The fault line between the Reformed and the... er, post-Reformed?

Thu, 12/01/2012 - 11:42

Everyone by now must have noticed that there is a large and unsightly crack running down the middle of that highly vocal and energetic sector of Western Christianity that thinks of itself in the broadest sense as “evangelical”. It is not the only fault line—Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism and what I suppose we must still call “liberal” Christianity (it seems a waste of a good word) are similarly divided from one another and from evangelicalism. But this is the one that I live closest to—actually, very close to at the moment; and I have a hard time explaining it.

On one side of the fault line is a fairly coherent grouping of Reformed churches and theologies, recently reinvigorated. On the other side… well, things are not quite so clear.

A year ago David Fitch identified it as a loose ecclesial-theological coalition of “Neo-Anabaptist, Centrist-communal-wholistic-Baptist, Holiness/Charismatic oriented, Kingdom minded, evangelical Missionals”. To make “Missionals” the key denominator is probably too restrictive, and “Kingdom minded” is an inadequate basis for developing an alternative evangelical theology. But clearly we are struggling to put a name to the large territory that lies to the left of the great divide. So for now I will call it “post-Reformed”, because I think it is held together primarily by the conviction that it is too much to expect the Reformation to provide resources to meet the complex set of challenges that the church faces at the end of Christendom.

This has to be the basic reason why the ground has opened up in this way—the land mass of evangelicalism has come under immense “eschatological” strain, and we are having to decide where the future lies. Then perhaps what happens is that the fundamental structural oppositions of the collective mind align themselves with the cultural shift—certainty against uncertainty, tradition against reason, deduction against inference, progress against reaction, answers against questions, inclusion against exclusion, control against release, universals against particulars, word against spirit, singularity against plurality, and so on. And there we have it—the thoroughgoing dissociation of the Reformed mindset from the post-Reformed mindset.

But I approach the matter right now largely on a personal basis. The church that we are part of has a moderate Reformed theology (combined with a rather immoderate charismatic practice), and I find myself often having to negotiate what can feel like genetic differences of outlook and belief. It appears that we are far enough apart to be distinct species, sufficiently divergent at the genetic level that we are unable to interbreed, even if by the grace of God we find that we can safely intermingle.

As an simple exercise in self-understanding, therefore, I have listed here a number of contrasting features. They are approximate, somewhat random, and a little disorderly. They reflect my own perspective on the situation, which is necessarily limited and to whatever degree ill-informed. Others will, no doubt, map things differently.

The Reformed position The post-Reformed position
affirms the values and belief system of the Protestant Reformation, is backward-looking, conservative; is unwilling to be bound by the values and belief system of the Protestant Reformation, is forward-looking, progressive;
takes a largely rational and dogmatic approach to the development of a Christian mindset; takes a historical and narrative approach to the development of a Christian mindset;
insists that masculine Theology takes the lead in the awkward interpretive dance of Theology and History (I have Nicholas Perrin to thank for this metaphor); lets feminine History take the lead in the awkward interpretive dance of Theology and History;
assumes an essentially foundationalist epistemology, emphasizing rationality and internal coherence; assumes a more post-modern epistemology that emphasizes the personal, relational, experiential, cultural and historical nature of “truth”;
sees no reason to put “truth” in quotation marks; makes frequent use of quotation marks;
discards particularities in favour of universals; deconstructs universals in favour of particularities;
downplays the significance of context for the construction of meaning; thinks that meaning without context is like a person without a genealogy, a country without a history, a door without a wall, traffic lights without a road, and so on…;
is top down, synchronic, right of centre; is bottom up, diachronic, left of centre;
is uncomfortable with questions, ambiguity and doubt, resists messiness; is uncomfortable with confidence, authority and certainty, relishes messiness;
sees the world in black and white; sees the world in shades of grey;
likes to listen to doctrines at bedtime; likes to listen to stories at bedtime;
is less receptive of critical thought, is resistant to the power of secular metanarratives, is more likely to reject evolutionism; is more receptive of critical thought, is intrigued by the power of secular metanarratives, is open to scientific accounts of origins;
takes the Bible very seriously; takes the Bible very seriously, only not in the same way;
regards New Testament theology as essentially post-Jewish, sees more discontinuity than continuity; regards New Testament theology as essentially Jewish, sees more continuity than discontinuity;
likes theology to be constructed determinately rather than indeterminately, in closed rather than open categories; is unhappy with deterministic accounts of election and divine intention, is not greatly impressed by arguments for inerrancy;
has a belief system that is like a top spinning on the point of the atoning death of Jesus and around the axis of justification by faith, which will fall over if it loses momentum; has a belief system that is more like a network of pathways through a forest, in which it is easy to get lost;
gets very upset if the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is compromised; gets very upset by the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement;
is more likely to emphasize separation and exclusion; is more likely to emphasize embrace and inclusion;
is complementarian; is egalitarian;
promotes community and justice but not at the expense of a gospel of personal salvation; promotes community and justice;
does evangelism; does mission;
expects to go to heaven; would prefer to end up in a new heavens and new earth;
is much more likely to believe in a literal hell. thinks that “hell” is at best a serious misunderstanding of scripture and at worst a moral and theological abomination.


Interesting analysis Andrew, as always!  Was it meant to make me laugh that much?  Maybe the laughter was from self-recognition... but 'in which column?', I hear you ask...

Personally I can't see the forest for the trees but I wouldn't be anywhere else!

The most interesting thing I've read lately that challenges the left hand column (maybe the columns should have been switched so left and right could have been represented properly?) is David Brondos' newest book "Redeeming the Gospel".  The most important point in it is how he critiques and then defines justification.  The result is an outlook that is just as well defined as the Reformed/PSA one, but Brondos has a heavy emphasis on OT/NT narrative continuity.  It works as a stand alone book, but it might be helpful to read "Paul on the Cross" and his book on the history of the doctrine of atonement first.  It's taking a bit for the pieces to fall into place, but rejecting Reformed/PSA categories is not going to mean walking away from a clearly defined sense of justification and atonement.

Agreed! Thanks for mentioning Brondos' book.  As far as I can tell, he reminds me of Scot McKnight who, while he rails against caricatures of the Reformed gospel reduced to a sinner's prayer/plan of salvation, has no problem with "covenant soterians" like Horton who also mentions the "OT/NT narrative continuity" you mention.

While I find myself checking off most of the Post-Reformed column, I don't find myself upset by PSA.  If the words "Penal Substitutionary Atonement," ignoring Reformed nuances like double imputation, can be found in this: That Christ died for our sins--but without trying to plug 1 Cor. 15:3 into a systematic theology--then I have no problem saying I believe in penal substitutionary atonement.  I believe Jesus "died for our sins," but that could mean anything.  I believe it might be possible to search for a "a clearly defined sense of justification and atonement," but I don't think it's the end of the world if not so.   Surely, the belief that Jesus died "for our sins" is not merely a Reformed statement, and it does not have to remain exclusive from the Christus Victor model(s), either.

Mr. Periman, I quite appreciate this article and the columns you've set, and although I find labels restrictive at times, I can already see myself proudly donning the title of "Post-Reformed."

However, if I had things my way, I would call myself "Reformed." I believe we do honor to the Reformation when we challenge traditions with another fresh look at Scripture, that we stand in line with Luther and Calvin even though we may have deconstructed some of their theology.  I proudly and gratefully stand on their shoulders.  They sought to resolve problems and to challenge what they perceived as oppressive tradition and corruption, to reform.  Is this not a noble paradigm that we embody as we challenge centuries of tradition since the Reformation, to see what needs to change, not for the sake of divisive speculation, but to address the problems we see today?

Truly, I don't perceive it as "Post-Reformation," but simply "Reformation."  If they had the tools and the paradigms to understand Scripture as "narratively contextualized" that we do today, they would do the same.  We do not contradict, we continue.  We do not end it, but extend it.  With respect and love, I dare say that today's traditionalist perspectives do not deserve to wear the title "Reformed," or "evangelical" insofar as they over emphasize on an euangelion as a plan of salvation.

In twenty years, someone might find another Dead Sea Scrolls, majorly challenging current interpretations and paradigms, and they might laugh at the things we see in the right column of the "Post-Reformed," not just the left "Reformed" column.  But I hope that we gratefully and humbly pass on the torch to future Reformers.

Ecclesia semper reformanda est,


I love it. Funny,I just worked up some similar comparisons regarding process thought relating to various outlooks.

How about considering:

Reformed:Is entrenched in neoplatonism and doesn't realize it

Neoreformed (like process): leaves Plato in the dust bin of history and embraces the  culture and spirit of the Hebrew narrative.

I can't help but think that process theology and progressive Christianty has been into much of the right hand side of your list for quite a while. But it is good for these things to be introduced into the evangelical realm.

I resonated with much of what you wrote here. The one place I was scratching my head was the dis-/continuity piece. It seems to me that one of Reformed Theology's greatest Achilles heels is its over-commitment to continuity, and a continuity based on the wrong things (e.g., transhistorical moral law).

It’s an interesting question. What I tend to notice in sermons (and I don’t think this is exclusively a Reformed failing) is that the OT is used basically as a source of analogies, allegories, illustrations and of course prophecies for New Testament truths. That may well be part of the mechanism underlying your observation regarding a “transhistorical moral law”. Highly christological readings of the Old Testament would fall into the same category, would they not?

It does not make sense to me why the openness to evolution falls on the same side as the narrative theology and history.  Macroevolution is not part of the biblical narrative or history.  Not only does evolution not match the biblical history (and even the secularists agree that whoever wrote Genesis wrote it as a history book, from beginning to end), it does not even line up with the narrative themes of the rest of the Bible.  It seems that when it comes to protology, the "Reformed" types are more narrative based than many of the so-called narrative theologians.

I take your point. I have a couple of thoughts in response. First, the openness to evolutionary accounts of human origins and the narrative-historical hermeneutic are both independently a consequence of a commitment to rational-critical methods. I would guess that most people on this side of the chart read the Genesis texts with a prior commitment to evolution.

But secondly, historical readings of Genesis 1-3 will take into account the ancient near eastern context in which texts were composed and probably conclude that the biblical account was written to address quite different questions to those posed by modern science.

There's some solid scholarship and theology published to support how the Genesis creation story was not described as a static event (creatio ex nihilo).

Hi Corey,

Could you direct me to these publications?  I'm open minded on it.  But so far I haven't seen any science which is altogether incompatible with the six day, ex-nihilo view (and I am very familiar with most of the latest scientific arguments for evolution), nor any theology.  To me the six day account fits best with the rest of the narrative (specific place and time, specific people, etc.).



Sure Steven.

I am referring to the more (relatively) recent concepts of process theology, originating in philosopher/mathematician Alfred North Whitehed and further developed by Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, Catherine Keller and many others in Judaism and other faiths. Process thought is completely at ease with science and has also handily addressed numerous problems that arise in classical/supernatural theism.

I would start with Catherine Keller's "Face of the deep" or "On the mystery" if you're interested.




Hi Andrew,

Thanks for your thoughts and for expressing the uncomfortableness that many of us on simillar journeys feel as we try to maintain unity in diversity with our more reformed family members.

One thing I didn't understand was the Masculine Theology vs Feminine Histroy reference?  Could you please explain the relevance of the Gender catergories in this context?

Many Thanks


Neil, that was a little tongue in cheek—the dance metaphor suggested a male and female partnership, and the new Reformed crowd are heavy on male leadership. Having said that, is there not something masculine about theology or dogmatics as a controlling, directive discipline, and something feminine about history as a story-telling discipline?

Thanks for the response,

I see what you are getting at. 


At random...

The New Testament, the end of theology, and the recovery of dialogue In very broad brush strokes my overarching thesis—if you like—expounded here and in my books, is this: that the main narrative trajectory of the New Testament lands at God’s judgment of the world of Greek-Roman paganism and the...
A question about annihilationism A couple of questions were sent to me recently regarding my view on “hell”. I have blogged far more than I ever intended to on the subject over the last year, mainly because Rob Bell’s Love Wins put the Emergent cat among the excitable...
Dogmas, doctrines, opinions, and narratives Ever since the early Jewish Christian movement first pushed its way into the Greek-Roman world, the church has built its house on what appeared for many centuries to be the immovable and unshakeable sandstone of theology—that is, theology...