Lee Irons has done a post on Reformed identity that’s getting a bit of a buzz:
I’m of two minds about his post. Up to a point, I appreciate what he’s trying to say. However, when he says something I’m inclined to agree with, he justifies that statement with a supporting argument I can’t agree with. So even when he says something which might be true in its own right, what makes the statement true is, according to him, a reason which I think is either false or misleading.
So his post leaves me ambivalent. He makes it hard for me to agree with him even when I’d like to go along with him.
Speaking for myself, I feel free to use the “evangelical” label. That’s for two reasons:
i) We do need a general designation to denote Bible-believing Christians.
ii) Not every issue is distinctive to a particular theological tradition. So there are many times when we should frame the issue in broader terms.
That said, the very fact that “evangelical” is a general designation is also part of the problem. It’s a rather rubbery term. How far to the left of the theological spectrum can someone go and still be an “evangelical”?
There is no automatic cut-off point since “evangelical” is, by definition, a fairly flexible and fluid designation, subject to an evolving consensus of opinion.
Lee says that he considers himself to be “a Christian first, then a Protestant, then an evangelical, and only then Reformed.”
The pattern here is that he’s moving from a higher classification to a lower classification. Calvinists are a subset of evangelicals, who are a subset of Protestants, who are a subset of Christians.
But is the highest classification our central identity? Suppose I said that I consider myself an animal first, then a mammal, then a male mammal, then a man.
Would animality be central my identity? No. Animality tells you very little about my personal identity, or even my corporate identity.
My actual identity is my concrete identity. Yes, you can say I’m an animal, but I’m not a generic animal. There’s no such thing as a generic animal. My animality is exemplified in a very specific form.
Upper taxa are abstractions. The higher up you go, the less they define you.
Take Lee’s statement that he’s not a Calvinist who happens to be a Christian, but a Christian who happens to be a Calvinist (my paraphrase). It’s not the general properties that define us, but the specific properties—for even the general properties are exemplified in a specific set of properties. There’s no animal that isn’t a particular kind of animal, with other individuating traits, like gender.
Suppose I were to say I’m an animal that happens to be a man—rather than, say, a millipede. Is the difference between a man and a millipede incidental to my identity?
What if I’m an animal that happens to be an aardvark? Is animality central to my identity? Is the difference between a man and an aardvark an incidental property? At the risk of offending PETA, my human identity isn’t secondary to my personal identity.
So there’s a deceptive degree of continuity to Lee’s classification scheme.
Of course, there’s a sense in which a Christian is a Christian first and foremost. But that’s ambiguous. What does it mean to be a Christian?
Here some tension surface in Lee’s definition. One the one hand, he downplays the Reformed confessions in favor of “the primary NT confession.” On the other hand, he plays up the “historic ecumenical creeds.”
But, in that case, which is primary—the scriptures or the creeds? He still seems to focus on credal identity. It’s just a choice of which creed supplies the point of reference.
Is he going to say it comes down to which creed is more Biblical? Okay. But since he seems to identify himself as a Calvinist, does he regard Reformed confessions as less Biblical than the “historical ecumenical creeds”?
And when he gets around to defining his terms, they’re a good deal narrower than his opening statement.
Consider his classification scheme:
Then consider some of his specific criteria: sola fide, substitutionary atonement, adherence to Nicene Orthodoxy and Chalcedonian Christology.
How do these criteria match up with his theological taxonomy?
Commitment to sola fide would fall somewhere between Evangelical and Reformed. So that’s about two and a steps below what he said was central to his spiritual identity.
He’s clearly moving within the tight little orbit of the Magisterial Reformation at this juncture.
What about Chalcedon? Does he mean that the Oriental Orthodox (e.g. the Copts) are not even Christians?
What does he mean by “substitutionary atonement”? Is this a synonym for penal substitution?
He seems to be using forensic categories. Where does that leave the Eastern Orthodox or the Anabaptists?
His actual position appears to be a good deal more exclusive than it looked like at first blush. He talks about what we have in common, but his draws the boundaries of common ground quite narrowly when you eye the landmarks.
Incidentally, there’s nothing “ecumenical” about Nicea or Chalcedon. They were meant to be exclusionary.
There’s a failure to distinguish between what makes a man a Christian and what makes Christianity true. Do you need to be a Calvinist to be a Christian? No. That’s incidental to your personal Christian identity.
But could you be a Christian if Calvinism were false? Could you be a Christian if the Father had not unconditionally elected you? Could you be a Christian if the Holy Spirit hadn’t monergistically renewed you?
It isn’t necessary to believe in predestination to be necessarily saved by predestination. The belief may be secondary, but the fact is primary.
What are we to make of Lee’s utilitarian yardstick? In what sense is predestination (to take one example) merely useful? “Useful” in relation to what? Is the Incarnation useful? Is the Incarnation useless? Is predestination more useful than the Incarnation? Less useful than the Incarnation?
Shouldn’t we judge Reformed distinctives by whether or not they’re true, rather than whether or not they’re useful?
Does the Bible itself compartmentalize doctrine in this fashion? Are Reformed distinctives theological accessories?
Remember, Lee seems to retain his Reformed commitments. So he agrees with the Reformed interpretation of various passages in Scripture.
Are Reformed distinctives secondary to the gospel in Jn 6 or Rom 9-11 or Eph 1-2? Are they not, in fact, integral to the way in which John and Paul explicate the gospel?
Speaking for myself, we should welcome anyone who can make a credible profession of faith into God’s family, and—hence—into our own family of faith.
So we should avoid cliquishness and clannishness. We should move freely from Christian to Christian. At that level, I agree with Lee.