As Dan mentioned in a previous post, David Fitch has directly addressed why he thinks the Reformed tradition will ultimately not be missional in our context. I want to make a few brief comments on this arguments.
Here is a selection of what he said:
Many years later however, transplanted into the United States, Reformed theology has nothing to reform. The “sola’s” are left standing alone as the foundation for a Christian life together. This worked for many years as long as the cultural consensus came along with the Reformed communities from Europe. But once the Reformed culture began to lose its hegemony within a given context (whether it be the Dutch in Grand Rapids, Swiss or Scottish Presbyterian cultures of the north etc.), the church’s life will devolve into individualism. We get a.) individualist interpretation of Scripture where I – “the individual” becomes the authority for what Scripture means, b.) decisionism – where salvation becomes an individualist transaction all about me where by faith I get pardon for sin and eternal life, and c.) the church becomes the invisible church, a collection of individuals to whom the church must now appeal to.
What This Means for Mission
This is important for me because I contend such an individualism works against the church taking up a communal, incarnational particpation in God’s Mission in the world. In relation to a.) such individualism too often makes the church an ideologizing entity which uses Scripture as prooftexts to rally people around one position over against another. We turn into a defensive and/or antagonistic people. We do this because we no longer see the church’s role in guiding interpretation. As a result we lose our ability to come together as a people in submission to one another to discern interpretation of texts for new issues we face in the culture. In relation to b.) salvation becomes an individual transaction for me instead of something God is doing in the world to make all things right in which I participate through conversion. We make Jesus private. We lose Mission. And in relation to c.) church becomes eventually something that we must offer as appealing to individuals. We set ourselves up for attractional and/or consumer church. We lose the ability to be shaped by church into a way of life in God’s Mission in the world.
He then addresses the criticism that the Reformed theology he is talking about is a kind of neo-pietism, and not classical Reformed theology. His response is to suggest that this neo-pietistic variety of Reformed theology is precisely the natural outworking of the solas without a Christendom context.
(1) I think it would be useful for Fitch to grapple with the argument of Alister McGrath’s book, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, which I blogged about some time ago. McGrath argues that the genius, and, perhaps one could say, the missional engine driving Protestantism’s continuous adaptation, contextualization, and outreach, is the principle of sola scriptura: that ultimately every individual has to face only the scriptures as their ultimate authority. However some Protestants today might like to deny this, I think it is inescapable that an individualist thrust is a part of Protestantism at its heart. But unlike both those Protestants and Fitch, I do not think this is unambiguously problematic. On the contrary, I think the individualism of Protestantism, while leaving it vulnerable to problems, is also one of its greatest assets. It makes the church more open to mission, not less, to be open to the Spirit wherever He might speak (even if it is in an individual against a communal consensus).
(2) Since he grants that classical Reformed theology is not identical to modern neo-pietism, and he recognizes (indeed, emphatically argues) that classic Reformed theology is a Christendom theology, it seems problematic for him to then argue that Reformed theology is anti-missional. Oliver O’Donovan, Peter Leithart, and others, have suggested that mission to the magistrates, with the goal of their conversion to a Christian statecraft, is actually just a part of mission, which would mean that Christendom is actually a successful missional venture. One can argue with this, but I do get the sense that Fitch has stipulated that “missional” = pacifist, and thus the Reformed tradition, by definition, cannot be missional. But if this is really what the argument boils down to, then a direct argument needs to be made for that equation; until then, the world affirming, transformationalist stream of the Calvinist tradition stands as evidence against the claim that the Reformed tradition is problematic for mission. On the contrary, one might remark on the irony of an Anabaptist, the tradition which has produced the Amish, claiming that the Reformed tradition isn’t missional enough.
(3) I think more evidence, more of an argument, needs to be given for why Reformed theology inexorably leads to neo-pietism shorn of its Christendom context. Doesn’t the existence of Presbyterians and Dutch Reformed traditions, who are often still working on transforming culture, suggest that this is not inevitable?
These are my thoughts at the moment. Am I off here?