On September 1, 2009, we were delighted to sit under the ministry of Pastor Jeff Oliver who spoke at the 2009-10 Academic Year opening service of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies. Here is Rev. Oliver’s lecture revised for posting on our website. Prepare to be challenged and encouraged.
His address was titled: The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Confessionalism Adrift Amid the Siren Cries for Relevancy. This is Pastor Oliver’s transcript: Part 1
What follows below, was developed from an address given to the theological students of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies and other associate guests at the commencement of their new academic year 2009/2010.
What does it mean to be reformed?
We are sitting here this evening on the campus of Westminster Seminary in California; a theological school that is self-consciously and unashamedly reformed. For the students here, you presumably made a conscious decision to come and study here at such a reformed school – why?
More particularly, I am speaking this evening at the invitation of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies (IRBS) at the commencement of the 2009/2010 School Year. The IRBS is also self-consciously and unashamedly reformed. The IRBS exists to prepare men for the Reformed Baptist ministry and to serve Reformed Baptist churches. So, more particularly, what does it mean to be a Reformed Baptist; what is a reformed Baptist church?
Who gets to decide what it means to be reformed or to be a Reformed Baptist?
In egalitarian, individualistic American culture – I do; but don’t worry so do you; in fact anybody does who cares to hold an opinion on these questions. This is Postmodern America: your way, my way; all are equally valid; none are wrong.
Post-modernity offers a unique challenge to Christianity.
The issue is no longer whether or not we should defend the truth of the Christian message against the ‘threat’ of science and the ‘doubts’ of the enlightened rationalist, as was the case in modernity. Neither is the battle to be defined any more in terms of truth versus untruth, or right versus wrong. The concept of wrong has been largely removed from the postmodern vocabulary with one exception; it is wrong to say that someone’s world view, religion, culture, philosophy or experience is wrong. The only absolute truth that exists in the postmodern mentality is that there is no such thing as absolute truth (1). For the postmodernist, truth claims are not about ultimate right and wrong but “power plays” in disguise (2). In addition, post-modernism claims that truth is no longer that which corresponds with reality, it emerges out of a specific community, culture or person. Individually, truth is that which will produce a better reality for me. It is my truth if it works for me (3). So I get to say what is reformed; what I think is relevant; what will work for me and this generation. Now, of course, as Christians we are going to argue our views have to be in accordance with the Bible. We believe in Sola Scriptura. Increasingly, however, the Sola Scriptura of our day is not the Sola Scriptura of the reformers. It is rather the rampant individualism of me, the bible and Jesus. That is why so often you now hear Christians, even professedly reformed Christians, saying “… well, as I read the Scriptures …” as if they were the first ones ever to have read the Bible. You see I get to decide everything with an open bible on my knee.
But the answer to the question, “What is it to be reformed?” is not subjective. It is objective.
It is clearly defined in our Confessional Standards as they are historically understood. To be reformed is to be Confessional. It is to adhere to our Confessional Standards as they are historically understood. Specifically, for Reformed Baptists, it is adhering to the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith (2nd LBCF); to all 32 Chapters, which were carefully composed and crafted to express Reformed Baptist theology, piety and practice.
Now I want to deal with a potential objection to what I have just said right off the bat. It is the objection that confessionalism elevates the authority and role of a confession of faith over the Scriptures. In response to this objection, it is vital to point out that the great reformed confessions in general, and 2nd LBCF, in particular, do not claim to make anything truth that was not truth before; nor do they propose to bind men to believe anything which they are not already obligated to believe on the authority of the Scriptures. Hence A. A. Hodge rightly observed, “The real question is not, as often pretended, between the Word of God and the creed of man, but between the tried and proved faith of the collective body of God’s people, and the private judgment and the unassisted wisdom of the repudiator of creeds (4).
So if to be reformed is to be confessional, what is the state of confessional reformed Christianity today in America?
It seems to me that even amongst those who claim to be Reformed, those who fully subscribe our reformed standards, we are drifting from our confessional roots and convictions; from our confessional standards as they are historically understood. Rather than being the single common denominator among reformed churches, ‘confessional’ (in the sense of adherence to objective theological standards as they are historically understood) appears to be often at best one optional adjective among many and at worst an outmoded practice of by gone generations that may have served them well but is a barrier to us in our day from being able to connect with those we seek to win for Christ.
Hence the title of this address: “The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Confessionalism Adrift amid the Siren Cries for Relevancy.” I don’t have time within the constraints of this address to make a comprehensive case for our present crisis but for a detailed treatment of this subject, see R Scott Clark’s book, Recovering the Reformed Confession (5). So instead by way of some illustrative examples let me try and persuade you that I am not simply being alarmist.
I attended a reformed conference earlier this year. During the Q&A time, after a number of excellent addresses on the life and ministry of John Calvin, the following question was asked: “Is adherence to the doctrines of grace a sufficient condition for calling oneself a Calvinist or reformed?” The response of the panel was bitterly disappointing. At best, it was an equivocation. They did not appear to want to affirm that, whilst to be a five point Calvinist in terms of soteriology is a necessary condition, it is not a sufficient condition to call oneself a Calvinist or reformed. It is noteworthy that these men were not novice theological students trying to answer a first semester systematic theology exam question. They were seasoned, mature men, some of whom were ordained ministers in reformed churches, who fully subscribe to reformed confessional standards.
This is not just an issue, however, on conference platforms. How many churches would claim to be reformed, but what they really mean is they hold to the sovereignty of God in salvation but have all sorts of divergent views from their reformed confessional standards on the doctrine of the church, the Sabbath; worship, the means of grace etc.? It seems that we have professedly reformed elders and churches that would be astounded to find that their views and practices, which they assume to be reformed, have actually very little to do with being reformed as understood by our historic confessions. Others have consciously redefined what we have always confessed and practiced into optional or secondary categories of distinctives, circumstances and preferences. It appears often to be the assumption amongst such that whatever one understands Scripture to teach or imply must, ipso facto, be reformed. Hence the reasoning: I am part of a Reformed Church, I think x and therefore x must be reformed.
The drifting of confessional, reformed Christianity today in America is further seen in the increasing trend for professedly reformed Churches to want to obscure their reformed identity because they believe it is too difficult to explain what it means to non-Christians and it may put them off. Why do some reformed churches take a conscious decision to remove the word ‘reformed’ from their church name? Now I am not saying that it is a biblical mandate to have the word ‘reformed’ in your church name. It is not a sin not to have the word reformed in your church name but if there is a conscious decision to remove the word ‘reformed’ from the church name or change the name of the church altogether, when the church would still claim to be reformed, we must seriously ask what is driving such decisions. Take the opportunity to visit some reformed churches’ web-sites. How many make a clear statement upfront that they are confessional and reformed? How many links do you have to follow before you get to any reference to confessional standards?
In addition we see the increasing trend towards religious subjectivism in professedly reformed churches; the advocating of the pursuit of an immediate individualistic experience of God without the means of grace (the preaching of the Word and the sacraments); the attempt to experience God in a way that we do not confess.
I could continue and multiply examples but time and space prevents me from doing so, but read the many blogs that are actively promoting these things I have sought to highlight.
The alarming thing is that it is not just broad evangelicalism nor mega churches nor the emergent church movement, that are calling for this kind of change, it is also professedly reformed and, specifically, professedly Reformed Baptists, that are calling for less focus on our confessions. The siren calls are coming from the professedly reformed: “we need to be progressive, relevant, we need to change or we will die.”
Perhaps I might be permitted to adapt and paraphrase a stanza of Bob Dylan’s famous song just a little:
Come confessional pastors
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Our day and generation
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’ (6).
How can this be?
Have not all reformed churches and their ministers and elders fully subscribed their confessional standards before God, swearing to uphold, teach and defend the same? If so, are they all not morally obligated to be confessional according to their theological standards? But as reformed churches that profess allegiance to the reformed theology, piety and practice as revealed in God’s Word and summarized in our confessions, we are drifting from our moorings. This includes Reformed Baptists. Some seem to have become confused about what it is to be reformed, whilst others appear to being losing confidence that Reformed theology, piety and practice are even correct.
(1) Albert Mohler, Here We Stand (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1996), 61. “Modernity has given way to postmodernity, which is simply modernity in its latest guise. Claiming that all notions of truth are socially constructed, the postmodernists are committed to total war on truth itself, a deconstructionist project bent on casting down all religions, philosophical, political, and cultural authorities.”
(2) Gene E. Veith, Postmodern Times, (Wheaton, Il: Crossway Books, 1994), 56-7. “For the deconstructionists, all truth claims are suspect and are treated as a cover-up for power plays. . . Today’s universities, while ostensibly devoted to cultivating truth, now argue that truth does not exist. This does not mean that the universities are closing their doors. Rather, the universities are redefining what scholarship is all about. Knowledge is no longer seen as absolute truth; rather, knowledge is seen in terms of rearranging information into new paradigms.”
(3) Reinder van Til, Lost Daughters (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 284. “Postmodernists . . . deny the modernist assertion that words signify reality in an objective world around us and affirm instead that in a fundamental sense words construct our reality—in fact, that apart from words there is no reality. Some have understood this to mean that whatever we feel or perceive at any given moment constitutes reality.”
(4) A. A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith (London, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1964) 2.
(5) R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology Piety and Practice (Phillipsburg, NJ, P&R Publishing, 2008)
(6) Adapted from the song, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Columbia Records, 1964)