Following Jesus: The Reformed Tradition

If you had told me twenty, ten, or even five years ago that a Pietist like me would find much common ground with a Reformed Christian, I’d have been skeptical. Yet when I read Wes Granberg-Michaelson’s January essay for the Following Jesus conversation, I found myself nodding along “with a version of following Jesus that deemphasizes personal religious experience and takes very seriously the intellectual side of belief.”

In part, what that shows is that Reformed Protestantism is more varied than my initial encounters with it, which tended to come from a wing of the tradition that rarely expresses itself so winsomely as Wes does: the “New Calvinists” or “Young, Restless, and Reformed.” But it’s also reflects how I’ve got to know Reformed scholars on and beyond the Bethel faculty who exemplify the best of the traits that Wes describes.

January’s Tradition: “From Guilt to Grace to Gratitude

“In the classrooms and chapel of Hope, a college of the Reformed Church in America, I first learned and experienced some of the distinctives of the Reformed tradition. It was more absorption, and certainly not indoctrination. Two things, upon reflection, stand out. 1) Grace comes solely as God’s initiative, as pure gift. Faith is never an achievement or personal accomplishment. 2) Following Jesus can’t remain individualized. It’s more than ‘Jesus and me.’ It involves God and the world. That means all aspects of life and culture—science, politics, economics, art, history—are understood wholistically through the framework of faith and the sovereignty of God. This is often termed a Reformed ‘world and life view’….

“The evangelical culture which shaped my early years contended that we were saved from the world, both eternally and through daily measures to resist its contaminating influences. The Reformed tradition stresses that all in the world is intended to be redeemed and brought under God’s sovereignty. In its best expressions, this overcomes the dualism between body and soul, nature and grace, secular and sacred. It’s an invitation to creative engagement between faith and culture, art, politics, science, economics, etc.”

– Wesley Granberg-Michaelson

My Response: “Following Jesus is ‘More than Jesus and Me’

“Even as I join Granberg-Michaelson in rejecting any idea of human depravity that eradicates God’s image in us, I appreciate how ‘the Reformed tradition refuses to see the world through naïve, superficial lens, and confronts the empirical evidence of its harsh realities.’ That does mean that we need to be honest about our personal iniquity. But the history of Pietism illustrates how that focus can go awry. Not only can the kind of agonizing process of repentance (Bußkampf) that A.H. Francke modeled for Pietists obscure the joy and delight that’s more central to, say, Nikolaus von Zinzendorf’s understanding of conversion, but Pietism’s typical emphasis on personal sin can blind us to our participation in injustice at the level of systems and structures. ‘We are born into the web of everyone else’s sinful choices,’ explains Reformed theologian Suzanne McDonald, ‘and our own inclination away from God means that we will inevitably contribute to that web.'”

Additional Responses

“Every tradition in the US appears to be producing and reproducing the same fissures. Wes Granberg-Michaelson is not responsible for John Piper and his ilk. The fact that they come from the same confessional tradition means little. One of the interesting things about our religious landscape today continues to be the fact that the left/right binary seems to mean more than Rome, Geneva, Wittenberg, or Zurich.”

– David Gushee, “A Man Better Than His Tradition” (Baptist Tradition)

“The reality of sin and the battle against it is daily on the minds of pious Catholics, and this is just a taste of the way our family uses these gifts of the Church to ponder sin, and to learn to avoid it (little-by-little!).

“Thankfully, there are just as many counterbalances to this focus on sin!  Each penitential season has its glorious opposite of feasting and celebration.  Every day there are invitations to dwell on the mystery of God’s grace.”

– Christina Wassell, “Walking the Way Into Faith” (Traditional Catholic Tradition)

<<December: The Anglican Tradition | February: The Baptist Tradition>>