Theology and mission in a new era
Reformed Theology arose out of turmoil in the 16th Century and developed in dialogue with biblical foundations, the teaching of the Reformers, and the needs of churches in different circumstances - each of which have added a layer of understanding to the complex. It was also affected by its context and understanding of mission.
Looking back it is possible to see how many of its concerns were related to a sense of mission largely confined to the European societies that its leaders were familiar with. Reformed theology has since grown in range and depth as it has engaged in a mission not only to reform the faith of those already Christian, but also to win others to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord of all and Saviour of those who trust in him. We may have discovered how mission grows our understanding about God through experiences of talking about our faith, doing things like going on work parties to Vanuatu, or participating in pastoral care, and sharing in worship in other churches when we have travelled.
Changes over time may be confusing when we would like to believe the founders of the tradition got it all right first go, but its growth and its very diversity also serve to highlight the core instincts of Reformed faith, to place the Bible over the Church even when the Church is the interpreter of the Bible, to emphasize the Sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ over Church and Creation, to give a priority to the grace of God over human responsiveness, to value the study of the things of God, because getting it right is considered important, and to viscerally distrust any suggestion of earning merit in the sight of God, let alone salvation. More than people within the tradition generally recognise, both the idea of "Semper Reformanda" and the practice of Reformed churches in developing fresh confessions in different circumstances indicate a commitment to what since 1972 has been referred to as contextualisation, not just to the givenness of the faith.
The readings this week include what might be called the classic themes of theology and traditional Reformed interest in issues of authority and the implications of the idea of Reformation as an ongoing activity of the Church (the Latin title of Moltmann’s article means “Theology reformed and always reforming”). Medgyessy deals with the practical issues of Reformed mission in a post-communist Eastern Europe where churches and agencies flood in and churches that have survived decades of persecution have to find their feet and navigate the competing visions of what mission now needs to be about. Peel reminds us that theology and mission have a vision beyond the present, and beyond this life, in reflection on eschatology and the Christian Hope—where is all this heading?
All Christian traditions reflect on their understanding of what they believe God is calling them to do in this world, but the Reformed family has in recent decades been blessed by a number of people seeking to articulate the will of God for the Church in the multitude of circumstances found in a world of globalisation and diversity. David Bosch and Lesslie Newbiggin were the giants of an era which is now passing. Of course we should read wider than our own tradition, and both Bosch and Newbiggin certainly did that to the great enrichment of their understanding, yet they also knew their own heritage, were informed by it, reacted against it, and pressed it forward. People like Darrell Guder, now at Princeton, are beginning to be appreciated. French missiologists like Marc Spindler and Jean-François Zorn deserve to be translated and better known. The Gospel and Cultures movements in UK, New Zealand (led by the late Harold Turner)and North America, often have a strong Reformed component. The desire to remind people of the essential missionary nature of the church and to think of the church as missional in its essence is being pressed to design systems and theological education which will better reflect God’s missionary purpose for the Church. This reflects an awareness that for the traditional churches of the West an urgent call to mission is local and the once supportive culture and world view of Western society is corrosive of faith and its institutions. Yet mission must also be global.
Reformed theology has not always adjusted well to different cultural settings. Sometimes it was an unexpected affinity with Confucianism, or a promise of education and its apparent connection with modernity which attracted people in Asia and Africa to what this part of the Christian family appeared to offer. This engagement carried a risk of a rational faith which did not easily engage people’s hearts as much as their minds and their economic concerns. Yet the strengths and weaknesses of what Reformed Christians brought to mission around the world have also enriched the family understanding of what it is to be Christian.
In a small way this course has helped introduce us to the story of this Reformed and Presbyterian family, the reality of its diversity, and the enduring nature of a surprising number of its core beliefs and values.
I hope we see it as a stream in the story of God’s Church which has a future as well as a past. In the worship, organisation, and mission of the church in an era of change we are influenced by our context, the responses of other Christians to that context, and by the inheritance of our spiritual heritage. This means that in the future the names may be different and yet the contribution of the Reformed heritage will continue, if at times like a not so dormant gene for red hair, it reappears unexpectedly. There may be other stories like the one I heard of a Northland town where Pentecostal young adults with a Presbyterian background came to the point in their new church where convictions about ordered process and leadership and a teaching ministry were things that they rediscovered and re-appropriated some years after they had rebelled against them!
In a situation where identity in a post-denominational post-modern age easily takes its cues from popular models of spirituality, often without much regard to the importance of heritage, I hope that the Reformed story has also served to help connect you and the Church where you are not only to this particular family, but also to the wider family of the people of God, and the vocation you have in it.