Saturday, September 27, 2008

Robert Gonzales on the Danger of Reformed Traditionalism

Robert Gonzales, Dean and Professor at Reformed Baptist Seminary, has written a couple of excellent articles on "The Danger of Reformed Traditionalism." In part one he identifies the basic problem of subtly allowing faithfulness to a particular Reformed confession to undermine our commitment to the authority of Scripture. This is a problem I have encountered myself, particularly when dealing with people who have recently come to embrace Reformed theology. They allow their understandable excitement for all things Reformed to overwhelm the Bible in their thinking, and they usually don't see that they are doing it. As a matter of fact, they very often don't really even have a sound understanding of Reformed theology anyway, so that they are actually sifting Scripture through a distortion of Reformed theology. So in reality they are faithful neither to Scripture nor to Reformed theology!

But Gonzales is dealing with those who do accurately understand Reformed theology, but who nevertheless may succumb to the danger he is warning against. Here are a couple of excerpts from the first article:

I’m not implying that Reformed churches today are unconcerned with the Bible. On
the contrary, one of the reasons churches like ours appreciate the Reformed tradition is because of its emphasis upon the Scripture. Along with the Reformers, we continue to affirm the principle of sola Scriptura. But here is where the danger lies: whereas the Reformers evaluated the faith and practice of the church in the light of Scripture; some Reformed leaders today seem to evaluate the faith and practice of the church in the light of the Reformed tradition, especially in light of their Reformed Confession of Faith.

Actually, the danger is really more subtle. Few Reformed pastors today would begin their sermon by asking the congregation to turn to page 250 of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion or to chapter 14 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Like the 16th century Reformers, modern Reformed pastors endeavor to take God’s people back to the Scripture. With a growing interest in and appreciation for the Reformed tradition, however, there can be a tendency to look at the Bible only through the lens of Reformed tradition. In other words, there is a real danger of imposing the Reformed tradition as a grid over the Bible and then insisting that every interpretation and application must agree with that tradition.

In principle no Reformed pastor or theologian would elevate his tradition to the same level as Scripture. But in practice I believe there can be a very subtle tendency in that direction.

By the end of the article, Gonzales begins to direct his attention specifically toward the Reformed Baptist tradition:

I am, nevertheless, sensitive to the danger of creating the impression that our Baptist Confession is incapable of improvement or that the Confession has said everything that needs to be said or that teachings of the Bible must conform in proportion and emphasis to the teaching of our Confession. In order to prevent our esteem for the London Baptist Confession in particular or our Reformed heritage in general from subtly weakening our commitment to sola Scriptura, I suggest that (1) we beware of the danger of traditionalism and (2) we be aware of the limitations of our own Baptist Confession. In this post, I’ve tried to alert us to the danger of Reformed traditionalism. In the next post, I hope to provide an example of a limitation (or weakness) in our own 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.
In part two, Gonzales not only cautions us more specifically about not allowing the Baptist Confession of 1689 to overwhelm our commitment to Sola Scriptura, he also suggests some changes to the confession in the process, even though he knows he may be sticking his neck out a bit.

So here’s where “the rubber meets the road.” It’s one thing to affirm one’s commitment to sola Scriptura and offer a general warning against an imbalanced
commitment to one’s Confession of Faith. Most won’t object too strongly. It’s quite another thing, however, to venture suggestions as to how one’s Confession of Faith might have some deficiencies that need improvement. I don’t expect that all my readers will fully agree with all of my suggestions—at least immediately. But I do hope that you’ll give the matter careful prayer and reflection. In general, I think there are at least three ways in which the 1689 London Baptist Confession can be improved.
The three improvements Gonzales goes on to suggest are: 1) "updating the language of the confession," 2) "adding theological affirmations to the confession" (such as a clear statement on the Biblical roles of men and women), and 3) "making modest refinements to some doctrinal formulae" (such as "fine-tuning" some of the confession's statements about covenant theology).

I highly recommend reading both of these articles, and I am grateful to Robert Gonzales for having written them. Let me know what you think.

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