Semper Reformada?

Yesterday I was in two discussions with students about various theological systems. One group of students was very sincerely Reformed. At least one expressed concepts that were full TULIP. The issue was whether someone who rejected Reformed theology could be saved or should be allowed to teach. The other group of students did not identify with any theological system (at least not explicitly), but they were horrified at some of what they had seen in the results of strictly Reformed theology. And of course both groups of students were doing this in an environment (Texas) where Baptists are dominant and Dispensationalism is the most popular theological system. (And, furthermore, I rarely hear Anabaptist theology, such as that of John Howard Yoder, brought into the discussions, so a significant option is not even on the table.) This morning while jogging I was listening to an old podcast of Phyllis Tickle (recorded in 2008) in which she referred to her book in which she argues that we are in a new type of reformation, for reformations happen about every 500 years. I thought that this deserved comment, although these thoughts are somewhat inchoate and miscellaneous, drawing together observations from a number of fields.

The problem with theological systems, Reformed, Dispensational, Arminian, etc., is that they impose a Procrustean bed on the data that they are proposing to interpret, namely scripture. I have never seen a Reformed writer handle Hebrews well. There are passages in 2 Peter that need a lot of explaining. And, as Clark Pinnock show in the first couple of chapters of The Openness of God,  the ones I resonated with, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is always doing things that are un-Reformed, such as changing his mind or repenting (being sorry about) his actions.

Both the Reformed and the Dispensational systems privilege Paul above the synoptic gospels (John is somewhat more acceptable, but ever in the case of John, Paul is privileged), which moves Paul to the center and Jesus to the periphery of their systems. In the Reformation, it was the Anabaptists who privileged Jesus, i.e. the gospels. And is it not Jesus that Christians are pledged to follow? Is it not a distortion to move away from a focus on Jesus, so that what remains is his sacrificial death (and his resurrection, but the focus is on his death) and his reign?

The fact is, for all of the emphasis on the “sola’s,” we are not talking about sola scriptura, but something more like sola theologica, as a system is lowered on scripture so as to discount taking the Hebrew Scriptures at face value, discount the teaching of Jesus (which is so uncomfortable), and discount the teaching of difficult books such as Hebrews, James, and 2 Peter.

Could it be, as Krister Stendahl has argued, that Martin Luther was fundamentally wrong in his interpretation of Paul? Could it be that he made the Jews into the Medieval Papal system? Could it be that this is a fundamental misreading? Could it be that both the Medieval theologians and Calvin lowered a concept of iustus onto the New Testament that has distorted readings of Paul (as N. T. Wright has argued)? Could it be that such systems ultimately break apart?

Interestingly enough, there is a coincidence between Reformed theology and psychology, in that I recently read an article on psychology that noted that psychologists in general operate on the basis that all human behavior is determined (i.e. it is the result of chemical reactions and neuronal firing in the brain, which is in theory an explainable and thus determined chain of events), while in counseling they operate as if human beings had choice. In fact, the article noted, people tend to behave badly if all they believe is that behavior is determined and so for the sake of human well being, one must act as though human beings had choice. This, of course, explains why the psychology department in Wheaton College in the 1960’s was solidly Reformed: psychological determinism was simply theologically name divine sovereignty/ predestination.

It is true that in order to organize data one must have some system, so one comes to the text with an interpretive framework. The problem arises when one takes this framework too seriously, when it is used to anathematize others who use a different framework, to exclude them from the discussion. This does not mean that we should not discuss the adequacy of our frameworks and seek to persuade others that our framework makes better sense of more data than theirs, but it does mean that we need to hold our frameworks (theologies) with a certain degree of lightness and play and realize that while we take it seriously as the basis of our commitment, it still remains a hypothesis, whose value is found in whether it does what it is supposed to do, which is facilitate connection to the living God. I personally use the Kingdom of God as the organizing principle of my theology. I find it quite adequate for the purpose, but I also admire aspects of other systems, and I recognize that my system is full of antinomies, i.e. apparently incompatible idea that the text affirms are both true. For example, God rules, but yet he does not always get what he wants; God can intervene in lives like that of Paul, but such interventions seem to be rare, with conversions coming more often through argument and choice, choices that seem to be able to be free and often go in the “wrong” way.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the data is not systematic. We have gospels, which do try to tell a coherent story, but we have four of them. We have letters, but they are occasional letters (including Romans) written to specific communities over specific issues. We are not those communities; we do not live in the same or even in a similar culture, for the most part. And since the letters are occasional, they do not cover all of the themes we would like them to address, so we “fill in the gaps,” and probably do so wrongly.

Perhaps the reformation that we need today is a reformation from dogmatism, one that leads to holding theological systems as models that help us to organize data, but not as the only right or possible model, just as the one that seems most useful or most adequate for us. That would lead to a new reformation indeed, in which there would be more unity in the church and one would not say, I am of Paul (and Luther or Calvin), I am of Jesus (and the Anabaptists), I am of Peter (and the Catholic tradition), and I am of James (and John Wesley). Instead, we might all be saying, We are exploring what it means to follow Jesus as Lord, and we need to hear one another and learn from one another and continue to discuss together what is and is not helpful in our ongoing quest to follow Jesus.

But perhaps our frequent dogmatism is really related to our psychological type, our need (or lack thereof) for closure and certainty. And in that case it is predestined, if not by God, then at least by our brain structure and chemistry.


About Peter H. Davids

I am Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a professor at Houston Graduate School of Theology, and a Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years). I am also a husband, father, and grandfather.
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4 Responses to Semper Reformada?

  1. Wade Adams says:


    I really liked this post. To me theology is not trying to define God but it is discovery. I have really become comfortable with the tensions of different thought and discoveries. It would seem to me that a God we can “systematically define” might not be a sovereign, omnipotent God. I love the fact that God is so magnificant that He is not easily difined or understood. His mercies are new every morning and there is something to learn of Him everyday!! What a wonderful adventure that we are able to discover the living God through Jesus His Son!

  2. 陆道明 Lu Daoming says:

    Thanks, Peter. Excellent observations, and they really resonate with my prejudices 😉

  3. jaredcburt says:

    I affirm the teachings of Reformed Theology because of my understanding of Jesus Christ. His teachings converted my thinking.

  4. Cory Vance says:

    Honestly, I had to look up a few words in the dictionary (but that’s a reflection on myself and not the author) so it took a bit to digest this post. I definitely like your conclusion. Since we are all made with different personalities and different life experiences prior to approaching scripture, we are all going to have a different perspective on what it means and on what it should mean. Since we are ALL created in His image, none of these perspectives can be excluded (can they) – at least as starting points on our journey to find the bull’s-eye of the truth. We all get on the hiway at different points, but as long as we are all truly seeking the same destination, do we need to attack anyone else’s itinerary? Thanks for the encouragement today!

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