I recently watched a short video of a lecture by my mentor and former pastor Dr. R.C. Sproul. In it, he explained that his ministry from the early 70s to the early 90s had been focused on addressing the catholic questions of Christianity – the doctrine of God, the doctrine of the Person and work of Christ, the doctrine of Scripture, and such. During those first twenty years, he wanted to minister to broad evangelicalism, and these were the foundational doctrines under attack everywhere. But having addressed all those issues over the course of twenty years, Dr. Sproul says in his lecture that he wants to begin focusing on the distinctives of Reformed theology. He believed that the broad evangelical church could never be truly healthy until it was Reformed. He made the point that “Unreformed Christianity has failed.”
One of the things he said in this lecture especially caught my attention. He said that the broad evangelical church has been “pervasively antinomian.” I’ve been thinking about this comment a lot since watching the video, and I believe it makes a point that we need to seriously consider, namely, the fact that there is a radical difference between broadly evangelical ethics and distinctively Reformed ethics. There is a difference in the way each addresses ethical questions, and there is a difference in the sources used to answer those questions.
One of the doctrinal issues that separates broadly evangelical theology from confessional Reformed theology is covenant theology. The majority of evangelicals reject Reformed covenant theology, often because of its implications for our understanding of the sacraments. Among those evangelicals who are dispensationalists, the differences are even greater. Why is this significant? Because a rejection of Reformed covenant theology results in a very different hermeneutical approach to the Bible. The impact of those covenantal and hermeneutical differences is evident when it comes to how each handles the Old Testament in general and biblical law in particular. And how we approach biblical law is enormously important for our approach to Christian ethics. This is where Dr. Sproul’s charge of “pervasive antinomianism” arises.
Reformed theology historically has a way of approaching ethical questions. This approach includes careful examination of God’s law as revealed in Scripture. It includes examination of biblical wisdom literature. It includes consideration of natural law. It includes examining how other Reformed pastors and theologians of the past dealt with similar issues. In other words, it looks at Scripture as understood within our Reformed theological and confessional heritage. As an example, if an ethical question not explicitly addressed by Scripture arises, the Reformed would first go to the biblical law and wisdom literature to find applicable biblical principles. Natural law issues would be taken into consideration. Then we would look at how our confessions address this issue. The questions and answers on the Ten Commandments in the Westminster Larger Catechism, for example, are a rich resource on ethical questions.
Those among the broadly evangelical world whose covenant theology effectively rules out the relevance of Old Testament law do not have these resources. When an ethical question not explicitly addressed in the New Testament arises, they are often forced to look elsewhere for ethical guidance. Sadly, many are looking to the culture for direction on ethical questions. A century ago, Christian liberalism did the same thing. It looked to culture for its categories, its definitions, its standards. Liberalism did this because it self-consciously rejected biblical authority. Antinomian evangelicalism is doing this inadvertently because its hermeneutical principles effectively render four-fifths of the Bible ethically irrelevant.
When we do this, we end up replacing sola scriptura with sola cultura. Since our hermeneutical principles render most of the Bible ethically irrelevant, we don’t turn first to Scripture. Instead, we go to the culture. We look at the lines the culture has drawn, the sides that the culture has created, the definitions that the culture has made, the agendas that the culture has endorsed, and then we hitch our wagon to one.
This is a big part of the reason unreformed Christianity has failed as Dr. Sproul said. This way of doing ethics is pervasively antinomian. It is most certainly not Reformed. As someone who is unapologetically Reformed observing the way ethical issues have been dealt with over the last several decades, I often feel like Treebeard. In the Lord of the Rings films, there is a scene in which Pippin, one of the hobbits, asks Treebeard, “And whose side are you on?” Treebeard responds “Side? I am on nobody’s side, because nobody is on my side.” The confessional Reformed tradition doesn’t let culture define the “sides.” Jesus Christ defines the sides and He does so through His commands in Scripture.
Dr.Keith Mathison is Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformation Bible College in Florida.