Sorting by

Skip to main content

On Being Reformed:An Interview with Max Stackhouse

By October 16, 2005 No Comments

Max L. Stackhouse is the Rimmer and Ruth de Vries Professor of Reformed Max Theology and Public Life at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has published many books and articles in the areas of economic ethics, human rights, covenantal ethics, and family and globalization, including the God and Globalization series, of which he is chief editor (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000-Present). An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, Dr. Stackhouse has traveled and lectured globally, engaging in various intercultural and interreligious dialogues. He has spent at least a part of his every sabbatical leave and summer with seminarians and church leaders in Asia. Among his many notable leadership responsibilities, he currently serves as the director of the Kuyper Center for Public Theology at his school and as president of the board of the Berkshire Institute for Theology and Arts.

How do you define the Reformed tradition? What does it mean to you today?

Max Stackhouse: I view this tradition as a family of Protestant strands that derive from the Czech, Swiss, Rheinland, French Huguenot, Dutch, Hungarian and Anglo- American Puritan attempts to reform the medieval church, a family now being expanded by newer encounters with Asian, Latin American, and African religions and cultures and the new phenomenon of Pentecostalism. The towering figures of Calvin, Bullinger, Edwards, Schleiermacher, Kuyper, Barth and, in some ways, the Niebuhrs, are key points of reference, but no one of these is definitive for faith or practice. Treasured Reformed statements of faith accent the sovereignty of God, the centrality of Christ, the importance of covenant, the disciplines of vocation, and the sanctification of souls and societies in ways not fully accented by most of the cousins in faith, although they share many other emphases. These Reformed streams engendered a “this-worldly asceticism” that shaped modern science and technology, economic life, and several models of federalist proto-democratic ecclesiologies that deeply influenced modern politics. They saw these in contrast to hierarchical and imperial models on the one hand and individualistic contractarian models on the other. These two kinds of models are important as the world faces a new global interdependence. If Reformed Christianity is to reform the global civil society that it helped create, it will need to balance these socio-theological accents that are so decisive for the future.

P: How has the Reformed tradition shaped your scholarship and teaching ministry? For example, how has the tradition guided you in your interest in Hinduism?

MS: I have long been interested in the ways in which religions influence cultures and societies and serve as the metaphysicalmoral core of civilizations. In fact, I think it is a duty of theology to shape the common life, and if it does not or cannot, it is not worth much. The faith of my youth, a rather profound form of personal pietism, was spiritually nourishing in many ways but disinterested in such matters. I became a convert to the Reformed tradition by reading about the ways in which the Reformed theologians and Puritan activists established federated-covenantal systems in churches and societies by enacting democratic, constitutional orders under just laws, with an eye toward the common good while protecting pluralism and human rights. In some parts of the Reformed family, this was part of the missiological mandate. I became a missionary.

No systems are as much in contrast with such views, as I see it, as those of traditional Asia. The caliph-protected theocratic system of Central Asia, where the clergy are appointed by the political rulers; the emperor-centered system of ancient Confucianism, administered by elite literati in many countries of East Asia; and the diffused, Brahminic system of ancient Hinduism, enforced by maharajas, princes and landowners who served the priestly classes in South Asia–all were examples of hierarchical systems contrary to what the Reformed tradition believes best fits human nature and God’s intent. Yet, they are worthy of honor in many respects; they endured for centuries and they flourish today in modified forms. Yet, as I found out when I was a missionary in India, it has, under British colonial influence and that of a minority of Christian converts, adopted a democratic system that legally recognizes human rights and has reduced the power of the Brahmin priests, the maharajas, and princes and has challenged the power of the landowners (often oppressive of the “outcaste” Dalits). This poses my question: Can the Reformed heritage convert a hierarchical tradition, even if it does not convert all the persons in it? I think it can, and must, but it too will be changed by the process–just as it was by interaction with the old cultures of Europe.

P: In the context of diverse expressions of the Christian faith and spirituality today, where do you see the distinctive values and contributions of the Reformed tradition in terms of worship, theology, and ethics?

MS: I am not sure that the expressions of the faith and its spirituality are more diverse than they were in the past since, over the centuries, many of the local, tribal, shamanistic, and folk religions have been drawn into one or another of the great world religions and modulated the expressions of those faiths. But it is true, in much of the world there are more denominations than in the days of state-established religions; and the Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Independent churches develop their own styles according to the charisma of the leaders, the indigenous habits of the constituency they attract, and the needs of insecure persons facing massive social change. The Reformed heritage is more given to less emotive liturgies and classical musical styles, with sermons focused on more overtly doctrinal content than in many of the other traditions. I like this style and miss it when it is absent, but I recognize both that a case has to be made as to why we should preserve it and that changes must be made.

The greatest contributions of the Reformed tradition historically, however, are in the areas of forming an ethically disciplined, theologically literate, and ecumenically engaged leadership in church and society–particularly in business, law, politics, education, and technology (medicine, engineering, architecture, and management). This tradition held that the sovereign God saw no area of life as outside the concerns or constraints of God’s reign or outside of the domain of the Christ, who is true Prophet, Priest, and King. I believe that this tradition has been the most influential theological stream in modernity in terms of motivating people to find their vocations or to develop a dedication to excellence and community service in and through their professions. Recent trends in theological mood–such as the accents on the Barmen Declaration, on Liberation Theology, and on Neo-Anabaptist ethics–have focused much attention in other directions and emphasized counter-cultural and anti-elite attitudes. These trends inadvertently fail to address the moral and spiritual needs of societal and cultural leadership and the emotive needs of persons trying to adapt to changing social ecologies–with sad results.

P: If Reformed means “always reforming,” where do you see the need for reformation or improvement within the Reformed tradition, especially in light of the surge of feminism, Liberation Theology, and evangelicalism?

MS: If it is so, as I believe, that the Reformed tradition helped generate the key social forces that have now become global in impact, it is the responsibility of the heirs of that tradition to engage and embrace, as possible, and to reform again and again, as necessary, the technological, corporate, international, legal, military, and media influences that are reshaping the world. The classic Reformed doctrine of the sovereignty of God demands that we seek to discern what God is doing in the world in this dynamic transformation. At present, key parts of the Reformed leadership, and of its ecumenical partners, are in danger of repeating the errors of the popes who condemned Galileo. They could not tolerate a fundamentally new reading of the way the world was and condemned those who saw a new cosmology as necessitated by the evidence that had been accumulating for years. As we face globalization, far too many still understand it in terms that are equally obsolete. Many view it as the extension of the eighteenth-century hand of “the Market” as they think Adam Smith wrote about it, as nineteenth-century “Capital” as Marx saw it, or as the new form of the “Imperialism” as Lenin wrote about it in the twentieth century.

In fact, globalization involves a massive civilization shift that brings with it not only the amazing growth of the middle classes in country after country (with those who oppose the global developments falling further behind) but also the extension of human rights and opportunities to women and minorities, the formation of constitutional democracies in lands where it has never been before, the development of technology-based means of production that displace the subsistence and feudal economies that kept people in poverty, a new access to information through a global media and internet, and modern medical care, etc., in ever-increasing numbers. It is also true that those drawn into the globalization process become wealthy and create a gap separating them from those left behind; but the percent of the population left behind shrinks by the decade. If the Reformed tradition wants to be a part of the new global future, it will figure out how to bring its considerable resources to guide the globalizing powers and assure that the results become more and more accessible to all. The politics of protest and resistance, which I hear in many liberation and some feminist voices on this issue, is a reactionary strategy based on a weak theology of history. The Reformed tradition must develop a constructive and re-reforming approach.

P: Denominations affiliated with the Reformed tradition in the U.S. are numerically declining or stagnating like many other mainline denominations. Where do you see the problems of the Reformed tradition, and how can they be overcome?

MS: It is one of the great points of sadness that the Reformed tradition, to which I am a convert, is undergoing such a meltdown. For I believe that this tradition is the moral core of Protestantism, and the social hope for a federated, democratic world future, now in danger of degeneration. The chief theological reason, I think, is that it has tended toward binitarianism. That is, it has tended to focus on the sovereignty of God in ways that can become fatalistic and on Jesus Christ in ways that can become Christomonistic. But it seldom accents the Holy Spirit as the inspiring power of the Triune God as experienced by persons in lifechanging experiences; as known by artists when possessed to create new sounds and visions, poetry or narratives; as found in the formation of bonded communities in the midst of the institutions of the common life. Yet, sports teams, book groups, military units, labor unions, school classes, medical centers, bureaucratic divisions, and corporate departments can develop a culture of inspired mutuality and commitment. A more complete understanding of God’s inspiring presence does not try to confine it to the church. One can even suspect that the Holy Spirit can move in other religious traditions and serve as a preparatio evangelicum. In brief, the cool and sober Reformed peoples can learn from the charismatic movement and the Pentecostal churches, and from Pope John XXIII, when he spoke about throwing open the windows of the Vatican to let the Holy Spirit blow through.

Ecclesiologically, this likely means that the local congregations will be more important than the national bodies, that the global families of faith, linked by mutual mission, service, and exchange, will become as significant as denominational identities, and that fixed confessional and doctrinal statements will become less important than the quests for a personal faith lived out in a series of inspiring communities, all governed by a generous and truly catholic worldview–even if the ecumenical movement remains bogged down in politically correct ideological battles.

Hak Joon Lee is associate professor of ethics and community at New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and is a member of the Perspectives Board of Editors.