Against Reformed Catholicism

Last month, Mark Jones, a Presbyterian theologian and pastor, published an article at The Calvinist International entitled “Against Calvinism.” The click-baity title leads to an argument against the usefulness of the label “Calvinism.” He rightly points out the oddity of the baptist use of the term. Calvin himself fiercely attacked the radical anabaptists and would have driven them from Geneva.

John-Piper

16th and 17th century Reformed theologians also rejected the term, calling it papist for its veneration of one man. The most significant problem, however, is that a large number of Protestant theologies can be “Calvinist.” It refers only to a set of soteriological positions.

Jones prefers “Reformed catholic,” as did many Reformed and post-Reformation Christians. The use of “catholic” signaled to others a commitment to irenic participation in the broad theological discussion of the Christian tradition. They were not rejecting tradition. Indeed, they thought tradition was on their side. Jones writes,

As Reformed Catholics, we may affirm that we are part of the Christian tradition that includes the impressive work of the Church Fathers (e.g., Irenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, Cyril), the Medieval theologians (e.g., Abelard, Anselm, Aquinas), and Reformation and Post–Reformation theologians (e.g., Calvin, Beza, Ursinus, Cocceius, Owen, Turretin). Not only that, by avoiding the term “Calvinism” we are recognizing that there were other important theologians during the Reformation period who made similar types of contributions as Calvin, such as Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Wolfgang Musculus. Plus, before Calvin, many Reformers were making their own significant contributions to the Protestant cause, such as Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531), Martin Bucer (1491–1551), Wolfgang Capito (1478–1541), John Oecolampadius (1482–1531), and Guillame Farel (1489–1565)…. The Papists claimed they had tradition on their side. In response, the Reformers did not cry, “to hell with tradition.” Rather, as it quite obviously the case in many of Calvin’s public disputations, they simply showed that tradition was very much on the side of the Protestants. But, even more so, the Scriptures were on the side of the Protestants.

As a Reformed Christian and admirer of 17th century Reformed orthodoxy, I have sympathy with the label. It captures the proper spirit and ethos of Reformed theological study and polemics. We ought to be in conversation with the Christian theological reflection of all ages and even respect the works that have endured over time. But it is not clear to me that the concept behind the label remains relevant for Reformed Christians today. To my mind, there are at least two problems.

  1. The Criteria Problem

Jones lists a number of theologians from the history of Christian theology as part of what I will call the “canon” of the catholic tradition. Notice first that this tradition includes a wide diversity of theological thought. He could have added Origen, Ockham, Scotus, Belarmine, and many others. The catholic canon then has significant theological, philosophical, and even liturgical diversity. Absent from Jones’ piece is any attempt to provide clear criteria that would include those he lists and exclude others. The criteria would have to be profoundly permissive.

Notice too that Jones’ list of authors ends with Francis Turretin. He mentions no post-Turretin theologian. Given the diversity of those he mentions and his lack of criteria for inclusion in the catholic canon, it is entirely unclear who qualifies to be “catholic” after Turretin. Certainly, the catholic canon didn’t close with Turretin. So then who after Turrein is catholic and what is the criteria for including them?

Those who identify as Reformed catholics seem to arbitrarily fix some date in church history as the point from which their catholicism stretches back to the founding of the Church. Without justification, they exclude the rest of the Christian discussion after the height of Reformed orthodoxy in the 17th century. But what justifies this exclusion? Are not the baptist develops in the last few centuries also part of the Christian tradition? On what basis are they excluded from the catholic tradition? Was baptist theologian A. H. Strong a catholic Christian? What about today’s “calvinistic baptists” such as John Piper and John MacArthur? And these are only the conservative Protestants. What about the liberal Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians?

If the catholic canon is a list of “impressive works” (as Jones’ states) in church history, then plenty of works after Turretin must be included, especially given the theological diversity already permitted. This would include a staggering degree of theological diversity. The term “catholic,” therefore, is less meaningful than even “Calvinism.” If you are committed to participating in the theological discussion of church history, then only the present can serve as the end point of church history. Turretin will not do. And if that is so, the catholic tradition is perhaps the most meaningless, incoherent, chaotic, and useless tradition of all. It tells almost nothing about you and it orients you to utter confusion.

The “Reformed” of Reformed catholicism, if anchored to the Reformed orthodoxy of the 17th century, could have a real, useful meaning. But the Reformed tradition is also diverse, and those today most willing to see themselves as Reformed catholic have played up the diversity of the Reformed tradition. And all this emphasis on diversity calls into question any justification for excluding baptists from the Reformed tradition, especially the Particular Baptists of the 1689 London Baptist Confession.

Until there are clear criteria provided (which I suspect is impossible), the label “Reformed catholic” is unhelpful. Whatever use “catholic” had in the 16th and 17th centuries, the subsequent centuries characterized by the rise of baptist theology, ecclesiastical and theological fragmentation, and theological liberalism made it no more than a declaration of irenic and honest discussion. It means nothing more. And if that’s so, Paul Tillich was catholic.

2. Sub-Categorization Problem

But let’s assume that a robust criteria are provided that actually exclude certain people from the catholic tradition. Let’s say this excludes John Piper. I assume that Jones considers Piper to be both part of the Christian tradition and orthodox. This means, however, that “catholic” and “orthodox” are not synonymous terms. Indeed, it means that catholicism is a subcategory of orthodoxy. So Christians such as Piper are non-catholic orthodox Christians.

The problem is that detaching orthodoxy from catholicism seems to be against the catholic tradition. Certainly Augustine, Aquinas, and the Reformers would object to sub-categorizing catholicism under orthodoxy along side some strange group of fully orthodox non-catholics. This constitutes a contradiction. Placing catholicism under orthodoxy violates catholicism. Of course, one could say that the catholic tradition expanded and now permits such sub-categorization. However, if such expansions after the 17th century are permitted, then what reason is there to exclude other expansions, such as that of the baptists?

Of course, this would all be avoided if Piper and others like him are considered heterodox or at least non-orthodox.

Conclusion:

I see little use for the term “Reformed Catholicism.” It communicates only an ad hoc privileging of 17th century Reformed orthodoxy. It arbitrary closes church history in the 17th century. And for this reason, it is arguably a form of restorationism. Instead of treating all of church history as the great Christian dialogue, it jumps over the most recent centuries of fragmentation, diversification, and liberalization and thereby creates a prejudice against anything that arose in those centuries. It attempts to restore a catholic tradition that is long gone, one that is gone by catholicism’s own principles.

One thought on “Against Reformed Catholicism

  1. Those who identify as Reformed catholics seem to arbitrarily fix some date in church history as the point from which their catholicism stretches back to the founding of the Church. Without justification, they exclude the rest of the Christian discussion after the height of Reformed orthodoxy in the 17th century. But what justifies this exclusion? Are not the baptist develops in the last few centuries also part of the Christian tradition? On what basis are they excluded from the catholic tradition? Was baptist theologian A. H. Strong a catholic Christian? What about today’s “calvinistic baptists” such as John Piper and John MacArthur? And these are only the conservative Protestants. What about the liberal Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians?

    If the catholic canon is a list of “impressive works” (as Jones’ states) in church history, then plenty of works after Turretin must be included, especially given the theological diversity already permitted. This would include a staggering degree of theological diversity.

    Even within Roman Catholicism, there is a staggering degree of theological diversity. The word “catholic” has taken on such a broad set of meanings that it is virtually meaningless as a descriptor. It leads to nothing but confusion.

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