The perennial temptation for modern Reformed Protestants, especially after they get college degrees, is to float toward the sky in wisps of gnostic vapor. Doctrinalism is one kind of gnosticism, and pietism another. Literary structuralism is yet another one. Note that I did not say doctrine, of which the apostle Paul approved, and I did not say piety, of which my mother approves. Nor did I say literature, which feeds the right kind of soul.
I have often quoted that glorious passage in Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, where a junior officer in the War Between the States was being reprimanded by the general for his unit’s reluctance to charge. “Sir,” the hapless lieutenant replied, “I am convinced that any further demonstration of valor on the part of my troops will bring them into contact with the enemy.”
The early Reformers were not like this at all. They were about the most un-gnostic bunch ever assembled in the history of Christendom. They were the most Christ-loving, world-affirming, money-making, beer-drinking, sword-wielding, music-making, kingdom-overthrowing, love-making, poetry-writing bunch of Christians the world had ever seen up to that point. And they kept it up, by and large, for several centuries.
But then the drift set in. Many of their intellectual heirs have become wan and pale in the more recent centuries, despite the occasional nuisance of eruptions of people like Kuyper. People like that come into the story like a tornado with boots, and they have all the history and all the theology on their side. Nothing can be done about it, so the curators of the Reformed museum are discomfited for a time, and do sort of a twiddly thing with their toe in the carpet, and wait for this affliction to pass. In their patience, they possess their deracinated souls.
But here is the odd thing. At the time of the Reformation, if there had been a gnosticism susceptibility line on the blackboard, on a scale of 1-to-10, the papists would be hitting the eights and nines. The monks would be sweating out sexual temptations in their dreary cloisters while the Puritans with plumes in their hats and lawn tops on their boots were striding home to make love to their wives. But in recent years, most of the intellectual heirs of the Reformation have decided to switch places on that line, ceding the fight against gnosticism to the conservative Roman Catholics. It makes me want to say things like, “Hey!” Historically embarrassing, that’s what it is. And if any of us plunge into the fray, and get one of the horns on our helmet knocked off, we are likely to hear about it at presbytery. “Not very confessional.”
Modern airy-fairy Reformed theology, whether the conservative or liberal kind, wants to float off like a helium balloon, and if you want to anchor it to Christ’s love for this world, this earthy world, you will need more than stout beer and pipe tobacco to do it. That kind of thing teaches seminary students to feel very anti-gnostic because they can talk heady theology through wreaths of smoke — but they still leave the heavy lifting of world-engagement and real gospel proclamation (to actual sinners) to the baptists. And they learn to watch with real dismay if any of their Reformed brethren start to show signs of wanting to make actual contact with the enemy. It is enough to make them suspicious. Wielding a sword is a form of works, is it not?