Introductory criticism of Wilson’s “‘Reformed’ is Not Enough”

The book “Reformed” is Not Enough created quite a stir a few years back, inspiring rebuttals long and short. I do not have these all at my fingertips, but there are a few points of orientation that should have been made that I don’t recall being made very often. So these comments are added as an appendix or prologue to the work that has already been done in critiquing the book.

Putting Reformed in scare quotes sets up an ambiguity from the very beginning — and indeed, one can’t get closer to the beginning than the first word of the title. The predicate, “is not enough,” is also unspecified — not enough for what? Let us unpack each one separately:

1. “Reformed”

Let us consider how Wilson uses the word and how the word should be used. Just getting this straight would, I think, clear up much confusion in the church world today.

Exactly why the word is put in scare quotes is never explained. In the Forward, Wilson clearly wants to define Reformed as a category that can be claimed by someone, apparently anyone, holding to “the teaching of the Westminster Confession” or the “historic Reformed faith” (p. 7). He suggests that “this is a debate between the Enlightenment TRs (ETRs) and the historic reformed” (p. 9).

A little later he implies that the term when scare-quoted indicates a person as above but who has ossified, who has not continued to advance. “Because of the Reformational commitment, it is still necessary to say that to be Reformed is not enough. We must certainly live up to what we have already attained, but together with this we must not be allowed to assume that the last significant attainment was in the middle of the seventeenth century.” (p. 13). He unfortunately then quotes the bogus semper reformanda canard — it is “not something we should all chant together right up until someone actually tries it. ” Haha — but don’t let’s chant it either, shall we?

Thus Reformed in scare quotes seems to indicate that “Reformed” is a label that can be claimed by anyone holding certain beliefs, and moreover this claim to be Reformed is not sufficient to settle the questions in the book since it may harp back to a set of beliefs formulated in the 17th century: something more is needed.

But this move is unclear. If anyone claiming to be “holding to the teaching of the Westminster Confession” gets to be referred to as Reformed, and then Wilson making the same claim gets to say “that’s not enough,” then “Reformed” is indeed just a word in quotes. It has little if any value. Let me explain.

“Reformed” is properly not the designation for Calvinism any more than “Catholic” is a designation for Thomism. There is clearly an association, but the entailment is the opposite of how Wilson is using the terms. (It is not just him; the mistake is commonly made by friend and foe.) Instead, we should say that Calvinism is associated with the Reformed church, because the Reformed church in its judicial decisions historically embraced tenets compatible with Calvinism. Had the Synod of Dordt ruled for the Remonstrants, then Arminianism would be the “Reformed” doctrine. Thomism is associated with Catholicism, because the Roman Catholic Church endorsed Thomism. Now consider the converse.

Does some unchurched guy emerging from his study get to make the announcement, “As a Catholic thinker, I endorse Thomas”? Not at all. Agreeing with every word Thomas wrote does not make one a Catholic. Being admitted as a communing member makes one a Catholic. Then one could say, “Though a Catholic, I demur from Thomas at various points.”

Does some unchurched guy emerging from his study get to make the announcement, “As a Reformed thinker, I say ‘Reformed’ is not enough”? Not at all. His claim is just as presumptuous as the churchless guy (or worse yet, a Baptist) claiming to speak as a Catholic, just because he believes this or that also taught by the Catholic church.

What I am suggesting, in other words, is that a great deal of clarity would be injected into the current discussions by defining Reformed doctrine as “that which is taught by the Reformed church,” and a Reformed man as “a member of the Reformed church.” Reformed (with a capital R) is a name that designates a particular church settlement at the time of the Reformation, which has come down to us today by historical continuity reflected in succession of ordination.

If this seems strained or odd, play the logic out with Catholic (with a capital C) or Orthodox (with a capital O). The logic will immediately be clear.

One does not become “Reformed” in any ecclesiastically-meaningful way by starting a club with the word “Reformed” in it, like the “Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches” (CREC). So indeed, putting “Reformed” in scare quotes may have expressed a primal intuition of a real issue.

2. “Is not enough”

Once this is understood, the predicate can now be analyzed. “Reformed” is certainly “enough,” because being in the Reformed Church suffices, so we believe, to be in the holy catholic church “out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2).

One could certainly point out that hypocrites should derive no assurance from their church membership. But then, the point would be, not that “being Reformed” is not enough, but that “being a church member” in general is not enough.

One could point out, that “being a member of the Reformed church” is not “enough” to permit one to announce his opinion as that of the Reformed church. Again, that is true but fatuous. It applies to every member of any church, unless it should be the pope (if his claims can be sustained).

One could grant that “being Reformed” or “being Lutheran” or being anything else “is not enough” for this, that or the other thing — like being a good engineer I suppose. But so what?

3. Wilson: what is he?

With that background, it simply needs to be pointed out that Douglas Wilson is not a member of a Reformed Church. If the unchurched man cannot come out of his study and announce, “I as a Catholic think…” nor “I as a Reformed thinker say…” then neither can ten such men band together and say, “we be a Reformed church.” There is only one way to become a Reformed man: and that is to join the Reformed Church. Not announcement, but joining is called for.

What makes the book so silly is that all kinds of analysis is given relevant to what it means to take covenant vows, and so forth, all of which is like a eunuch giving marriage counseling. Auto-ordained Wilson in the self-proclaimed CREC dares to instruct on what it means to be in covenant! As if blabbing on and on endlessly about being in covenant puts one in covenant!

4. “The” covenant

Lest it be thought that I am harping too much on the title, an extension of the semantic analysis can be made in respect to the word that could be said the book purports to be “about,” namely covenant. “One of the great reformational needs in the Church today is the need for us to understand the objectivity of the covenant, and so that is the thrust of this book” (p. 13). So the first point is that Wilson needs to join the Church before talking about what the Church needs to do. But the second is like unto it: “the” covenant is never specified. There are several covenants in Scripture, and even more sub-covenants or covenant administrations. So what possible sense is there in referring to “the covenant” as if there is only one? The “objectivity of the covenant,” so stated, is an empty abstraction.

It may seem like a mere semantic quibble, but it is not. Read the book while constantly asking, “what covenant is Wilson talking about” and you will see the problem.

It is not that the book has nothing good; but when the verbal legerdemain is removed, we must borrow the words of a wag who said “where it is original it is unsound, and where it is sound it is unoriginal.”

Douglas Wilson. “Reformed” is Not Enough. (Moscow, ID: Canon) 2002

2 thoughts on “Introductory criticism of Wilson’s “‘Reformed’ is Not Enough”

  1. Nathan — Such a short question is ambiguous, so I will have to answer at several levels. Then if you want to refine your question please do so.

    The quagmire Douglas Wilson has gotten himself into and, more importantly, the reason so many Reformed men seem to be confused about his status, is the ambiguity of terms like “church” and “Reformed.”

    “Reformed” is often used as a synonym for “of Calvinistic persuasion,” but it also means, “congregation or member of the Reformed church.” Because of this ambiguity, many men that become Calvinistic start to claim being Reformed, and both they and others often forget that that is not the same as “being a part of the Reformed church.”

    Likewise “church” has many denotations, but here what we need to distinguish is (1) congregation and (2) “branch of holy catholic church in apostolic continuity and succession” i.e. what is commonly referred to as a “denomination.” But denominations cannot be created by individuals. They can only emerge by leaven and succession from the one holy catholic church. A church [sense 1] is COMPOSED of individuals, but it is not CONSTITUTED as such apart from being so established by church [sense 2].

    With that orientation, there are different ways to answer the question, “why is Douglas not a member of a Reformed Church?”

    1. Because after he became a Calvinist, he didn’t see the need to join one. He would have had to resign his position in the Fellowship, and presumably he was too heavily invested.

    2. After he steered the Fellowship in a quasi-Calvinist direction, he could have tried to steer it further into becoming a particular congregation of a Reformed Church. Why didn’t he? A good critical biography will need to explore this question in detail, but here are some hypotheses to explore:

    a. There was no “exact match” of an existing church [sense 2] to the idiosyncrasies of his local fellowship.
    b. He himself would have had to be approved and ordained, and that would have been a blow to pride, because it would expose the fact that he was not already ordained.
    c. It is a lot more fun to tailor-make your own denomination, carefully hedging in your own power, putting adaptability in all the right places, rigidity in all the appealing places, and so forth. If only one COULD create one’s own denomination!

    Because of the heavy influence of Roger Williams in American thinking about ecclesiology, Wilson was able to “get away with it” both in his own mind and in the minds of many others. The funny thing is, Williams himself saw the fallacy of it eventually, and had the honesty to back off, concluding that there simply was no organized church with the ordinances left on earth. See here for more details.

    3. His fellowship in Moscow was not constituted as a church [sense 1] since it was not an extension of church [sense 2]; therefore, it could not experience a “Reformed settlement” in contrast, say, to an Episcopal church that would desire to do this.

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