Sunday, June 29, 2008

What is the German Reformed Tradition?

I think the German Reformed Tradition is often over looked. This is a fact that few can ignore. When it is remembered, it is almost always remembered incorrectly. People too often associate the German Reformed Tradition with Mercersburg Theology. They do this because people want to define a tradition by the great scholars of the day from that tradition. In America, Mercersburg Seminary was the German Reformed Church’s seminary, and their main scholars put for the Mercersburg Theology. But, that theology was never fully accepted by the German Reformed Church because it was a departure from the German Reformed Tradition. I hope in the some future posts to flesh out what the German Reformed Tradition is and how off Mercersburg was from it, but I will give a brief view of what I believe is the German Reformed Tradition now.

1. Reformed Pietism. Pietism has bad connotations for many, but the German Reformed Tradition is one of Reformed Pietism. It really resisted the Reformed Scholasticism movement of the latter Reformation. Although there is a unique blend of Scholasticism and Pietism in the Heidelberg Catechism. Ursinus was a Scholastic. Olevianus was much more pietistic. Yet, they came together to make the Heidelberg. Note the Heidelberg is written in 1st and 2nd person rather than the usual 3rd person such as the Westminster. The governing principle of the catechism is our comfort in life and death. This is part of the reason that the German Reformed Tradition did not produce grand systematic theologians nor had a seminary of their own until the middle of the 19th century. The church emphasized piety more than scholarship.

2. High Calvinism. The German Reformed Church has always held to a high and strict Calvinism. If one looks at Ursinus’s Major Catechism it does not take long to see the importance placed on election and double predestination. The German delegates at the Synod of Dort were insistent on Limited Atonement. Even the founders of the German Reformed Church in America were very strict. Rev. Boehm rejected the idea of union with the American Presbyterians because they did not specifically hold to the Canons of Dort, and he feared their Calvinism defective. Rev. Schlatter, the architect of the German Reformed Church in America, was well known for his High Calvinism and even later men like Dr. Samuel Hellfinstien, who trained men from the ministry from his house, taught and held to a vigorous High Calvinism.

3. Anti-Revivalism. This was not something that started with Nevin’s critique of the Second Great Awakening. While it is true that during the Second Great Awakening some of their methods had made inroads, it was not all pervasive. Nevin’s book won him a great following because the church as a whole was already not revivalistic. During the First Great Awakening while the other major churches were all suffering splits between pro and anti revival groups, the German Reformed Church lost only one church and one minister. And the church came back. Remember this was also done in the face of Count Zinzendorf who came to America with his Moravian/Revivalistic theology trying to unite all the German Protestant churches. It should also be noted that when the German Reformed Church sought out help from the Presbyterians, they talked to the Old Side/Anti-Revival Synod of Philadelphia.

4. Covenant Theology. This is often over looked when people discuss the Covenant Theologians they go to the Dutch or some other famous seminary professor. But, Olevianus is often considered one of the first Covenant Theologians. Ursinus organized his Major Catechism (before the Heidelberg) around the principle of the covenant. These two men were the fathers of the German Reformed Tradition.

There are other things that can be mentioned as distinctive teachings of German Reformed. It should be noted that the German Reformed did not have the exclusive psalmody history that some of the other branches begin with. It is in Germany that hymnody took hold in the church, and not just with Luther. The Reformed did their share as well.
It should also be noted that the German Reformed Tradition is one of the only ones not to be hampered by Erastianism. At some point the Dutch let the State mingle with the church. The Westminster mingled the church and state. Not so much with the Germans. The Heidelberg Catechism makes it quite clear that the power of the keys rest with the church. It is the church who will do the discipline, not the state. This would have been a clear difference with the Dutch.

I hope to come back to some of this in future posts, but I hope this is a primer for many of you.


Bud said...

Very good, Lee. I love the RCUS for these things. Sometimes I wonder if the present churches, even the old ones, know much about this tradition.

Keep up the good work.