Reformation is needed in almost every day. If Paul, within years of founding the Corinthian congregation, needs to see them reformed, we can't be surprised that churches need reforming regularly in the history of the church. Sometimes that reform is more in the nature of a revitalization, but I think people have, especially in America, been too content to be satisfied with entertainment and with shallowness, and we need a seriousness about God, about Christ, and about His Word, and I think to be drawn again to a passionate interest in the Word is going to take a major reformation of the church today. My hope is that this series will serve the church by causing people to reflect on what the church ought to be according to the Word of God. Christians are quite willing to affirm the sovereignty of God, but if we push the discussion to the relationship of God's sovereignty, for example, to the doctrine of election, in a very short period of time there will be a very serious controversy about the nature of God. Welcome to Renewing Your Mind on this Tuesday.
I'm Lee Webb. If you're relatively new to our program, you may have heard us refer to Reformed theology and wonder, what is Reformed theology? How is it different from, say, an evangelical view of what the Bible teaches, or the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church? Well, we just heard a hint there from Dr. R.C. Sproul. The sovereignty of God is the centerpiece of Reformed thinking, but let's dig deeper.
Here's R.C. In our first session, we saw that Reformed theology is a theology, and now I want to suggest to you that Reformed theology is a systematic theology. It's been one of my privileges in my lifetime to be able to teach the discipline of systematic theology at the seminary. And I know in this day and age with the advent of existential philosophy, for example, there's been this growing antipathy or an allergy, as it were, against the whole idea of systems.
And sometimes there's good reason for that. Part of the concern that people have is that we know what happens when people take a system of philosophy and bring it over to the pages of the Bible and then try to force everything that the Bible says into that system. Now, the idea of systematic thinking goes way back in church history, but even in the period of the Enlightenment with the advent of the modern scientific method, the philosophers of those days advocated a method for science that they called the analytical method of study, which in abbreviated terms and in popular language was called the task of seeking to find the logic of the facts. That is, the scientists would explore the details of the physical universe and point their telescopes into the heavens and gather as much particular data as they possibly could. And after they got this data, they tried to make sense out of it.
They tried to see how all the particular parts fit together. Now, historically the task of systematic theology is something like that. It is not to come to the Bible with a preconceived system, but rather to come to the Bible, listen to the Word of God in all of its particulars, in all of its details, and then try to discern how all of these individual truths fit together. Because the assumption of systematic theology is this, that the Bible is coherent, that though God reveals many things to us, that all of His truth is unified in His own person and in His own character. Actually, in teaching sometimes we'll have seminars where there'll be kind of an open-ended discussion with my students, and we'll start the seminar by looking at a particular doctrine in the panoply of systematic theology.
And if I allow the students to interact with their questions, in a very short period of time we run far afield from the doctrine we first started to study, and at first glance it may seem that we're just running around chasing rabbits down extraneous rabbit trails. But then I remind them, I said, these questions that you're asking are questions that we should be asking because they flow out of the doctrine that we're studying, because every doctrine of Christian theology touches in some way every other doctrine of the faith. That is, the whole of the Christian faith is intimately and intricately related in all of its pieces. In fact, one of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the way the Bible speaks about so many things over so many years in myriad details, and yet the symmetry of Scripture is there.
It fits together in such a coherent way. Well, when we say that Reformed theology is systematic, that's what we're saying at the outset, that we are trying not to impose a system upon the Scripture, but to find the system of doctrine that is in the Scriptures themselves, to see how all of the parts fit together. Now, one of the ironies of Reformed theology, I'll even use the word paradox, even though I sometimes choke on that word, I'll say to my students when we study systematic theology, we usually begin systematic theology with the study of what's called theology proper. Now, that isn't distinguished from improper theology, but theology proper refers to a focus on the doctrine of God as distinguished from the doctrine of sin or the doctrine of justification or some other doctrine, but rather our understanding of the nature and character of God Himself.
And here's where the paradox comes in. At the beginning of that study, I will say to my students that if we look at Reformed creeds and confessions and read what they say about the nature of God, you'll have to look very, very hard to find anything in there that would be distinctively Reformed. I mean, the confessions of Methodists and Lutherans and Episcopalians and all other denominations have basically the same content and the same affirmations in their creeds. We all say that God is eternal. We all believe that God is invisible, that He is a spirit, that He's immutable, omnipotent, omniscient, and all those other things that we speak of with respect to the attributes of God. So I say on the one hand, there's nothing particularly distinctive about the doctrine of God in Reformed theology that makes Reformed theology different from other theologies.
And yet, again, here's the paradox. If someone were to say to me, R.C., what do you think is the most distinctive aspect of Reformed theology? I won't hesitate to answer that question by saying, oh, it's our doctrine of God. I say, wait a minute.
You're giving me an Excedrin headache. You just said a minute ago, I heard you say it, that there's nothing particularly distinctive about the doctrine of God in Reformed theology. Now you're saying out of the other side of your mouth, paradoxically, that the most distinctive thing about Reformed theology is its doctrine of God. What are you trying to say? I mean, I can see the puzzled looks on people who are sitting in front of me this very minute when I make this seemingly contradictory statement. I accent the word seemingly.
Let me try to unwrap it for you and tell you what I mean by it. All Christians have a basically orthodox, creedal affirmation about the character of God. But what I think happens frequently in other theologies is that when the attention is diverted to another doctrine, there is a tendency to forget your affirmation about the character of God. And the doctrine of God is just one of many doctrines in the faith rather than the controlling doctrine of the faith.
For example, I've never met a Christian in my life who looked me in the eye and said, I don't believe that God is sovereign. Christians, characteristically, are quite willing to affirm the sovereignty of God. But if we push the discussion to the relationship of God's sovereignty, for example, to the doctrine of election, to the doctrines of grace, in a very short period of time, there will be a very serious controversy about the nature of God. Does God ordain everything that comes to pass? Does He know everything that comes to pass before it happens? Again, if we just backed up and said, do you believe that God is omniscient?
Most Christians will say yes. But then when we explore what it means that God knows everything, are we saying the same thing? Are we saying that He knows it simply because He has some genius perception? Or do we say that He knows all things because He ordains all things?
That is, what is the relationship of His sovereignty to His knowledge? In Reformed theology, we constantly test our doctrine by going back to our fundamental understanding of the character of God. And I really think that's the central unique factor of Reformed theology is that it is relentlessly committed to maintain the purity of the doctrine of God through every other element of our theology. Now, there are some other things I want to say about Reformed theology, and that is that Reformed theology is not only systematic, but Reformed theology is Catholic. Now, what do I mean by that when I say that Reformed theology is Catholic? Usually we think of the Reformation as being a protest against Catholicism. But remember that the theology that emerged and came to the front of the stage in the 16th century was not something that was invented for the first time in the 16th century.
It was a Reformation, not a revolution. It was an attempt in the 16th century to recover the historic Christian apostolic faith. And at the time of the Reformation, virtually every church that arose out of it continued to embrace the Catholic truths of the Christian faith. That is, the truths that are embraced and confessed by Christians of all stripes, of all denominations, and of all traditions.
That is, here the word Catholic does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church or the Russian Catholic Church or some particular group, but rather the term is used in its original sense, meaning universal, the whole church. For example, in the early centuries, the church had in assembly crucial councils to deal with major theological issues with the threat of major heresies, such as the Arian controversy in the 4th century, the Monophysite controversy in the 5th century, and so on. Where at these great councils, such as the Council of Nicaea, the deity of Christ was firmly embraced and confessed.
In the 5th century, at the Council of Chalcedon, the church confessed her faith that Christ is truly man and truly God. Now, the affirmations of historic Christianity about the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the atonement of Christ, those are affirmations that are shared by all orthodox Christian bodies historically. Those affirmations are found historically in all of the creeds of the various denominations so that the Lutherans and the Methodists and the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians historically have a large body of doctrine that they hold in common with each other.
And that common essence of Christian thought is the foundation upon which all theology rests. So, when we talk about Reformed theology as a distinctive, for example, to differentiate it from say dispensational theology or Lutheran theology or whatever other particular theology we're talking about, we acknowledge at the outset that there is a common core of doctrine that is part of all of these different groups. Now, the reason I say that is there's a tendency to think about Reformed theology as if Reformed theology were simply the distinctives of Reformed theology. Some people say to me, well, tell me about Reformed theology. Isn't that the five points of Calvinism? And I'll say, well, yes, the five points of Calvinism have much to say and much to do with the Reformed faith.
And we'll get to an exposition of those concepts in this series. But it would be a very serious distortion of Reformed theology to think of it exclusively in terms of our distinctives. We must remember that those doctrines rest upon a common foundation that we share with a host of other Christian bodies. That is, we have a Catholic faith. Now, in addition to that, all Reformed theology is evangelical.
Now, that's the second broad heading we're using. The first was Catholic. The second is evangelical. All who are evangelical in the historic sense are also Catholic. Not all who are Catholic are evangelical, but all who are evangelical share the common doctrine of the church universal with everybody else. Now, not everybody who is evangelical is Presbyterian or Lutheran or Methodist or any of these other distinctives, so that not everyone who is evangelical is Reformed. But everyone who is Reformed in the historic sense of the term also is evangelical. We share not only a common heritage of Catholic Christianity, but with our Protestant brothers and sisters, we share a common evangelical tradition. Now, again, the term evangelical is under siege in our day, and it's a question of confusion as to what it really refers to in our time.
That confusion does not exist historically. At the time of the Reformation is when the term or label evangelical was coined, and it was coined by the Reformers because they believed that with the doctrine of justification by faith alone, they were recovering the evangel or the gospel of the New Testament. And since the heart of the controversy of the 16th century focused on the doctrine of justification, the whole debate centered on the question, what is the gospel? So Protestants called themselves evangelicals, meaning by that label that they were embracing Luther's definition of the doctrine of justification, justification by faith. Now, out of that tradition, as we know, there were many people in the 16th century who embraced Luther's view of justification as the biblical view, and certain different traditions came from that, all of whom shared the central core conviction that justification is by faith alone, and that that's at the very heart of the gospel itself. But they went in other directions where they differed over questions of the sacrament, over church government, and over other doctrines, for example, but they kept this common commitment to that. The other doctrine that was common to historic evangelicalism was the doctrine of the authority of Scripture, or what is called sola scriptura, which we'll take up later on. And so historians have said that the material issue or cause of the Reformation was the doctrine of justification, the formal cause was the doctrine of the authority of Scripture, and that though, again, the Reformation saw a fragmentation of numerous bodies of Protestants, there was a core unity among them of agreement on two central theses, one, the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and two, the doctrine of the authority of Scripture.
So, now we go to the third label, which is the label Reformed. Now, when we use that label, we are making further distinctions in the taxonomy of theology. Now, taxonomy is the science of classification. We do that in the biological world. We divide kingdoms, the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom. All plants are in the plant kingdom and all animals are in the animal kingdom.
And then you get into those different kingdoms and you divide them between the phyla and the genus and the species and the order and all of those different things as you begin to refine more and more between mammals and reptiles and vertebrates and invertebrates and all of that sort of thing. You just keep making finer and finer and finer distinctions as we seek to understand the world around us. Well, we do the same thing in theology and in theological traditions. There are many evangelical bodies, as I've said, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, and so on, and they differ from each other at certain points. And when we talk about a Lutheran, we would say that a Lutheran is a person who holds to the historic doctrines that are particularly characteristic of Lutheranism. They also are evangelical and they also are Catholic. Now, as the Reformed tradition is defined, we have doctrines that are specific to the Reformed faith that are not always shared by other Christian bodies. And so when we say that somebody is Reformed, we're saying all at the same time that that person embraces the distinctively Reformed creeds of history, such as the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and so on. In addition, they share a common evangelical heritage with other believers, and the whole thing is based upon the Catholic foundation. So just by way of preparation, we have to be careful not to think that this and this alone is the Reformed faith. Because the Reformed faith, though it has its own distinctives, contains within itself unifying doctrines with other Christians, with all evangelicals, and with those who hold the Catholic truths of historic Christianity. Now, what we will be doing in the rest of this series is paying close attention to those distinctives that mark off Reformed theology from other evangelical theologies and from the broad heading of Catholic theology. Now on, we'll be examining the distinctives, but only with this caveat now and this warning, I'm going to hold you to it, that you remember that when we look at the distinctives, the distinctives are not all that's there. They're the distinctives set on the platform, they're established on the foundation of Catholic and evangelical Christianity.
Now that really is so important to remember, isn't it? We do have things in common with other Christians, but there are important distinctives in Reformed theology that we'll be looking at over the next few days, and I hope you'll make plans to join us. We're making this 12-part series available to you on three DVDs, and we'd like to send that to you today for a donation of any amount. A couple of ways you can reach us to make your request, one is by phone at 800-435-4343, or if you prefer to go online, our address is renewingyourmind.org. You know, as we see so much confusion within the church today, it becomes clear why good, sound theology is so important.
As R.C. said on the program yesterday, if the theological foundation is faulty, then the structure is faulty as well. That's one of the main reasons this ministry exists, to help you know what you believe, why you believe it, how to live it, and how to share it. With that in mind, let me recommend that you explore the many resources available on our free mobile app. Reformed theology is covered in many of the articles and audio and video clips you'll find there.
Just search for Ligonier in your app store. Before we go today, here's R.C. with a preview of what we'll hear tomorrow. If you said to me, where would you find the Reformed faith, I would say, well, you can find it two places. You can find it in the Bible, or you can look at the confessions that appear in church history that try to give a summary of the Reformed doctrine. I hope you'll join us for a lesson titled, Scripture Alone, tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind. .
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