Friday, August 30, 2013

"TR": The Anatomy of a Slogan by Guy Oliver (1976)


Guy Oliver

George Fuller, Allen Killen, Guy Oliver, Simon Kistemaker, Dan Morse

This is a paper delivered by Professor Guy Oliver to a group of alumni meeting on the campus of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS, on April 26, 1976. Thanks to my wife, Susan Smith, for retyping the paper and to my friend John K. Reeves for furnishing me with a copy. The paper is presented here for its historical value and for the sake of comparisons with the perceptions of the original TRs (See my "The Six TR Points") and comparisons with the current incarnations of TR. With regard to the former, it seems to me Mr. Oliver correctly describes a few characteristics while missing others by a country mile. With regard to the latter, it may be of interest to note that Mr. Oliver says nothing about homeschooling, young earth creationism, theonomy, transformationalism, or things associated with various current manifestations.

by Professor O. Guy Oliver

“T-R” stands for “Thoroughly Reformed.” It is the chosen self-designation for a particular form of theological thought and practice which has arisen over the past decade mostly within the context of a portion of the faculty and students of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. The purpose of this study is to describe the beliefs of this new movement, and then to offer some analysis of my own. Since the “T-R” theology has never adopted a formal platform, its views can only be determined by a subjective examination to set forth what appear to be its major tenets. Therefore, this study is a tentative one intending to evoke clarification of positions and making no pretentions of finality.

It should be noted first of all that the “T-R” movement arose for the purpose of differentiation. But this differentiation, as the slogan suggests, was not one separating Christian from non-Christian nor Calvinist from Arminian. Rather, it was intended to differentiate among professing Reformed Christians those whose theology was deemed to be thoroughly Reformed from those understood to be falling short or drawing back in some important particular of Reformed Christianity. The historic doctrinal standards of Presbyterianism formed the reference point for determining the thoroughness of one’s professed allegiance. It is not difficult to understand how in an academic context this differentiating approach was the convergence of no little debate and some conflict. Later, this commitment to differentiation sometimes expressed itself in disputes and protests in church courts.

In the second place, the beginnings of the “T-R” movement were no less involved with the idea of distinctiveness. Here priorities within one’s commitment were the focal point. The “T-R” movement sought to be distinctively Reformed, i.e., to reject those patterns of theology and practice which were not contained in the Presbyterian standards and to openly oppose such alien views. The aim was to teach and practice the Presbyterian standards (and nothing else) in toto; the task was understood to be a monolithic one. Therefore, the “T-R” felt the necessity to confront those who, while professing Reformed Christianity, either found some values in non-Reformed theological options or refused to condemn evangelical shortcomings for the sake of a broader cooperation and unity.

These first two points are somewhat modified by a third emphasis: the “T-R” movement generally recognized its fundamental unity with “conservative” Christians and its fundamental disunity with “liberal” Christians. This unity was especially operative when the “T-R” and broadly conservative elements stood together over against “liberalism” in the P.C.U.S. denomination. After the formation of the P.C.A. denomination, however, this negative agreement no longer functioned as the unifying force it had been. Numerically, the “T-R” movement had been relatively insignificant in the P.C.U.S.; however, in the P.C.A. structure, “T-R” adherents found themselves a significant minority and saw the possibility of effecting change in the church. This, in its own way, led the ”T-R” movement to emphasize its particular views over against the larger conservatism. Then, differentiation and distinctiveness tended to become the form of “T-R” relations with the conservative majority in the new denomination. Although there was still a theoretical recognition of the fundamental unity of “Bible-believing Christians” within the P.C.A., there were several controversies which functioned essentially on the basis of the differentiation and distinctiveness principles outlined above. The predominance of either one of the three factors detailed above will largely determine the future relations of the adherents of the “T-R” theology with the P.C.A. conservative majority.

Now, having seen something of the historical background of the “T-R” movement, this study will move to a summary description of “T-R” theology. The focus will be on the positions held in distinction and differentiation from other theological viewpoints. [However, it is vital to remember that the things held in common by the “T-Rs” and their opponents are far greater than the matters about which they disagree.] It is necessary to say once again that this description of the “T-R” platform is a subjective one by this writer since the movement has never adopted an official position statement. Hopefully, some measure of dialogue and discussion will stem from this description as the movement clarifies any misunderstandings or misconceptions found in the model set forth below.

The “T-R” model of faith and practice is composed of four basic components:

Component One: a DISTINCTIVE ADHERENCE TO THE DOCTRINE OF THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD AS EXPRESSED IN THE FIVE POINTS OF CALVINISM. Note that the approach is one of distinctive adherence, i.e., the setting forth of The Five Points as a system of truth with the refutation of the errors of opposing systems. For the “T-R” Arminians in the pulpit or pew must be confronted and brought to see the sovereignty of God reflected in the doctrines of The Five Points. And, to profess adherence but not to distinctively practice that adherence is likewise an error to be spoken against. It is obvious that this type of commitment places the “T-R” in an essentially militant framework as he is involved unavoidably in theological conflict.

Component Two: A DISTINCTIVE VIEW OF EVANGELISM BOTH IN REGARD TO ITS MESSAGE AND ITS METHOD. The “T-R” understanding of evangelism presupposes that conversion is a rare and difficult thing, not the relatively easy and simple transaction many evangelicals imagine. This presupposition has consequences in terms of the “T-R” view of both the evangelistic message and method.

1. The evangelistic message: “The whole counsel of God” is the self-professed message of evangelism according to the “T-R” viewpoint. Thus, in contrast to the minimizing approach of most evangelical tracts and preaching, the “T-R” commitment is to a maximizing approach. The exposition of Law must awaken a sense of lostness and precede the preaching of grace. The call to repentance must accompany the command to believe. The message must be addressed to the intellect with direct appeal to the emotions usually considered improper. Thus, in the “T-R” understanding, a rather large body of intellectual comprehension is normally required before conversion takes place. 
2. The evangelistic method: Opposition to “the altar call” and “the invitation system” has been a marked particularity of “T-R” evangelistic methodology. In place of these public appeals, “T-R” methods have focused more on the concept of guidance by the pastor doing the work of an evangelist. Much literature setting forth the “T-R” understanding of the message of evangelism is used with continuing personal contact by the pastor. Preaching, understood as the authoritative proclamation of the gospel by God-ordained messengers (ministers of the Word), and nouthetic personal counsel complement each other as the human means bringing to pass conversion. The essential evangelistic task of the laity is to distribute “T-R” literature and urge their neighbors to attend upon those occasions when the authoritative, God-ordained spokesman declares the truth in preaching services. Lay-evangelism training in the popular methods now in use among evangelicals (Billy Graham, Coral Ridge, Campus Crusade) is an unacceptable practice to most in the “T-R” camp. 

Component Three: A DISTINCTIVE COMMITMENT TO “THE PURITAN MODEL” OF THE MINISTRY. Three aspects of the seventeenth-century Puritan conception of the ministerial office have been accepted as normative for the “T-R” practice:

1. The pastor as “doctor of souls”: This involves ministerial competence in analyzing the varied spiritual conditions which beset man and prescribing a specific remedy. A tendency to skepticism about those professing Christianity predominates since it is held that true conversion is rare and difficult. Hypocrisy and falsehood are detected among many professing believers. Frequently there is an emphasis on regeneration rather than credible profession as the proper qualification for church membership. The ultimate test of true religion is personal holiness – a holiness which functions as the sine qua non of Christian assurance. 
2. The pastor as “biblical scholar”: The “T-R” movement is concerned for the pastoral office as one based upon a high level of scholarship. The motivation here appears to be one of devotion more than human pride. Thus, it is expected that proficiency will be maintained in the original languages of Scripture. In contrast to the rather shallow approach of many contemporary pastors, nothing less than “the whole counsel of God” is to be the sum and substance of the pastor’s teaching. This latter phrase is often understood to require the “T-R” pastor to be knowledgeable with the whole sweep of biblical teaching and to emphasize precisely those parts which are being disputed, denied or denigrated by contemporary churchmen. This explains a predilection, often considered an imbalance, for messages emphasizing the varied themes of God’s sovereignty – since these seem to be lacking in today’s church. The “T-R” pastor understands his task to be more that of bringing men up to the level of divine truth than bringing divine truth down to the level of human understanding. 
3. The pastor as “systematic expositor”: Life is understood by “T-Rs” systematically. By this I mean that people and situations are analyzed according to a model taken from systematic theology (ultimately stemming from the seventeenth century but with significant modifications in the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries). The part is understood according to its place in the whole. Proper evaluation takes place by fitting people or situations into a system of theology or philosophy; each is analyzed presuppositionally, i.e., as a part of the whole complex of beliefs, commitments and underlying assumptions about truth. Preaching then becomes the popularization and application of this systemic understanding. 

Component Four: A DISTINCTIVE PRACTICE OF “JURE DIVINO” PRESBYTERIANISM. Together with their ecclesiastical fellows in various Presbyterian denominations, the “T-Rs” profess government by elders in gradated church courts to be the biblical standard. However, their practice of this form of polity sets them apart from many other Presbyterians. Here the “T-Rs” take their cue from Thornwell and others of the early Southern Presbyterians in understanding Holy Scripture to teach that authority for missions and evangelism is committed to the church itself (understood as the institution) – rather than to societies or agents of a “para-ecclesiastical” kind. This distinctive viewpoint has led the “T-Rs” into controversies regarding the proper way for the church to fulfill its evangelistic mandate and exercise ecclesiastical discipline in missionary matters.

By way of summarization, note that I have contended that the “T-R” model in its specificity not its generality, its uniqueness not its commonness, can be described by four components:

1. A distinctive adherence to the doctrine of the sovereignty of God as expressed in the five points of Calvinism. 
2. A distinctive view of evangelism both in regards to its message and its method. 
3. A distinctive commitment to ”the Puritan model of the ministry”; and 
4. A distinctive practice of “jure divino” Presbyterianism. 
It should be remembered that I have sought to offer this model in the hope that others will respond to it, correcting it where it needs correction or modifying it where it needs modification. Also, it is offered against the background of a deep appreciation for the commitment, integrity and sincerity of the “T-Rs” and their potential contribution to the advancement of the faith and practice of the contemporary church. With this in mind, may we now proceed to notice some “tension points” in the “T-R” movement in its relationship to the historic faith of the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches.

Tension Points in the “T-R” Model

Tension One: THE TENSION BETWEEN “SEMPER REFORMANDA” AND “REFORMED ORTHODOXY.” There is no doubt that “T-Rs” profess and seek to practice faithfully “reformed orthodoxy”, understood as rigid and full adherence to the Westminster standards. This can lead to the understanding (conscious or unconscious) that the content of theology has been finalized; all that remains is its outworking or application. What is often missing in practice, if not also in theory, is the historical concept of “semper reformanda.” Normally, this phrase is translated to mean “the church Reformed is/and always reforming.” By “church” is usually meant ecclesiastical life in its totality – faith no less than practice, doctrine no less than ethics.

“Semper reformanda” tends to call into question any way of doing theology which does not seek continually to test the received doctrinal tradition by the Word of God. “T-Rs” seem to have concentrated on “Reformed orthodoxy” and given little attention to “semper reformanda.” One senses little wrestling with Scripture to see what light God has yet to break forth from his Word. Kuyper’s famous dictum that the tragedy of Reformed Christianity is not that it wrote creeds but that it stopped writing them does not seem to bear much weight in the “T-R” movement. Do we need a new confession in twentieth-century words and thoughts addressed to contemporary people and issues? Do we need to correct or modify any aspects of “Reformed orthodoxy” in light of contemporary biblical knowledge and understanding? These are questions “semper reformanda” force upon us today – and “T-Rs” should be in the forefront of the dialogue.

Tension Two: THE TENSION BETWEEN “THE REFORMED LIFE AND WORLD VIEW” AND “THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE CHURCH.” From early Southern Presbyterianism the “T-Rs” accepted the teaching that the mission of the church is spiritual in nature and does not involve the complex economic, political and social disputes of the world. The essence of the life of the church in the world is understood to be spiritual. In addition to this spiritualistic interpretation, Reformed history also contains an emphasis on “the Reformed life and world view.” Holding to the theoretical commitment that Christ is Lord of the whole of life, it contends that Christian theologians must proclaim the Word to every facet of life and every experience of the human family. This, of course, has led many Reformed churches and individual Christians to direct involvement in social and political issues. Several models for the outworking of each of these views have been developed. The crucial point here, however, is that by opting for the “spirituality” of the church the “T-Rs” have tended to neglect the application of Holy Scripture to the problems of the age. Thus, the development of a life and world view agreeable to the Word of God has been lost sight of. Of course, this does not mean that “T-Rs” and their congregations have no life and world view; it means that such is not the result of conscious Scriptural applications. While “T-Rs” are not alone in this great omission, they are especially responsible because they have not taken seriously enough that portion of their tradition expressed as “the Reformed life and world view.”

Tension Three: THE TENSION BETWEEN “ORTHOPRAXY” AND “ORTHODOXY.” As we have mentioned, “T-Rs” are committed to orthodoxy as that is understood by conservative Reformed Christians today. “Orthopraxy” understood as the active practice of biblical Christianity has received less emphasis. Now, there is a problem here for all Christians – the problem of our professed faith and imperfect practice. But this whole matter does not seem to have been much of an interest for the “T-Rs.” Certainly, no knowledgeable person would deny that “T-Rs” have been more interested in right belief than right practice. Holy Scripture does not permit such an imbalance. This means that “T-Rs” need to bring their formidable theological insights to bear upon practical problems; it means that “T-Rs” should give greater emphasis than they have in the past to what Scripture denotes as “doing the truth”; it means that “T-Rs” ought to be more interested in the application of the faith to the nitty-gritty problems and concerns of the man in the pew; it means that “T-Rs” need to balance their scholastic preoccupation with doctrinal formulations with an emphasis on experiential realities in ethics, evangelism and relational Christianity.

Tension Four: THE TENSION BETWEEN “CONTEXTUALIZATION: AND “HISTORYLESSNESS.” “T-Rs” tend toward “historylessness.” They seem to view certain periods of theology (seventeenth century; the “Hodge-Warfield-Machen-Murray-Van Til” progression) and certain productions of theology (Reformed confessions; selected Reformed theologians) as beyond the corruption which infects all eras of history and all human endeavors. The problem with this way of doing theology lies in its failure to consider the context in which theologians inevitably work. Certain historical, social, political, economic, religious and philosophical assumptions form the context within which thinking, systematic analysis and wrestling with the Word takes place. By the grace of God, biblical reality breaks through the cultural context and salvation occurs. But the Reformed faith at its best has always taken seriously the reality of sin at work in history and its corrupting influences upon ecclesiastical life, including theology. Theology, understood as man’s thinking about God according to his revelation, becomes encrusted with ideas which more or less faithfully reflect the truth – but always from a context of assumptions that interact with the biblical data. This contextualization process can be mitigated by the correction and modification which the Christian community offers in its diversity. An awareness of the reality of the historical context in which theology takes shape will make “T-Rs” more determined to test the received tradition by the standard of “sola scriptura.” It will direct “T-Rs” in the path of “semper reformanda.” And that is the path to which God calls all his Church today.

G. Oliver

[Presented to the Reformed Seminary alumni 4/26/76]


Rod Culbertson said...

Roland Barnes, once told me, smilingly, that a TR was "anyone to your right theologically." A good definition in many ways. When I joined RUF in 1980-81, I was immediately labeled by some as a TR. I went to Columbia International University for seminary and yet was labeled a TR by some PCA ministers. How could that happen? Because I was Confessional (many PCA pastors actually were not in those early days) and yes, I discovered that the "middle" ruled and that was not necessarily a bad thing. Eventually, I did begin to hang around some of those known as TR's in the PCA in the early 80's and determined (while reading Francis Schaeffer's works) that TR was not what I was, wanted to be or would become (by God's grace). I'm still Confessional and Reformed (very) but no one calls me TR anymore. I tell people (who might be interested) that TR stands for Tragically Reformed - it's one bad attitude toward those unlike yourself theologically. Love, patience and understanding are absolutely necessary for our big PCA family to get along. I hope we can!

Rod Culbertson said...
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