Elsewhere on the web this past week or so, there has been renewed discussion and debate over what amounts to the old expression “TR” (Thoroughly Reformed) and all that it embodies. Ray Ortlund, Jr. re-posted one of his old blogs, to which Darryl Hart then replied, and finally Lane Keister expounded a bit further on the matter.
This “TR” phrase has been controversial most of its life, and it may surprise some to find out that this all goes back some thirty-five years or more. For some it has been a term of pride and arrogance (“I am and you’re not”). For others it has been a handy derogatory expression (“You are and I’m glad I’m not”). By several accounts, “TR” was an expression coined in the early 1970’s on the campus of Reformed Theological Seminary, in Jackson, MS. Initially it was more an aspiration–a goal–we want to be thoroughly Reformed. But it quickly became a label, and as with most labels, there was little good that came from use of the stereotypes that attached on either side of the expression. So for those following the current discussion, I thought it might be good to remind us that this is not a new debate. It began at least in 1977, as displayed on the pages of The Presbyterian Journal.
First up was Dr. Jack Scott, a much-loved Old Testament professor at RTS, whose chapel talk was transcribed and published. Dr. Scott was seeing a problem on the RTS campus, and he spoke to the matter. Next, The Presbyterian Journal published articles by David R. Gillespie, a student at RTS, and by William E. Hill, Jr., founder of the Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, an organization that was important to the subsequent formation of the PCA. The last article on this topic was by the editor of The Presbyterian Journal, Dr. G. Aiken Taylor, who wrote an editorial titled “Lo, the TR”. After that, three or four succeeding issues of the magazine displayed letters to the editor on the matter, with all sides (and then some) covered.
So here are the articles and letters from 1977 in an effort to provide some context for the current discussion, and to show that all of this is indeed nothing new under the sun. [admittedly this is a very long post, but I did want to tie all of this together, to keep it in context.]
This material appeared in The Presbyterian Journal over a two month period, from 9 March to 11 May, 1977, and in the following chronological order :
“Paragon of Orthodoxy,” by Dr. Jack B. Scott
“How to Reform the Church,” by David R. Gillespie
“The Faith in Perspective,” by William E. Hill, Jr.
“Lo, the TR,” by G. Aiken Taylor
“Mailbag: Letters to the Editor”
THE PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL, 35.45 (9 MARCH 1977): 9-10.
Is the truth of the Reformed faith still true when it is not loving?—
Paragon of Orthodoxy
JACK B. SCOTT
The author, professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Miss., is author of the Journal’s Sunday school lessons. This message originally was given as a seminary chapel talk.
The portion of Scripture taken from the first speech of Eliphaz to Job surely commends itself as a paragon of orthodoxy:
“But as for me, I would seek unto God, and unto God would I commit my cause: Who doeth great things and unsearchable; marvelous things without number: Who giveth rain upon the earth, and sendeth waters upon the fields: So that He setteth up on high those that are low; and those that mourn are exalted to safety.
“He frustrateth the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot perform their enterprise. He taketh the wise in their own craftiness: and the counsel of the cunning is carried headlong. They meet with darkness in the daytime, and grope at noonday as in the night.
“But He saveth from the sword of their mouth, even the needy from the hand of the mighty. So the poor hath hope, and iniquity stoppeth her mouth. Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty” (Job 5:8-17). First comes a clear call to seek God: “As for me, I would seek God” (v. 8). The prophets also called for men to seek God while He may be found. In the New Testament, our Lord likewise taught that we are to seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and seeking, we shall find.
Eliphaz praised God in clear, certain terms, speaking of the marvelous deeds of God, the unsearchable quality of God (vv. 9-16). Paul also concluded a part of his letter to the Romans with a clear statement of the unsearchable knowledge and wisdom of God (Rom. 11). Then Eliphaz spoke of the providence of God, of a God who gives rain on the earth and sends water upon the fields.
Next, he told of the exaltation of the lowly (v. 11), in words much like those of Hannah. When she received the answer to her earlier prayer for a son, Hannah praised God who exalts the lowly.
Eliphaz declared that God will and surely does oppose His enemies. He frustrates the devices of the crafty. Again, he declared that God overturns the wisdom of this world; Paul’s words in I Corinthians are not unlike these.
Eliphaz showed something of God’s love and concern for the needy: “Even the needy, He saves from the hand of the mighty, so the poor hath hope and iniquity stops her mouth” (w. 15-16).
He concluded this portion by exhorting Job and those listening to him to accept the correction of God: “Happy is the man whom God corrects, therefore, despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty.” These words, very much like those of Proverbs 3:11, are echoed in the New Testament. The author of Hebrews exhorts us all to accept the chastening of God, declaring that whom the Lord loves, He chastens (Heb. 12).
Thus it is with Eliphaz’ speech—sound, orthodox, solid theology! Right? Wrong!
Before this speech he heaped ridicule upon Job, “Now it is come unto thee, and thou faintest; it toucheth thee, and thou art troubled” (Job 4:5). He also was guilty of judging Job: “Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished, being innocent? Or where were the upright cut off? According as I have seen, they that plow iniquity, and sow trouble, reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of His anger are they consumed” (Job 4:7-9).
Here Eliphaz put himself in the place of God and made a judgment about Job, not understanding at all the real problem which Job faced. Looking at external circumstances, he immediately came to certain conclusions. He presumed that because Job was suffering—as he surely was suffering because of his circumstances—he was clearly displeasing God.
Taking the same truth which Paul later declared, “Whatsoever a man sows, that he will also reap,” Eliphaz reversed it and made of it something which cannot be upheld. He was saying, in effect, “When we see trouble in a man’s life, we can know that he’s getting what he justly deserves from God.” However, Eliphaz indicated that this wisdom had a source other than the Lord: “Now a thing was secretly brought to me, and my ears received the whisper thereof, and thoughts from the visions of the night” (Job 4:12-13). What he pronounced so eloquently was based on his visions, the whisperings, the secretly brought things. He also showed a facility for speaking to that which was not at issue: “Shall mortal man be more just than God? shall a man be more pure than his maker?” (Job 4:17). He spoke as though Job had affirmed this; of course Job had not. Eliphaz simply put up a straw man he could easily knock down.
Later Eliphaz’ speech moved into the realm of cruelty. “I have seen the foolish taking root: but suddenly I cursed his habitation. His children are far from safety, they are crushed in the gate, neither is there any to deliver them” (Job 5:3-4). “Job,” he was saying, “you just lost your children because of your sin. Because you sinned against God and displeased Him, you have been crushed and destroyed.” What a thing to say to a man who endured the great hardship and suffering of Job!
Finally, Eliphaz came to an arrogant, dogmatic conclusion: “Lo this, we have searched it, so it is; hear it, and know thou it for thy good”—as if to say, the last word has been said, the book is closed, this is it!
Elsewhere in the book of Job, God made His own assessment of these words: “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2), and He said to Eliphaz, “My wrath is kindled against thee and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath” (Job 42:7).
Eliphaz and his friends may have known many truths, but they did not know how to speak the truth in love, as Scripture requires of those called to speak the Word of God. Paul exhorted us to speak the truth in love, reminding us that we are about the business of building up the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in love (Eph. 4:15).
Now it pains me to say this, but I almost have come to the point where the term “TR” makes me sick! I don’t mean the concept. I believe that the concept of being thoroughly Reformed is a commitment everyone of us should have. I believe every seminary should stand for doctrines that are thoroughly Reformed. But that term “TR” has become heinous to those out in the Church. The two basic reactions to it are fear and laughter. In one week in two states, I have heard the term joked about and laughed at. I have talked to people who are filled with fear because of associations they have with that expression. And whether we like it or not, we have made it so. Shame on us! There’s nothing wrong with the term, but truth can never be honored when it is not spoken in love. You might even ask if it can still really be called truth.
James had a lot to say about the use of the tongue. “Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive the heavier judgment. For in many things we all stumble. If any man stumbleth not in word, the same is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body, also” (Jas. 3:1-2).
James was awed by his responsibility, and his “we” included himself. We who are called to the heavy responsibility of teaching the Word of God stand under a heavier judgment.
We are always in danger of stumbling in the Word, of bringing dishonor to God where we would bring honor, of bringing confusion in the minds and hearts of men where we would clarify, of bringing laughter and jokes when we would instead bring serious contemplation of the truth.
Eliphaz is a very good example of James’ illustration, “Doth the fountain send forth from the same opening sweet water and bitter?” (Jas. 3:11). Eliphaz did just that, praising God eloquently but condemning Job wrongly, speaking, as it were, the truth without love. This is not acceptable in the sight of God. Watch out, brethren! God’s Word admonishes us!
Moreover, in Churches and our congregations many people are grieved and fearful and hurt, although we did not intend it so. I stand second to no man in my devotion to orthodoxy and to the Reformed faith, like Paul who was not ashamed to call himself a Pharisee of the Pharisees.
Yet our Lord reserved some of the sharpest words of His earthly ministry for just such people. Because they did not know how to handle the truth, they did great damage to the Word of God and to the people of God.
There is nothing wrong with being thoroughly Reformed, but perhaps we need to keep in mind some other words of James. “Thou believest that God is one” (now, nothing is more orthodox than that!) “thou doest well: the demons also believe, and shudder” (Jas. 2:19).
There’s more to orthodoxy than technically correct words. Sound orthodoxy and thoroughly Reformed faith have to do with the life we live and the manner in which we teach the Word of God, and with the love in our hearts as we deal with people, speaking to them of the great mysteries of God’s revelation.
And it is incumbent upon us to do this in the way God’s Word says it must be done. When “TR” becomes synonymous in the minds of people with factious, cruel, arrogant, judgmental, abusive, overbearing, it’s time for us to take note and do something about it.
This is a call for all of us to search our souls, to repent if need be. We can do something; nobody else but us can do anything about this. We can make the term “thoroughly Reformed” a beautiful concept again among the people of God. I will even say, indeed we must do so.
THE PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL, 35.46 (16 MARCH 1977): 7.
If you want your people genuinely Reformed, deal gently and in the Spirit—
How To Reform the Church
DAVID R. GILLESPIE
The author is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Miss.
Nearly everywhere in the South in the two main Presbyterian denominations can be found many men whose chief desire is to reform their denominations and their individual congregations. They want the Presbyterian Church US or the Presbyterian Church in America to be confessional Churches, subscribing to the Reformed faith as it is presented in the Confession and Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly. More than they want a “broadly evangelical” or “conservative” Church, they want a Church which strives for purity in doctrine and practice—the Reformed faith.
The desire itself is to be heartily commended; in fact, the wish is entirely Biblical. How this can be accomplished, however, is a question which demands careful thought and close attention. Viewpoints vary, and much damage can be done in and to congregations and denominations if care is not used.
I think the Church can be reformed without needless division and hurt if we avoid two extreme positions in approaching the problem.
Certainly we cannot demand and should not expect immediate reformation, separating ourselves from all who fail to heed the call to reform. Many times in youthful zealousness, young pastors see their task to be the overnight transformation of their congregation from “conservative” to “Reformed” Christians.
The change would be a good one, of course, but no one should expect the transformation immediately. Just as people cannot be forced into receiving the Christian faith, they cannot be forced into embracing the Reformed faith or be given the ultimatum, “Shape up or ship out.”
On the other hand, a person true to the Reformed faith cannot be content to sit back and not seek the reformation of the Church, content merely with a congregation of “evangelical” members. If the Reformed faith is the purest form of Christianity, then all of us must seek its infusion into the people of God.
A study of Church history and the Scripture suggests two basic ways a reformation of the Church can be accomplished.
First, the reforming of the Church must be done by a gradual process of education. For example, let’s say most PCA members are very conservative but not Reformed in theology and practice. This was characteristic of these members long before they left the PCUS. On the whole, these people were not concerned with gaining an understanding of the Reformed faith; they were caught up in the battle in which lines were clearly and easily drawn: conservative versus liberal.
To put it as some see it, the situation is this: As a result of the theological climate during past generations, many Presbyterians just do not know the teaching and practice of the Reformed faith. They must be taught. But they must be taught slowly. One does not stuff a 12-ounce sirloin down the throat of a babe, and many members are babes regarding the Reformed faith. Some may even be hostile at first, choking on the Reformed teachings. Yet this is no reason to separate from them or to write them off as wild-eyed Arminians.
Hence I would plead with those who are and will be in teaching positions to learn to be patient, to be gentle, to love as you have been loved. Teach the congregations the Reformed faith; they need it, but give them a spoonful at a time.
Second, we who claim to follow men like Calvin and Kuyper have too often forgotten their great emphasis upon the work of the Holy Spirit. To reform the Church, we must pray that the eyes, ears and minds of our people will be opened so that God might convince them of the truth of the Reformed faith. To use Kuyper’s example, we must pray that the Spirit of God would produce that beautiful music upon the harp of the Reformed faith.
We must pray for ourselves, that God would grant us patience, love and concern, that He would teach us to lead our people gently, that He would grant us discernment as to where our people are and how we should lead them.
With these two thoughts in mind, the Church may indeed be reformed.
There is no need for bitterness, hatred and distrust to arise in the Church. PCUS and PCA congregations can become Reformed congregations in doctrine and practice. This will not happen if the babes are forced or ignored. They must be nurtured and taught slowly, with love. We must pray for and with them that the Holy Spirit will bring about this transformation which is reformation.
THE PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL, 35.46 (16 MARCH 1977): 8-9.
A distinguished Presbyterian minister appraises the care and use of Reformed distinctives—
The Faith in Perspective
by WILLIAM E. HILL JR.
The author served as pastor in the Presbyterian Church US and founder of the Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship. He is now retired and a member of the Presbyterian Church in America.
A noted Southern Presbyterian theologian of a bygone generation has given a clear and cogent description of the Reformed faith, and the differences between Arminianism and Calvinism in a little book entitled The Gospel as Taught by Calvin. Dr. R. C. Reed wrote briefly but to the point, and he also sounded a note of warning and caution:
“After all, it is largely a difference touching words and names. Arminians believe that the atonement is limited in its application to those who believe; Calvinists believe nothing more and nothing less.
“Inasmuch, however, as Calvinists believe that God makes the application, they say the atonement is limited in design as well as application. But there is nothing in their view to prevent their offering Christ to every sinner and assuring him, on the authority of God, that if he will accept, he shall be saved. ‘Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters.’
“This is good Calvinism; and if anyone holds to a Calvinism that does not square with the widest offers of God’s mercy, then he has gotten hold of a spurious article, and the sooner he flings it away the better. ‘Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.’ Any so-called Calvinism that does not chime with this sweet Gospel bell deserves to ‘be cast out, and to be trodden under the foot of men.’
“We ask for no leniency of judgment on any argument or inference that would tend to make the strait gate straiter, or the narrow way more narrow. Above all things, let us believe that ‘Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners,’ and that ‘him that cometh to him He will in nowise cast out.’ ”
My father, grandfather and great-grandfather, ministers in the Presbyterian Church, warmly embraced the Reformed faith and I fully concur with Dr. Reed’s thesis and warnings as they did.
Like them, I hold firmly to the Reformed faith by heritage, education and conviction. I learned the Shorter Catechism as a lad; in seminary I rememorized it as a part of a required course on the Westminster Standards, taught by a professor who had spent a lifetime teaching theology with emphasis upon the Reformed faith. Later I spent more than five years studying the Scriptures and teaching the Westminster documents to Sunday school teachers and officers. Thus I became a hearty advocate of the Reformed faith by conviction as well as by heritage and education.
Today we hear much discussion about the Reformed faith. Some of it comes from seminaries like Westminster, Reformed and Covenant. Good! But we ought to be very careful when we hear such talk to keep our views in proper perspective.
The term “Reformed faith” is not definitive. It has many variations in its use and meaning, running all the way from the form held by the Primitive Baptists, to the Dutch form with the famous five points of Calvinism, to the Scottish form which is distinctly Presbyterian.
Presbyterians in America, both North and South, held strongly to the last mentioned form until the Northern Church began to slip in the late twenties and thirties. The Southern Church soon followed, although it had held to a moderate Calvinism from its beginning through its first 75 years of life.
We find many variations of the meaning of “Reformed faith,” not only in denominations but also in great theologians. The two Hodges at Princeton disagreed between themselves on certain points, and also with Warfield, with Kuyper and the Dutch Reformed group. All these differed somewhat from the early Southern Presbyterian theologians, such as Dabney, Peck, R. C. Reed, J. B. Green and others.
None of these looked at the “Reformed faith” in exactly the same way. Indeed, the discussion about the proposed Book of Confessions—recently rejected by the Presbyterian Church US but already adopted in another form by the United Presbyterian Church USA—brings to light vast differences between the confessional statements of Reformed groups, the Dutch, the Scots, Huguenots and others.
The Westminster documents, embodying the Reformed faith, present the best summary ever written of the teachings of Scripture. Yet even the Westminster documents do not cover the whole teaching of the whole Scripture. In at least two important points, very vital teachings of Scripture are neglected. Although the Confession of Faith contains one chapter on God the Father and one on Christ the Redeemer, it has none on the person and work of the Holy Spirit.
The Westminster documents do say much about the Holy Spirit, His work in salvation and in Christian growth. But there is no complete chapter in these documents where the person and work of the Holy Spirit, as presented in the whole Scripture, are brought together to form a complete picture—and this despite what they teach (and we believe) about the Trinity, “these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.”
In a second vital omission, the Confession of Faith does not include the whole teaching of the whole Scripture about missions and evangelism.
Furthermore, adherents to the Reformed faith appropriately base some doctrines upon what they call “necessary, logical implications of the Scripture.” But the moment when we start talking about “logical implications,” we enter the human realm where the remnants of our fleshly natures can corrupt our thinking. That which is based on the clear teaching of the Scripture is divinely inspired; but anything based on man’s concept of “logical implications” is open to question.
Sometimes our Reformed faith loses its Biblical perspective. It does so if it opposes foreign missions and Sunday schools, as does the Primitive Baptist doctrine, or when it says, “I cannot tell a man God loves him because I don’t know if he is elect.”
Hair-splitting and quarreling are prevalent in Reformed circles. A casual glance at the history of Reformed Churches will show that the reputation they have gained through the years for being overly contentious is, sadly, all too well justified. This kind of faith fits rather well the old cliche, “. . . rather argue than eat.”
Biblical perspective is lacking when the Reformed faith lays almost exclusive preaching emphasis on teaching the Reformed faith but uses the Scripture only as a sort of proof text to support the main subject. If a seminary graduate conceives the major purpose of his ministry to be getting all the members of his church to understand and embrace the Reformed faith, he has somehow gotten off center. He is ignoring a higher priority—to teach the members of his congregation the Scriptures.
Students from some seminaries are thoroughly indoctrinated in the Reformed faith, and this is good. But many do not know the Scriptures nor how to apply them. People need to know Scripture before they can begin to understand the Reformed faith.
Being Reformed does not necessarily mean being a mature Christian, as some seem to imply. If the Reformed faith has value—and it does—all of that value is derived from the Scriptures and the place to start preaching and teaching is with the Scriptures, not with a system derived from them.
Recently, two young ministers whom I know personally have said to me, “I am starting to preach a sermon series on Sunday mornings on the five points of Calvinism. My new congregation does not seem to know too much about the Reformed faith.”
To both these ministers I replied, “Brother, you have gotten hold of the wrong end of things. What your people need to know is Scripture, and you should press diligently toward training your people in the Scriptures. Important though it may be, the Reformed faith is a derivative.”
The Reformed faith has lost its Biblical perspective when a church or a denomination becomes sterile. Strangely enough, extreme emphasis on the Reformed faith—without putting it into proper perspective—can and too often does result in spiritual sterility. Statistics on professions of faith can reveal a very sad picture. True, there are other causes of Church and congregational sterility, but failing to keep the Reformed faith in perspective can be and often is a major factor.
It is also possible for an adherent of the Reformed faith to use the term too often, like the very “Baptistic” Baptist who can hardly open his mouth without saying Baptist. We who know and love the Reformed faith should remember that this term is not used in the Bible. Any people we seek to influence can get to the place where they say, as one member said to me not long ago, “I am sick and tired of hearing about the Reformed faith. I am fed up to the ears with it.”
Thus we can tend to judge everything by how “Reformed” it is, rather than by Christ’s standards. By such an approach we can leave the impression that doctrinism is more important than Christ Himself. If we are not careful, we can glorify a theological system above the Head. When that happens, our interpretation of the system is out of focus.
Moreover, preoccupation with Reformed theology makes theological snobs of us and creates pressure groups within a denomination. We who hold the Reformed faith should do so with humility instead of being lifted up with pride, arrogance and bigotry. We need to humble ourselves, get down on our faces before God and mourn because of our own sins. The Reformed faith is out of perspective when pride takes over, when it becomes a point of contention which splits churches and denominations because of an arrogant and “holier than thou” attitude.
Finally, the Reformed faith has lost its Biblical perspective when it tends to rule out all whom we consider to be not truly Reformed. Many of our churches today are being split on this account, torn apart by ministers or elders who push the “Reformed” approach out of perspective. For instance, in two recent papers, the authors seemed to look upon the Reformed faith as representing some kind of perfectionism, and they opposed or pitied people who did not measure up to their idea of perfectionism.
Some try to rule out what God is doing through Billy Graham and Campus Crusade, saying they make salvation “too simplistic.” But we should beware lest our presentation becomes too complicated. It may not even touch base with the ordinary fellow, and even dedicated Christians are alienated as well, because they do not understand what the preacher is talking about.
Disagreements between those espousing the Reformed faith and other evangelical conservatives weaken the testimony of the Gospel. Such polarizations are unnecessary. “Reformed” and “evangelical” are not mutually exclusive nor should they be made so.
If we begin to think that our major mission in life is to “convert” sincere Christians of differing persuasions to the Reformed faith, we are out of perspective. Those who know the Reformed faith well can and do have deep convictions. We also need to have a becoming humility, not looking with pity or scorn upon Christian brethren who are not Reformed.
To keep our Reformed faith in perspective, we should remember that He who said, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” also said, “Ye should go and bring forth fruit” (John 15:16). Some suggest this fruit is the “fruit of the Spirit” mentioned in Galatians 5. If that were all, why did our Lord give us the word “go”? Polarization often occurs when one person does not understand another.
The evangelical should be willing to give close attention to the study of the Reformed faith. Likewise, the Reformed minister should try to understand evangelicals. The evangelical should be more evangelical because he is also Reformed. The Reformed man should also be more evangelical because he is Reformed. Too often, however, it does not seem to work this way. May God help us!
The Reformed faith is in proper Biblical perspective when it:
—Evangelizes vigorously, weeping over lost souls of men as did our Saviour over Jerusalem and is moved with compassion, as was our Lord when He saw the multitudes.
—Demonstrates becoming humility, “esteeming another better than self,” as the Apostle Paul said. Surely Reformed people ought to be more humble than people holding any other system of doctrine.
—Talks more of Christ than of the Reformed faith, and more of the Scripture than of doctrinal distinctives.
—Is more concerned for the salvation of a man’s soul than for teaching him the intricacies and details of what is “truly Reformed.”
—Brings forth much fruit. We who are Reformed should not forget that He who said, “I came to save the lost” also said, “I came to seek the lost.” We must follow the example of the Apostle Paul who said, “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men, for the love of Christ constraineth us, as though God did beseech you by us,
we pray you in Christ’s stead, be reconciled to God” (II Cor. 5:11, 14, 20).
Our Lord also said, “Herein is my father glorified, in that ye bring forth much fruit and that your fruit should remain.” We who make much of the sovereignty of God and declare the chief end of man is to glorify God must never forget that God is most glorified by our bringing forth “much fruit.” Our Lord, remember, cursed the barren fig tree.
—Preaches the Gospel in simplicity and in the Spirit as our Lord did, not as a demonstration of our scholarship or intellect. The seminaries should turn out men with burning hearts, not men educated away from the people; men with a passion for souls, not just intellectuals.
Brethren, let us glory not so much in the Reformed faith as in the cross of Christ by which we are crucified to the world and the world to us (Gal. 6:14).
The Christian faith is balanced in every respect. Every passage of Scripture has its balance. Error in interpretation occurs when we lose sight of that balance. God is one and yet three persons. Christ our redeemer has two natures, but one in person. Salvation comes by faith but faith is dead if works do not follow.
God’s sovereignty in election is balanced by man’s responsibility. When things get out of balance in any one of these paradoxes, they are out of perspective and error results. The same is true of the Reformed faith. It is good, but when it gets out of perspective, it can work much mischief.
Brethren, let us keep our Reformed faith in perspective, just as we claim to do carefully in interpretation of the Scriptures.
THE PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL, 35.47 (23 MARCH 1977): 9-10, 20.
Some open thoughts about beliefs, and zeal, and strategy—
Lo, the TR!
[The Rev. G. Aiken Taylor served as editor of The Presbyterian Journal from 1959 until 1983]
Recently, I spent a weekend with a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America that had just severed its connection with its pastor under other than cordial circumstances. The issue which brought final disruption was the one we have tried to speak to with articles and editorials in recent issues of the Journal: the effect of a TR (Truly Reformed) ministry on the average congregation.
The church I visited is a typical, medium-sized congregation of middle-class people with the average proportion of tares and wheat—sheep and goats, if you please—in its membership. However, as a congregation it has had a long and distinguished record of Christian witness, of evangelism and of sons and daughters in full-time Christian service.
Along comes a typical representative of the TR position. He had been on the field but a very short time when the congregation’s rotation system brought up a new election of elders. One of those reelected was a man with a previously distinguished record of service on the Session. His family were active in all church affairs and he was known as a pillar of the congregation.
In the course of preparatory conversations, it came out that the newly elected elder admitted to premillennial tendencies. That did it. “Your views have been condemned as heresy by the Church,” he was told by the new minister, who went on to say that he had no intention of installing him as an elder.
As the months passed, other things came up, in addition to the usual failings so often besetting the ministry today—such as not bothering to come to Sunday school and little or no pastoral visitation. For example, the minister made a point of witnessing to his disapproval of Christmas celebrations. When members of the congregation wanted to give his children presents at Christmas time, he would allow them to accept the presents but only on the condition that they were not to be called Christmas gifts.
His public condemnation of a Christmas pageant presented by some group in the church—he called it “trash”—created ominous rumblings throughout the congregation.
He strongly disapproved of women having anything to say on the floor of congregational meetings. Not in an instructional capacity, mind you—in a congregational business meeting.
He set strict Biblical standards for officers. When one man was elected to the session who, in his opinion, did not reflect exemplary leadership in his professional and business affairs (he had changed jobs rather frequently) he refused to ordain him. At one point a class of officers could not be filled because none of the men elected met the minister’s standards.
To emphasize the total sovereignty of God, he once told his congregation that if he had some way of knowing that some person was not listed among the elect, he wouldn’t waste his time preaching the Gospel to that man.
What brought things to a head was a meeting with the Session in which he announced that the officers would have to join with him in “disciplining” the congregation. The time had come, he said, for the people to shape up or ship out—or the church could have his resignation.
The church promptly accepted the offer and a parting of the ways occurred—the pastor leaving without a call elsewhere.
I think this episode is full of lessons for those who have the ears to hear. In the first place, there is nothing wrong with a desire to have a truly Reformed testimony—a pure church. Every congregation worth its salt has a nucleus of truly dedicated people who could be formed into such a church—if that is the way one goes about establishing the Church. The minister in question at one point even hinted to one supporter on the Session that between the two of them they could gather a nucleus and have such a church.
But if the nucleus of dedicated Christians which can be found in every church constitutes the body and everyone else must “shape up or ship out,” you can count on one thing for sure: The congregation from thenceforth will be small.
Congregations of any significant size anywhere include many who do not really identify with the dedicated, knowledgeable nucleus. I have heard ministers say that they sometimes wonder if 10 per cent of their congregations really know what committed Christianity is all about. Confronted with such congregations, two schools of thought offer two different solutions: One says, purge the rolls and build the church on the committed nucleus, even if the result is a small, “house church” which never grows significantly; the other says, develop the church on the basis of “whosoever will may come,” realizing all the while that there may be many in the congregation who have professed faith in Jesus Christ but for whom the Reformed faith is pure Greek.
I would not here try to defend either of these approaches against the other. But I would point out that the minister who views his mission as that of “fencing” the congregation—of weeding out a purified body, a committed assembly, a “disciplined” fellowship, will experience results that most certainly thenceforth and forever will be small.
The minister who moves into the average existing congregation of any size with the determination to bring about such results can count on it: The fallout will be spectacular.
It’s a bit like the problem faced by the girl who has made her choice of men and has planned the wedding—except that the intended bride-groom has several minor faults that she feels sure she can correct after the knot has been tied. He’s a bum and she is going to turn him into a gentleman—just you wait and see!
Everyone who has been there knows how that marriage will turn out. It will be a disaster. If a girl wants a gentleman for a husband, she had better seek out a gentleman, or else soundly (and genuinely) convert her intended before she marries him.
If a minister is out to separate unto himself a congregation which abhors the idea of celebrating Christmas, he can accomplish the purpose in one of two ways: start from scratch and seek out people who abhor Christmas and assemble them together; or barge into a congregation which relishes its annual Christmas pageants and try to persuade them that Christmas is of the devil.
By either method, he will wind up with some followers. But if the latter method is tried, there will be spectacular wreckage strewn about—if, that is, the minister is not first run off as was the young man whose story we told at the beginning.
I am not here discussing the merits or demerits of celebrating Christmas. I do have some opinions on the subject, but that is another story. Here I am talking about the heart of the TR issue itself: the propriety or the impropriety of assuming that it is one’s calling of the Lord to approach a congregation (or a presbytery or a denomination) with a determination to “discipline the body” until all of its parts have shaped up or shipped out.
There may be validity in such an objective. But the task becomes complicated if the people you are working with not only have failed to measure up to what they know they should be, they have not been converted to your point of view in the first place. In such cases there may be reason to dwell on the Scriptural injunction that the man of God should be “all things to all men in order that by all means he might win some.”
I do not mean to suggest that the man of God should deliberately undertake a ministry of walking in the counsel of the ungodly, standing in the way of sinners and sitting in the seat of the scornful. But if you have certain convictions and the people you work with do not share those convictions (whether fellow presbyters, or members of the flock), you have a selling job as well as a disciplining job.
It is barely possible that in your zeal to make everyone in the Church a staunch defender of your understanding of the Reformed faith you have forgotten that your assignment is as much of a missionary assignment as it is a disciplinary assignment. In any case, it certainly will not be accomplished by stacking committees, politicizing appointments and passing resolutions.
William Carey and Adoniram Judson knew what it was to labor for years between converts. Assuming that your objectives are the Lord’s own, do you think whole congregations can be converted overnight?
But—you say—these people already profess to be Christians and Presbyterians. We simply are showing them “the more excellent way.”
Perhaps. But the more excellent way, according to my Bible, is that of love. Pasting the label of heretic on a congregation, wholesale, is a hard thing to do in love.
In my opinion, the young man whose story constituted the first part of this account would have difficulty taking the oversight of any congregation of God’s people. Because of his views? No, although we would be glad to open the Scriptures and debate with him some of his views. He would have trouble, in our opinion, because he hasn’t learned that the commandment not to offend one of Christ’s little ones is fully as incumbent upon him as the commandment to feed His sheep.
Sometimes, in conversation with one of these people, the Apostle Paul is lifted up as a model of the strict disciplinarian. Didn’t Paul tell the Corinthians to straighten up? Didn’t he threaten to come to them with a “rod” if they didn’t heed his apostolic warnings?
True. But let’s not forget that the letters to the Corinthians were written to Christians whom the apostle had “begotten in the Lord.” He was their spiritual father to begin with. He had led them to Christ and he specifically makes reference to the unique relationship between them. Here were spiritual children who had turned aside from fidelity to what the apostle had laid to their charge in the first place. It wasn’t a congregation of people converted, nurtured and pastored by Peter that Paul descended upon with the intention of “whipping them into shape.” When he wrote to the Romans, it was in an entirely different mood: “I beseech you therefore, brethren . . . !”
The typical TR in trouble with his congregation is a young man, inexperienced in the pastorate, poking his finger in the face of a godly elder old enough to be his father and either figuratively or literally pronouncing, “You, sir, are a heretic!” Of that the Lord will not hold him guiltless.
To be sure there are two sides to this coin. In many a situation, the position of leadership was long occupied by a minister who stood for nothing, who tolerated everything and come heresy or apostasy managed to get along with everyone—including the hierarchy of a Church over whose portals the word Ichabod, “The Glory Hath Departed,” was clearly written. Such ministries often preceded those now leaving the people gasping with shock.
Moreover, wasn’t the Presbyterian Church in America (where most of the problem we are talking about exists) formed out of congregations willing to react to the point of separation against rampant liberalism? Would not such congregations be receptive to a truly Reformed ministry?
A truly Reformed ministry, perhaps. But not a TR ministry. It is one thing to react against a situation in which the Bible is ignored, the Gospel is perverted and Christ is dishonored; it is quite another thing to adjust to a religion which to the uninitiated appears as strait-jacketed as that of the strictest Pharisee.
If it is un-Reformed to give a Gospel invitation; if it is heresy to tell an unsaved person God loves him; if an Arminian is no better off than one who denies the deity of Christ; if a woman cannot give her opinion in a congregational meeting; if Christmas is of the devil; if the Holy Spirit bestows no special gifts today; if an elder who has served twenty years must be expelled from the Session because he admits to being a premillennialist; if a child may not be baptized because the parents have not submitted themselves to the discipline of that particular
congregation—if all these, I say, are of the essence of what the Church must stand for (and I do not for one moment acknowledge that they are) —then at the very least the truly Reformed spokesman should approach his assignment the way a women’s liberationist might feel moved to address a meeting of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Male Chauvinists. That is, treading very lightly.
Mailbag: Letters to the Editor of The Presbyterian Journal
THE PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL 35.50 (13 APRIL 1977): 3-4
FOR REFORMED ONLY :
After your excellent article “Lo, the TR!” (March 23 issue), I want to tell you the PCA is not alone. Other denominations are plagued with ministers (usually young and inexperienced) who sound as if they believe their call to preach “J.C.” means John Calvin—not Jesus Christ.
It is encouraging that a group concerned with doctrinal standards is advocating a return to Biblical bases for their theology. Too often, however, they select obscure proof texts from Scripture to support their actions while ignoring weightier portions such as “Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters” or “. . . and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” and “for whosoever believeth . . .” or “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden.”
The message of Christ is great joy to all people. The Rev. E. Gettys wrote this about the founding fathers of today’s Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church: “The Erskines were noted as the champions of a free Gospel and rarely preached without making a free offer of grace to all without distinction. They did not discard the doctrine of election, but told their hearers that ‘It was a matter with which they had no more concern than with what men are doing in Mexico or Peru.’”
Hopefully as time passes, most of the TRs will mature and mellow in Christian character and common sense—and common courtesy will prevail in their relationships. This, however, is little comfort to a congregation torn apart by “mote pickers” in their effort to purify the Church.
We should all remember that the Church is the bride of Christ, and if someone wants to get into real trouble with a man, just start messing with his bride.
I would like to say “Amen!” to the article “The Faith in Perspective” by William E. Hill Jr. and the editorial “There’s More to It Than Orthodoxy” (Journal, March 16). Being a member of a church which is going through the same controversial situations described in the article, I can truly appreciate the author’s words.
Many of us who have been Presbyterians most of our lives are being made to feel as if we’re in the wrong Church. It seems that the only doctrine many of our young ministers want us to know is that God chose us before the foundation of the world—period!
It doesn’t seem to matter to them about the doctrine of Christ’s salvation for sinners who believe in Him, or at least that seems to be only secondary. Anyone who holds to any variation of this strongly Reformed doctrine just does not belong in the Presbyterian faith. Instruction in righteousness can’t be preached unless the words are written in the Bible specifically.
Many of us are beginning to get the impression that it is all right to drink a little, smoke a little, see some dirty movies—in general, sin a little. Just believe in the doctrine of election and you will be saved.
If the Presbyterian (Reformed) faith is going to be what some of these ministers insist it is, then the Church should see that we have no Bibles to read for ourselves; it should set up an interpreter, such as a Presbyterian Pope, to instruct members how to conform.
Also, the use of all Christian literature other than Reformed and all TV sets should be discouraged so that we cannot ever be influenced by dynamic Christians who may have “everything wrong.”
I may be wrong, but I get the impression from the Bible that the mission of the Church is to take the good news to the dying world. When we as a Church take our eyes off our first love, our candlestick is in danger of being removed (Rev. 2:4-5).
Thank you again for that article. We all need to pray that God will show us the way to help our Church and to love one another.
We are withholding the names of the writers of these letters, not to protect them but to protect the ministers who may be identified and thus involved.
ACROSS THE EDITOR’S DESK
• From the mail across the desk, recent issues of the Journal and especially those dealing with questions of Reformed orthodoxy have generated a great deal of interest. Most of our correspondents seem to believe this is an internal matter affecting the Presbyterian Church in America. Not at all. It has been lurking in the background of the experience of some conservative denominations for a long while. For those of you valued readers who are more or less impatiently wondering if “the other side” will be heard, rest assured that it will. Next week we will publish three very candid, very helpful and very fine statements by ministers who wrote in reaction to material that already has appeared.
THE PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL 35.51 (20 APRIL 1977): 2-3.
DIRTY LINEN? :
It is very seldom that I write negatively concerning articles and editorials in the Journal. But having read your article, “Lo, the TR!” (March 23), I cannot restrain myself.
The detailed description of the problems of a local church in the PCA and its former minister should never have been spread publicly like dirty linen for all to read. Our denomination is far too small and the details are so precise! And in speaking of details, one cannot help wonder if the minister in question was consulted before the article was published.
Personally I found the article very offensive. And the straw that broke the camel’s back was the statement, “Along comes a typical representative of the TR position.” If the facts are true as presented, I certainly would not condone the alleged ministerial behavior. However, I wasn’t there and I don’t know whether reference was made to historic premillennialism or dispensational premillennialism.
In the matter of Christmas celebrations, it is my judgment that these are to be left to the area of Christian liberty and not forced upon another. I didn’t hear the sermon with the statement regarding God’s elect. However, if in fact things happened as reported I would deplore such behavior.
Some would label me as a TR, although labels disturb me greatly. And I do not believe that I would have reacted as it is reported this minister reacted on any of these issues. But to state that this minister in question represents a typical TR position on the facts presented is just not true!
I have not always agreed with my brethren who are labeled TR. I am sure some Reformed people have acted unbecomingly. I am also sure that some Arminians have acted unbecomingly. And I’m just as sure that people of every walk and belief act unbecomingly at certain times. But to put all of us who desire to see our own Church become more Reformed by conforming daily to Scriptural truth in the same bucket with alleged irresponsibility is very offensive.
— (Rev.) William C. Hughes
Yazoo City, Miss.
TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER :
Your article in the March 23 issue of the Journal entitled, “Lo, the TR!” is most appreciated. There are some who find it necessary to launch mini-inquisitions against brothers and sisters in the Lord, even within their own congregations, in the name of TR. Such activity clearly indicates an absence of pastoral love and understanding, and it unfortunately results in a poor witness to the world.
In his book, The Reformed Pastor, Richard Baxter wrote these words: “The whole course of our ministry must be carried on in tender love to our people. We must let them see that nothing pleases us except that which profits them. They must see that that which does them good also does us good, that nothing distresses us more than their hurt.”
As we perform our pastoral responsibilities of evangelism and discipleship, we must be careful to maintain a positive attitude toward our work, and experience to our fullest the love of God as we share it with those people whom He has entrusted to our care. Those who prefer to be identified as TR should make every effort to remain “Truly Reformed” by the grace of God, and not “Totally Repugnant” by the nature of man.
— (Rev.) John D. Bennett
Fort Howard, Md.
ANOTHER CONSIDERATION :
Several consecutive issues of the Journal have strongly criticized a movement which has labeled itself “Truly Reformed.” It is important to emphasize that there is within the Churches a much larger group of people who do not identify themselves with the TR movement as such, but are as consistently Reformed in their theological position and share the concern that the Churches bear a more distinctively Reformed testimony than they do at present.
We do not hold to their extreme positions (for example, we do not believe that opposition to all forms of Christmas observance is an essential of the Reformed faith), and we believe that the truth must be presented with love and patience.
It will be unfortunate if Journal readers apply your criticisms to all those of self-conscious and earnest Calvinistic conviction within the PCA, and if the effect is to push the PCA more into the direction of a bland general evangelicalism.
— (Rev.) Donald A. Dunkerley
ACROSS THE EDITOR’S DESK :
• This issue of the Journal contains three helpful and complementary articles from Presbyterian ministers who have written in reaction to recent treatments of the so-called TR (“Truly Reformed”) phenomenon in the Churches. We believe nothing but good can come from these exchanges. Most of those who have written us in recent weeks seem to assume that this is a matter peculiar to the life of the Presbyterian Church in America. Not so. Presbyterians have wrestled with this problem since the “dividing times” in Scotland when as many as 40 different groups in that tiny country claimed exclusive rights to being The True Church. To this day, Reformed people more than any other have trouble deciding what to do with trends rooting in or leading to heresy. But some day, God willing, there will be a helpful solution proposed to the problem of the storied Scottish minister who told his wife: “All the world be heretic save me and thee. And sometimes I have my doubts about thee!”
• One additional misconception appears in most of the mail across the desk in response to recent issues of the Journal. The so-called TR problem is not one of convictions held but rather of offense given and damage done by convictions held. There’s a difference. Innumerable ministers of strict Reformed (Calvinistic) persuasion have effective, fruitful ministries in congregations blessed by the faithful proclamation of the Word. We probably could name a hundred. The TR is a special breed, some of whom, for reasons that are not altogether clear, manage to wreak havoc in their place of service. The question: Why?
THE PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL 35.52 (27 APRIL 1977): 3
EXERCISE MORE CARE :
With reference to a current topic of interest, I would like to make some observations occasioned by the recent article, “Lo, the TR,” (March 23 Journal). I feel that it is not enough to tell the TR in an impersonal article that he must deal gently with God’s people, or that he must deal with them in love. He probably thinks his position and approach are justified, and indeed might even argue that his application of stern discipline is an expression of his love for his people. I feel that we should rather recognize the problem and its cause and offer some tangible suggestions.
The problem can be partially solved by seminaries having tighter admission and graduation policies. That is, they could refuse to admit a student until he had been out of school for a year or two in order to find out what life is like outside the halls of ivy. Also, candidates could have a year’s clinical work as a requirement for graduation.
However, it is really not the seminary’s place to determine who is fit for the ministry. The seminary’s place is to educate. The fault, therefore, when TRs become a problem in the Church, does by no means lie completely with the seminaries. The main fault, and this will not be very popular, lies with the presbyteries.
The presbyteries could exercise far more control over their candidates than they presently do. Very few presbyteries exercise their responsibilities toward candidates as outlined in the Book of Church Order, 19-4, 19-5, 19-6. If the procedures outlined therein were exercised with diligence, then extreme cases of TR-ism could be nipped in the bud.
There is one other thing the presbyteries could do. The General Assembly could be overtured to amend the BOCO so that no seminary graduate would be ordained until he had served one year as a licentiate under the guidance of a session, or as an assistant to a pastor of a larger church. A man’s tendency toward extremism could be recognized in that year and appropriate action taken by the presbytery.
If the presbyteries are not willing to exercise that oversight and loving discipline which is theirs to exercise, then they should not be surprised to have immaturity and extremism in their midst.
The author, a seminary student, asked us to withhold his name.—Ed.
THE PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL 36.2 (11 MAY 1977): 2.
MORE THAN FIVE POINTS :
I was grieved because your article “Lo, the TR!” (March 23 Journal) showed how a few overzealous TRs can actually work ill for Reformed theology. In my admittedly limited contact with TRs, I firmly believe that such are the exception rather than the rule among the TRs.
I do find a very serious fault with the TRs, which is really shared by many non-TRs too. This is a fault that I found emphasized by the first letter (Name Withheld) in the April 13 Journal. That is the tendency to spell Reformed theology “TULIP” rather than “the whole counsel of God.” First, the Five Points should be seen in balance. Unconditional election really is a glorious truth in view of man’s total inability, for “whosoever believeth” is really nobody unless God takes the initiative (irresistible grace—check Eph. 2:8-9).
The Five Points of Calvinism are a necessary part of Reformed theology. (Indeed there is no logically consistent middle ground here. To straddle the fence between Calvinism and Arminianism is an abomination to both.) But we also need to remind ourselves that there is much more to Reformed theology than the Five Points.
Though we may see some of the Five Points in infant baptism, it is the Reformed view of the covenant that is the basis of our Scriptural reasoning for it. God’s attributes are also a basic part of Reformed theology, which are only partially expressed in the Five Points. To this can be added the doctrine of the Trinity, rule by elders, and the authority of Scripture.
So let’s stop selling Reformed theology short by saying so-and-so is Truly Reformed when he asserts the Five Points. That really is like saying someone is Truly Trinitarian when he asserts that there is only one God.
—John F. Schultz
[and that’s the end of this really long post!]