One of the slogans of the Reformation has been that the Reformed Church is “always reforming.”1 This can be a dangerous enterprise, yet, if we pursue it carefully we can be constantly aware of our limitations as scholars, students, and laymen. The Reformation has certainly undergone negative reformation, at least, in my humble opinion. One clear example of this has been the overwhelming abandonment of the historic understanding of the role of the sacraments in the restoration of the church. If we are to live by the Spirit, then we are to eat of that spiritual food lest we die.
The sanctification of the church entails some maturing in our theology. This is not to say that we abandon our historic confession, as some so readily have, rather, that we seek to understand the truth of the Bible in light of our encounter with the text. By encounter, I refer to the Church’s interaction and exegetical pursuits that lead the Church to manifest a new understanding of certain passages and contexts. One clear example of this has been the development of Ancient Suzerain Treaty forms/structures that have in many ways affected the hermeneutical approach to books like Deuteronomy in the Reformed community.2 This, in turn, has revolutionized our understanding of the relationship God had with Israel in the Older Covenant.
The reaction of some “conservationists” in the Reformed camp is a noble attempt to preserve our heritage. We, as Reformed students, owe our theological minds and hearts to the immense preoccupation that our Reformed forefathers had for the Scriptures. As a result, they transformed Europe and consequently the world. None of us can say that we have exhausted the many profitable tomes written during that time (many of which have not ever been translated into English 400 years later) and my suggestion is that before we begin to pursue variations or nuances of our tradition today, it would seem very profitable to become as aware as possible to what our tradition has already taught. Many, including myself, have at times assumed that our tradition taught one thing, when in reality it has almost unanimously taught another. Perhaps my thesis is simply summarized in ad fontes, back to the sources. For instance, those who are carefully listening to current discussions on the Federal Vision would do well to read Calvin’s Institutes, Book II, Chapters 10 and 11 where he discussed the differences and similarities between the two testaments. That can serve as a starting point to understand debates concerning law and gospel and the place of both in Redemptive History.
In my particular case, I continue to survey and analyze the different positions. Though my presuppositions lead me to favor certain approaches to the text, I remain at best skeptical and careful. Further, it is wise to acknowledge that the Reformed tradition has been diverse in many ways3 and living within differences can be a needful antidote to the abusive and divisive nature of our glorious tradition. In the words of Professor John Murray:
It would not be, however, in the interests of theological conservation or theological progress for us to think that the covenant theology is in all respects definitive and that there is no further need for correction, modification, and expansion. Theology must always be undergoing reformation. The human understanding is imperfect. However architectonic may be the systematic constructions of any one generation or group of generations, there always remains the need for correction and reconstruction so that the structure may be brought into closer approximation to the Scripture and the reproduction be a more faithful transcript or reflection of the heavenly exemplar.4