Our Contrived Reformation
I love when brothers and sisters lean in on one another — asking tough questions, purporting thoughtful, challenging assertions — and this all in gracious love! So went a dinner I recently attended with black brothers and sisters in Christ. Our roaring laughter brightened the dimly lit room. Folks’ hearts and bellies bulged. Friendship is indeed one of God’s greatest kindnesses.
After spicy jambalaya and succulent shrimp and grits, we (slightly) hushed our bellows to consider what the Scriptures say about Christians’ responsibility for doing justice. Though representing a myriad of denominations, we were all joyously clinging to the doctrines of grace . Thus, a natural question followed, “Can we find any voices for social justice in the Reformed tradition?”
Folks pensively sat for a minute. It’s not that we didn’t know who to point to. It’s that when most folks think of the Reformation, we often think of it only as a theological phenomena — one specifically focused on the battle over justification (i.e. how people are made right with God). The Reformation was certainly that. But was it only that?
Busting the silence, one brother argued that the Reformation, historically, was in fact primarily a social justice movement. And that got me wondering, “how many people think of The Reformation like that?” I’m betting not many, and here’s why.
The narrative of the Reformation, as it’s often passed down amongst evangelical, Reformed types, is often simplistically reduced to a soteriological event. So we think of Calvin, and only think T.U.L.I.P. This narrow perspective is often well intended; we marvel at how God saves totally depraved, enslaved, spiritual corpses like us — whom he chose before the foundations of the world (). Our heads fill, and our hearts gladden. And sadly, if suffering isn’t “our issue” then we don’t feel the need for more out of these doctrines. The problem, though, is that speaking of the Reformation like this tells an incomplete tale. And this narrative’s vast incompleteness makes our heads, and thus our hearts, uninformed. Thus, our hands slacken — often at the plow of justice — far too often.
But they need not if we consider some core beliefs of the Reformation; consider the pillar, “Sola Scriptura.” This theological tenet was rooted in the conviction that common folks should read Scripture for themselves. But with that came the need for folks to have it in their own language. And embedded in this need was the issue of literacy among the people and accessibility to said literature — a right denied the society at the time. Thus, the Reformation necessitated the righting of wrongs, the progressing of the community for the common flourishing, and in this case, for the spiritual reforming. It can be said, then, that the Reformation reverberated the bell of social justice. It is amazing to consider how historical events coalesced at this time to promote justice. Tyndale’s translation of the Bible for common folk finished roughly in the same era of Guttenberg’s printing press (15th-16th century); the latter let the former surge throughout society. Righteousness, both spiritual and social, rolled like a river!
And more than the historical events of the Reformation, we can look to the writings of those in the Reformed tradition that redound, “justice and mercy for people!” I’ll briefly consider four, from the time of the Reformers until today. Up to bat first, the renowned Calvin. Many know his soteriology. But consider what he says in Book III of The Institutes on the imago dei in man and its implications:
“We are not to consider that men merit upon themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honor and love…Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him… Say, “he is contemptible and worthless”; but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has designed to give the beauty of his image…Say that he does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of giving yourself and all your possessions.”
Next consider the African-American preacher, Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833) who fought the horrors of slavery preaching truths like this: “Liberty is a jewel which was handed down to man from the cabinet of heaven, and is coeval with his existence.”
Or consider, third, the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), who said, “among all creatures only man is the image of God, the highest and richest revelation of God, and therefore head and crown of the entire creation.”
And praise God that many pastors still hark for a wider view of the Reformation today. Kevin DeYoung does so here; Tony Carter helped me in his elaboration on Sola Scriptura’s implications for justice.
The Reformed Tradition has inked in history its voices for social justice. And these high appreciations of all mankind magnify the horrors of civil, prejudiced injustices. They reinforce social justice motivations like those of the Civil Rights Movement, the fight against sex-trafficking, and the tired, burdened citizens of Ferguson. If these are not voices for social justice, I don’t know what are.
But these statements are often forgone as we contrive a simplistic Reformation narrative — one that provides compelling tweets for us to send off into internet oblivion as we portly sit on our computers at Starbucks; all the while a homeless person sits on the other side of our exposed brick wall. Did we even look him in the eye as we hurried through the door?
So I left this dinner asking myself, what kind of Reformation narrative am I passing on? Is it a full, historical telling — one that will inspire and motivate people to those weightier matters of the law ()? Or am I passively enjoying a contrived, simplistic one?
Of course, I praise God for the salvific truths that the Reformation heralded; I tweet them all the time! But a wise brother once quipped this about good statements —“you need to eat that before you tweet that.” In other words, we must consume and apply truth before we share it. The stakes are too high not to.
Just consider how some members of the majority culture reacted to Lyndon B. Johnson’s inaccurate portrayal in the recent film, Selma. This misrepresentation was a tragedy, one that can have detrimental ramifications for historical education — an education that shapes how we move forward.
And this is why we must look beyond the movies, beyond the writings, yes – even beyond the Reformed tradition for the foundations of truth and justice. We must look to the cornerstone of this foundation, the Lord of justice himself. He has revealed himself in his Word, which loudly commands Christians to do justice and love mercy. What are some Biblical texts you can think of that call us to that end?
The “Doctrines of Grace” is another name for the five-point soteriology commonly known as “Calvinism.”
4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love (ESV)
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (ESV)