Today’s posting is by Michael Bressem, Ph.D. Michael studied theology at a Reformed seminary, Western Conservative Baptist Seminary. Welcome Michael!
According to the Oxford Dictionary, to reform means: “to make better by the removal of faults and errors.” Martin Luther famously started this process by the posting of “The Ninety-Five Theses” (1517)—a disputation against clerical abuses, especially the sale of indulgences. However, the Protestant reformers were not content merely to “correct” the errors of the Roman Catholic Church and renew or return the Western Church back to the Ancient Christian Faith that existed and still exists within the Eastern Orthodox Church; rather, the Protestant reformers sought to recreate or remake the Church in accordance with their own theological ideas. No where is this more true than in the figure of John Calvin (1509-1564). His “Institutes of the Christian Religion” (1536) did not reaffirm the writings of the Church Fathers in opposition to Roman Catholic practices, but instead Calvin’s catechism revised Christian doctrine according to his interpretation of Holy Scripture. His view of salvation, summarized by the acronym TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and the Perseverance of the saints), is not a reinstatement of the soteriology of the Christian Church that existed in unity for a millennia (until the schism of 1054); but rather Calvin’s tenets are a rejection of the Ancient Christian Faith’s traditional theology.
Reformed or Reinvented Church?
So why is it Protestant denominations that follow Calvin’s doctrines call themselves the “Reformed” Church? Shouldn’t they call themselves the “Reinvented” Church? When politicians say they are going to reform city hall, it usually means to remove the corruption presently existing there and bring the government back to the foundational laws by which it was created and meant to operate under. To reform has the connotation of remedying, rectifying, or revitalizing. However, the Protestant “Reformation” did not bring Western European Christianity back to the foundational laws constituted by the Ecumenical Councils of the Church; but instead Protestant theologians tore down almost everything that came before and then they near completely rebuilt, reorganized, and refashioned Christianity.
To my mind, the Reinvented Church creates a basic theological problem I have titled “Calvin’s Conundrum.” Either ( A ) Jesus Christ lied to His disciples when He stated the Holy Spirit would guide them “unto all truth (John 16:13, also 14:26), and the Holy Spirit did not descend upon the apostles at Pentecost (Acts 2), but rather the Holy Spirit only came 1500 years later to give John Calvin the truth; or ( B ) the first 1500 years of the Church was just another “dispensation” of God’s unfolding plan of salvation, and John Calvin was a divinely inspired prophet who “instituted” a newer Covenant—his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” is a New New Testament (despite the warning of Revelation 22:18). To put this in the form of essential questions everyone in the Reinvented Church should ask and answer for themselves: How can hundreds of brilliant theologians who defended the Church against heresy for a millennia and more ALL be in error? Did the Holy Spirit disappoint millions of Christians by not guiding them to true salvific knowledge of the Faith before John Calvin set us all straight? Is it not the pinnacle of hubris for John Calvin to claim his interpretation is right over and against that of the Orthodox Church for 1500 years?
Then and Now
As a former Protestant for 25 years, who got a Masters of Arts in Theology from a “Reformed” seminary, I can attest no one presented to me anything similar to “Calvin’s Conundrum” nor asked me the above questions. I went through two and a half decades believing Calvin, and the other reformers, actually returned Christianity to that which the Ancient Church believed and practiced. In other words, I was deluded. Now that I’ve been an Orthodox Christian for the last 10 years, I feel my eyes have finally been opened to the truth: the Orthodox Church never needed reforming and certainly not reinventing. The Orthodox Church has “instituted” the true Faith from the time of the Apostles, and has courageously preserved those beliefs and practices to this day. The Orthodox Church is not in need of “re-“ anything. She is the Church that responsibly retains the fullness of the truth about Christianity, and I find that both reputable and remarkable.
Michael Bressem, Ph.D.