Nate Pyle on the Reformed Tradition [Voices from the Branches]

Reformation Wall in Geneva from Flickr via Wylio

Reformation Wall in Geneva (William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and John Knox) © 2003 Mark Gstohl, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

{This is the third installment of a series on Christian traditions called Voices from the Branches–a collection of interviews with pastors, bloggers, and scholars from various traditions. Read more about it here.}

Nate Pyle serves as the Lead Pastor of Christ’s Community Church in Fishers, Indiana and blogs at natepyle.com.  Read more about him and see some of his most popular articles here. I’ve been edified and encouraged by Nate’s voice in social media. In what can sometimes be a contentious and polarizing atmosphere, Nate often brings grace and peace to conversations between Reformed and non-Reformed believers.

You can follow him on Twitter here.

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Tell us your story. How did you end up in the Reformed tradition?

View More: http://meganmellingerphotography.pass.us/nate-pyleThe story of how I came to be in the Reformed tradition is very uneventful. I was born into it. My parents are Reformed, my grandparents are Reformed, and my great-grandparents were Reformed. My family is a Dutch family who were a part of the Dutch Reformed Church who settled West Michigan in the mid-1800’s.

Give us a brief introduction to the Reformed tradition. How did it begin?

The Reformed tradition finds its roots in the Protestant Reformation and the teachings of John Calvin. While Luther was the brave trailblazer for the reformation, Calvin was the one who carefully thought through the theological issues and put them into a system. It is the teachings of Calvin, along with Ulrich Zwingli, that led one branch of churches that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church to be known as Reformed churches.

As the teachings of Calvin spread throughout Europe, different expressions began to take place. John Knox, who was initially influenced by Lutheran thought, studied in Geneva with Calvin. When Knox returned to Scotland he successfully established a number of Reformed churches, which became the Presbyterian Church. Calvin’s teachings spread to the Netherlands where they became the Dutch Reformed (in America the Dutch Reformed are the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church). While these aren’t the only denominations and expressions of the Reformed tradition, they are the most well known.

What are the distinguishing doctrines of Reformed theology?

Most people identify the doctrine of election, or predestination, with Reformed theology. Election often gets a bad rap because approach election from a soteriology focused on the individual. So God elects some to be saved, damns others, and that is it. But election really is founded on Ephesians 1:4 where “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” The doctrine of election simply means that God, according to his divine choice, freely chose to form a covenant with Israel, and to later establish a new covenant in Jesus with Jew and Gentile. God elected to do that by his grace and that surprising favor of God towards sinners is mysteriously beautiful. Thus, the doctrine of election is meant to bring about praise for God from the believer.

We get into problems when we try to use the doctrine to explain why some respond to the gospel and others don’t or to try and determine why God, in his sovereignty allows tragic things to happen. I like how Daniel Migliore puts it, “the doctrine of election has one central purpose: it declares that all the works of God – creation, reconciliation, and redemption – have their beginning in the free grace of God.”

And while election is one doctrine, it is not a central doctrine. The covenantal nature of God’s relationship with humans is a much more prominent, much more informative doctrine in Reformed theology. In this relationship, God is revealed as the Trinitarian God. The doctrine of the Trinity is pervasive in Reformed theology. It informs how we think about the sacraments, the reading of scripture, and the process of sanctification in the life of the believer.

Lastly, Reformed tradition seeks to be catholic in the sense that it finds its roots into the one, universal church. Tradition is extremely important because we believe that the Spirit of God was at work in the world through the church and has never abandoned the church. In the beginning of the Reformation, theologians read heavily of the patristic fathers. These became the foundation for their teachings on the character of God, Christology, and Trinity.

Tell us about the variations in the Reformed tradition as far as denominations go.

The variations in denominations is plentiful. It would be hard to categorize them. However, some differences can be seen in the different creeds and confessions of the denomination. For example, both the Presbyterian Church in America and the Presbyterian Church USA use the Westminster confession whereas the Reformed Church of America and the Christian Reformed Church do not. The Westminster is a much more wooden and cold document when compared to the Heidelberg Catechism, which tends to have a more pastoral tone. But the overall theological differences are minor. The differences tend to be how the theology is expressed, stances on contemporary issues regarding gender and sexuality, and creeds and confessions.

When many hear the word Reformedthey equate it with Calvinist.Would you make a distinction between the two? If so, how?

It seems that one can be Calvinist without being Reformed by simply adhering to the doctrine that has become known as T.U.L.I.P. In many cases, those who are Calvinist are really only Calvinist in their soteriology, and do not share Calvin’s view of the sacraments or ecclesiology. Comparatively, one who is Reformed has a Reformed understanding of scripture, covenantal theology, ecclesiology, and, sanctification. As J. Todd Billings has said, “Regardless of whether you consider the Reformed tradition to be your own, don’t be afraid to pick flowers from the Reformed field. Because even if you’re avoiding tulips, there is much in this spacious field that has grown from the seed of God’s word.”

The so-called Young, Restless, and Reformedmovement continually gets a lot of press. Are they representative of the Reformed tradition as a whole?

Not at all. But no one group is representative of the Reformed tradition. As it is, the Reformed tradition is broad and diverse, both in practice and theology. For example, the YRR expression of Reformed thought tend to be complimentarian in their approach to the role of men and women in the church. Many in the Reformed tradition are egalitarian and recognize not only the ability of women to lead in the church, but the value of their leadership as well.

On top of that, they tend to be less sacramental and less “big picture.” Reformed theology provides a cultural mandate to go and be salt and light in the world. The idea of the church being separate from society or even to triumphant over culture is foreign to Reformed theology. Rather, Reformed theology sends the Spirit-filled individual into society with their God-given identity to be an agent of reconciliation.

What resources would you recommend for getting more acquainted with Reformed theology?

There are a number of good resources to become more familiar with Reformed theology. I would start with Letters to a Young Calvinist by James K.A. Smith. It provides a nice overview of Reformed thought through an engaging, accessible, and fictitious conversation between two people. J. Todd Billings Union with Christ is a wonderful book on salvation and ministry, along with his book The Word of God for the People of God which focuses on how we should approach the Bible. Finally, I would point people to Daniel Migliore’s Faith Seeking Understanding as an introduction to Christian Theology from Reformed Perspective.

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