My congregation affords me two weeks of paid study leave (i.e., continuing education). I decided to use a portion of this year’s study leave for a “reading week” on Reformed theology. I found myself in need of a refresher, to remember the beliefs about God and humanity that have shaped me as a Christian and as a pastor. Perhaps the day-to-day details of pastoral work had dulled my memory and distracted me from my theological roots. Whatever the reason, I was hungry for a time to re-center myself in God’s purposes for my life and for our world.
I read some excellent books, including one by the late John H. Leith, former professor of theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. The book was called The Reformed Imperative: What the Church Has to Say That No One Else Can. It is a bit outdated and doesn’t necessarily speak to the “new” realities of pastoring in our postmodern world. But, Leith communicated the good news of the Gospel in a beautifully Reformed way; he helped me recognize and articulate what is profound and good and worth preserving from the Reformed tradition (of which Presbyterians are a part).
In the very first chapter, Leith observed that the test of one’s theology, one’s “faith,” is the fruit it produces:
“What kind of person, and what kind of communities, does a particular faith influence and produce? A faith is finally embodied not so much in spoken words, and not so much in written words, but in the living reality of a human life and, in the case of Christian faith, in the life of the Christian community” (Leith, 40).
What kind of people are Presbyterian churches shaping these days? That’s probably not a reasonable question to ask; it’s better to keep it to my sphere of influence – “What kinds of people are being shaped by the congregation in which I have leadership?” Are they being influenced by the great theological themes – like God’s providence, the pervasiveness of idolatry, covenant, and the authority of Scripture – that have reverberated across the history of the Reformed tradition? Or, are they being shaped more by what they hear on the radio, watch on cable news, and read in books, whether or not this information is distinctly Presbyterian or Reformed?
My hunch is that people are far more shaped by the theological and political “camp” in which they choose to plant themselves, whether conservative, progressive, or moderate, or some other variation on that theme. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as we do a lot better these days being in fellowship across denominational lines. Yet, my struggles to clearly and inspirationally articulate the key convictions of Reformed theology to my congregation causes me to wonder if many of us really know why we’re Presbyterian or how being Presbyterian might form us as Christians.
What would it look like for people to be shaped by Reformed theology? If people truly understood that God is the one who creates, sustains, redeems and provides for the whole universe, who is in the business of making covenants and keeping promises with finite, sin-ensnared human beings, would that make us more relaxed, knowing that we don’t have to earn God’s love or manipulate God to act on our behalf? Would it make us lazy and complacent? Or, would it inspire us to be a part of God’s providential plan to heal lives and renew our world? My hope is that our Reformed roots would both inspire us to action and reassure us when things fall apart, knowing that God’s mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:23) and God’s purposes for restoration will ultimately triumph (Revelation 21:1-4).
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake as the Director of Contemporary Worship and Media.