As much as it bothers me and bores you, this point I want to make with this post will not be as poignant or clear without some autobiographical information concerning yours truly, the author. What‘s worse (or perhaps better if you’re a hint egotistical), is that my life is quite likely not just a little bit like your own and so you may well have already lived out some spoilers. Lest I discourage you from continuing to read altogether, let me move on to said autobiography.
An Origin Story
I was born into a Christian family and simply cannot remember a time when I did not believe the gospel. I should say that I remember praying a sort of sinner‘s prayer around age 4, but that was simply a proclamation of what I had already understood. I was taught about my sin, Christ, and His death for my sin from a young age and never had reason to question it. It has always been as true for me as other facts about life such as gravity, winter being cold, and “don’t put that in your mouth, it‘s yucky.” I tested the last one a few times, but that only gave me more cause to trust my parent, as it always was quite yucky. This means I estimate that I’ve been a Christian for about twenty-seven years, since that is how long I have been alive.
Something I remember about school is that—while each year I leaned new things about math, science, and history—I pretty much kept learning the same things about English and grammar every year from about eighth grade forward. Perhaps it was just the curriculum I was using, but it was pretty easy and quite repetitive. I found that what I was taught in church was similar, although the repetition started to become noticeable much earlier—around grade three.
I believe this is because the church a grew up in believed in a minimum amount of instruction that all Christians should have. There is nothing wrong with having a minimum. Actually, it seems quite important. The trouble was that after that minimum was met, no one really knew what to do with you. Perhaps you feel like you’ve heard this story before.
There are all sorts of reasons that a church might not have education beyond the minimum, and some are more understandable than others. A church might fear division as it moves past the minimum, might feel incompetent to teach more than the minimum, might have staff who are bored with theology, or may think that the Bible doesn’t teach anything more than the minimum. Regardless of the reasons, I—like many other Christians—never got past a basic explanation of the gospel, the authority of Scripture, and basic instruction in what I now call evangelical pietism: a list of do’s and don’t’s, some of which are Scripture based and some of which are entirely made up. That and the fact that God is three Persons in one God (and we’ll never really understand that) made up about eighty-five percent of my Christian education.
Now, for reasons of varying nobility, I applied myself and learned all that I was taught so that I knew it about as well as my teachers. By high school, many people I knew considered me to be an expert in the Bible and theology, and relative to the amount of teaching we had all received, they weren’t entirely wrong. Looking back, I would say I understood almost 1/4th of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (the one written for children)—although I probably could not have answered question one of the same correctly.
Actually, this is a good point to take a break from the story and explain what was so wrong. I would have conversations with friends and teachers about what I now consider to be easy questions. We would dialog and disagree about questions of our purpose, whether we could achieve sinless perfection in this life, and what kinds of things Christians should pray for. I realize now that if a confessional Presbyterian (or 1689-style Reformed Baptist) minister saw his congregants grappling with those truths after attending church for more than a year, he would immediately feel the need to repent and redouble his catechizing efforts. These are things he would rightly consider basic and necessary. Indeed, if you don’t understand man’s chief end, virtually all your other understanding is built on a faulty foundation.
Around the time I was graduating high school, I discovered a number of online teachers and pastors who, despite their age, all were essentially card-carrying members of the young, restless, reformed movement. This included men like John Piper, Matt Chandler, and Mark Driscoll. These men had teaching on things like God’s glory and sovereignty and man’s depravity that I really hadn’t heard before. And so naturally, I began listening to several of their sermons almost everyday. It got to the point where I began to sound like Matt Chandler in everyday conversation.
If you‘ve had experiences similar to mine, you will understand that it is no understatement to say that it felt like the Scriptures came to life again (or perhaps for the first time). When I went to the Bible to see if the doctrines of grace were true, I found they were not simply true; I felt as if they were written in giant letters on every page. God’s glory and sovereignty seemed to be a major point in every Psalm, story, and epistle in Scripture. It was inescapable (which, though it doesn’t excuse my cage stage, does make it more understandable). At the time, I had wondered if I was even saved prior to encountering this teaching.
It took longer, but I eventually got to the point where I had absorbed so much of the teaching within this movement, that the 200-page Crossway (or Re:Lit) paperbacks started to seem repetitive. I joined a church that also has a lot in common with the young, restless, reformed movement and since I could quote Piper, Chandler, Spurgeon, and Edwards many of my friends believed that I knew a lot about reformed theology—and I suppose I thought that as well.
Of course, when you talk about reformed theology, we don’t just think of living people. We think of (and read quotes from) dead people, too, like John Calvin. Given that I felt a strong familiarity with modern “reformed” authors, I started reading Calvin’s Institutes. I understood, as I think back now, very little of it. That’s why it took me about four years to finish it. Some of my difficulty came from the fact that I was reading an antiquated translation, but a lot of it had to do with the fact that I hadn’t the foggiest idea what the man was talking about at many points. But since I (and others) considered myself to be familiar with reformed theology, I convinced myself that I understood what I was reading (and to be fair, I did understand some of it) and plowed ahead like a blind elephant through a dinner party.
After that, plus a few months’ recovery, I was off to the races with another practically unintelligible book called The Institutes, this time by Francis Turretin. The story was much the same. While I gathered little sound bytes of gold, I really had no idea what I was reading half the time. This was odd, I thought, because I‘m supposed to be familiar with reformed theology. I had read so much in the theological tradition I called reformed.
All this time, when people asked me where to get started in reformed theology, I had been pointing to the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. I had read them once or twice and felt like I was familiar with them because the only question worth quoting was the first one of the of the shorter catechism (at least, that is the impression I had from all the 200-page paperbacks I’d devoured). They seemed like a good starting point for beginners.
At around the time I was throwing my hands in the air with Turretin (not in a saying-ayo kind of way), the controversy with Grudem and Ware on the Trinity came to the forefront. I went back to Turretin and really wrestled with what he was saying about subordination and subsistence, terms that were only a part of my theological vocabulary in vague, floaty sort of way. I realized that I really had not understood basic Trinitarian theology my whole life. Never mind Turretin, I was tripping over the Nicene fathers!
At this point, I decided that I should take some of my own medicine and start studying the aforementioned catechisms. I was expecting that I would be brushing up on a few things, but as I have studied them, I realize that I never really understood reformed theology. The catechism written for children is still, in many places, unfamiliar to me. It’s no wonder I felt like I was barely treading water in Calvin’s works.
The other day, a friend asked me what I’ve been reading and I told him that I am studying the Westminster Standards and a commentary on them, just trying to understand basic reformed theology. Some of my friends might insist I am exaggerating, but I truly don’t believe I am. I understand some things, sure. But basic issues like what the church is, the church’s mission, the role of the sacraments and means of grace—these are things that I am realizing I did not understand on any meaningful level. It’s honestly no wonder I stumbled into and staggered out of federal vision theology a couple of years back. God has been gracious with me despite my arrogance.
I told you I had a point back at the beginning, so let’s get to it. I think that a lot of people can identify with a lot of my origin story. Perhaps you have come out of an evanjellyfish church into a world of slightly more reformed theology. I do not want to belittle that transition, because I remember how difficult it was for me to accept the doctrines of grace.
But perhaps you are like I was and you think you have a grasp on reformed theology because you’ve read some Piper. Let me both challenge and encourage you that there is much more to theology than the first question of the shorter catechism rephrased to conform to Christian Hedonism.
If you remember how you felt about Scripture when you realized it taught all five petals of the tulip, there is yet more understanding to be found within reformed theology. There are more themes, there is more encouragement, and there is more guidance for how to live in light of the gospel than you may now realize.
Chances are, the catechisms and the confession are not remedial to you. They probably have a lot to teach you, like they do me. You probably don’t agree with all of them at present, but you might if you really studied. At the very least you would come away having a much better idea what you believe and why you believe it.
Teachers in the young, restless, reformed movement like Grudem have helped us a lot—pulling us out of a man and works centered theology and bringing us toward a God and gospel centered theology. But they have also done us a disservice by failing (either through ignorance or confusion) to teach us even basic truths about God, about what worship is, and about the basis for Christian ethics.
You may think that you have a solid understanding of reformed theology, but if you are like me, there is a great deal to learn. If you’re like me, you don’t even know what you don’t know. Attempting to slog through Turretin’s Institutes while precariously ignorant of what makes God the Father not the Son and vice versa convinced me to consider myself a novice to the reformed faith, to humble myself, and to learn. I am hoping that if you can identify at all with my story, that this post encourages you to do the same.