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Truly Confident or Simply Smug

By Carl E. Zylstra

Not long ago, I heard a preacher comment during a sermon: “You can see from this passage that Jesus really was Reformed.” The congregation tittered. But the pastor was serious. It’s not that he didn’t understand the anachronism of describing Jesus as a Calvinist a full fifteen centuries before the birth of John Calvin. Nor was the pastor trying to impose on Jesus a creedal formulation from the Reformed confessions that wouldn’t be written for another millennium and a half.

What the preacher intended to get across that day was the conviction that if anyone from any theological tradition—including Reformed—ever goes beyond the teachings of Jesus and the Word his Spirit inspired, then they’ve gone too far. Any world view based on anything other than the revealed Word of God and the teaching of the Incarnate Word the Scripture reveals becomes a cultic conceit that should be pushed aside as fast as possible. On the other hand, a conviction that one’s own position is humbly shaped by the Word and Spirit of our Living Lord can result in the kind of confidence that enables true service in the Savior’s name. I like to think the latter is what the preacher I heard that day had in mind.

I must confess that folks sometimes accuse Reformed Christian colleges and scholars of an arrogant smugness that seems to fit the “If we believe in this or that way, then surely Jesus would have believed it too” attitude. There is a difference between being confident and being cocky. And I’m not sure Calvinists have always been very good at making the distinction. I’ve heard, far more often than I would have wished, the accusation that “You Reformed people always seem to think that you have a corner on biblical worldview—and that the only way the rest of us Christians get to share in it is to grovel a while at your feet.”

I’m equally concerned lest a newfound self-awareness leads Reformed academicians to abandon the biblical insights our tradition has developed and passed on to us. It seems to me that the solution to smugness is not despair over the convictions and principles of the past. The better approach is one that gladly and confidently shares the insights of our tradition so that we can be guided in the future as to what Jesus really did teach and what the Scriptures really do proclaim.

As Dordt College moves boldly into the second half of our first century, perhaps we can be forgiven the sometimes adolescent swagger that somehow our own beliefs and insights were always “the best on the block.” But I also hope that no one expects us now to forgo the confidence that the insights we’ve developed during our first fifty years can serve us in good stead for the future, too. I even hope that more and more folks will be able to benefit from some of the lessons we had to learn and hone as we struggled to fashion a firmly biblically based academic institution in our corner of the Great Plains.

I’ve previously noted in this column the observation made a dozen years ago by an author that he was impressed that Dordt College had a mission statement for our radio station that was several times longer than the Athanasian Creed. He didn’t really mean that as a compliment. He believed that Dordt College was far too apt to rely on lengthy and involved statements of principle without understanding how those principles need to take form in daily life. I don’t believe he was completely on track. Those statements of principle hammered out during the founding years of our college’s history are still serving us well as we shape a high quality, faith-infused college for the future.

Yet the critic was right to this extent. It would be a shame were we to allow a pile of documents and multiple volumes of our history to create in us a smug satisfaction that somehow the Golden Age of biblical thought was ushered in by the founding of Dordt College. Should that sort of smugness ever take hold among us, the Lord has his ways of frustrating even our best efforts. As the Bible makes clear, God simply “will not share his glory with another” —even us.

I do hope that Dordt College and its supporting constituency always remain confident in carrying out the mission formulated in our documents. To the extent that God’s Word does form and mold our thinking, we have a divine mandate to share those insights with coming generations that may be attracted to join our college–and also with those colleague institutions and scholars with whom we share our task. When we pursue our legitimate tasks with a truly God-given confidence, we’ll be learning from others even as they will learn from us. And then, hopefully, we’ll all be glad that we have learned together from the risen Christ we serve. Authentic confidence, without smugness, in the leading of the Spirit of Christ will help us make sure that Soli Deo Gloria remains more than just our college motto­—and that all the glory truly will go to Him alone.