Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What is reformed tradition?

What is Reformed tradition? I will answer it by finding historical roots of this tradition from the perspective of balance, whose concept is close to Joongyong, one of the great virtues in Confucianism, and points to the holistic aspects of life and their attitude that does not tilt against either to the right or to the left. In short, Joongyong connotes equanimity, harmony, justice, and stability. In fact, the implication of Joongyong approach in this essay is twofold. One is to recognize the importance of balance in terms of the hermeneutical lens through which the Reformed tradition is evaluated and pictured. Another is to envision a Reformed tradition in our time through a balanced perspective.

Features of the Reformed Tradition

Without question, the historical root of the Reformed tradition traces back to the Switzerland Reformation in the sixteenth century, that is, to the first Swiss reformer Zwingli (1484-1531) and to the second-generation reformer John Calvin (1509-1564), [1] who is a prominent figure in this tradition. In fact, the Swiss reformers did not initiate this tradition in a vacuum. Reformers never demanded a new Christian religion but sought only to reform the distorted Christianity and to reclaim the gospel tradition that they understand it true. With this historical consciousness in connecting reforming ideas to the early church’s tradition, reformers sought the one, holy, catholic church.

The first feature of the Reformed tradition is a balance between the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. [2] As Warfield rightly observes, Calvin was “the theologian of the Holy Spirit.” [3]When this deviates in either way, we see other traditions emerge in our Christian history. For instance, the Anabaptists primarily resorted to the Spirit for their guidance, resulting in overwriting the Word of God. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, clings to the ecclesial authority as an ultimate interpretive power. [4] However, the Reformed tradition seeks to maintain a balance in ways the Word of God is witnessed and spoken through the Holy Spirit. [5]

The second feature of the Reformed tradition is a balance between head and heart, which means seeking both knowledge and piety. Calvin’s definition of faith shows his sense of balance: “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence . . . both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” [6]

The third feature of the tradition is a balance between faith and life. Christian salvation through faith is not possessive but a lifelong process of sanctification. The Christian life is possible through mortification of the old life and through participation in new life in Christ. This emphasis on lifelong sanctification goes with a positive role of the law as guidance for Christian life. [7] As opposed to Luther’s conception of the negative function of the law, Calvin appreciates the positive side of the law, which guides Christians for right actions in their life.

The fourth feature is a balance between the private and the public. From the beginning of Swiss Reformation, both Zwingli and Calvin were involved in a public, political life such as in the city government. The church life and ordinary life were not separable. Rather, the Reformed tradition pursues wholeness – an indivisible wholeness between the spirit and the body, or between the private life and the public life. Boesak put it well: [8]
This lordship of Jesus Christ applies to all spheres of life . . . This includes the political, social, and economic spheres. The Lord rules over all these spheres, and the church and the Christian proclaim his sovereignty in all these spheres. Surely it is the holy duty and the calling of every Christian to participate in politics so that there also God’s law and justice may prevail, and there also obedience to God and God’s word can be shown. 

The fifth feature is a balance between life and death. The presence of God is ever-present in persons’ lives. This God is very personal and reassures about God’s love through the Holy Spirit, who seals faith in our heart and mind. In this regard, A Brief Statement of Faith of the PC (USA) speaks of the powerful message about our identity. It begins: “In life and death we belong to God, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit . . .” [9] We belong to God, not to anybody or anything. This notion of belonging to God sheds light on the understanding of person’s identity. The assurance of belonging to God is the basis of the Christian life. Similarly, Heidelberg Catechism begins with “what is your only comfort, in life and in death?” The answer is “That I belong - body and soul, in life and in death - not to myself but to my faithful Savior . . .” [10] “In life and in death” we belong to God. God’s sovereign love reconfirms our address - which is, belonging to God. God loves us even in death and in life. 

The sixth feature, closely related to the fifth feature, is a balance between the present and the future. In every moment of Christian life, there is a tension between this life and the future. The Reformed tradition firmly confesses that there will be a final victory over evil, and the consummation of God’s world. The balance between the present and the future is crucial to our faith journey. Even though we live in the present, our eyes and mind should see, hope, and belief about the future that is yet to come, as Abraham did so with unwavering hope and rock-solid faith in God.  

Theological Orientation of the Reformed Tradition

The first important theological emphasis of the Reformed tradition is a theocentric theology, which opposes every form of idolatry and “sets it over against every ethic of self-realization, against inordinate concern with the salvation of one's own soul, against excessive preoccupation with questions of personal identity.” [11] For Calvin, God's attribute lay in “God’s forceful reality and power” rather than “the eternal perfection of goodness, beauty, and truth.” [12] Likewise, the important point is not the “self-centered personal salvation of creature” but God's glory. [13] God is our song and an object of adoration. The majesty and the praise of God are the main theme of God-centered theology. 

The second theological emphasis is on the lordship of God, which derives from God’s majesty. God is present in every moment of our lives. Our being itself cannot exist without God’s purpose and will. Our being is dependent on God. John Leith put it well: [14]  
Human life is not the simple product of history and of natural forces. Personhood is rooted in the will and intention of God. God thought of every person before he was called into being and gave to him his individuality, his identity, and his name. Human existence is rooted in eternity, and its end is the praise of God. Hence the Christian lives in the quiet confidence that God is greater than all the battalions of earth and that life is at God’s disposal.

Reformed theology emphasizes God's sovereignty over creation and us. Because of this emphasis on God's sovereignty, the doctrine of predestination emerges. Predestination means, “Human life is rooted in the will and intention of God.” [15] Confronted by the fact that some people did not respond to God’s grace, Calvin had to root unbelief in the will of God. On the other hand, Calvin tried to soften his view of predestination as to be a “source of comfort in the dark night of the soul.” [16] In Reformed theology, Predestination is never a source of “arrogance and presumption.” [17] Rather, the point is a re-focus on the sovereign God who suffers from the suffering of the world. [18]

A New Reformed Tradition

It is necessary for the Reformed tradition to listen to various voices in this world - especially to those marginalized in a fragmentized global community that involves all kinds of social problems of injustice, neo-colonialism, and racism. In this fighting, the Reformed tradition can be an important theological resource that the tradition seeks to renew society by challenging unjust ideologies of the power, and ultimately to embrace “all” people in the world. In other words, the spirit of the Reformed tradition should not judge who is right or who is wrong, or who is in or outside the church. Rather, if one can trust in the sovereign God of love and suffering, the focus of the Reformed tradition should shift to a more holistic, balanced picture of God who cares the whole cosmos with God’s righteousness and justice. This focus of Reformed tradition will give a renewed eye to the solutions of the global issues such as poverty, injustice, a narrow theology of dualism and individualism, not to mention the prosperity gospel. By doing so, the spirit of the Reformed tradition that began in the sixteenth century will continue in our time and will move on.

In order to illustrate the new angle of justice and righteousness in this tradition, I will use the book of Amos: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). In the Old Testament, these two words are used similarly, but its meaning is distinguishable and important to my purpose in this essay. Amos’ powerful, poetic language is evident: justice like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  Righteousness, continually flowing like a small stream, quiet but steady, alludes to the essence of life without which survival is impossible – God’s unconditional love like sunshine available for all people. Further, imagine that the stream is meandering with stops and goings along the way, sometimes making a new way to go through stops, and passing over the obstacles in the way. Likewise, righteousness in our life should flow steadily notwithstanding human obstacles such as chauvinism and excluding theologies or ideologies. This stream should never stop insofar as there are places that need steady water. However, the reality in this world blocks the flow of God’s free love. That is why Amos challenges the ideology of a narrow theology when rich people wait for the Day of the Lord while uncaring the poor and the marginalized in society. For Amos, the abundant love of God should flow to all in society. But the problem is that people exchanged God’s righteousness into their own righteousness.

I can borrow from Paul’s text to support my reading of God’s righteousness as such. In fact, one of the most difficult interpretive issues in Romans 3:21-26 has to do with how to read dikaiosune theouI take side with those scholars who read it as “God’s righteousness” rather than “a righteousness from God.” Those scholars who value individual salvation with the forensic image of law court prefer the latter option (“a righteousness given to human beings”) to the former (“God’s righteousness” as God’s character or saving act, which cannot be owned by human beings). Given the scope of this essay, I cannot fully elaborate on why God’s righteousness is more plausible in Paul’s time and context, but one thing should be evident. Paul’s theological issues, as seen in Romans 9-11, are not how individuals are saved but how Israelites and Gentiles live together righteously before God. Taking this side of Paul as a reconciler or a harbinger of God’s love to all people, what we should do is to let God’s righteousness flow to all people, as the streams flow all the way. Let people not block this universal love of God with the cover of theological doctrines or any boundaries at the price of marginalization of other people(s).

The other important word in Amos is justice, whose parallel image goes with righteousness side by side. Justice in Amos has an image of waters that has roaring torrents of rain with large sound and energy. As the image of righteousness is to God’s universal love, the image of justice is to the explicit work of human beings that requires justice in an unjust world. The metaphor works here too. On stormy, dark days, justice should roar like rolling waters, like roaring Amos when there is no justice.

In conclusion, the Reformed tradition needs to be a channel for an ever-flowing stream, sometimes seeking to run violently as rolling waters. The Reformed tradition should retain its balance in diverse ways, and one essential part of that picture is a just world for which God’s righteousness should flow all the time.

Furthermore, in a changing world teamed with new issues arising, we continue to ask ourselves incessantly what it means to live with the Reformed tradition, and how we can maintain a balance in our Christian life. I suggested in this essay that one way we can live the tradition is re-contextualize the poetic, sharp image of justice and righteousness in Amos: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Then, the Reformed tradition continues to be a life of balance in which God is God of all.


[1] John LeithIntroduction to Reformed Tradition (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), 33. John HesselinkOn Being Reformed (Mich.: Servant Books, 1983), 6.
[2] John Hesselink, “The Charismatic movement and the Reformed tradition,” ed. Donald K. McKim Major Themes in the Reformation Tradition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B.Eerdmans, 1992), 380.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Richard C. Gamble, “Calvin’s Theological Method: Word and Spirit, A Case Study,” Calviniana (Kirksville, Mo: Sixteenth Century Journal Pub, 1988), 63-75.
[5] HesselinkOn being Reformed, 84.
[6] Calvin, Institutes. 3.2.7.
[7] William Placher and Edward Willis, Belonging to God (Louisville: W/JKP, 1992), 114.
[8] Allan BoesakBlack and Reformed (New YorkOrbis Books), 34.
[9] Placher and Edward Willis, Belonging to God, 37.
[10] Book of Confessions (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly, PC-USA, 1996), 28.
[11] LeithReformed Tradition, 96.
[12] Ibid., 72.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., 73.
[15] Ibid., 104.
[16] Ibid., 105.
[17] Ibid.  
[18] J├╝rgen MoltmannThe Crucified God (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 248.

A case study of abortion in the PC(USA)

Today's abortion issue in the U.S.A is very complex; it involves multiple parties such as legal bodies (government or states), religious groups, women (parents) and unborn children and doctors. In fact, this issue is not only about social justice but also about the issue of life and death. The Presbyterian Church (USA) began to express its concerns about this issue and advocate its position to influence public policy in 1970.

Looking back to the social context in the earlier time of abortion debates in this country, the watershed would be the early nineteen seventies when the Supreme Court's decision (1973) so-called Roe v. Wade ruled that "decisions about abortion are a matter of individual conscience and a constitutional right of privacy" (Williams 1990, 39).

Strikingly enough, as medical advancement has been accelerated, the abortion issue has been more controversial because it brought about new chances which might be used both positively and negatively for the women who considered abortions. Owing to this advancement of medical technology, abortion has been easier and safer than before, but at the same time, it has been misused as a means of birth control and of other uses of exploitation such as an easy to unwed teens' pregnancies or unwanted pregnancies. Among youths, abortion is often considered just as taking away a kind of tumor as it is not different from a usual medical treatment. Meanwhile, on the flip side of convenience issue of abortion, there have been other women who are so poor or powerless that they have had no access to that benefit.

As seen above, the issue contains the elements of consideration about religious faith, personal moral decisions, and social justice as well. The complexity of abortion involves society as a whole together with its complex environment. Thus this complexity requires us to answer many questions about human existence and life, God’s providence and God’s relation to creation and human beings, women's rights and the rights of unborn children, human's responsibility to and ability in creation, mission of church, the role of individual Christian and a community, biblical faith or principles to this issue, theological implications and reflections, and the list goes on and on.

Considering the complexity of abortion and the wider scope of this issue, all the aspects of this issue on which the General Assemblies of PC (USA) have worked cannot be covered in this small paper, partly because of the limit of length and principally because of lack of my capacity to deal with them. In this research I mainly investigate the denomination's position in terms of theological background together with the reasons for the theological position behind. Also, my intention is to see how PC-USA has changed its position, if at all, over the last 25 years or so, together with its formational process in its public advocacy and in its guidance to the whole church.

PC-USA Position
1) General Review of Struggling History
In view of such big complexity in this issue, our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) has struggled with abortion issue since 1972 when the General Assembly statement (184th) declared: "the artificial or induced termination of pregnancy is a matter of the careful ethical decision of the patient, . . . and therefore should not be restricted by law . . ." (Internet PC USA 1998). In this document from the 1972 minutes of General Assembly, "freedom of personal choice in problem pregnancies" was affirmed. Later on, the U.S Supreme Court, in 1973, ruled that the U.S Constitution allows women to have freedom of choice about abortion(Williams 1990, 39). The General Assembly's statement in 1972 clearly stated that abortion is not a matter for the courts but it is a matter personal ethical decision.

On the other hand, women have been oppressed by a patriarchal society in which some were victims of rape and incest, and of other reasons. But under that society, women had to endure their pain caused by unwanted pregnancies and other kinds of oppression. In other words, women's rights and freedom have not been honored. In this sense, this statement sought strike a balance between women’s rights and the unborn life's. Though the denomination took a pro-choice stance, this stance was conditional as in the cases of problem pregnancies or health problems.

In 1983, the Advisory Council on Church and Society transmits to the 195th General Assembly the following two reports, "The Covenant of Life and the Caring Community" and "Covenant and Creation: Theological Reflections on Contraception and Abortion." Here again, from 1972 statement of the General Assembly, these reports strongly present the conviction about human responsibility as "co-laborers with God" (Williams 1990, 87). Since creation is "not fixed, but on-going", we, humans, should be good "stewards" of God’s creation, "acting with prayerful concern for the value and quality of life as a gift of God" (Williams 1990, 87). As in God’s covenant relationship with the people of God, parents and children are also bound in this relationship. The theological support behind this statement is that God has given humans not only the responsibility of caring for creation but also the ability to share in it. God is concerned about for the quality and value of human life (Williams 1990, 87). In this thought, controlling unwanted pregnancies (problem pregnancies) is human responsibility and it is an act of caring for God’s creation. This conviction about stewardship validates the termination of unwanted pregnancies.

The reunited church (1983) approved the document mentioned above, and after that continued to be reaffirmed by consecutive General Assemblies (1985 & 1986) (Williams 1990, 139). The latest major statement on abortion by the Presbyterian General Assembly appeared in 1992. In this time, it seems that the statement lowered its strong voice with humbleness and openness to wider spectrum of voices. This document recognizes:

There is both agreement and disagreement on the basic issue of abortion. The committee (on problem pregnancies and abortion) agreed that there are no biblical texts that speak expressly to the topic of abortion, but that taken in their totality the Holy Scriptures are filled with messages that advocate respect for the women and child before and after birth. Therefore the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) encourages an atmosphere of open debate and mutual respect for a variety of opinions concerning the issues related to problem pregnancies and abortion (Internet PC USA 1998).

This statement echoes its moderate position, while emphasizing morally acceptable choice for women. In fact, in the face of pluralistic views on this issue, personal choice guided by the community of faith and the Holy Spirit is crucial to moral decision-making. It is noticeable that this statement recognized the multiple views on this issue because the General Assembly does not represent all the churches and members. However, General Assembly speaks for itself and asks members of churches to participate in the said issues. The formational process of ethical issues in PC (USA) is discussed in the fourth section.

Biblical, Theological Background and Reasons
Since there are no exactly-stated biblical texts which speak about abortion, biblical faith or principle in general had been sought out to apply it to this issue. It is not easy to pinpoint clearly a biblical or theological background, especially when more than last 25 years of involvement by the General Assemblies and their counter-partners is considered. But the strongest background comes from human’s positive role as God’s stewards and from freedom of personal choice as God’s gift. In other words, in God’s creation, humans are also co-workers with God in protecting, caring for, and improving the quality of life (Williams 1990, 91). In light of human’s role as co-workers with God, anthropology, as a corollary, is bright; humans are capable of making good moral decisions in the midst of conflicting values.

The reason why personal freedom is emphasized is that since this abortion issue varies depending on the contexts and that it is an issue of personal ethical matters, legal intervention is not welcomed in these situations. No matter how complex or difficult each case of abortion may be, the responsibility about the abortion decision lies with women who are ultimately accountable to God, and who ask God to give them wisdom and courage to deal with complex situations. Whatever decision would be among available options (rearing, adoption, abortion), God would give hope and empowerment to women. This is basic confirmation of Presbyterian’s mind and theology. In the midst of hard choices and of even seeming failures, God’s forgiveness and grace abound and are sufficient to overcome the times of grief (Williams 1990, 92). So, the key is the faith community’s guidance and support with the Holy Spirit to the women who are faced with making serious decision.

Major Changes over the period of struggle
Beginning in 1970, PC (USA) General Assembly began to express its concern about abortion. At the beginning the mood was to release women from their agonies caused by problem pregnancies by affirming the importance of personal choice (freedom of women), and this position was later strengthened by the U.S Supreme Court’s decision (Roe v. Wade) (Williams 1990, 93). But later on, this line of thought became more refined theologically, reaching its peak in 1983, when the reunited church approved a document, "The Covenant of Life and the Caring Community and Covenant and Creation" (Williams 1990, 139). At this time, its overtone was so strong that women’s rights were too much emphasized at the expense of the unborn child. But, in the 1992 statement, as mentioned in the previous section, the mood was returning to a moderate position, recognizing various perspectives on this issue, while maintaining minimum rights of women to choose abortion. Also, the change is its attention to the use of language concerning abortion issue (negative or violent uses) and attention to the low-income, oppressed women. Furthermore, it recognizes the tension between pro-life and pro-choice. The recommendation to "open debate and mutual respect" shows its moderate position (Internet PC USA 1998). Also, it is significant to note that in this statement of 1992 abortion is considered as a last resort.

Formational Process 
It is very important to know the process of issue by which this issue was handled and how to make public advocacy. Since the PC (USA) takes its form of government as "Presbyterian", it has its own constitution. One of the benefits of being Presbyterian is to make good use of the whole system of this government stated in the Book of Order. "Shared power" and a balanced function is the core theme in the Presbyterian polity (Book of Order 1997, G-4.0300). There is a two-way communication at large in the PC (USA): Top-down and Bottom-up. The former includes the communications from General Assembly to congregations through Presbyteries and synods, and the other, vice versa.

The issue handling process is "multidirectional"; on the one hand, The Committee on Social Witness Policy of the General Assembly has a "responsibility to foster the prophetic voice of the church in society by developing studies and statements that address the social, economic, political and moral issues facing the nation and the world, and on the other hand, the General Assembly "addresses these concerns corporately through the development, adoption and implementation of social witness policy" in order to guide and "advise the whole church regarding its public stance and response on current social issues" (Social Witness Policy pamphlet). Meanwhile, the General Assembly’s actions or statements approved by the General Assembly do not necessarily obligate its members, but they are guidelines and recommendations to them (PC-USA Why and How, v). And then, congregation or Presbytery can make overtures against the General Assembly’s statements issued.

As stated before, the Presbyterian polity is based on shared power and check and balance. Multidirectional and multilateral communication are basic tools to address concerns, to debate them and to discern God’s will in working together within a large community of faith. Over the last 25 years or so the Presbyterian Church (USA) has worked to better serve the mission of Christian Church. This still debatable issue of abortion has been handled in the multidirectional system. Because of this system and work, PC USA could maintain balancing its position about abortion. In fact, a lot of overtures from presbyteries were received by the General Assembly. This provided chances to proceed a further talk and to review official statement of the General Assembly. This intercommunication rather than one way communication enriches capacity to handle various ethical issues.

The long history of struggle with this issue of abortion is exhaustive but helpful to be more conscious of the vulnerable existence of human beings and to be dependent on God’s grace and wisdom. The acknowledgment of the complexity of the issue as socio- economical, ethical, religious matters was bottom line in the General Assembly’s advocacy; the cause of many abortion cases are varied. Recognizing women’s status of oppression, especially in the cases of the powerless and poor women, the situation is more serious than men’s expectation or society-held conviction as I read women’s personal stories about their painful experiences. So, the church at least should stand for the people of oppression and reaffirm personal integrity and freedom as persons standing before God, while resorting to wisdom and courage. In this sense, our denomination’s body, the General Assembly struck a balance between pro-life and pro-choice, leaving God’s realm or work in the midst of difficult situations. Also, the acknowledgment of complexity of this issue and of humbleness is important because we have "neither the wisdom nor the authority to address or decide each situation" (Internet PC USA 1998). It should be noted that the General Assembly recognized pastoral care and moral guidance to related women who are standing on the brink. Pro-life groups usually pay attention to the unborn baby as a same human being, but not much attention is given to the women’s pain. As I understood in women’s stories, most women who had abortions suffered from double pain. One is the loss of potential life (unborn baby) and another is the loss of her being, a feeling of separation from society, sometimes from their own churches, being treated like criminals. They claim that this pain is greater than the loss of the fetus itself (Eggebroten 1994, 33). What then is the church’s mission? Reconciliation and peacemaking are important. One of the guiding principles of the General Assembly was reconciliation and peacemaking (Reconciliation between women and men, society and church, etc.).

In conclusion, I support the latest statement of the General Assembly (1992). The best way to deal with abortion is to work on removing causes of abortion (caused by unwanted pregnancies) in advance, by returning to Christian way of character formation in the faith community. Once abortion takes place or is considered as an option, each case is to be approached through the lens of love and suffering as our Lord ministered to the oppressed and the poor in this public ministry (Church and Society 1990, 83). Condemnation and judgment are the most evil dangers which block us to be included in an inclusive community.

Works Cited
Eggebroten, Anne, ed. 1994. Abortion -My choice and God’s grace. California: New
Paradigm Books.

General Assembly. 1997. Book of Order, 97-98. Louisville: Presbyterian Church (USA).
Internet PC (USA). 1998. Abortion.

Presbyterian Church (USA). 1990. Jan/Feb. Church and Society. ed. Kathy Lancaster.
Louisville: The Social Justice and Peacemaking Unit of the General Assembly.

Presbyterian Church (USA). Pamphlet titled Social Witness Policy: Why, What, How?

Presbyterian Church (USA). Why and How the Church makes Social Policy Witness?

Williams, Alex W., compiler. 1990. Abortion: All materials related to Presbyterian
Churches. Georgia: Presbyterian Campus Ministry, Inc.