A good friend in Charleston recently asked the question “What does it mean to be Reformed?” That question sparked this most recent series on AwakeningGrace which I suspect will go on for several weeks if not months.
Access Part I
Access Part II
Access Part III
In my last post I noted that there are many sources from which the Christian can learn about God. The Christian can learn about God from his pastor, from friends, from thoughtful Christian writers, and of course from the Bible. The Bible then is but one of many sources we can go to in order to learn about God. What then differentiates the Bible from these sources? In the last post I cited the Apostle Peter who writes that in the Bible we have something “more sure” than anywhere else. He goes on to say that only in the Bible do men speak “from God” (2 Pet 1.19-21). This is essentially what distinguishes the Bible from all other sources.
What are we then to make of those other sources? The answer of the Reformed Christian is complex, however I will try and distill my answer to three easy headings. In short, those extra-Biblical sources which speak about God are (1) helpful, (2) flawed, (3) need to be tested against Scripture.
Extra-Biblical sources can be helpful in learning about God. If one were to look to certain sources over others, historically the Reformed Church has shown a preference for the early church fathers and the ecumenical councils as particularly helpful sources of guidance in understanding the Scriptures and learning about God. For example John Calvin writes:
I venerate them (the fathers and the councils) from my heart, and desire that they be honored by all (Inst IV.IX.I).
So too, John Owen, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University (1652-1659) writes:
they (the fathers) loved not their lives unto death, but poured out their blood, like water, under all the pagan persecutions, which had no other design but to cast them down and separate them from the impregnable rock, this precious foundation. In defense of (Christ) they did conflict in prayers, studies, travels, and writings against swarms of seducers by whom they were opposed. (Owen’s Works, Vol I pg 6)
Owen goes on to show the high esteem by which he held the early church fathers by claiming to confirm his writing by their testimony, which he does by citing the fathers extensively (Over 50 references to the fathers in the first 10 pages).
The point I’m eager to make here is that the early Reformed had a very high view of tradition and its importance. They didn’t see themselves in discontinuity with historical Christianity, but in continuity with it.
Alongside tradition, the early Reformed had a high regard for the voice of the gathered church. It was for this reason that Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury pleaded for an ecumenical council in London, where the Protestant Churches of Europe could gather together to seek God’s will for the reformation of the church. Though this large ecumenical gathering never occurred, small gatherings such as those at Dordt, Westminster, Heidelberg and many others produced a “common mind” on several important theological issues.
The modern Reformed continue to look to the early church and the Reformed confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries as excellent extra-Biblical sources. Reformed Christians at their best have recognized the helpful contributions of fiction, poetry, music, art, philosophy and science as good tools for reflecting on God and humanity as well.
I venerate them (the fathers and the councils) from my heart, and desire that they be honored by all. But here the norm is that nothing of course detract from Christ. Now it is Christ’s right to preside over all councils and to have no man share his dignity. But I say that he presides only when the whole assembly is governed by his word and Spirit. (Inst IV.IX.I).
The full quote from Calvin above indicates that while Calvin had a high view of the fathers and the councils, he nevertheless placed limits upon their authority. This is fairly typical of the Reformed approach to tradition, as Article XXI of the Church of England’s Articles of Religion makes clear:
Councils…may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.
Here we are reminded that it is in Scripture alone where it is believed that words are uttered “from God.” All other words uttered about God are subject to the words uttered from God. The two quotes above indicate that sometimes the former fails to measure up.
The caution expressed towards councils in the above quote from the Thirty-Nine Articles accomplishes two things. First, it forces the institution of the church to take on a posture of humility. After all, if we are ready to admit that the great Christians of the past may have made mistakes, what will prevent us from making mistakes as well? This is why the Reformed Christians long ago adopted the slogan Semper Reformanda or “always reforming.” When this becomes more than a slogan, when it becomes a deeply held principle, it ideally works humility and introspection at an institutional level in the life of the church.
The second thing that the above quote accomplishes is that it works humility and introspection within the life of the individual Christian and makes us aware of our need for the larger Body of Christ. If great theologians, gathered in prayer and study of scripture can make mistakes, then surely it is more than a possibility that I will make mistakes as well in my private Bible study! In the awareness of my own weak grasp of scripture, and the fallibility of my mind and heart, I’m driven towards the church and its councils not away from it. Far from “it’s just me and my Bible,” I’m driven to say me, my Bible, and the church of God!
Must be tested against Scripture
If extra-Biblical sources are helpful, and yet can be flawed, how then are we to use them? The short answer is that all sources must be measured against the bar of Scripture. This means that Christians must endeavor to become more familiar with the Word of God than they are with words about God. J.C. Ryle compares the person who spends more time reading words about God than God’s words to a ship without ballast, “tossed to and fro, like a cork on the waves” (Practical Religion pg 135). So extra-Biblical sources must be read in such a way that their claims are continually brought before Scripture. However, I would hasten to add, that extra-Biblical sources must be approached with the charity of mind that the author, not yourself, may have something admirable to contribute to your understanding of God.
If you’re wondering what extra-Biblical sources may prove helpful to you, I humbly offer the following. The list below is not meant to be exhaustive. I simply wanted to give a little head start without being overwhelming. Also, by and large I wanted the works to be accessible and devotional in nature. As best as I can remember, I’ve endeavored to put these in chronological order, although I make no promises:
Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans: Note that this is not a commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, but is actually a letter from Ignatius to the Church in Rome. Utterly humbling. Written on the eve of his martyrdom, Ignatius has given himself over to the glory of Christ. He instructs his church not to rescue him and rob him of the martyr’s crown.
Athanasius On the Incarnation of the Word: Perhaps one of, if not the most important work of the early church on Christology. Not the best start for the beginner but definitely worth working up to.
Ambrose On Repentance: A beautiful, devotional work that is both memorable and highly accessible for the lay person. It is also relatively short! This was personally helpful to me as I was struggling with sin after conversion.
Augustine, Confessions: What can I say? I’ve read, re-read, and re-read this worship inspiring work of Augustine. One of the few works of the early church that I have memorized large portions of.
Middle and Medieval:
Anselm Why God Became Man: At times a bit tedious for the beginner, it is nevertheless worth digging into for its novel understanding of how Christ satisfies our debt to God.
Dante Alighieri The Inferno: Undoubtedly his most famous, this is nevertheless part one of his three part Divine Comedy. As I read this the first time I could not help but notice it is highly Augustinian in its approach to salvation, which makes it a striking precursor of the Reformation several hundred years earlier than expected. You must put this book on your “bucket list.”
Pearl: The name of the author is unfortunately lost to us. This medieval poem is highly complex, touching on issues of grief, grace, redemption, and reward. In one memorable scene, the narrator resists the idea that God’s grace freely and equally rewards all who receive it. All in all a tremendous read from this period.
Martin Luther Commentary on Galatians: Accessible, Gospel centered, offensive, over the top, amazing! Read, re-read, re-read.
John Calvin Institutes on the Christian Religion: It will take monumental effort on your part to wade into this heavy, two volume theological masterpiece. It was the number one bestselling Christian book of Reformation Europe. I’ve been compelled to memorize large portions of this as well!
John Bunyan The Pilgrim’s Progress: It is embarrassing to admit that I read this for the first time only recently. If my memory serves me correct, it is the best selling book of all time apart from the Bible. You should pick it up and see what all the fuss is about. I couldn’t put it down and this Citadel grad found himself fighting back tears at the end of Christiana’s journey.
John Donne The Complete English Poems: O.k., some of the poems in this volume are XXX rated and you shouldn’t read them unless you have a bucket of cold water handy. However, towards the end of this volume you will encounter his Divine Poems, which make my heart ache for God. Apparently Donne underwent a conversion experience that turned his intense passion for women to an intense passion for the Triune God.
John Milton Paradise Lost: If nothing else read it for your own good! I re-read this in 2008 for the 400th anniversary as I’m sure you all did. If you haven’t bought a copy, make sure you get the edition with C.S. Lewis’ preface and accompanying essays.
G.K. Chesterton Orthodoxy: A wonderfully engaging book that admirably defends the Christian faith against the growing secularism in Europe.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer Discipleship: Though not personally my favorite Bonhoeffer book, I think it is the most easily recognized. I cannot recommend it without a word of caution. I’ve known many Christians who have picked this book up as a call to Discipleship, thus turning it into a tool for legalism. Read the first chapter more closely, you’ll see that only the Lord himself can call disciples, thus discipleship is always and can never be anything more than a gracious gift from Jesus Christ.
C.S. Lewis The Space Trilogy: O.k., perhaps I’m not playing fair. I listed Bonhoeffer’s most popular book but failed to do so with Lewis. Oh well! I listed the Space Trilogy because I find it terribly engaging. The second volume of Lewis’ three volume trilogy is essentially a reflection on Gen 1-3. You will learn much about God, yourself, and the devil by reading these books. They are highly neglected in my opinion.
I’m afraid to go further I would have to list living authors and theologians. I’ve already broken my rule by listing theologians who were alive in the past three hundred years so I must stop now. The point of this post ultimately is to get you in the Scriptures but also engaging with God glorifying extra-Biblical sources that I have found personally helpful. To that end, I hope I accomplish my goal!