Autumn 1989, Vol.41 No. 3, pp. 213-225.

Joel C. Lewton:
      Reformed Spirituality:
           Towards the Development of a Transcendent Community

Centered on the Word of God proclaimed, celebrated, and embodied in service, Calvinistic spirituality emphasizes the action of the Holy Spirit, the Covenantal Community, and the transcendence of God.

Joel C. Lewton, M.Div., S.T.M., is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He has served as Chaplain at the Philippine Christian University in Manila and other specialized ministries, and is currently Co-Minister with his wife, Eunice, of the Valley Christian Church, a Native American congregation affiliated with the Yakima Indian Christian Mission.

THE character of Protestant reformed thought developed in reaction against the autocracy of Roman Catholic ecclesiastical authority, which broke the bonds of theocratic imperialism, and replaced these hierarchical elements with carefully defined principles of Word, Proclamation, and Creed. Moreover, definitions of faith were developed through a disciplined consciousness. Belief was shaped by both intellectual erudition and prayerful invocation. Religious duty was discharged with self-controlled piety and self-obligated commitment as the inner and outer will were tempered through doctrinal and dogmatic confession.

Yet, in both dissent and non-conformity, reformed identity was also influenced by the whole spectrum of social proclivities of sixteenth century mannerisms which included the free justification of religious action and the highest form of material consumption. As duty and responsibility were wedded to a rationalistic view of Christian life, which, on the one hand, involved private devotion, and on the other, a collective religiosity, the outcome was the creation of a new kind of fundamental theocracy -- one based upon the freedom of individual choice, for a holy purpose, and which would ultimately benefit a new and emerging faith-based community.

The collective phrase, "holy community," is to be understood as referring to the Body of Christ consecrated for a divine purpose. It necessarily involves the sanctification of the Spirit ordering belief and directing the faithful toward redemption. As the "Church Universal" or the "believing Community of Christ," the people are prepared for discipleship. Through scripture, this "Holy Fellowship" is nurtured and sanctified, being "grounded" in faith, receiving salvation in response to God's "Call." Individual and corporate spirituality emerges through prayer life, Bible study, worship, and everyday Christian faithfulness. A reformed scholar and university professor thus understood discipleship within a common-everyday manner. He was specifically interested in the attitudes of people who were in doubt, estranged or in opposition to everything ecclesiastical and religious, including Christianity. He encouraged open inquiry. His was a "practical apologetic" proceeding by way of dialectical thought from any prevailing contravention of truth to the Christ in truth.(1) And thus, the "Holy Community" is formed within a disciplined faithfulness and a "systematized" theology which provides a purposive framework for belief and a resounding "eschatological hopefulness" for the times to come.(2)

For the purpose of this article, I wish to emphasize three major themes which, for me, lie at the very heart of a reformed understanding of spirituality: the Holy Spirit, the Covenantal Community, and the Transcendent Nature of God. The importance of these Christian principles contributes significantly to what reformers understand as the "instructional nature of the Confessing Church." Implicit within these theological expressions is the centrality of the Word of God presented in proclamation and Scripture, realized in worship through response, and carried out in the world through Christ-centered service.


Coupled with God's exposition to humanity both within the church and in society is

the study of church tradition, as expressed in the creeds... out of which confession [is] forged... [obligating] believers to join with others in seeking... a better understanding of the relationship of Scripture, history, and contemporary life... which at the call of God is set moving in each new age into an unchartered future.(3)
The pedagogical nature of Reformed theology demands a knowledge of church doctrine which is authoritative to particular ecclesiastical bodies and is acceptable as the true discipline of church polity. Among these critical standards are providential nature of God, Justification, Adoption, Sanctification, Redemption, Judgment, Election, and Predestination.

In exploring theological measurements mentioned above, it is also my intention to explore the various theologies which are part of Reformed traditions. Among the great thinkers who created the religious foundations for such reformational ideologies were Aristotle, Plato, St. Paul, Erasmus, Augustine, Eckhart, John Calvin, Hegel, Ernst Bloch, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Martin Heidegger, Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Wolfhardt Pannenburg, Rudolph Bultmann, Reinhold Neibuhr, and Jurgen Moltmann.

The church communities which emerged from reformation sentiment were a vigorous assortment of orthodox expressions of strict Calvinism. For the most part, Calvinists were both revolutionary and conservative. They established a system of presbyterial rules wherein laymen governed both local and regional religious life. Hierarchical structure was vested in a representative synod linked to a general assembly, the highest judicatory or church court.

Though Calvinism is structured within a republican-democratic framework wherein all believers enjoy equality in ecclesiastical matters, it is difficult to justify historically the idea of proportionate equity or impartiality. In fact, in Presbyterian Scotland, the United Provinces in the seventeenth century were oligarchies controlled by the royal burghers and dominated by the established nobility.(4)

Current reformers, no doubt, continue to struggle with similar issues of power, authority, and rule. There is a common expression which defines the reformed movement -- "reformed, ever reforming." For the most part Reformed Theology is a contemporary living history of the development of Protestant Christianity consistently in process, progressing toward an end, yet actively inspired by traditional, even orthodox Christian principles. An example of this was the theological ferment set off by the 1960s and the Vietnam war years wherein reformed thought, from Harvey Cox and the Secular City Debate, through Peter L. Bergers' and Richard J. Neuhaus' "American Radicalism;" to the New Theology series of Martin E. Marty and Dean G. Peerman, exposed the demons of militarism, racism, and sexism while providing an open arena for theological dialogue between Christian, non-Christian, and certain cultic forms of religious ideologies. It was indeed a time of uncertainty when the Death-of-God partisans battled with the Jesus people and the new evangelicals.


"The Spirit of God is the divine principle of activity everywhere at work in the world, executing the will of God ...."' Understanding the meaning of the Holy Spirit is primary in any study of spirituality. In reformed theology, the Holy Spirit is considered within a doctrine which "claims that God is present in all persons in all... conditions, in every moment of existence, and the [individuals] may thus live freely in the created world."(6) In Greek, the term "spirit;" pneuma, refers to breath or soul, "that which gives life to the body... the whole personality, in its outer and inner aspects,... as the source and seat of insight, feeling, and will,... [as] the pure inner worship of God,... as a state of mind."(7) Moreover, the presence of the Holy Spirit involves elements sacred, holy, and sanctified in contrast with those considered mundane, unholy, and depraved. The Holy Spirit

differentiates God from everything that is not God, as the divine power that produces all divine existence, as the divine element in which all divine life is carried on, as the bearer of every application of the divine will. All those who belong to God possess or receive this spirit and hence have a share in his life. This spirit also serves to distinguish the Christians from all unbelievers.(8)
According to Calvin, as will later be discussed, especially in terms of "election;" the Holy Spirit is a power emanating from the ancient sources of the Covenant and given substance in the new covenant established by Christ. Accordingly, Christian tradition is enlightened by the teachings of Jewish thought. That is, through the reformation of the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ, Judaic law is "restored when it had been obscured by the falsehoods and defiled by the leaven of the Pharisees."(9)

In his interpretation of the Holy Spirit, Calvin presents a fairly legalistic explanation of the restoration of ancient traditions as the newer and revolutionary interpretations of reformed ideology. Part of this legalism involves his use of dualistic language in describing, on the one hand, the sanctified community, and, on the other, those persons not to be included in the "company of the elected."(10)

Calvin was deeply influenced by St. Paul. Paul's concern, as a missionary, was to proclaim the message of repentance. He was concerned with the evil intent of those who lived merely to satisfy the "desires of the flesh." He understood human nature as "not only sinful, but full of sin, which proliferates into countless separate sins and sinful habits, both in the individual and in society."(11) Calvin utilized Pauline thought to justify views on judgment, retribution, punishment, and spiritual discipline.

Later reformers made use of Calvin's instructions as they developed various catechisms, confessions, and declarations of reformed faith. Emerging from the many cross-currents of theological thought which informed Protestant scholasticism, reformers emphasized doctrinal orthodoxy and clerical authority. Rationalism was emphasized and Christian truth comprehended by "logical deduction from certain first principles. The question became not whether Christianity was to be judged by rational standards, but, rather, what was to constitute a rational standard by which religion should be tested."(12)

Perhaps the best known document expressing reformed orthodoxy during the mid-seventeenth century was the Westminster Confession of Faith. Not only was it a comprehensive distillation of reformed doctrine, but it also proved to be the cornerstone for much of the Puritan sentiment that was to influence early American asceticism. The authors, an assembly of English and Scottish clergy meeting at Westminster in 1649, proclaimed the following statement regarding the indwelling nature of Word and Spirit:

They who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them: The dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they [are] more and more quickened and strengthened, in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.(13)
The confessors at Westminster were insistent on using the terms "Spirit" and "Word" as the centerpiece for their comprehensive dissertation. For the reformers, Jesus is "the manifestation of God in the world." "Spirit" and "Word" are a "Unity" and Christ is "the personification of truth;" existent from the beginning of created time. Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed this position in these terms:
Christ, the Word, is the truth. Truth is only in the Word and through the Word. Spirit is originally Word and language and now power, emotion, and act .... Only as Word is the Spirit also power and action. God's Word creates and destroys .... God's Word is behind the destruction of lightning and the life-giving rain. As Word it destroys and creates the truth.(14)


As Word and Spirit are primary in defining a theology of the Holy Spirit, a second essential element is the Doctrine of the Covenant. The Spirit of God is defined as the "inner teacher" of the faithful community. Through the Spirit, the promise of salvation is realized and the power of God is confirmed. Believers are thus "justified" in Christ as they accept the gift of grace and are led to sanctification, recognizing the power of the Holy Spirit and proclaiming and acting out God's message of redemption in the world.

A Theology of Covenant involves God's establishment of a holy contract with humanity, accepted by individuals through obedience to the commandments. Accordingly, it is the process wherein what is believed, "ta pista, " and the practice of ethical behavior, "ta prakta;" are the principal Christian components of true theology.(15) Dogmatism -- the knowledge of God and ethics, and the worship of God in holiness and righteousness -- emerges from the Christian discipline of belief and practice. Within this religious order, life is characterized.

Paul Tillich, employing similar language, claims that the theological principle of justification can rightly imply that both doubter and believer are justified:

The principle of justification through faith refers not only to the religious-ethical but also the religious-intellectual life. Not only he who is in sin but also he who is in doubt is justified through faith. The situation of doubt, even of doubt about God, need not separate us from God. There is faith in every serious doubt, namely, the faith in the truth as such, even if the only truth we can express is our lack of truth. But if this is experienced in its depth and as an ultimate concern, the divine is present; and he who doubts in such an attitude is "justified" in his thinking. (16)
Tillich is concerned with the matter of "ultimate concern." His approach to doctrine is to suggest that the task of theology is to develop a central thesis for Christian belief. Faith is neither to be considered a comprehensive generalization nor a narrow compendium of specific theological standards. It involves a "holistic" approach which is "integrated" within human circumstances. It is within this "dimension of depth" that faith is finally recognized. This "interiority," for Tillich, is the "ultimate concern" which "sustains one's being and gives meaning to... life.... Man is unconditionally concerned about that which conditions his being beyond all the conditions in him and around him. Man is ultimately concerned about that which determines his ultimate destiny beyond all preliminary necessities and accidents."(17)

The liberal religious traditions of Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Tillich provide the theological framework for later thinking on matters of secularization and the study of ethnicity and culture. The concept of "New Covenant" follows in this same path. Social forms are developed through a "binding" and "pledging" of human relationships wherein mutual responsibilities are nurtured and shared. In the "Covenant;" the community is bound together in trust. There is an ordering of diverse traditions and the interconnection of separate identities. There is also a continuous flow of variable energies, stabilized through cohesive activity. Disparate parties and contrasting ideologies are joined through the promise of great eschatological expectations which anticipate dynamic change and the revolutionary hope promised in a transformed and holy consciousness.(18)

This is a vision which points to the divine community. Moreover, it involves God's divine action instead of the relatively static condition of his "ground of being."(19) Hence, the Kingdom of God is perceived as a powerful presence experienced in holy mediation. The "holy Covenant" is thereby established to

make men discern the holy and the profane: And to observe the Sabbath according to its true meaning and the feasts and the day of the Fast according to the utterances of them who entered into the New Covenant in the land of Damascus: To contribute their holy things according to the true interpretation: To love every one his brother as himself, and to strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy and the stranger, and to seek every one of the peace of his brother.(20)


In the preceding two sections, I have tried to show how the Word of God or "Ultimate Logos" is expressed through the Holy Spirit proclaimed within covenant to the faithful people joined in community with God. It is my intention, in the remainder of this article, to evaluate in what manner God's Word is revealed to humanity within a reformed context.

The essential task of reformed theology is to construct a method of contact with God so that individuals can understand God's "true essence." So to speak, the nature of God is made known through his transcendence revealed in the presence of Jesus Christ. As Son and Lord, Jesus provides the conduit though which holy knowledge flows. Finite intelligence is limited to a horizontal dimension. In order to "transcend" this "finitude," individual aspirations must be projected beyond the limitations of the continuum of space and time. It is the process of passing beyond "mundane confinement" of "earth-bound conditioning" to enter "the dimensions of the wholly sacred."(21)

History is a movement in time defined by present reality. In light of the future and its "endings;" however, the rhythm of history is not yet finished. God reveals himself through his "breaking into" human activity. This is the "antithesis -- the great leap" interpreted as the "risen spirit of Christ." It is at this division in time that God reveals himself directly within metaphysical reality (history), through theological knowledge (promise and expectation), culminating in the announcement of historical revelation (the Lordship of Christ). This revelation is acknowledged in human experience and perceived in relationship to God's promise.

It is thus shown that the essence of man becomes revealed through Jesus, the Son of God, in a twofold way: first, through Jesus' deeds in that Jesus grants or promises community with himself and thus participation in eschatological salvation; second, in Jesus' fate insofar as man's destiny in the resurrection life has been revealed in Jesus himself.(22)
Whereas resurrection calls attention to the hopeful aspects of future time, of the "parousia," the "contradiction of the cross" delineates the suffering state of Christ in death. There is thus a synthesis between the cross and resurrection.


The reformers wanted to return Christianity to its original roots through a rigorous and analytical interpretation of Scripture. Calvin especially promoted such an undertaking. He interpreted the resurrection in a systematic manner, promoting a belief centered upon dogma. Thus, the resurrection was circumscribed and bound by a set of religious orders. But by so "ordering" Christian reality, the reformers failed to appreciate the true dynamics of the cross of Christ.

As new theologies began to replace dogmatic interpretations, Protestantism slowly changed. Part of this shift in theology followed the recognition of ecumenical insights, the emerging sense of social consciousness, and the development of pluralism as a viable alternative to traditional, homogeneous presuppositions, which, for the most part, were absolutist and unitary in both form and substance.(23) But for many contemporary reformed theologians, the fundamental theological process involves "the experience of God in the experience of forsakenness and desolation ...."(24) This is a "hope in action" which evolves from a "hope in faith." Christian hope is a part of the expectation or anticipation for human liberation and is understood as an elemental condition for the development of a new reformation, a new identity wherein traditional theological concepts are reformed, re-programmed, and re-created into new shapes utilizing the freshness of diverse social, cultural, and ethnic manifestations as these are defined within current circumstances.

Within the context of the 1980s, looking toward the end of the twentieth century, I calculate that reformed thinking will continue to pursue ecumenical directions. This is especially so in consideration of the recent mergers among the Presbyterian and Lutheran churches and the ongoing discussions between the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). On another level, however, reformed bodies are still often fearful of losing identity. Privatism and individualism are still the hallmarks of ecclesiastical autonomy. Yet, historical change emerges amidst such shifting moments in time, building bridges above the chasms of theological and ecclesiastical diversity. And thus, the Holy Spirit evolves through these many fermentations and religious revolutions building a new and dynamic foundation on which God can work his magic.

  1. Wilhelm Pauck; From Luther to Tillich: The Reformers and their Heirs, edited by Marion Pauck with an Introduction by Jaroslav Pelikan (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1984), p. 190.
  2. See Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), p. 50.
  3. William F. Keesecker, A Layperson's Study Guide to the Theology of The Book of Confessions of the UPCUSA (New York: Office of the General Assembly, 1976), p. 17.
  4. See David Ogg, Europe in the Seventeenth Century (New York: Collier Books, 1968), p. 92.
  5. Henry Snyder Gehman, The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1944), p. 253.
  6. Gordon D. Kaufman, Systematic Theology: A Historical Perspective (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968), p. 228.
  7. William F. Arndt & F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 680-81.
  8. Ibid., p. 682.
  9. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, Bk. 2, Chap. VIII, Para. 7, ed. John T. McNeill, Trans. & Ind. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1967), p. 374, for ser. The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. XX.
  10. A critical problem in Calvinism involves the question 'Who are the Elect?' In his Institutes, Calvin seems to indicate that they are those who are "the remnant," somehow "Gratuitously 'Predestined' to Salvation," interpreting Paul in Romans 11:6 which indicates that it is not by "work-righteousness" that a person is saved, but through the "Grace and Free Will" of God. Calvin stresses that "the Covenant of Life is not precluded equally to all..., plainly owing to the mere pleasure of God that Salvation is spontaneously offered to some, while others have no access to it ...." (See pp. 202-203). Throughout Protestant history, this theological formula concerning "The Elected" has created a barrier between those who were "saved" and those considered outside the ecclesiastical fold.
  11. Raymond T. Stamm's exegesis of the Epistle to the Galatians, 5:19-21a, in The Interpreters Bible, Vol. X, (New York: Abingdon Press, 1953), p. 564.
  12. James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Vatican II (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971), p. 13.
  13. Office of the General Assembly, The Constitution of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Part I, Book of Confessions (New York: GA Office, 1970), chap. XII, of Sanctification, para. 6.067, no. 1.
  14. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 49.
  15. See Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Historical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), pp. 304-14, outlining the theologies of two early 17th century reformers -- Johannes Wollebius of Basel and William Ames of Ipswich, England.
  16. Kaufman, n. 16, p. 451, see also Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought: From Its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968), pp. 510-11 for a discussion of Martin Kahler's interpretation of justification as simul iustus et peccator, the impossibility of being a saint without at the same time being a sinner.
  17. Livingston, p. 357.
  18. See Max L. Stackhouse, Today's City: Threat or Promise? in Daniel Callahan, ed., The Secular City Debate (New York: The Macillan Co., 1966), pp. 36-37, especially Reinhold Niebuhr's views regarding Covenant involving a pathway "that allows us... to sail between the twin perils of the Scylla of externalized and formalized rigidity on one side and the Charybdis of chaos and anomie on the other."
  19. Both Paul Tillich and Karl Barth understand God as the Ground of Being from which humanity becomes real and meaningful. Consequently, it is impossible to know reality without knowing God first. Human endeavor is therefore constructed on God's gnosis.
  20. Ed. C.K. Barrett, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (New York: Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library, Harper & Row, 1961), parap. 229, nox. 15 & 20. p. 259, from the Zadokite Fragments.
  21. See Mirecea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1959), pp. 116-18.
  22. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus, God and Man (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1968), p. 193.
  23. William James, in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: The New American Library, 1958), p. 115, outlines the difficulties of coming to grips with monistic, absolute, and pantheistic principles on one level in contrast with a more practical pluralistic, even polytheistic identity on the other. He suggests that it "is sensible to understand that the world has... existed from its origin in pluralistic form, as an aggregate or collective of higher and lower things and principles, rather than as an absolutely unitary fact ...."
  24. Jurgen Moltman, Experiences of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), p. 14.