[This article by Rev H M Cartwright, a shortened and adapted version of a paper given at the 2003 Theological Conference in Inverness, first appeared in three sections, in the Free Presbyterian Magazine in July, September and October 2004.]
In what is known as the Reformed world, some have modified their position so that they no longer urge the necessity of the Church being Calvinistic and Presbyterian, as they may once have done. Instead Evangelical, rather than Calvinistic or Reformed, has become their touchstone, and the form of Church government has become a matter of comparatively little consequence. If we here look critically at others, it is to learn from them to take heed to ourselves.
Evangelical and Reformed cannot be used without qualification. This is also true of several familiar terms.
- “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26) – a name we feel honoured to bear in its original significance, but what does it mean to the majority in Scotland today if not further defined?
- Protestant had a very definite connotation when it was first used and we are glad to identify ourselves as those who continue to protest against the pretensions of Romanism, and for the truth of the gospel, but what does it mean to people today without further explanation?
- Bible-believing is another term we gladly take to ourselves which might seem to indicate a person’s good credentials. But the fact that many heretical claims shelter under that umbrella and that our Confession of Faith takes ten paragraphs to outline its doctrine of Scripture suggests that even Bible-believing requires detailed explanation before it can be meaningful.
Similarly, we claim to be Evangelical and Reformed in the proper meaning of these terms, but these terms also need to be qualified if the position to which we are committed is to be understood. This is not merely because people are ignorant but also because the terms have become devalued.
Definitions of the traditional Evangelical
Let us look at some definitions of the traditional Evangelical. Historically the term may have been used in a limited way in Reformation times to identify those who adhered to the gospel, or evangel, as opposed to the teachings of the Church. William Tyndale (1494-1536) used the term, as did Sir Thomas More, in 1531 to describe advocates of the Reformation. But it seems to have come into common use in Britain only in the eighteenth century. It was not by then the equivalent of Protestant but descriptive of a group within Protestantism, particularly those influential in, or influenced by, the revivals of that century, many of whom departed from the more robust Calvinism of the seventeenth century.
It may be useful to note how some commonly regarded as Evangelicals understand the term.
- D A Carson admits that “giving definition to Evangelicalism is not only difficult, but is growing even more difficult as a wider and wider group of people apply the label to themselves. It may be, as some have suggested, that the term will eventually so lack definition as to be theologically useless – much like the term Christian today, which, in Western countries, may mean no more than that someone is not a Muslim or a Hindu or the like, and not an atheist” (The Gagging of God, p. 444).
- J I Packer describes Evangelicalism as “the oldest version of Christianity . . . just apostolic Christianity itself . . . fidelity to the doctrinal content of the gospel” (Fundamentalism and the Word of God, pp. 21, 38).
- Iain Murray claims that “the use of the term Evangelical is simply another way of describing a person or denomination that believes the gospel” and that “a characteristic of an Evangelical was that he put his Evangelical commitment before denominational allegiance and, while he was happy to work in evangelism and conventions with Evangelicals of other denominations, he avoided corporate witness and activity with those who were not of like faith” (The Unresolved Controversy).
The need for more precise definition appears, for example, from the fact that the liberal English churchman, David L Edwards, in Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, co-authored with John Stott in 1988, could write: “But in common with many ‘liberal’ and ‘Catholic’ Christians, I should also like to be treated as an Evangelical, if by ‘Evangelical’ is meant one who believes the gospel revealed in the Bible” (p. 6).
Various attempts have been made to supply this more precise definition.
- David Bebbington uses the word as descriptive of those “dedicated to spreading the gospel”. He acknowledges that Evangelicalism has changed greatly over time but claims that “there are common features that have lasted from the first half of the eighteenth century to the second half of the twentieth. It is this continuing set of characteristics that reveals the existence of an Evangelical tradition. . . . There are the four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism” (Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, pp. 1,2f.)
- John Brencher, in Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) and Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, states that “evangelical identity is not monolithic. Among post-Keele Anglicans [that is, since 1967], for example, Evangelicals have become more diverse and exploratory, and among non-Anglican Evangelicals some have been content to defend the old battle-lines while others are more liberal and yielding. So there is a variety and development within Evangelicalism which raises a problem of definition” (p.3). Brencher concentrates his study on the “form of Evangelicalism” defined in “the Doctrinal Basis of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship (now the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship) as expressed in Evangelical Belief. . . . Its main features emphasise the core of evangelicalism: the infallibility and authority of Scripture, the universal sinfulness of man, and redemption through personal faith in Christ”.
- B B Warfield claimed that “when we say Evangelicalism we say sin and salvation. Evangelicalism is a soteriological conception, it implies sin, and salvation from sin. . . . It means utter dependence on God for salvation” (Calvin and Augustine, p. 499).
- Iain Murray considers that what identifies an Evangelical is the Biblical nature of his answer to the question, What is a Christian? (Evangelicalism Divided, e.g., pp. 149, 294, 299).
Common to the definitions given of the traditional Evangelical is the idea that, as D M Lloyd-Jones put it, he “starts with the Bible” and is “entirely subservient to the Bible” (Knowing the Times, pp. 317, 322), and that he focuses on the sinner’s need of salvation and on God’s gracious provision of salvation through the death of His Son and the work of His Spirit.
Evangelicalism as it has developed to the present day
Looking at Evangelicalism as it has developed to the present day, we note that it has become comprehensive of elements which earlier Evangelicals would have repudiated.
1. Men and denominations are regarded as Evangelical even although they have entered into co-operation with liberals in an academic approach to Scripture and the acceptance of higher critical views of Scripture.
A T B McGowan acknowledges in a recent article (Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, vol. 21, no. 2, p. 199) that “it is no longer even possible to take it for granted that those who call themselves ‘Evangelical’ or ‘Reformed’ will hold to the same position on Scripture that was held by those who were described in this way even 40 years ago and this should give us real cause for concern”.
Iain Murray in Evangelicalism Divided suggests that:
Evangelicals noticed how the neo-orthodox Karl Barth gained credit by recognising the full “humanity” of Scripture and they believed that they could do the same without any compromise. Belief in the full inspiration of the Bible requires no weakening of the fact that God spoke through men. There need be no contradiction between the supernatural element and the human authorship. So evangelical scholars believed that they could compete with colleagues in researching the language, the motivation, the education and the cultural background of the biblical writers, without conceding the presuppositions which lay behind liberal scholarship. . . . Applying this to the academic level, Evangelicals would work with liberals on the human aspects, using the same critical tools, while retaining their own overall position. The immense cleavage of opinion could be by-passed, yet with the ultimate intention of making the other side sit up and rethink the credibility of the conservative position. (pp. 179, 180.)
Mr Murray quotes Carl R Trueman, then of Aberdeen University, writing in Evangelicals Now in February 1998:
One need only look at many of the works emerging from contemporary evangelical scholars to find that the notion of scriptural authority as understood in any of its classical, orthodox ways has in general been replaced either by the concepts of neo-orthodoxy or simply by silence on the most prickly issues. (p. 187.)
Alister McGrath, whom many regard as a foremost Evangelical writer, is quoted as saying “that when the teachers of old Princeton Seminary thought they were upholding an inerrant Bible they were in reality falling into rationalism” (Evangelicalism Divided, pp. 195, 196). Mr Murray cites three prominent Evangelical spokesmen, Noll, Bebbington and McGrath, commending “the greater academic or ecumenical freedom which is permissible where there is no insistence on verbal inspiration” (p. 198).
Twenty years ago, in The Great Evangelical Disaster, Francis Schaeffer put at the head of his strictures on the Evangelical church’s failure “to stand for truth as truth”:
There has been accommodation on Scripture, so that many who call themselves Evangelicals hold a weakened view of the Bible and no longer affirm the truth of all the Bible teaches – truth not only in religious matters but in the areas of science and history and morality. As part of this, many Evangelicals are now accepting the higher critical methods in the study of the Bible. . . . Within Evangelicalism there are a growing number who are modifying their views on the inerrancy of the Bible so that the full authority of Scripture is completely undercut.
These names are mentioned not to endorse all that they write but because they are among some of the more prominent whom Evangelicals recognised as Evangelical.
This modification of views on Scripture has been closely connected with the proliferation of versions of the Bible which are characterised by faulty views of the original text and faulty principles of translation. It remains to be seen whether the trend will be halted, reversed or unwittingly promoted by Dr McGowan’s recently-published proposals for “Reconstructing the Evangelical Doctrine of Scripture” by “recasting some vocabulary” – by replacing “inspiration” with “divine spiration”, “inerrancy” with “veracity”, and “illumination” with “recognition” and “comprehension”.
Similar downgrading on Scripture in 19th century Free Church of Scotland
What we have seen in recent decades is but a repetition of the process which destroyed the nineteenth century Free Church of Scotland and resulted in the wholesale degeneracy of Scottish Presbyterianism throughout the twentieth century.
In tracing how the modern Evangelical comprehensiveness of an unbiblical view of Scripture, previously repudiated, mirrors that of the nineteenth century Free Church, we note that the Free Church in its early post-1843 days held a high view of the inspiration, inerrancy and authority of Scripture. The Declaratory Act of 1892 had no article specifically modifying the Church’s professed commitment to the doctrine of Scripture, largely because Robert Rainy, the ecclesiastical politician, resisted moves to introduce a paragraph on the inspiration of Scripture. But in 1891 he had introduced a separate document with no real status. It was intended by its ambiguity to secure unanimity in professed commitment to something described as “the infallibility of Scripture” both by those who held the Confessional view that “it pleased the Lord . . . to reveal Himself . . . and . . . to commit the same wholly unto writing” and by those like James Denney who at the 1891 Assembly asserted his rejection of literal infallibility in his statement that “the infallibility of the Scriptures was not a mere verbal inerrancy, an historical accuracy, but an infallibility of power to save. . . . This was the only kind of infallibility he believed in. For mere verbal inerrancy he cared not one straw.”
Denney frankly described Rainy’s document as neither candid nor wise, in that all could agree with it only by taking it in totally different senses. A B Davidson, John Duncan’s assistant and successor, maintained that “the books of Scripture, so far as interpretation and general formal criticism are concerned, must be handled very much as other books are handled”, yet that the facts in the history of redemption are untouched by the most advanced critical theories. Davidson and men such as William Robertson Smith, A B Bruce and Marcus Dods became increasingly bold in propagating Higher Critical views of the Bible. In half a century the Free Church declined from affirming that the Bible is divine revelation inscripturated by divine inspiration, which secured its inerrancy and authority, to tolerating the view expressed by A B Bruce that “revelation is one thing, Scripture another though closely related thing – being in truth its record, interpretation and reflection”. It became committed only to something vaguely described as the Word of God contained in Scripture.
These New Evangelists, as Kenneth Ross (Church and Creed in Scotland, p. 156) describes the liberal element in the nineteenth-century Free Church, concurred
in a willingness to engage with modern thought in an open and concessive spirit and a conviction that true Christianity would be vindicated if it were but delivered from certain traditional accompaniments which were unnecessary, and indeed corrosive. The New Evangelists believed that their historic task was to disengage the essence of the faith from some regrettable accretions. Accordingly, they set about distinguishing the kernel from the husk, the substance from the form, the personal from the propositional, the moral from the metaphysical, the ethical from the ritual and the spiritual from the dogmatic.
A principal aspect of this was “a new view of the Bible”.
In a “Biographical Introduction” to John and Donald Baillie, Professor A C Cheyne uses the terms Liberal Evangelicalism and the new orthodoxy to describe the teaching of their professors in New College in the early 1900s and says that it was:
marked by three outstanding characteristics: commitment to the use of historical and literary criticism in the study of the Bible, wariness of what seemed to be undue emphasis on credal and confessional statements, and respect for the methods of natural science. (Studies in Scottish Church History, pp. 209-210.)
Marcus Dods is an individual example of the way in which critical views of the Bible led to an abandonment of its content. In his inaugural lecture as successor to George Smeaton in 1889, he described the doctrine of verbal inspiration as a theory:
which has made the Bible an offence to many honest men, which is dishonouring to God, and which has turned inquirers into sceptics by the thousand – a theory which should be branded as heretical in every Christian Church.
He suggested that belief in the historicity of the resurrection was a matter of indifference, that belief in substitutionary atonement or even in Christ’s divinity was not essential to Christians, and that there was defective morality in the Old Testament. The death of Christ, he claimed, was not propitiatory but a manifestation that there were no bounds to the love of God which He came to express.
The Church-wide inevitability of this trend from criticism of the Bible to contradiction of its doctrines was confirmed by the adoption of the Free Church Declaratory Act of 1892. This process has been replicated in the more recent history of Evangelicalism. There is even a parallel in the relationship between the Moody and Sankey missions and nineteenth-century decline and the Billy Graham campaigns and twentieth-century decline.
2. Noting evidences that Evangelicalism, as it has developed to the present day, has become comprehensive of elements which earlier evangelicals would have repudiated, we see that men and denominations are regarded as Christian even although they tolerate and even profess doctrines inconsistent with what was formerly regarded as an Evangelical interpretation of Scripture.
Iain Murray documents the readiness of Anglican Evangelicals, after their Congress in Keele in 1967, to regard as brothers in Christ those who held unevangelical doctrine, and he comments that “what Keele left unexplained was how Evangelicals could hold to the uniqueness of their gospel message and yet profess brotherhood with those whose teaching subverts that gospel” (Evangelicalism Divided, pp. 117-118).
John Stott, who himself believes in the virgin birth of Jesus, assured David Edwards: “There have been and are Christians (yourself among them) who firmly believe in the incarnation, while doubting or denying the virgin birth” (Essentials, p. 230).
3. Men and denominations are regarded as Evangelical even although they have adopted an open attitude to Roman Catholicism.
In 1977 the Evangelical Anglicans’ Nottingham Congress issued the following statement: “Seeing ourselves and Roman Catholics as fellow Christians, we repent of attitudes that have seemed to deny it. . . . We shall all work towards full communion between our two churches. We believe that the visible unity of all professing Christians should be our goal” (Evangelicalism Divided, p. 216).
Dr Packer, who used to be such a persuasive advocate of the Reformed and Puritan faith, sadly exemplifies this change. Once he wrote: “The wall is cracked because it is not all built on the same foundation. The more one probes the differences between Roman and Protestant, Liberal and Evangelical, the deeper they prove to be; beneath the cracks on the surface lie fissures which run down to the very foundations, broadening as they go” (Fundamentalism and the Word of God, p. 45). But now he can describe Pope John Paul II as “a wonderful man who has done a wonderful job as a world Christian ambassador” and express the assurance that there are many Christians in the Roman system because “what brings salvation, after all, is not any theory about faith in Christ, justification, and the Church, but faith in Christ Himself” (Evangelicalism Divided, pp. 241, 229).
Men and denominations are regarded as Evangelical even although they have either embraced, or accepted the Biblical validity of, the modern charismatic movement. The charismatic movement has become so embedded in Evangelicalism that much of the claimed expansion of Evangelicalism is attributed to the growth of charismatic groups. In addition to direct Biblical arguments against the charismatic movement, it is observable that, with its emphasis on experiences and its doctrinal vagueness, it has done as much as anything to foster a new relationship between professed Evangelicals and Roman Catholics.
4. Men and denominations are regarded as Evangelical even although they have endorsed the culture of the world around them.
Surveys show that the moral behaviour of self-confessed “Evangelicals” is heading in the same direction as that in the broader culture: we simply lag a little behind. . . . Study after study has shown that pursuing relevance may achieve a certain instant “success”, but is frequently the advance warning to bitter declension. (The Gagging of God, pp. 475-476.)
The Evangelical accommodation to the world of our age represents the removal of the last barrier against the breakdown of our culture. (The Great Evangelical Disaster, p. 401.)
Evangelicals, while commonly retaining the same set of beliefs, have been tempted to seek success in ways which the New Testament identifies as ‘worldliness’ . . . the interests and priorities of contemporary culture have come to be mirrored in the churches. The antipathy to authority and to discipline; the cry for entertainment by the visual image rather than by the words of Scripture; the appeal of the spectacular; the rise of feminism; the readiness to identify power with numbers; the unwillingness to make “beliefs” a matter of controversy – all these features so evident in the world’s agenda are now also to be found in the Christian scene. Instead of the churches revolutionising the culture, the reverse has happened. Churches have been converted to the world. (Evangelicalism Divided, pp. 254-256.)
5. It is no wonder that Evangelicalism has developed in these ways because Evangelicalism has also been regarded as a movement comprehending Arminianism.
Indeed this is its original and fundamental flaw. By countenancing Arminianism, even when not universally embracing it, the wider Evangelical movement admitted the principle of requiring something less than full commitment to the entire revelation of God and opened the door to further deviations.
R B Kuiper, answering the question, “Is Arminianism Harmless?”, stated as part of his answer:
Arminianism teaches that God has made salvation possible for all but has left it to each individual to make it actual in his case. Now that compromising position of Arminianism explains in large measure one of the saddest chapters in American church history. It is the rapid descent of much of New England Calvinism all the way to Unitarianism . . . the decline began with a compromise with Arminianism.
Although he was himself identified with the promotion of Calvinism, Dr Lloyd-Jones advocated the view “that Evangelicals should not separate over the question of Calvinism and Arminianism” (J Brencher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) and Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, p. 232). That view is held by some in Evangelical and Reformed circles today.
This differs from the attitude expressed in an article in the Free Presbyterian Magazine of June 1937:
When it is borne in mind the horror with which our forefathers regarded Arminianism, the modern attitude to it indicates how far the professing Church has drifted from the position of the theologians of those days.
There is a quotation in the article from William Cunningham: Arminianism:
is a scheme for dividing or partitioning the salvation of sinners between God and sinners themselves, instead of ascribing it wholly, as the Bible does, to the sovereign grace of God, the perfect and all-sufficient work of Christ, and the efficacious and omnipotent operation of the Spirit. (Historical Theology, vol. 2, p. 377.)
And it is noted that Professor Watts of Belfast, with whom some of the early Free Presbyterian ministers studied, “used to say to his students that Arminianism fought none of the battles of the Reformation and, when it appeared on the stage, it was as the sower of discord and disunion that it made its presence felt”.
This was the view expressed in the first issue of The Banner of Truth magazine in 1955:
The twin principles of Arminianism are that the grace of God is universal – extending to all, and that the efficacy of that grace depends finally upon the free-will of man . . . . Arminianism strikes at the very foundation of the gospel.
A readiness to compromise with recognised error in a matter so closely connected with the glory of God, in the salvation of sinners, has in many cases facilitated compromise with other doctrinal and practical errors.
The commonly accepted definitions of Evangelicalism at its best do not describe adequately the Biblical faith to which we are committed. The comprehensiveness of modern Evangelicalism makes the term as used today insufficient, and unsuitable, as a description of what we regard as essential to contending for the faith once delivered to the saints. David Bebbington quotes Lord Shaftesbury, who died in 1885, as saying in his later years: “I know what constituted an Evangelical in former times; I have no clear notion of what constitutes one now” (Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, pp. 1-2). What would he say today?
Evangelicalism as historically understood over the past two or three centuries, embracing as it does the Arminian perversion of the gospel, is a defection from the Reformed Faith. The term Evangelical as applied today is altogether too indefinite and comprehensive to be an adequate description of the position to which we are committed.
The term “Reformed”
Another term which we would be glad to take to ourselves in its original significance is Reformed. What does it mean to be Reformed? We cannot assume that the term as used today is a guarantee of Biblical orthodoxy. The author of an article entitled “Reformed Tradition”, in the Dictionary of Scottish Church History & Theology, acknowledges that:
defining the boundaries of the Reformed tradition has become increasingly difficult because of changes in Churches which were once strongly Reformed. . . . Reunions have removed Reformed landmarks into new positions, and the success of missions has brought genuinely international cultural diversity. Many rejoice in these changes as a sign of healthy diversity, while others continue to pursue the ideal of a unitary theology recognizably continuous with classic Calvinism.
The difficulty referred to is illustrated in the volume Disruption to Diversity: Edinburgh Divinity 1846 – 1996. Dr Gary Badcock of New College, Edinburgh University, writes:
That we stand historically within the Reformed tradition can hardly be doubted; many of the great names of nineteenth- and twentieth century Reformed thought are our own predecessors, or have strong links with us. That we still stand within that tradition, and that we are likely to do so for the foreseeable future, may be a somewhat more controversial thesis. It is one, however, that I propose to defend, for I am convinced that New College retains, and will retain, a clear Reformed identity. In fact, I wish to go farther, and to suggest that the truth is that the milieu of faith, and specifically of faith as conceived in the Scottish Reformed tradition, is what has made and makes New College what it is. (p. 277.)
What significance this claim has can be judged by the general context of the volume, including Professor T F Torrance’s reference to room being made “for a fresh understanding of the gospel by freeing it from the rigid framework of rationalist Calvinism” (p. 20), and Professor Stewart Brown’s almost-horrified description of William Cunningham as one whose “theological beliefs consisted of a narrow and rigid scholastic Calvinism, including a belief in predestination,” and who “seemed to perceive the Free Church of Scotland as a small bastion of Reformed truth surrounded by the corruption and errors of an expansive Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, as well as by the dangers of Biblical scholarship and infidel philosophy” (p. 43).
Dr Badcock’s own idea of what is meant by continuing in the Reformed tradition can be gathered from, among other things, his reference to candidates for the Church of Scotland ministry worshipping, while at New College,
with those who worship differently, or with those who find it difficult to worship, or even worship a different God. Perhaps one of the gains of such experience is a recognition on the part of each that any given theology or tradition is intended only to mediate the mystery of God, and not to be the mystery itself; one recognises the limitations of one’s own way by recognising the strengths of others. Such an approach finds a fitting home in a Reformed context, for here the classic ecclesiological semper reformanda [that is, always requiring to be reformed] theme means that one can never presume to have the perfect church, the perfect theology, or the perfect mode of worship, but always and only something provisional and approximate, something that must be ever open to change, even to be what it is.
A similar situation prevails in many churches and seminaries throughout the world which claim to be in the Reformed, or Reformation, tradition. The term thus understood is not of much practical use.
The term is also used in a more restricted sense. In his introduction to the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland edition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the late Rev Alexander McPherson noted that, after the Second World War, there appeared
signs that in various parts of the English-speaking world the Lord was turning hearts back to the Bible and its doctrines. Ere long the term Reformed began to be used to describe those who accepted the Scriptures as the inspired, infallible Word of God, and who saw in the Confessions of the Calvinistic Churches accurate statements of the principal truths of the Christian religion.
More recently, Edmund Clowney, former principal of Westminster Theological Seminary, introduced a book of essays entitled After Darkness Light with the claim that
for almost a biblical generation, the ministry of R C Sproul has been transforming the convictions of Evangelicals. His teaching brought robust Calvinism back into American Evangelicalism.
In these contexts Reformed is used in its historical sense to distinguish the Calvinistic section of the Reformation Church from the Lutheran and – in spite of Arminius’ claim to be Reformed – to distance the Calvinistic section of the Church from Arminianism.
Reformed is properly equivalent to Calvinistic. B B Warfield asserted in his article The Present-Day Attitude Toward Calvinism: Its Causes and Significance:
Calvinism is Evangelicalism in its pure and only stable expression. When we say Evangelicalism we say sin and salvation. Evangelicalism is a soteriological conception; it implies sin, and salvation from sin. . . . It means utter dependence on God for salvation. . . . Calvinism will not play fast and loose with the free grace of God. It is set upon giving to God, and to God alone, the glory and all the glory of salvation. . . . Calvinism is only another name for consistent supernaturalism in religion. . . . The supernaturalism for which Calvinism stands is the very breath of the nostrils of Christianity; without it Christianity cannot exist.
He gives a more extensive description of Calvinism in his article Calvinism:
The roots of Calvinism are planted in a specific religious attitude, out of which is unfolded first a particular theology, from which springs on the one hand a special church organisation, and on the other a social order, involving a given political arrangement. The whole outworking of Calvinism in life is thus but the efflorescence of its fundamental religious consciousness, which finds its scientific statement in its theological system.
[Its fundamental principle] lies in a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the inevitably-accompanying poignant realisation of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature. He who believes in God without reserve, and is determined that God shall be God to him in all his thinking, feeling, willing – in the entire compass of his life-activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual, throughout all his individual, social, religious relations – is, by the force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist.
In Calvinism then, objectively speaking, theism comes to its rights; subjectively speaking, the religious relation attains its purity; soteriologically speaking, Evangelical religion finds at length its full expression and its secure stability. Theism comes to its rights only in a teleological conception of the universe, which perceives in the entire course of events the orderly outworking of the plan of God, who is the author, preserver and governor of all things, whose will is consequently the ultimate cause of all. The religious relation attains its purity only when an attitude of absolute dependence on God is not merely temporarily assumed in the act, say, of prayer, but is sustained through all the activities of life, intellectual, emotional, executive. And Evangelical religion reaches stability only when the sinful soul rests in humble, self-emptying trust purely on the God of grace as the immediate and sole source of all the efficiency which enters into its salvation. And these things are the formative principles of Calvinism.
J G Vos asserted that the battle is between consistent theism, or Calvinism, and consistent humanism – between “God unlimited by man” and “man unlimited by God”. He went on to say:
Between these two logical opposites we find the whole range of inconsistently theistic views (including Arminianism), of which the most basic concept is “God limited by man”. These inconsistent views must ultimately break down, and it must finally be recognised that the real issue is man as conceived by humanism versus God as conceived by Calvinism. (Banner of Truth, September 1961.)
We shall not try to assess the extent to which the term Reformed as currently applied by those who accept this definition is a guarantee of commitment to what we understand to be the Reformed Faith in its entirety. Instead, we shall conclude by emphasising our goodly heritage, and especially the obligation laid upon us by commitment to everything properly involved in the terms Christian, Protestant, Bible-believing, Evangelical and Reformed.
As a Church we assert that we are Reformed in doctrine, worship and practice.
- What we mean by Reformed doctrine is indicated in our wholehearted commitment to the Westminster Confession of Faith.
- What we mean by Reformed worship is indicated by the way in which the Regulative Principle of Worship is applied.
- What we mean by being Reformed in practice is indicated in our commitment to the Presbyterian form of Church government, to the exercise of a Biblical discipline and to the endeavour by grace to “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).
We must ever guard against, and seek to be preserved from, any slackening of commitment to any of the doctrines which we have avowed in our reception of the Westminster Confession of Faith as the confession of our faith. And in the spirit of the gospel we must maintain the very truths on which compromise is sought for whatever reason. Martin Luther is quoted as saying: “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ”.
Thomas M‘Crie in his Two Discourses on the Unity of the Church asserts that “schism is always evil; separation may be either good or evil, according to circumstances”. He then comments on what he calls “latitudinarian schemes of unity”:
The ground on which this plan is ordinarily made to rest is a distinction made among the articles of religion. Some of these are called essential, or fundamental, or necessary, or principal; others circumstantial, or non-fundamental, or unnecessary, or less important. The former, it is pleaded, are embraced by all true Christians; the latter form the subjects of difference among them, and ought not to enter into the terms of ecclesiastical fellowship.
On this principle some of them would conciliate and unite all the Christian denominations, not excepting Papists, Arians and Socinians; while others restrict their plan to those called Evangelical, who differ mainly in their views and practice as to the worship, order and discipline of the Church. . . . The relations of truths, especially those of a supernatural kind, are manifold, and incomprehensible by us; it is not our part to pronounce a judgement on them. And if we could see them, as God does, in all their extent and at once, we would behold the lesser joined to the greater, the most remote connected with the primary, by necessary and indissoluble links, and all together comprising to form one beautiful and harmonious and indivisible whole. Whatever God has revealed, we are bound to receive and hold fast; whatever He has enjoined, we are bound to obey; and the liberty which we dare not arrogate to ourselves we cannot give to others.
A similar statement is made in the articles on the 1892 Declaratory Act republished in the History of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (1893-1970):
Certain points are said not to enter into the substance of the faith. No one, we maintain, has a right to cut and carve the faith in this fashion. We are bound to receive and profess the whole revealed will of God, and to receive and profess less is sin and error. What creature then has a right to give his fellows a dispensation in the things of God? . . . We do not deny that there have been and are Christians eminent for personal piety in Churches, such as the Episcopal, where views are held that are contrary to the Word of God. But we are not aware that any Church has a right on this account to set a lower standard before her people than the Word of God sets.
We must also value and ever seek to enter into the spirit of the Presbyterian form of Church government and the exercise of Biblical Church discipline which is part of our Reformed heritage. Introducing his discussion of Church Government, The Apostolic Church – which is it?, Thomas Witherow comments that
though every statement in the Scripture cannot be regarded as absolutely essential to salvation, yet everything there is essential to some other wise and important end, else it would not find a place in the good Word of God. . . . Every divine truth is important, though it may be that all divine truths are not of equal importance. . . . Few would go so far as to assert that correct views on Church government are essential to salvation, and yet it is a subject whose importance it were folly to attempt to depreciate. The Holy Spirit, speaking in the Scriptures, treats of this theme. The Christian world has been divided in opinion about it ever since the Reformation. We cannot attach ourselves to any denomination of Christians without giving our influence either to truth or error on this very point; and the views we adopt upon this subject go far to colour our opinions on matters of Christian faith and practice.
The doctrine of the Church, its government and its discipline, has an important place in the Reformed understanding of the truth. In the history of the Reformed Church in Scotland it was intimately connected with struggles for the crown rights of the Redeemer. It should be our aim to endeavour to maintain the truth in all its fulness in the context of a Church conformed in its practice to the revealed will of the Lord.
We must seek grace to live – individually, domestically, ecclesiastically and socially – as those to whom the glorious doctrines which we avow are not simply a matter of intellectual satisfaction but the very food of our souls, stimulating us to love the Lord our God and to conduct ourselves as those who know and love and fear Him should. Each must seek grace to be a real Calvinist, truly Reformed – the person, described by Warfield, “who believes in God without reserve, and is determined that God shall be God to him in all his thinking, feeling, willing – in the entire compass of his life activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual, throughout all his individual, social, religious relations”.
In so far as others adhere to Evangelical, Reformed truth we wish them well in the name of the Lord. But love to the Lord, and to His truth and cause and people, should constrain us to adhere to the truth in all its fulness – to endeavour to conform, personally and ecclesiastically to all that is truly involved in being Christian, Protestant, Bible-believing, Evangelical and Reformed – and to call others to join us in that conformity. The history of the Church, and of that line from which we are descended, calls us to value the heritage which we have and to take heed to ourselves that we hold fast that which we have, that no man take our crown (Rev. 3:11)