Now that I’ve finished all six seasons of the “Larry Sanders Show,” which still comes highly recommended as arguably the funniest and most poignant treatments of celebrity in Hollywood, I am free to flip channels. (Those who haven’t seen the show need to understand that after his monologue, before going to commercial, Larry would say “no flipping.)
But we still need someone like Larry to tell us Reformed debaters to stop cherry picking. In basketball, a cherry picker is someone who lingers at one of the court — the offensive one (not in the sense of being objectionable for UK readers) — and never goes to the other end to play defense.
A similar tendency exists in debates over union. Lots of pro-unionists cite Calvin on union. They hang out at the end of the court where Book III begins. Not so many of these cherry pickers lurk at that end where Calvin talks about the sacramental significance of union. But as for doing the hard work of looking beyond Calvin to other theologians who were Reformed churchmen, some would rather not do the laborious work of running from one end of the court to the other.
Calvin’s support in turn becomes a warrant for declaring that other people who claim to be Reformed are not — hence assertions about Lutheranism, semi-Pelagianism, and the like. Not only has the argument cherry picked from Calvin, but also from the history of Reformed Protestantism. For the claim that someone is Reformed, Lutheran, Arminian, Baptist is not a biblical assertion but a historical judgment. The Bible may reveal what it means to be Reformed. But Reformed Protestantism emerged and developed not by finding a creed, polity, and liturgy written down in Scripture but by Reformed officers trying to figure out what the Bible teaches and applying that teaching in a host of circumstances from 1522 to the present.
All of this is to say that the way forward in the debates about union — a question that emerged at the end of Mike Horton’s interview at Reformed Forum — is to let the historians decide. Of course, this sounds self-serving (which it isn’t because I am not a historical theologian). It is actually a realistic assessment of the most contested claims made by all parties in the discussions of union. Everyone wants to be biblical and execute the best exegesis. But interpreting the Bible is not the way you understand or define Christian past. To know the Reformed tradition, you need to study the past. That way you can see which theologians held what views, which churches professed what creeds, which synods or assemblies excluded what teachings as erroneous.
Historical investigation will never satisfy the bibilicist (just ask John Frame). But it will teach everyone to be more careful about the use of words like Reformed.
The alternative is to abandon words like Reformed, Lutheran, Pelagian, and Baptist altogether. “Hmmmmmmm, no denominations.” Imagine a world separate communions. I think John Lennon (and Frame) would go for that.