DEFINING “REFORMED CHURCH” IN ITS PROTESTANT REFORMATION SENSE by J. Parnell McCarter
I was recently reading a discussion involving OPC religious and social historian Professor D.G. Hart over the question of which churches hold the historically reformed view of the civil magistrate. Professor Hart made the following insightful comments:
“The second fact of cherry-picking proportions is that all of the Reformed churches that belong to the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council [NAPARC – see http://www.naparc.org/ ] have rejected the teaching of both the Westminster Confession and the Belgic Confession on the civil magistrate. Not only have the mainline churches revised these confessions, but so have the conservative churches…These revisions do not necessarily mean that every officer and member of these churches is an advocate of 2k. It does mean that the modern Reformed and Presbyterian churches have come to terms with modern governments and the disestablishment of Christianity in ways inconceivable to Reformed Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries. And this means that the critics of 2k are either unaware of how little standing the original WCF chapter 23 or Belgic Art. 36 has in conservative Reformed churches. Or if they know of confessional revision and use the original documents to denounce 2kers, they are dishonest.” - http://oldlife.org/2012/03/2k-cherries-2hot-2handle/
“ I contend that all Reformed and Presbyterian churches outside Scotland have revised the confession. What may have been a pan-Reformed doctrine of the magistrate…is no longer the case. So again, what are you going to do with Scottish churches that maintain fellowship with churches that have departed from the “pan-Reformed” doctrine? What’s wrong with the Scots that the fellowship with Anabaptist Presbyterians?... Now what about the fraternal relations that Scottish Presbyterians have with Anabaptist Presbyterians?” - http://oldlife.org/2012/10/why-neo-calvinism-sounds-novel/comment-page-2/#comments
The fact is that the reformed confessional standards of the Protestant Reformation (such as the Westminster Standards) stand as a complete body of thought. To attack one part, such as their view of the civil magistrate, is quite often an attack upon the whole. For instance, in this case it represents an undermining of the doctrine of total depravity of man in his natural condition, as explained at http://www.puritans.net/news/establishmentprinciple050707.htm . Rejection of the establishment principle was anticipated by an embrace of Enlightenment principles, at least in part, which views natural man as capable of sound, rational governance, without the need of the word and Spirit. Rejection of the reformed view of the civil magistrate thus in turn undermines the doctrine of sola scriptura, for governance in the fallen world is then not dependent on having the word of God. Finally, it strikes at the comprehensive obedience required by God’s moral law, for it teaches that the civil government need not so submit (at least with respect to the first table of the moral law). This position leads to a form of humanism. No small damage is done by rejection of this part of the reformed confessional standards.
Another example would be this doctrine of scripture described in the Westminster Confession: “…being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical…” Most of the NAPARC churches embrace a critical text position, rejecting that the word of God has been preserved in its purity in all ages in the received text. Generally speaking, they just accept that the original autographs are infallible. But the problem is that we do not have any of the original autographs. The implication of the critical text position should be clear enough: we are without an infallible text of God’s word and the doctrine of sola scriptura is thoroughly undermined. Without sola scriptura, presumably we must rely upon ecclesiastical experts to provide us with on-going guidance not deducible from the word of God alone. But this just leads us back to Rome.
Given the above compromises, is it any wonder that the NAPARC churches have generally rejected this position of the Westminster Standards as well: “Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God”? It should be of little surprise how NAPARC churches and people enter into various alliances and confederacies with Rome.
Returning then to Professor Hart’s observations, let’s consider these conclusions that can be deduced from what he has written:
1. It would have been unthinkable to reformed Christians of the 16th and 17th centuries to have conceived of “reformed” without the reformed view of civil government found in the Reformation confessional standards (like the Belgic, Helvetic, and Westminster confessions).
2. Doctrinal subscription is not only determined by the confession a particular denomination professes, but also the denominations with which it has fraternal relations.
3. The churches of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) have rejected the teaching of both the Westminster Confession and the Belgic Confession on the civil magistrate.
4. European churches which have fraternal relations with the churches of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) have effectively rejected the teaching of both the Westminster Confession and the Belgic Confession on the civil magistrate.
5. The above does not mean there are not individual Christians within the above denominations which adhere to the reformed confessional standards in their original, but as institutions they effectively do not. (It could also be added that just because someone is a member of a denomination adhering to the reformed confessional standards in their original does not mean that individual really so adheres.)
It should be clear from the above points that the term “reformed church” has suffered an alteration since the time of the Protestant Reformation. So with Dr. Hart’s insights in mind, let me propose a definition of a “reformed church” in its Protestant Reformation sense:
A reformed church is a Christian church which fully subscribes to a confession including the doctrines commonly incorporated in reformed confessions during the Protestant Reformation (such as the Westminster Standards, Three Forms of Unity, Helvetic Confession, etc.), and not negated by practices such as fraternal relations with non-reformed churches. By “fully subscribes to a confession” is meant at least all of the church officers, including all of the theologians teaching in the church’s theological school(s), profess full adherence with the doctrines outlined in the confession as well as its associated catechism, and at least all of its communicant members profess full adherence with its associated catechism (in which they have been instructed).
The above definition assumes a distinction between baptized members, communicant members, and church officers (such as deacons, ruling elders, ministers, and theological doctors).
Now let’s apply these principles to the current church scene in the USA. If the truth be told, the NAPARC churches are not “reformed churches”, in the Protestant Reformation sense, as institutions. Nor are those European-based churches which have fraternal relations with some of the NAPARC churches. It should be kept in mind that most NAPARC churches do not require full subscription to any even professedly reformed confession, maintaining looser subscriptional practices.
Baptist churches are not reformed churches in the Protestant Reformation sense either. Not only have they amended the reformed confessions related to baptism and civil government, but on some other issues as well.
Nor are the Protestant Reformed Churches in America (http://www.prca.org/) reformed churches in the Protestant Reformation sense either; they have an amended version of Article 36 of the Belgic Confession.
Nor are “Cameronian” churches which reject the principle stated in the Westminster Confession chapter 23: “It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honor their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience' sake.” Cameronians regard it as a private individual’s right to determine and proclaim a standing civil magistrate illegitimate, in what is effectively a revolutionary stance.
So with respect to the US church scene, we have eliminated most church denominations that are visible to most Americans, and even visible to many professedly reformed Americans. For the most part what is left is certain European-based denominations like the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (http://www.fpchurch.org.uk/) and the Netherlands Reformed Congregations (http://www.netherlandsreformed.org/) that have a relatively small and almost invisible presence in North America that can arguably qualify as reformed churches in the Protestant Reformation sense. This is a generalization, and it is not denying there are scattered small exceptions.
This raises a final question for consideration in this article: what is it about the USA that is so inimical to true reformed ecclesiology and confessionalism? Why has the USA been dependent upon Europe to provide it with reformed churches in the Protestant Reformation sense, when reformed resources and the reformed name are rather prevalent in the USA? I would submit that to understand any people, one needs to understand the father of that people. So, to understand mankind, one needs to understand the father of mankind, Adam; and to understand Christians, one needs to understand their federal head and spiritual father, Jesus Christ. In the case of the USA, that means understanding the chief father of the USA (President George Washington) [see http://www.thisnation.com/question/017.html] and the other founding fathers (like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin). President George Washington took the American colonies away from established Protestantism, and made peace and confederacy with Roman Catholicism. His letter at http://www.beliefnet.com/resourcelib/docs/97/Letter_from_George_Washington_to_the_Roman_Catholics_in_the_U_1.html conveys as much. He (and the other founding fathers) relied upon Roman Catholic France to win the American Revolution, as he acknowledges in his letter. He established the nation’s capital in “Rome”, near the Jesuit college (now known as Georgetown University). He accepted many “Enlightenment” principles, effectively rejecting the doctrine of the total depravity of man. The USA is simply following its spiritual father. Americans need to acknowledge this fault, repent, and return to the Biblical Protestant Christian faith they knew in their colonial era.