A reformed past. A reformed future?

Why am I reformed? Forget for a moment different was of asking this question, such as: “what does it mean to be reformed?” “Why am I reformed?” The answer to this question seem to be quite simple: I was born reformed. I was baptized in a reformed church, attended Sunday school in a reformed church, received my theological training from reformed lecturers in a faculty that was mostly training reformed students. I was ordained in a reformed church and ministered in reformed congregations since then. Whatever is might mean to be reformed, I am reformed, but mostly due to the accidents of birth. Had I been born in a totally different family in a totally different context, my chances of being reformed would have been quite slim.

But I’m not reformed only. On the night that I told my parents of my intention to study theology, my mother came to tell me that I need to know that they do not expect of me to study reformed theology. Regardless of my choice to keep to this accident of birth, the mother’s instinct about her son is telling: since I was moving freely between churches as a teen, and often in conflict with the structures and powers of the local Dutch Reformed congregation of my hometown, she sensed that it might be that my future theological identity is not entirely formed by this accident of birth.

But accidents of birth are not without a background. Obviously I could only have been born into this particular time and place, and any other birth would not have been my own, but that of a totally different person. If born into this reformed story, I still need to think about how it came about to be my story. As we commemorate 500 years of the reformation I cannot but note that this event in history played its own part in the fragmentation of the church. Today I need to note not only the vast theological differences in the church in South Africa, but also the ways in which divisions along European national lines (German churches, Dutch churches, British churches) were carried into the South African context, and have become so entrenched that we cannot see beyond them. This reformed identity was obviously also influential in the story of injustice in South Africa (although yes, in the struggle against this injustice as well), and was sustained – at times in the literal financial sense – by this injustice. That too, is part of what caused this accident of birth.

So I am reformed in the descriptive sense. Being reformed is part of what brought me here. But does that mean that being reformed is something which I need to sustain into the future? Is a reformed identity, in the sense of prescribing certain criteria that makes me reformed and that I commit to upholding for the sake of being reformed, something that I can justify?

I cannot help but be left with a deep sense of discomfort when confronted with such a quest for a reformed identity: one where being reformed is not but a reality from the past but a vision into the future. A vision where one denominational identity is theologically maintained over against another, as if that in itself can be justified in an way.

So if an accident of birth has led me to a reformed identity, then I’ll learn from this, present its gifts to others, and name its sins. But I do this only for the sake of finding a future more ecumenical, Catholic, and dare I say Christian identity, not in order to maintain a future reformed identity.

But then, I have to wonder, is this not reformed? This low view of tradition, this optimistic sense that I can contribute to something which is Christian without being mediated by denominational markers, is that not in itself partly reformed? While my mother’s instinct was right, it might be that my own decision to give this tradition a chance was also right. I might be more reformed than I thought, exactly because of my quest for finding a Christian identity not bound to the theological narratives of denominational histories.

Cobus van Wyngaard is lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of South Africa (Unisa) and minister of the Dutch Reformed congregation Pretoria.