particularly office bearers tenaciously holding and vigorously teaching heterodoxy (teaching which isn’t characteristically “Reformed”). If you can’t remove heterodox teachers from office, at the very least in order to prompt repentance, but more importantly to protect the flock of God from wolf-like false teachers, then you are not a healthy Church. And if the heterodoxy cannot be successfully challenged, can you call yourself a “Reformed” Church? Doesn’t unchallenged heterodoxy become the new orthodoxy?
I don’t doubt there are many people holding to Reformed Christianity within the Church of Scotland. But there’s something else lurking in the church alongside them. My colleague Paul Gibson, at Perth Free Church (a former Church of Scotland minister) has said,
“I think evangelicals will feel the report simply demonstrates what has been known for a long time – namely that within the Kirk are not two Christian perspectives but, in fact, two distinct religions, both of which are incompatible with the other. One is called Christianity and submits to the Bible as the word of God and the other is called ‘liberalism’ and does not.”
What to pray for?
So, back to my original question of last week, what to pray for? For one, I want to see a reformed church in Scotland. I’d love to see a Church that’s serious about its reformed credentials, not one that plays the game of pretending to be something it isn’t. And I love to see what such a church could do for the national spiritual and moral health of Scotland. My concern is that if the reformed don’t triumph in reforming the Church of Scotland, but also stay within the broad church, Scotland is going to be bereft of the essentially reformed church she needs to prosper spiritually into the days to come. A Church of Scotland which is not characteristically Reformed is as bad for Scotland as a resurgent Roman Catholicism – yes, there might be good somewhere within, but wolves hiding under the umbrella of “the Church” are particularly dangerous – hence vast tracts of the New Testament epistles refute them, and address how you deal with them.
Is it wrong to pray that the Church of Scotland will either reform or perish (was that what Paul suggested when he wished the false Galatian teachers would emasculate themselves Galatians 5:12)?