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On being ‘hospitably Reformed’

My October 10 column (“How can Christian universities flourish?”) generated letters of response from two emeritus presidents of Reformed colleges. One of the ideas debated was the phrase “hospitably Reformed.” This is a powerful phrase but it seems to mean different things to different people. What does it mean to be “hospitably Reformed”?

The phrase suggests that there is a way to be “inhospitable” and Reformed. I suspect this inhospitality might describe the posture of some Reformed folks who, convinced they have the truth, will steamroll over others. In an interview with John Piper entitled “Why Are Calvinists So Negative?” Piper muses that the “intellectual rigour” of Calvinism can attract “certain kinds of minds,” people who are not “warm, fuzzy and tender” but tend to be argumentative. While I have met numerous tender Calvinists, when it comes to doctrinal purity, some of us can be a little overzealous. It’s true that ideas matter, but we don’t need to “go to the stake” over doctrinal minutiae. Regardless of our zeal, we all need to remember to speak what is “good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).

Another practice that can lead to inhospitality is the overuse of Reformed jargon. Terms like enkaptic interlacing and sphere sovereignty are important concepts, but can also be used as a sort of “Reformed shibboleth,” a way to test if someone is “one of us.” Being hospitably Reformed means speaking winsomely and using clear, biblical language when speaking with others out of a sincere desire to widely share the treasures of our tradition. Indeed, we ought to strive to dialogue more outside our own Reformed circles.

Overall, we must not forget the importance of humility. Confidence in Reformed thinking can lead to a type of triumphalism if we are not careful. We don’t have everything figured out, and the Reformed tradition has had its own embarrassing blind spots. Indeed, sin has a way of blinding people regardless of how sound their doctrines are.

An integrated faith
The opposite pitfall should also be avoided: being too meek about a Reformed Christian identity in an attempt to paper over theological differences. In fact, Reformed folks can also be on the receiving end of inhospitality from others. “Hospitably Reformed” should not be understood to mean “weakly Reformed.” Mark Noll, a respected evangelical historian, wrote a book titled The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which opens with the words, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Reformed scholarship has much to offer, and we need our Reformed Christian institutions to remain strong and vital, serving the wider church. I have had students, including a son of a Pentecostal minister, who have expressed their appreciation for Reformed thinking. I have encountered this same appreciation from teachers in places like Africa and Central America. At one conference I heard a Southern Baptist seminary student who read Creation Regained remark how it “changed everything.” Moreover, Reformed thinking has contributed much to the Christian school movement in Canada, not to mention institutions like the Christian Labour Association and the Christian Farmers Federation.

I have found that a comprehensive worldview shaped by a Reformed Christian approach to Scripture resonates with evangelicals. I think this is so because Reformed theology is biblical theology. The evangelical Lausanne Movement includes these words by John Stott: “Evangelization requires the whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.” Reformed Christian scholarship provides some wonderful resources on how to bring the whole gospel to the whole world including areas like politics, the arts, business, technology and philosophy, to name just a few. Reformed Christian scholarship has developed useful tools for integrating faith in all areas of life.

But we have much to learn from our evangelical brothers and sisters too! The zeal of evangelicals to witness to their friends and neighbours and their openness to the work of the Holy Spirit are just some areas where we Reformed folk can learn. Perhaps that is why it is “together with all the Lord’s holy people” that we can “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Eph. 3:18).  

Author

  • Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin, he worked as an engineer and taught for many years at Redeemer University. He is a fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation and an Associate Fellow of the Kirby Laing Center for Public Theology. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013) and a co-author of A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers (IVP, 2022).

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