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by Matthew van Maastricht

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…

What does it mean to be Reformed? 

I fear that we haven’t done great P.R. of late, leading to some sobering definitions and associations with our tradition. Many have been taught that being Reformed is all about the “five points” (even though those five points are mislabeled, taken out of context, and given an authority much greater than was ever the intention) — that is, to be Reformed is nothing more than a certain soteriology (a doctrine of salvation). For others, the word Reformed calls to mind a person who is overly legalistic, patriarchal, and closed to anything outside of a narrow box. And for others, to be Reformed is to be cold, imagining God to be a cold and loveless giver of decrees and little more. 

For me, to be Reformed is about belonging.

I am a Reformed Christian of the Dutch tradition. It is related to the Scots Presbyterian tradition, though nuanced differently. It has absolutely nothing to do with the “Young, Restless, and Reformed Movement.”

There is a warmth to the piety of the Dutch tradition. Even the Canons of the Synod of Dort, where the misnamed and misunderstood “five points” originate (as a judicial ruling) and the atrocious acronym TULIP, are filled with pastoral sensitivity and warmth. The ideal of the faith formation is not didactic lessons in a classroom, but learning about God at the feet of one’s grandmother.

From a Reformed perspective, it has been said that the most important theologian in one’s life is their mother, from whom they learn the most about the God.

There is a warmness in the Dutch Reformed tradition that is somewhat unique, I think. And if the Reformed tradition has anything to offer the world (and I am convinced that it does), it is not primarily our soteriology (which is not unique to us), nor our eschatology (also not unique), or anything of the like. I think that what the Reformed tradition has to offer the world is a thoughtful and warm faith, not speaking about faith in theological abstracts or parsing the nuances between infra- and supralapsarianism, but to understand that our only comfort in life and in death is that we belong to Christ. A faith which informs both heart and mind, and helps us love God with both faculties, never sacrificing one for the sake of the other.

Have we always lived up to this? Of course not. I am not going to argue that the Dutch Reformed tradition has always radiated warmth. But it is our ideal, and ideals are important to have something toward which to strive. And I think this ideal is important in the world in which we find ourselves.

My church communion, the Reformed Church in America, is on the verge of tearing itself apart, and I feel this very deeply in my being. The thought of the Reformed Church no longer existing, or the Reformed church being reshaped by a theology that’s more rooted in fundamentalism than in the warmth of our tradition makes me grieve. I do not grieve because the Reformed Church is the only church, or because the Reign of God is somehow dependent upon the Reformed Church, or that the Reformed Church somehow has a corner on truth. None of these are the case. God’s action in the world surely doesn’t depend on our tiny church communion.

I grieve because I think that the Dutch Reformed tradition has something unique to offer the world.

In a world which is hurting, broken, and divided, might the Dutch Reformed tradition have something to offer?

Our guest writer today, Matthew van Maastricht, is a pastor, a church historian, a church polity teacher, and a writer. He serves the Altamont Reformed Church in Altamont, New York. 

Matthew van Maastricht

Matthew van Maastricht is a pastor, a church historian, a church polity teacher, and a writer. He serves the Altamont Reformed Church in Altamont, New York. 

10 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Can I confirm this historically? I believe that the Dutch Reformed piety that I grew up in was not formed in church, but in the home. The church confirmed it and celebrated it, but we really learned it at home, in family Bible reading at the dinner table, in discussions there, in family prayers at the dinner table, and then at bedside with your mom. This was my own experience and I saw it again and again in other families within the congregations I served. This got broken down by the general change in culture, the declension of family dinner-time, the advent of television, and the eroding American evangelical theology that you were not really a Christian until you consciously made that decision to be born again. “God has no grandchildren.” Actually, quite false, if you check the Biblical stories. Belonging, yes. And then we belong to each other, like it or not.

  • mstair says:

    “My church communion, the Reformed Church in America, is on the verge of tearing itself apart, and I feel this very deeply in my being. The thought of the Reformed Church no longer existing, or the Reformed church being reshaped by a theology that’s more rooted in fundamentalism than in the warmth of our tradition makes me grieve.”

    Me, too.
    It is being driven by an abandonment of wanting to be “The People of God” – so to become “A Person of God.” The warmth is in the former – as Jesus taught – when we deny ourselves and see that discerning ourselves through the lives of other Believers provides the most accurate self-perception. The warmth is in Paul’s teaching when we realize that God did not chose just individuals in Christ to be holy and blameless in His presence before the creation of the world – He chose a community – and when that community lives out His purpose in worship, communion, and service – warmth is found together through belonging.

  • RLG says:

    Wow, Matthew, do you have blinders on? Christianity, itself, is exclusionary (only one way to heaven, through the Christ of Christianity), but the Dutch Reformed tradition is the extreme of that exclusionism. Simply, the terminology you use shows its exclusiveness, “the Dutch Reformed tradition.” It’s not just the Christian tradition but the Dutch Reformed tradition. You place qualifiers on your Christian faith, which narrows the playing field of belonging. Your comment that your “church communion is tearing itself apart” shows the narrowness of your faith tradition. You seem afraid of embracing others unlike yourself into your traditional Dutch Reformed family. There’s a saying, “it’s better felt than telt.” From inside that tradition of being both Reformed and Dutch you definitely feel that sense of belonging. The borders of your faith tradition feel natural to you. But for an outsider (Christian) coming into such a tradition it’s a different story altogether.

    You sound as though you might want to downplay the Reformed theological distinctions of the Reformed faith. You suggest emphasizing that “our only comfort in life and death is that we belong to Christ,” and this somehow eradicates the theological distinction that such a statement of belonging specifically means we have be chosen by God’s sovereign grace to be his people. The Dutch Reformed faith is a “confessional” faith defined by its confessions. To believe differently is to be other than Dutch Reformed. To believe differently (from within) is to tear its Reformed tradition apart.

  • My husband, the late Rev. Richard Lake and I served the Warsaw International church for four years (1989-1993). Members of the congregation were from many different countries, many different cultural traditions, and many different faith backgrounds. When a new face appeared in worship, no one asked another do you believe this or do you believe that. Everyone went to that person and said, “Welcome!”
    Richard chose to belong and be ordained (1963) in the Reformed Church in America because he and I found a warmth and welcome. He would heartsick to see the situation we find ourselves in today.

  • Jack Teitsma says:

    HI Matthew, I suspect you’ve been trolled by RLG. Unfortunate. You make good points and there is value in RCA traditions and naming the fundamentalist departures that are occurring now. Well done.

  • Ben Lin says:

    If you read and quote beyond the first Q&A of the Heidelberg, which is very Dutch Reformed, there is a lot of doctrines and yesses and noes, or ins and outs. Belonging means something if you are clear what binds you together. It is more than just “I belong to Christ.” The HC goes on to tell how and why we must belong to Christ, as well as how we do not belong to Christ.

  • James Brumm says:

    Yes, Ben, but . . .

    . . . if you go all the way to the end, and the final question and answer about the meaning of “Amen,” you get: “This shall truly and surely be! It is even more sure that God listens to my prayer than that I really desire what I pray for.” The Catechism ends with God taking care of us, despite ourselves–pretty much where it began. Yes, there are lots of other bits in between, and some of them are uncomfortable, and some of them are sources of struggle; we are weighed down with a lot of problematic history. But the first and the last, the pattern for our lives, is that God loves us and cares for us, always, no questions asked. Imagine if we all treated each other the way God treats us, not when we get it right, not when we all agree, but just because we are.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Ben Lin, for your comment on the further clarifications of belonging to Christ and belonging to the Dutch Reformed family. The Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort (not only the Catechism) also add clarification as to how the Dutch Reformed (folk) narrow their focus when it comes to belonging. With such narrowness of belief, the Dutch Reformed family gets smaller and smaller and less comfortable for those outside. You realize that the predominate family within Classical Christianity is the Arminian family, so the Reformed or Calvinistic family setting doesn’t always sit well with the typical Christian. But if a Christian is uninformed as to the theology of the Reformed tradition, perhaps such a person may feel comfortable in the Dutch Reformed tradition. At least until it comes time to make profession of faith or becoming a professing member.

    As to the Dutch character of the Reformed churches, when we lived in Canada and asked for directions (from a local) to the Christian Reformed or Reformed Church, the locals most often had never heard of such churches. But they could tell you exactly when you asked about the location of the Dutch church. Dutch churches in Canada were expressly for the Dutch. I think those of the Dutch Reformed tradition would like to see that change (I applaud that), but they want to become more inclusive without changing much as to their tradition. That’s a hard road. Thanks, Matthew, for your perspective on the Dutch Reformed tradition. I’m glad for the sense of belonging you have within such tradition. Blessings to you.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    It’s only fair to say that those Canadian churches were immigrant churches, so of course their ethnicity stood out for the other Canadians. And that also has to do with general Canadian indifference to doctrine. I propose this, being myself a Canadian citizen.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    I love the idea that the warmth of the Reformed faith (not Dutch-ness, but the faith) is handed down to the next generation matriarchally. That’s certainly true in my experience. What would happen if the RCA deferred in its decision-making to its women members? I wonder.

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