March 16: What’s In a Name?

It may have fallen into disuse (praise God if it has), but at one time the designation “TR” was constantly in the air. The letters stand for “Truly Reformed” and it is a phrase that has been controversial most of its life. For some it has been a term of pride and arrogance (“I am and you’re not”).  For others it has been a handy derogatory expression (“You are and I’m glad I’m not”). It may even surprise some to find out that this all goes back about forty years or more. By several accounts, “TR” was an expression coined in the early 1970’s on the campus of Reformed Theological Seminary, in Jackson, MS.  Initially it was more an aspiration—a goal—namely, we want to be thoroughly or consistently Reformed. But it quickly became a label, and as with most labels, there was little good that came from use of the stereotypes that attached on either side of the expression. After boiling around on the RTS campus for a while, the controversy finally appeared on the pages of The Presbyterian Journal in 1977.

First up was Dr. Jack Scott, a much-loved Old Testament professor at RTS, whose chapel talk was transcribed and published.  Dr. Scott was seeing a problem on the RTS campus, and he spoke to the matter. Dr. Scott’s address forms our post for today. Next, The Presbyterian Journal published articles by David R. Gillespie, a student at RTS, and by William E. Hill, Jr., founder of the Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, an organization that was important to the subsequent formation of the PCA. Those articles we will post in following days (Sat. & Mon.). The last article on this topic was by the editor of The Presbyterian Journal, Dr. G. Aiken Taylor, who wrote an editorial titled “Lo, the TR”.  (We will post Dr. G. Aiken Taylor’s article on Tues.) After that, three or four succeeding issues of the magazine displayed letters to the editor on the matter, with all sides (and then some) covered as debate continued. (to be posted Wed.)


Is the truth of the Reformed faith still true when it is not loving?

Paragon of Orthodoxy


The author, professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Miss., is author of the Journal’s Sunday school lessons. This message originally was given as a seminary chapel talk.

The portion of Scripture taken from the first speech of Eliphaz to Job surely commends itself as a paragon of orthodoxy:

“But as for me, I would seek unto God, and unto God would I commit my cause: Who doeth great things and unsearchable; marvelous things without number: Who giveth rain upon the earth, and sendeth waters upon the fields: So that He setteth up on high those that are low; and those that mourn are exalted to safety.

“He frustrateth the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot perform their enterprise.  He taketh the wise in their own craftiness: and the counsel of the cunning is carried headlong. They meet with darkness in the daytime, and grope at noonday as in the night.

“But He saveth from the sword of their mouth, even the needy from the hand of the mighty. So the poor hath hope, and iniquity stoppeth her mouth. Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth:  therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty” (Job 5:8-17). First comes a clear call to seek God: “As for me, I would seek God” (v. 8). The prophets also called for men to seek God while He may be found. In the New Testament, our Lord likewise taught that we are to seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and seeking, we shall find.

Eliphaz praised God in clear, certain terms, speaking of the marvelous deeds of God, the unsearchable quality of God (vv. 9-16). Paul also concluded a part of his letter to the Romans with a clear statement of the unsearchable knowledge and wisdom of God (Rom. 11). Then Eliphaz spoke of the providence of God, of a God who gives rain on the earth and sends water upon the fields.

Next, he told of the exaltation of the lowly (v. 11), in words much like those of Hannah. When she received the answer to her earlier prayer for a son, Hannah praised God who exalts the lowly.

Eliphaz declared that God will and surely does oppose His enemies. He frustrates the devices of the crafty. Again, he declared that God overturns the wisdom of this world; Paul’s words in I Corinthians are not unlike these.

Eliphaz showed something of God’s love and concern for the needy: “Even the needy, He saves from the hand of the mighty, so the poor hath hope and iniquity stops her mouth” (w. 15-16).

He concluded this portion by exhorting Job and those listening to him to accept the correction of God:  “Happy is the man whom God corrects, therefore, despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty.” These words, very much like those of Proverbs 3:11, are echoed in the New Testament. The author of Hebrews exhorts us all to accept the chastening of God, declaring that whom the Lord loves, He chastens (Heb. 12).

Thus it is with Eliphaz’ speech—sound, orthodox, solid theology! Right? Wrong!

Before this speech he heaped ridicule upon Job, “Now it is come unto thee, and thou faintest; it toucheth thee, and thou art troubled” (Job 4:5). He also was guilty of judging Job:  “Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished, being innocent? Or where were the upright cut off? According as I have seen, they that plow iniquity, and sow trouble, reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of His anger are they consumed” (Job 4:7-9).

Here Eliphaz put himself in the place of God and made a judgment about Job, not understanding at all the real problem which Job faced. Looking at external circumstances, he immediately came to certain conclusions. He presumed that because Job was suffering—as he surely was suffering because of his circumstances—he was clearly displeasing God.

Taking the same truth which Paul later declared, “Whatsoever a man sows, that he will also reap,” Eliphaz reversed it and made of it something which cannot be upheld. He was saying, in effect, “When we see trouble in a man’s life, we can know that he’s getting what he justly deserves from God.” However, Eliphaz indicated that this wisdom had a source other than the Lord: “Now a thing was secretly brought to me, and my ears received the whisper thereof, and thoughts from the visions of the night” (Job 4:12-13). What he pronounced so eloquently was based on his visions, the whisperings, the secretly brought things. He also showed a facility for speaking to that which was not at issue: “Shall mortal man be more just than God? shall a man be more pure than his maker?” (Job 4:17). He spoke as though Job had affirmed this; of course Job had not. Eliphaz simply put up a straw man he could easily knock down.

Later Eliphaz’ speech moved into the realm of cruelty. “I have seen the foolish taking root: but suddenly I cursed his habitation. His children are far from safety, they are crushed in the gate, neither is there any to deliver them” (Job 5:3-4). “Job,” he was saying, “you just lost your children because of your sin. Because you sinned against God and displeased Him, you have been crushed and destroyed.” What a thing to say to a man who endured the great hardship and suffering of Job!

Finally, Eliphaz came to an arrogant, dogmatic conclusion: “Lo this, we have searched it, so it is; hear it, and know thou it for thy good”—as if to say, the last word has been said, the book is closed, this is it!

Elsewhere in the book of Job, God made His own assessment of these words: “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2), and He said to Eliphaz, “My wrath is kindled against thee and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath” (Job 42:7).

Eliphaz and his friends may have known many truths, but they did not know how to speak the truth in love, as Scripture requires of those called to speak the Word of God. Paul exhorted us to speak the truth in love, reminding us that we are about the business of building up the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in love (Eph. 4:15).

Now it pains me to say this, but I almost have come to the point where the term “TR” makes me sick! I don’t mean the concept. I believe that the concept of being thoroughly Reformed is a commitment everyone of us should have. I believe every seminary should stand for doctrines that are thoroughly Reformed. But that term “TR” has become heinous to those out in the Church. The two basic reactions to it are fear and laughter. In one week in two states, I have heard the term joked about and laughed at. I have talked to people who are filled with fear because of associations they have with that expression. And whether we like it or not, we have made it so. Shame on us! There’s nothing wrong with the term, but truth can never be honored when it is not spoken in love. You might even ask if it can still really be called truth.

James had a lot to say about the use of the tongue. “Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive the heavier judgment. For in many things we all stumble. If any man stumbleth not in word, the same is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body, also” (Jas. 3:1-2).

James was awed by his responsibility, and his “we” included himself. We who are called to the heavy responsibility of teaching the Word of God stand under a heavier judgment.

We are always in danger of stumbling in the Word, of bringing dishonor to God where we would bring honor, of bringing confusion in the minds and hearts of men where we would clarify, of bringing laughter and jokes when we would instead bring serious contemplation of the truth.

Eliphaz is a very good example of James’ illustration, “Doth the fountain send forth from the same opening sweet water and bitter?” (Jas. 3:11). Eliphaz did just that, praising God eloquently but condemning Job wrongly, speaking, as it were, the truth without love. This is not acceptable in the sight of God. Watch out, brethren! God’s Word admonishes us!

Moreover, in Churches and our congregations many people are grieved and fearful and hurt, although we did not intend it so. I stand second to no man in my devotion to orthodoxy and to the Reformed faith, like Paul who was not ashamed to call himself a Pharisee of the Pharisees.

Yet our Lord reserved some of the sharpest words of His earthly ministry for just such people. Because they did not know how to handle the truth, they did great damage to the Word of God and to the people of God.

There is nothing wrong with being thoroughly Reformed, but perhaps we need to keep in mind some other words of James. “Thou believest that God is one” (now, nothing is more orthodox than that!) “thou doest well: the demons also believe, and shudder” (Jas. 2:19).

There’s more to orthodoxy than technically correct words. Sound orthodoxy and thoroughly Reformed faith have to do with the life we live and the manner in which we teach the Word of God, and with the love in our hearts as we deal with people, speaking to them of the great mysteries of God’s revelation.

And it is incumbent upon us to do this in the way God’s Word says it must be done. When “TR” becomes synonymous in the minds of people with factious, cruel, arrogant, judgmental, abusive, overbearing, it’s time for us to take note and do something about it.

This is a call for all of us to search our souls, to repent if need be. We can do something; nobody else but us can do anything about this. We can make the term “thoroughly Reformed” a beautiful concept again among the people of God. I will even say, indeed we must do so.


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