Posts tagged with: Reformed churches

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, May 17, 2012

As part of his final address to the participants in the law and religion symposium last week, Rik Torfs, a Belgian senator and head of the faculty of canon law at KU Leuven, observed that some of the great things in public discourse occur in the context of vociferous initial backlash. After all, he said, if you posit something and everyone just accepts it as a matter of course, then it is merely a truism and of no benefit to anyone. You haven’t really said anything at all.

Forgive me for the personal detour, but Torfs’ observation reminded me of one of the responses to my book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. In a lengthy “reply to Jordan J. Ballor,” Christopher Dorn essentially argues that “Ballor excludes himself from a discussion which can properly evaluate the claim that the use of ‘empire’ does in fact rest on a theological basis.” Dorn’s appeals to Karl Barth on this point for a “theological basis” may resonate with some, but do little to allay my fears about the particularly Reformed rationale for doing so, glosses to John Calvin notwithstanding.

Dorn does charitably contend that “there is always room for honest disagreement and divergence.” In a similar way Rev. Peter Borgdorff of the Christian Reformed Church has said that he prefers to call the Accra document a “conversation” rather than a “confession.” But I think that a plain reading of the Accra Confession, on its own terms qua confession, does little to validate the claim that there is “always room” in the ecumenical tent for “honest disagreement and divergence.” In fact, the concern that unity not be reduced to unanimity on these points was one of the major motivations behind my critical engagement.

It’s nice to be part of the conversation, I suppose, but I’d feel better if such “critical voices” were not, as Dorn puts it, “in the minority.”


The fine folks at Cardus, the noteworthy thinktank north of the border, have posted a review of The Best of the Reformed Journal.

John Schmalzbauer, who teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Missouri State University where he holds the Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies, concludes about the situation sixty years after the founding of the Reformed Journal:

Though the surnames remain the same, American politics has changed. Defending Franklin Roosevelt, Lester DeKoster once wrote that “laissez faire has never been Calvinism’s way.” A loyal New Deal Democrat, DeKoster was also an outspoken advocate of the free market, arguing that “The Lord God is a free enterpriser.” Today it is harder to find a pro-market advocate of the welfare state.

In 2012, Reformed intellectuals are divided on economic matters. While the ecumenical Acton Institute uses Abraham Kuyper to advocate for free market principles, scholars like Nicholas Wolterstorff speak of social justice.

Which vision represents the true neocalvinist approach? Can a Reformed understanding of social justice be reconciled with a vigorous defense of the free market? The Reformed Journal used to be the arena in which these questions were discussed; is there such an arena today?

As someone who came to the Reformed tradition as an adult (with a French-Canadian surname, no less!), the recent history of Reformed and specifically neo-Calvinist approaches to social questions is important. It helps us understand how the intellectual atmosphere of Grand Rapids, and by extension some significant portion of broader evangelicalism, has been formed. And to know where we are going, we must know where we have come from.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, January 11, 2011

It is sometimes remarked in response to my treatment of the Accra Confession of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and now World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) in my book Ecumenical Babel that the Accra document is not really a confession at all. It says itself, after all, that it is a confession, but “not meaning a classical doctrinal confession, because the World Alliance of Reformed Churches cannot make such a confession, but to show the necessity and urgency of an active response to the challenges of our time and the call of Debrecen.”

Rather than being a confession in some technical ecclesiastical sense, then, it is better understood as a declaration, or even still a “conversation,” as it was dubbed by a commenter at one of my talks on the Accra Confession. My response to this is that I am in favor of a discussion, a dialogue, and a conversation about the Reformed faith, economics, and globalization, but if you actually read the Accra Confession, it is a document that shuts down conversation rather than fostering it. It draws lines between faithfulness and unfaithfulness, just as any Christian confession does. Having already determined the rightness or wrongness of particular views, it forces one to take sides. There’s little room for authentic “conversation” in that kind of a rhetorical context.

Indeed, I would say the dominant interpretive context of the Accra Confession within ecumenical circles is precisely as a confession, “to respond in a confessional manner, that is, to take a faith stance regarding current global economic injustices and ecological destruction.” In his article, “The Historical Context of the Accra Confession,” Averell Rust exemplifies this perspective perfectly. Rust traces the background of the process toward the Accra Confession, dubbed the processus confessionis, and contends, “The debate on whether the ‘integrity of our faith is at stake’ has moved beyond an ethical discussion to a theological one. It proceeded to the call for a status confessionis/processus confessionis.” It is essential to note that the Debrecen call to which the Accra Confession explicitly links itself was a call for WARC churches “to work towards the formulation of a confession of their beliefs about economic life which would express justice in the whole household of God and reflect priority for the poor and support an ecologically sustainable future.”

It is worth exploring conference proceedings published in vol. 65, issue no. 1 of Hervormde Teologiese Studies (2009), which generally reflect a similar assessment. A notable exception is Hans-Wilfried Haase’s “Theological Remarks on the Accra Confession,” which criticizes the confession on a number of salient points. He concludes that the rhetorical stance of the document “becomes a problem, however, when some possible actions take on the quality of a confession and people who, for various reasons cannot agree with those actions, are then excluded from the confession.” Or as I have claimed, a particular wholesale rejection of economic globalization should not become an article of the Reformed faith.