“Renew and Transform” Reformed Theology

A Theological Essay from Prayerful Preparation

by Lilly Phiri


“The Church [is] Reformed, Always Reforming” (Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda) is not only a motto, but part of our identity, which appealed us to hold up the faithfulness to the Gospel of full life through the constant renovation of the church, through a continual reading of the signs of the times.
(WCRC Executive Committee Minutes, 2015)

As the worldwide church prepares to commemorate five hundred years of the Protestant Reformation, it is our responsibility as individual Christians, churches and institutions belonging to the Reformed tradition to not only conduct introspection on our theological journey thus far, but anticipate and dare envision new theological trajectories that will keep the Reformation fires alive. It is a time that challenges us to remain theologically relevant and formulate new theological directions as part of the “renew and transform” process. In taking stock of how far we have come and where we hope to venture theologically, we need to be brave enough to embrace a “renew and transform” approach in our theological engagements. On the one hand, it is prudent that this moment encourages us to hold onto the fundamentals and “non-negotiables” inherent within Reformed theology so as to maintain our identity. On the other hand, it is a time to undertake the task of embracing a “renew and transform” paradigm of doing theology which pushes us beyond our comfort zones in a quest for revived “faith seeking understanding.” “Renew” means to recreate, repair, restore or rejuvenate which basically entails giving back life to something, while “transform” denotes a metamorphosis in form, nature and character. Therefore, “renew and transform” are simultaneous engagements as with God’s help, we give back life to Reformed theology while at the same time changing the complexion of our theology.

A synopsis of the roots of Reformed theology
The basic understanding of theology is that it is the study about God and religious ideas. It is more difficult to define Reformed theology than it is to describe, hence Jan Rohls asserts it “dissolves into a plurality of highly different theological positions all belonging to the same family” (2003:35). It is theology marked by theological and confessional differences, and at the same time emphasizes ecumenism among churches that fall under the Reformed tradition. Reformed theology was born out of the efforts of Reformers such as John Calvin, Johannes Hus and Huldrych Zwingli, among others. Its emergence can mainly be traced among the Dutch, English, French, German, Scottish and Swiss theologians. The Reformers theologically challenged the Roman Catholic Church on an elitist Bible that was only written and could only be read in Latin, the concept of purgatory and the selling of indulgences. Over time, Reformed theology has grappled with other theological concerns of its time. Below, I walk you through some of the realities that theologically challenge Reformed theology today.

Doing Reformed theology today
Every theology worth its salt should respond to the challenges of its time. Today’s Reformed theology is faced with a number of contentious realities which continue to beg for its theological attention and theologically inspired action. Although not exhaustive, the following are some of the challenges facing Reformed theology: ecological and climate change, economies that enslave humanity, poverty, political systems that promote self-service, unemployment, militarization, sex and sexualities, gender equality, human trafficking, discrimination, racism, etc. Some of these challenges are within and outside the Reformed family; hence, theological responses have been and ought to be both inward and outward looking. Within itself, Reformed theology is also faced with challenges of continuous self-redefinition whilst maintaining a Reformed identity, undertaking mission amidst growing levels of global Pentecostalism, ecumenicity beyond the frontiers of Christianity, sex and sexualities, as well as gender equality.

The globe continues to experience climate change and ecological imbalances which adversely affect human and non-human lives. Thus, ecological theological discourses cannot be wished away. Through the Accra Confession of 2004 and other theological discourses, Reformed theology has responded to the challenges of climate change, calling for responsible relations among the created order. Notwithstanding the efforts of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, we still experience and read reports of deforestation, pollution of water bodies, air and the land, harmful farming practices, etc. which jeopardize the future of the globe. The “think global, act local” mantra has not been implemented to allow for the translatability of the Accra Confession among individual, local churches as many remain ignorant about the existence of the Accra Confession. Reformed theology needs to “renew and transform” its theological strategies and methods of addressing climate change through a hands-on approach by deliberately emphasizing human responsibility towards the created order at individual church level.

Furthermore, matters of climate change are closely linked to the economy, politics, poverty and unemployment. Current capitalism encourages wealth creation over the wellbeing of humanity and the created order; e.g. the infamous sweatshops in which children and adults work in inhuman conditions. Capitalism also promotes militarization in the protection of territories and acquisition of natural resources. Economies are usually aided by political policies and systems that only benefit a few people at the expense of the many. Resources from struggling economies are extracted to feed the lifestyles of beneficiaries of capitalism whilst leaving those who rightfully own the resources more impoverished. Additionally, poor economies are subjected to a new form of colonialism; economic colonization, through transnational corporations that operate in their countries, uses cheap labour and significantly contributes to resource depletion. In this worrisome context of survival of the fittest, such injustices pose theological challenges to Reformed theology at global, national and local church levels on the need to be prophetic by addressing these systemic injustices. At such a time, can Reformed theology, local churches and individual Christians afford not to speak truth to power?

Gender inequality, caste and racism are some among the many forms of discrimination prominent in contemporary society. In 2012, I had an interesting conversation with a friend who lectures in a seminary and is entrusted by her church to groom theological students through ministerial training, but she is considered to be of a “wrong” gender for ordination. This situation is not unique as many females within and outside the Church continue to face discrimination of all kinds based on their gender. In some cases, recognition of females comes in the semblance of tokenism and not merit. Reformed theology has tried to address gender inequality at a global level but the onus remains with individual churches and Christians within the Reformed tradition to make gender justice a practical reality. After all, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The journey to “renew and transform” Reformed theology demands the restoration of human dignity of persons regardless of gender. Any form of injustice should make us uncomfortable enough to act against it. What theologies and hermeneutics in our churches hinder gender equality and how best can we revisit, “renew and transform” them to foster human flourishing?

I have decided to dedicate more space discussing sex, sexuality and the human body simply because it is time that Reformed theology talked about sex not by default but by design. In spite of sex and sexuality being integral components of our being as they embody our humanness, they remain contentious and touchy subjects. In the process of writing this paper, I was reminded of the importance of the subject of sex, sexuality and the human body after a vibrant young man I have interacted with on a few occasions attempted suicide because his sexual orientation and gender identity were assumed to be against the religio-cultural grain. Matters of sex, sexuality and the human body hinge on life and death, but no life needs to be lost on account of sexuality. The human body, regardless of its form, shape, orientation or identity needs to be celebrated simply because it is created by God and is not synonymous with sin. Calvin, the Reformation frontrunner, basing his argument on the creation and fall of humankind and Paul’s writings,1 asserts that original sin is a result of disobedience to God’s word through the futile human attempt to be like God. Therefore, “when the word of God is despised, all reverence for Him [sic] is gone. His [sic] majesty cannot be duly honoured among us, nor His [sic] worship maintained in its integrity, unless we hang as it were upon His [sic] lips” (Calvin 2002:154). What constitutes sin therefore is disobedience to God’s word and humankind wanting to assume the place of God, instead of letting God be supreme and worshiping God. Calvin aligns his argument in relation to the goodness of creation unlike the Augustinian tradition which regards sexuality as sin, hence, placing emphasis on the ethics of disciplining the human body. For Calvin, the story of the fall does not denounce desire but the human attempt to be like God. Building on this understanding on the fall of humankind, it can be offered that human sexuality and the human body are not sinful objects for control and policing but subjects for celebration. The non-prescriptive approach towards sexuality and the human body enables a holistic embrace of our humanness unlike locking human sexuality to procreation only, thereby, subscribing to heteronormativity. Can today’s Reformed theology envision what it would mean to worship God together with our different bodies and sexualities?

Issues of sex and sexualities have been a source of divisions in the Church with some expressions maintaining heteronormativity, while others are more embracing of all sexualities. Both trajectories rely on the Bible as a source of authority for their positions. Among some of the texts used to denounce non-normative sexualities are Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 19 which are understood from a dominant narrative perspective, hence rejecting other forms of sexualities in preference for heterosexuality. In our bid to “renew and transform” would we acknowledge that the Bible has many voices and when the dominant narrative is not life affirming for all human beings, alternative narratives need to be sought. Imagine what alternative narratives of the Genesis 1:27 without a focus on sexual complementarity would look like. What would alternative narratives of Genesis 19 look like? What would the counter narratives of sin be?

The Reformation agenda was partly pioneered out of the quest for a “liberated Bible,” the question then is: How liberated is the Bible in the 21st century in relation to biblical hermeneutics around sex and sexualities? Let us dare to theologically discuss sex and sexualities with non-judgmental attitudes. No matter how contentious sex and sexualities may be portrayed to be, they are part of the 21st-century challenge and need to be addressed. As is typical of Reformed theology that promotes theological and confessional plurality, can we be transgressive enough to imagine possibilities of convergences of life-affirming sexualities at the expense of diversities of sexualities.2 Encouraging convergences of sexualities will allow for the promotion of life-affirming sexualities and not focusing on what divides sexualities. A convergence of sexualities has the potential to influence our biblical hermeneutics leading to the embracing of all humans on account of their humanness and not sexual orientation. After all, “renew and transform” of Reformed theology prods us to operate outside our comfort zones and speak the “unspeakable.”

Renew and transform: the way forward for Reformed theology
Arguably, Reformed theology has undergone a significant “renew and transform” process in its bid to respond to challenges of particular moments in history. Projections towards the future and reading the theological terrains of our time, the global Reformed family cannot escape the reality of the need to maintain a Reformed identity amidst the rise in the number of Christian expressions and religious beliefs. George Stroup notes that:

when Christians from the Reformed tradition participate in ecumenical conversations with other Christians (and with representatives from other religious traditions), it is important they understand their own theological identity – that is, who they are as Reformed Christians and what it is they bring to ecumenical conversations (2003:257).

In as much as Reformed identity undergoes transformation once it comes into contact with other Christian and religious identities, it is vital to maintain who we are as that is our uniqueness. Furthermore, whilst maintaining our identity, how then do we as Reformed Christians engage in ecumenicity beyond the frontiers of Christianity?

With the rise in global Pentecostal extremism which promotes subjective materialism as a distorted form of spirituality, the challenge for Reformed theology is how to theologically engage such developments and also do mission. “Renew and transform” understanding demands that Reformed theology transcends theologies of prosperity which encourage accumulation of material possessions as a sign of divine blessings at all costs at the expense of sound relations with God and the rest of the created order.

Furthermore, how best can we theologize gender, sex and sexualities in life-affirming ways in the 21st century and beyond? How does our Reformed identity, which promotes unity in diversity at confessional and traditional levels, best translate into unity in diversity in matters of gender, sex and sexualities?

Approaching five hundred years of the Reformation is a moment of reflection on where the Reformed family has come from theologically and where it sees itself going in the years to come. This paper is not a comprehensive guide, neither is it as straightjacket as I take cognizance of the contextual differences that determine the kind of theologies we engage in. However, my hope is that by reading this paper, it challenges you and I to think outside the box, to allow for a breath of fresh air in our theological endeavors.

1 John Calvin, Commentary on Romans. (Owen. J. Trans & Ed.). (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1980).
2 Lilly Phiri and Federico Settler, “‘From Sexual Diversities to Convergences of Sexualities’: Possibilities within Southern African Protestantism,” Diaconia, vol, 6 (2015): 117-132.

Calvin. J. 2002. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. (Henry. B. Trans.). Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
Calvin. J. 1980. Commentary on Romans. (Owen. J. Trans & Ed.). Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
Rohls, J. 2003. “Reformed Theology – Past and Future.” In Alston, W.M. and Welker, M. Reformed Theology – Identity and Ecumenicity. Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Stroup. G.W. 2003. “Reformed Identity in an Ecumenical World.” In Alston, W.M. and Welker, M. Reformed Theology – Identity and Ecumenicity. Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Phiri, L. and Settler, F. 2015. “From Sexual Diversities to Convergences of Sexualities: Possibilities within Southern African Protestantism.” Diaconia, 6, 117-132.
World Communion of Reformed Churches Executive Committee, 2015 Minutes.