On Relationality in Reformed Christian Faith
Dr. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson writes with such clarity, humility, and tenderness about his adopted Reformed tradition that in reading the post I thought, for a second, maybe this is the way to follow Jesus. After all, conversion – taking up a different Christian expression – has emerged as a leitmotiv in these Respectful Conversations. Quite a few of us have ventured away from a faith nurtured in childhood to embrace, as adults, another way of being Christian. Whatever else our respective conversions suggest, this code-switching is a feature of being an American Christian. Where else in the world are these leaps of faith such a marked reality?
Granberg-Michaelson made a college-age move from an “Evangelical, Independent and Nondenominational” church into the Reformed tradition – in particular, the Reformed Church in America. As his narrative suggests, Dr. Granberg-Michaelson has traveled a distance from the Jesus-centered piety he learned at his mother’s knee. Since the early 19th century, most American Protestant expressions have been pietistic and Jesus-centered, yet Granberg-Michaelson takes off that lens to put on another.
Reading this post is the first time in the “Following Jesus” thread that I’ve been acutely aware of a Jesus enfolded in the company of the Trinity. Although Grandberg-Michaelson doesn’t say it directly, I sense the Trinity’s First Person is front and center, as it is in many Reformed expressions. Here the integrated mantra of “grace, God, and the world” points to an inherent relationality – between God and the human, to be sure, and maybe also a relationality at work within God? The Trinity can serve as a model for our own dynamic relationality – our relation to God and to each other, expressed through covenant. As Granberg-Michaelson puts it so beautifully, “Christian faith is carried communally; it’s personal but not individualistic.”
Another alluring aspect of the Reformed tradition as explained here is the insistence that humans are flawed, fallen creatures, and God is sovereign and at work in every arena of human endeavor. So many Pentecostals draw a red line between we and the world that I find this integrative insight a blessing. No longer is the world simply Satan’s realm, an arena of evil. Reformed faith as Granberg-Michaelson explains it, is a movement from “guilt to grace and gratitude.” This insight invites me to feel more at home in the world, more trusting. In short, this understanding of God’s sovereignty makes the world less frightening. I feel the attraction of this orientation to God and the world.
If deeper trust, expressed through gratitude, is one effect of embracing God’s sovereignty, might openness to change be another? That’s a note I hear in Granberg-Michaelson’s testimony, and it challenges my biased view of Reformed faith and practice as set in stone. Granberg-Michaelson’s lived experience on the Camino de Santiago – “in the end, we walk our way into faith” – is one example of change, an embrace of practices that first-generation of Reformers tossed out in favor of right-thinking.
For Granberg-Michaelson, practices such as contemplative prayer and pilgrimage blunt the hard edges of the Reformed emphasis on confessions, while insisting that the 16th and 17th century confessions are authoritative because they carry “enduring truths” – and, I suppose, tie us Reformed Christians together across generations. Some Reformed bodies express a dynamic relationship to their confessions, others not so much.
Take, for example, the case of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), probably the premier confession within the Reformed tradition. In 1986, the Church of Scotland declared parts of the confession no longer binding – the parts that described monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience as “superstitious and sinful snares” and declared the Pope to be an Anti-Christ. Some Reformed bodies in the U.S. have also removed such degrading and offensive ideas and language, yet often with intense blowback from their in-house conservative kindred. Why do some bodies embrace an openness to change, and others do not? Who and what speaks for the Reformed tradition?
Finally, Granberg-Michaelson, to highlight the ecumenical aspect of the Reformed tradition, unearths an old idea from Calvin’s time, “a free and universal council to put an end to the divisions of Christendom.” Grandberg-Michaelson sees such an ecumenical endeavor to be a step toward ending Christian divisions that inhibit the Gospel message. (Maybe something similar is what Harold Heie had in mind, gathering us for this respectful conversation to consider what it means to follow Jesus?)
It’s an understandable impulse, this desire for one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Yet unity at what price? Whose voices would we hear at such a council? Whose are excluded? No doubt Calvin imagined learned theologians and church leaders as presiders. I say, bring on the global cacophony of Christian voices, mirrored in the Acts experience of Pentecostal tongues. Oh, what new things we would learn about what it means – and what it does not mean – to follow Jesus!
I stand with John Robinson (1576-1625), the English Puritan and Reformed pastor and theologian who, in a sacred charge to the Pilgrims departing on the Mayflower, reflected on ways forward in an ever-unfinished reformation. Robinson criticized all church bodies, while setting forth the hope for a Christian faith that presses past our limited imagination of church re-formation. He asked the passengers, his flock, “that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow the Lord Jesus Christ. If God reveals anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth by my ministry.” And then the stirring words that express Robinson’s openness to the possibilities of a present- and future-oriented faith: “I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more light and truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.”
Well, amen to that, and on we go.
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