What is the reformed church all about? People often ask me that question. One answer is that reformed churches are churches that want to “connect the dots” of Scripture.
I expect at some point as a child you played Dot-to-dot. It’s a puzzle, which is solved by drawing lines between dots, as you follow a sequence of numbers. At first sight, it is not at all obvious what the picture is; only by connecting the dots do you see!
Dot-to-dot is a good metaphor for a particular way of thinking. Detectives have to connect the dots in order to work out who committed the crime. They look for clues, and collect evidence, and from them make inferences, in order to draw conclusions. For example, Sherlock Holmes was able to deduce from the dog that didn’t bark in the night, who the murder culprit was.
Well, reformed churches believe that this thinking strategy is also necessary for Christians to understand the Bible properly; we’ve got to learn to connect the dots. Of course, the Bible has a glorious clarity that makes wise the simple (Psalm 19:7). You don’t need a phd to understand the Bible. In fact, babes and infants can understand Scripture better than some Bible scholars (Matt 21:15-16). But, God has not laid everything out in Scripture plainly and explicitly. The Bible is not like my car manual, or a medical encyclopaedia with an index, where I can look up individual topics to find the definitive answer. It’s not written for Captain Obvious. Yet, sadly, that is how a lot of Christians treat their Bibles. They believe their Bibles, and they love their Bibles, but they only take it at face value. They expect to find a Bible verse that tells them what to believe, what to say, and what to do in every situation. If no such verse exists, they conclude that the belief or occasion doesn’t matter, or can’t be that important. They’ve not learned to put it all together and see the connections.
An extreme (heretical) version of this would end up denying the Trinity. After all, there is no one verse or passage that clearly established the complete doctrine of God as Trinity. It’s a doctrine arrived at through the church connecting dots, such as Matt 28:19, John 1:1-2, John 14-16. And it’s no less solid a truth as a result.
What stops us connecting the dots?
But Christians, today particularly, can be reluctant to connect the dots. Why is that?
– There is an understandable fear that by joining the dots we’re actually adding to the Bible. Aren’t we really “filling in the blanks”, like the Pharisees did, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men (Matt 15:9)? Yes, I’m sure that is a danger. But when done properly, connecting the dots is only unpacking what is already there. Dots can be connected incorrectly, and when this is done, Scripture itself will alert us to it; there will be a disfiguring of Scripture. We’re aiming to be obedient listeners, receiving all that God says, not just explicitly, but between the lines too.
– A bigger reason is an unwitting view of God’s word that treats it as a merely human text, rather than the revelation of the “depths of God” (1 Cor 2:10). As a result, lots of Christians only deal with the surface of Scripture – the letter, not the Spirit (2 Cor 3:4; Rom 7:6). Gregory Nazianzus criticised his opponents for this: “why are you so dreadfully servile to the letter… following the syllables while you let the realities go?… Supposing you mention ‘twice five’ or ‘twice seven’ and I infer from your words ‘ten’ or ‘fourteen…’ would you allege that I was talking rubbish? How could I be? I am saying what you said”. Sadly, some Christians are so scared of connecting the dots that even if the Bible says the equivalent of two times two, they aren’t willing to call it “four”!
As Christians we need to believe that the truth is “true”. It has its own force and contains its own logic, like an acorn, already containing the oak. Connecting the dots is simply letting Scripture speak and taking the truths it reveals seriously.
What happens when you connect the dots?
When you start to join the dots in the Bible, it’s like connecting an electric circuit – the lights come on! You don’t get a better Jesus, but you do get Jesus better. For example, if you start to link up the “covenant” with the “church”, and with the “sacraments”, some theological fireworks go off! Join those dots together and “boom!”. What we’re doing on Sundays at church is no longer just Christians meeting to encourage each other from the Bible: Jesus is turning up in fulfilment of his covenant! Sunday isn’t just another day of the week – it’s Jesus’ day, pointing us back to his resurrection and forward to eternal life! The Christian life isn’t just me being saved as an individual, but being saved as a people, as a new humanity, and those relationships matter. The sacraments are no longer glorified sermon illustrations; they seal Jesus to me and his people. The law is no longer just a stick to beat me down and drive me to Jesus; it’s a guide, which the Holy Spirit uses to conform me to Jesus’ likeness.
This was Mrs. A’s experience going to a presbyterian church in America. She knew her Bible well before that, and was blessed with a strong Christian upbringing, and good churches, but she’d not seen how interconnected everything was before!
It’s like being able to tune in to a range of noise that you’d not been previously been able to detect. Or it’s like listening to music you love and then listening with really expensive headphones and discovering the music’s even richer, deeper, and more beautiful than you’d realised.
When you start connecting the dots, Jesus’ salvation gets bigger and better.
What happens if you don’t connect the dots?
At an individual level, failing to connect the dots will mean that our Bibles have much less to say to us than they otherwise might. We’re missing out on what God has to say to us. But at a church level, it makes churches much more vulnerable to losing “sound” or “healthy” doctrine (1 Tim 6:3; Titus 1:9). Health requires different parts of a system to relate together properly; if a doctor doesn’t understand how different parts of the body connect, he’s not going to be able to help the body regain health. Similarly, if our churches aren’t willing to join the dots of God’s word, and they only pay attention to what’s on Scripture’s surface, we’re not going to be able to preserve and pass on “sound” doctrine to future generations.
So, reformed churches are congregations committed to the principle that God’s word written is sufficient to instruct us in what to believe and do as followers of Jesus. We do not want to add to the Bible, but we do believe there is much more in the Bible than at first meets the eye. Start joining those dots!