Scribbles waiting for a cartographer

In the opening chapter of his Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, James K. A. Smith attempts to play, in his words, “the role of a cartographer,” mapping the landscape of a particular theological movement. I have come to wish that someone (who could it possibly be?) would draft something similar for the entire contemporary landscape known as “the Reformed faith.” What (in as much detail as possible, please) are the various consortiums, alliances, and movements within this landscape? (I think it’s safe to say denominational lines will supply little useful information to the cartographer at this point.) Where are the main centers of operation? What are the distinctive points and features of the competing manifestos? (Do let’s be candid about these manifestos: if they didn’t exist, wouldn’t we look just a tad more unified?) Where are the outlaw encampments (here, of course, the cartographer’s prejudices will inevitably color the map)? And so on.

While I wait for someone else to do the heavy lifting, let me offer an observation that I think may be cartographically significant. It was sparked (no surprise to those who’ve read my recent posts) by a paragraph in Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture. He notes a lack of concern among 19th-century American evangelicals over “the [then-] present state of the churches in America” (p. 70); the reason for this, he says,

“was no doubt related to American evangelicals’ characteristic lack of strong views about the nature and authority of the church. Lacking direct experience with such doctrines, they had not formed a distinct concept of the church against which they might react. This general absence in America of a clear theory on the church reflected organizational structures that had developed more for reasons of circumstance than of ideology. Instead of ‘churches’ (in the sense of the official organized religion of a territory) or ‘sects’ (in the sense of separated groups of true converted believers), America had ‘denominations,’ which were sometimes churchly, sometimes sectarian, and usually both. The denominations were the product of a combination of European churchly traditions, ethnic loyalties, pietism, sectarianism, and American free enterprise. Often a denomination would advertise itself as the true church and speak in its own councils as if it were. At the same time the denominational system was really based on the premise that the true church could be denominated in many ways. Moreover, denominational structures were usually loose enough that revivals, reforms, Bible conferences, and schools could be promoted by members outside of denominational control. Hence the system allowed room for a practical sectarianism which often left denominational ties weak or nominal.”

So, if 19th-century American evangelicals (including many in Calvinistic denominations) had a weak doctrine of the church, and assuming this hasn’t improved much since (it’s not as if we’re becoming less individualistic with time), what might this have to do with contemporary Reformed cartography?

I observe two very significant and (to my mind, at least) laudable impulses in today’s Reformed churches. One impulse is toward what I will loosely call “covenant.” Churches under the sway of this impulse are all about the sacraments, Christian worldview, godly marriages, godly children, homeschooling and/or Christian education, family worship, and a thousand generations of those who love God and keep His commandments. This impulse doesn’t always lead to big churches, but it does tend to produce quite large, impressive families who take their Christianity seriously.

A second impulse is toward what I will loosely call “culture.” Churches following this impulse are serious transformationalists: they want to see the world changed by the gospel through the enactment of the Great Commission. They, too, tend to be excited about Christian worldview. They are the “missional” crowd, deeply engaged with the surrounding culture (one finds them wrestling manfully with the problems of “contextualization”) and eager to build culture to the glory of God; they are deeply burdened for the sheep Jesus is still seeking, and for the coming of His shalom to all peoples of the earth.

[Let it be said in passing that plenty of Reformed churches seem to be under the sway of neither impulse. These churches are a fascinating, if somewhat depressing, study in their own right. It should also be noted that the impulses I’ve described aren’t mutually exclusive; certainly there are churches that manifest both.]

Now let me introduce some shading within the groups of Reformed believers in the covenantal and cultural “camps.” At one end of the “covenantal camp” are Reformed Christians who have an extraordinarily low view of the church: for them, family is where the really important action is; in the far extreme are those who even view the keys of the kingdom as belonging to the head of the Christian household. The insular family is on a mission, but this mission is not submitted to the higher and broader mission of Christ’s church.

Likewise in the “cultural camp,” on the far end are those who have an extraordinarily low view of the church. For them, the agenda(s) for God’s people are really set by the surrounding culture; they don’t accept that God’s kingdom is/has/demands a distinctive culture to be enacted among His covenant people (e.g., biblical rituals of worship). These brethren are deeply interested in contextualizing the gospel within agendas set by the surrounding culture; they appear much less interested in setting the agenda of the surrounding culture by the gospel through the church.

In both extremes, what is missing is the third point in an all-important triangulation of covenant, culture, and church. Biblically, there is a priority of church over the covenant family: the family was not given the Great Commission by itself, it cannot fulfill the Great Commission by itself, and a separatist family will eventually (as a close friend of mine has said) enact a wonderful life without any clear sense of what that life is for (the salvation of the world – HT: Jesus).

There’s also a priority of church over culture. We don’t start by trying to reach culture; we start by being the church, and the fruit is that we transform culture. To invert this order opens the way to all sorts of compromises.

Anyway, those are my scribbles. A real map would be a better aid in this sort of self-assessment, but I fear we’re a long way from having one at our disposal.

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