Tuesday 16 December 2014

Young, Restless and "not really" Reformed

There was a book written by a man in the USA called Collin Hansen, around 2006, with the title "Young, Restless and Reformed". The title itself is gripping and so is the material in that book, which records the growth of a Calvinistic approach to the Bible, most especially in the USA. For this we are indeed thankful. Charles Haddon Spurgeon was the pastor of the largest church in the world in London, but at his death he died a disappointed man, being the witness of a doctrinal downgrade in his own day. He knew that those old doctrines he held would one-day make a comeback. Spurgeon wrote: "The doctrine which is now rejected as the effete theory of the Puritans and Calvinists will yet conquer human thought and reign supreme. As surely as the sun which sets tonight shall rise tomorrow at the predestined hour, so shall the truth of God shine forth over the whole earth" (Iain Murray, "The Forgotten Spurgeon", p 190".

I deem that we are seeing something of a recovery of what Jeremiah called the "ancient paths" (Jeremiah 6:16) in our day and we are thankful for it. My vantage point is of the state of evangelical and reformed churches in the UK mainly, though I am no expert. But I say this, to make the point that I am not commenting on the situation in the USA, though what I say may be relevant. I heard Mike Horton comment in a conference in 2013 on this so called "young, restless and reformed movement" and he made a good point; he said "there is one thing for sure, it is restless". This got me thinking.

There is a recovery of reformed thought in the UK and especially in England and Wales and yet there is the need to define what the word reformed has historically meant. I will briefly summarise what the idea of being biblically reformed has historically conveyed and then I will make a few brief assessments of the "state-of-play" in England, if I may.

A summary of what the word reformed has historically meant

To be reformed has historically meant a re-shaping of the church along three lines; its worship, doctrine and church government. Each of these three areas are to be shaped by a maxim to do only what Scripture commands. This ties the church to biblical faithfulness, but we do not interpret the Scriptures in a vacuum. To believe in the reformation cry for "Sola Scriptura" does not mean that we interpret the Bible without any aids. As a friend of mine Andy Young, recently stated in a conference, we need three compass points: "history, reformed confessions and the Bible".

Therefore, to be reformed has meant a commitment to a biblical pattern of church government, an apostolic pattern. The early church had a church government composed of elders and deacons. The elders were responsible for the governance and teaching, with the deacons being responsible for practical care and compassion. These churches were not isolated and independent and the final court of appeal was not solely a congregational meeting. There was a connectionalism which was vital for accountability and the spiritual well-being of the wider church. There should always be an enthusiastic commitment to a reformed confession and they should be used to teach the church. Nominal confessional commitment often is the seed-bed for a doctrinal downgrade.

Also public worship must be consciously shaped by a commitment to a regulative principle for worship. This means that it is Scripture that mandates what we do publicly. This view has been fraught with some difficulties, because some groups want to splinter off with divisive moves and to assert that unless every church does things exactly the way they prescribe, then they will not endorse them. This can be prideful, but a general principle must be upheld by all, that the Scripture is to direct our affairs in worship.

The "state-of-play" in England

There is widespread independency in England and also in Wales. This independency is almost proud of its defence for independency and it arose out of the liberalism which wrecked good denominations. As a result people came out of liberal denominations and often formed independent evangelical churches, sometimes they were called a "Free Evangelical Church" which meant "free" from denominations. These churches were rightly committed to biblical inerrancy, the major points of doctrine such as the resurrection of Jesus and in being committed to conservative hymn singing and preaching. However, church government varied in its application, most of these churches were baptistic in their thinking and the doctrine of the church had not been as well thought through as it should have been.

We are thankful for their stand against liberalism. However, after a generation, many of these churches and other types of churches as well, have had to ask themselves; what is the way forward? The choice before many churches has been to stay alive which often means one of two things: Either a return to the teaching of the Scriptures in matters of doctrine, worship and government or to seek to be contemporary and calvinistic (note my small "c") to win people to themselves.

My observation is that many preachers in England and Wales have promoted and have also endorsed a "young, restless, contemporary and 'not really' reformed position". The move to be contemporary has meant a downplaying of reformed confessions. Reformed confessions and creeds may not be rejected in such situations, but they are never mentioned, such documents simply gather dust on shelves. The term a regulative principle for worship is never mentioned because this could arouse their members to ask difficult questions, such as "why do we have to sing at least one Stuart Townend song every week?" or "why have you done away with using Psalm and hymn books? or "why has the pulpit been replaced with a music stand?". Similarly, church government is never mentioned, but it is just assumed that the way they do things is biblically based.

However, a truly biblical position and a correct expression of "being reformed" (note the present continuous participle) is an ongoing work, it should not lead to being stationary. There has arisen through the side-door of the church in England and Wales, a "young, restless and 'not-really' Reformed" breed of churches, in my opinion. I welcome blog comments and I welcome people disagreeing with me as well, especially if they do so in a calm and godly spirit. Feel free to add a comment if you read this blog.


Brett Hoskins said...

How is the frequent singing of Townsend’s songs, doing away with a hymn book or using a music stand to preach from in anyway linked to the regulative principle? Do you think the church in Philemon’s house (Phile. 1:2) had a wooden pulpit and shelf full of hymn books? I think we should be more concerned about the full counsel of God being preached with all its marrow and fat, as well as its rugged edges, than the shape of the pulpit or the use of a beamer. And are Townsend’s songs God-centered, Christ-exalting and biblically pure? Than sing them!

Kevin Bidwell said...

I will respond in more detail, perhaps in an actual blog itself. I so value comments because it helps me to critically evaluate my own thoughts but also to test the spiritual temperature of readers as well. What is interesting and helpful to me is that in the whole blog post, what has evoked a response from you is the mode, content and style of singing. In addition the popular name of Stuart Townsend seems to have triggered thoughts and comments.

Perhaps I need to write a blog post on an evaluation of the biblical content of Stuart Townsend hymns. Would that be helpful? Food for thought for me at least.

In need of grace,

Kevin Bidwell

Paul Irving said...

This post is superb! Thank you for a balanced and incisive overview. As one who has witnessed the sad decline of evangelical churches, many now without pastors and relying on untrained 'preachers', the YRR/New Calvinism has certainly not given the answers to the decline some thought it would bring to such independent fellowships.

The clarity of Reforming churches, with the emphasis on church government (not independency!), psalm led worship, the use of the creeds and confessions regularly, and most importantly pastors called of God and Seminary trained is what the UK needs as never before.

I found R. Scott Clarks' book Recovering the Reformed Confession: Out Theology, Piety and Practise a major help in my journey to appreciating that one is a selective Calvinist unless ecclesiology is taken seriously.

Finally, Calvin wrote extensively on the good use of the psalms in worship. Why has this emphasis, once an integral and rightful part of Reformed practise and used for hundreds of years to shape and form Christians worship and thinking, been supplanted by hymns? While some modern songs work hard at being sound theologically, they more often than not omit vital doctrine found in the psalms such as God's wrath and vengeance, as well as the struggles the psalmists faced and wrote about in great depth. One wonders if many of the modern songs are written more with an eye to being sung with a band and being played in concerts rather than the psalms which are so rich in teaching and speak so powerfully of the tri-une God.

Andrew Graham said...

It's Townend not Townsend. He was a rock guitarist. The Reformed are known for their precision.

Kevin Bidwell said...

Andrew, thanks for pointing out the spelling mistake. I must have mixed him up with Andros Townsend who plays for Totenham Hotspur :-)).
Kevin B

Andrew Graham said...

The Who?