March 16: The “TR” Debates (1977)

I would begin our post today with an encouragement to pray for the Lord’s speedy resolution of this current health crisis. Pray for researchers searching for a cure. And think to pray as well for waiters & waitresses and others in various service industries whose jobs depend on the regular flow of people. Their time working through these coming weeks will be particularly difficult.

And as many of our readers may be unexpectedly finding themselves at home today (pray that these times of isolation will be brief!), I thought we might run a longer post today. This has to do with the origin of the term “TR” or “truly Reformed, and I hope you will find it interesting, as it gives some background to our history in the last fifty years.

This “TR” phrase has been controversial most of its life, and it may surprise some to find out that this all goes back over forty years and more.  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”).  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–we want to be thoroughly 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. 

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.  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.  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”, but we will skip that article as unnecessary for our purposes.

And without further explanation, here are the first of several discussions from the pages of THE PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL in 1977, with two that appeared in the March 16th issue.

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.

If you want your people genuinely Reformed, deal gently and in the Spirit

How To Reform the Church

The author is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Miss.

Nearly everywhere in the South in the two main Presbyterian denominations can be found many men whose chief desire is to reform their denominations and their individual congregations. They want the Presbyterian Church US or the Presbyterian Church in America to be confessional Churches, subscribing to the Reformed faith as it is presented in the Confession and Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly. More than they want a “broadly evangelical” or “conservative” Church, they want a Church which strives for purity in doctrine and practice—the Reformed faith.

The desire itself is to be heartily commended; in fact, the wish is entirely Biblical. How this can be accomplished, however, is a question which demands careful thought and close attention. Viewpoints vary, and much damage can be done in and to congregations and denominations if care is not used.

I think the Church can be reformed without needless division and hurt if we avoid two extreme positions in approaching the problem.

Certainly we cannot demand and should not expect immediate reformation, separating ourselves from all who fail to heed the call to reform. Many times in youthful zealousness, young pastors see their task to be the overnight transformation of their congregation from “conservative” to “Reformed” Christians.

The change would be a good one, of course, but no one should expect the transformation immediately. Just as people cannot be forced into receiving the Christian faith, they cannot be forced into embracing the Reformed faith or be given the ultimatum, “Shape up or ship out.”

On the other hand, a person true to the Reformed faith cannot be content to sit back and not seek the reformation of the Church, content merely with a congregation of “evangelical” members. If the Reformed faith is the purest form of Christianity, then all of us must seek its infusion into the people of God.

A study of Church history and the Scripture suggests two basic ways a reformation of the Church can be accomplished.

First, the reforming of the Church must be done by a gradual process of education. For example, let’s say most PCA members are very conservative but not Reformed in theology and practice. This was characteristic of these members long before they left the PCUS. On the whole, these people were not concerned with gaining an understanding of the Reformed faith; they were caught up in the battle in which lines were clearly and easily drawn: conservative versus liberal.

To put it as some see it, the situation is this: As a result of the theological climate during past generations, many Presbyterians just do not know the teaching and practice of the Reformed faith. They must be taught. But they must be taught slowly. One does not stuff a 12-ounce sirloin down the throat of a babe, and many members are babes regarding the Reformed faith. Some may even be hostile at first, choking on the Reformed teachings. Yet this is no reason to separate from them or to write them off as wild-eyed Arminians.

Hence I would plead with those who are and will be in teaching positions to learn to be patient, to be gentle, to love as you have been loved. Teach the congregations the Reformed faith; they need it, but give them a spoonful at a time.

Second, we who claim to follow men like Calvin and Kuyper have too often forgotten their great emphasis upon the work of the Holy Spirit. To reform the Church, we must pray that the eyes, ears and minds of our people will be opened so that God might convince them of the truth of the Reformed faith. To use Kuyper’s example, we must pray that the Spirit of God would produce that beautiful music upon the harp of the Reformed faith.

We must pray for ourselves, that God would grant us patience, love and concern, that He would teach us to lead our people gently, that He would grant us discernment as to where our people are and how we should lead them.

With these two thoughts in mind, the Church may indeed be reformed.

There is no need for bitterness, hatred and distrust to arise in the Church. PCUS and PCA congregations can become Reformed congregations in doctrine and practice. This will not happen if the babes are forced or ignored. They must be nurtured and taught slowly, with love. We must pray for and with them that the Holy Spirit will bring about this transformation which is reformation.

A distinguished Presbyterian minister appraises the care and use of Reformed distinctives

The Faith in Perspective

The author served as pastor in the Presbyterian Church US and founder of the Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship. He is now retired and a member of the Presbyterian Church in America.

A noted Southern Presbyterian theologian of a bygone generation has given a clear and cogent description of the Reformed faith, and the differences between Arminianism and Calvinism in a little book entitled The Gospel as Taught by Calvin. Dr. R. C. Reed wrote briefly but to the point, and he also sounded a note of warning and caution:

“After all, it is largely a difference touching words and names. Arminians believe that the atonement is limited in its application to those who believe; Calvinists believe nothing more and nothing less.

“Inasmuch, however, as Calvinists believe that God makes the application, they say the atonement is limited in design as well as application. But there is nothing in their view to prevent their offering Christ to every sinner and assuring him, on the authority of God, that if he will accept, he shall be saved. ‘Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters.’

“This is good Calvinism; and if anyone holds to a Calvinism that does not square with the widest offers of God’s mercy, then he has gotten hold of a spurious article, and the sooner he flings it away the better. ‘Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.’ Any so-called Calvinism that does not chime with this sweet Gospel bell deserves to ‘be cast out, and to be trodden under the foot of men.’

“We ask for no leniency of judgment on any argument or inference that would tend to make the strait gate straiter, or the narrow way more narrow. Above all things, let us believe that ‘Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners,’ and that ‘him that cometh to him He will in nowise cast out.’ ”

My father, grandfather and great-grandfather, ministers in the Presbyterian Church, warmly embraced the Reformed faith and I fully concur with Dr. Reed’s thesis and warnings as they did.

Like them, I hold firmly to the Reformed faith by heritage, education and conviction. I learned the Shorter Catechism as a lad; in seminary I rememorized it as a part of a required course on the Westminster Standards, taught by a professor who had spent a lifetime teaching theology with emphasis upon the Reformed faith. Later I spent more than five years studying the Scriptures and teaching the Westminster documents to Sunday school teachers and officers. Thus I became a hearty advocate of the Reformed faith by conviction as well as by heritage and education.

Today we hear much discussion about the Reformed faith. Some of it comes from seminaries like Westminster, Reformed and Covenant. Good! But we ought to be very careful when we hear such talk to keep our views in proper perspective.

The term “Reformed faith” is not definitive. It has many variations in its use and meaning, running all the way from the form held by the Primitive Baptists, to the Dutch form with the famous five points of Calvinism, to the Scottish form which is distinctly Presbyterian.

Presbyterians in America, both North and South, held strongly to the last mentioned form until the Northern Church began to slip in the late twenties and thirties. The Southern Church soon followed, although it had held to a moderate Calvinism from its beginning through its first 75 years of life.

We find many variations of the meaning of “Reformed faith,” not only in denominations but also in great theologians. The two Hodges at Princeton disagreed between themselves on certain points, and also with Warfield, with Kuyper and the Dutch Reformed group. All these differed somewhat from the early Southern Presbyterian theologians, such as Dabney, Peck, R. C. Reed, J. B. Green and others.

None of these looked at the “Reformed faith” in exactly the same way. Indeed, the discussion about the proposed Book of Confessions—recently rejected by the Presbyterian Church US but already adopted in another form by the United Presbyterian Church USA—brings to light vast differences between the confessional statements of Reformed groups, the Dutch, the Scots, Huguenots and others.

The Westminster documents, embodying the Reformed faith, present the best summary ever written of the teachings of Scripture. Yet even the Westminster documents do not cover the whole teaching of the whole Scripture. In at least two important points, very vital teachings of Scripture are neglected. Although the Confession of Faith contains one chapter on God the Father and one on Christ the Redeemer, it has none on the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

The Westminster documents do say much about the Holy Spirit, His work in salvation and in Christian growth. But there is no complete chapter in these documents where the person and work of the Holy Spirit, as presented in the whole Scripture, are brought together to form a complete picture—and this despite what they teach (and we believe) about the Trinity, “these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.”

In a second vital omission, the Confession of Faith does not include the whole teaching of the whole Scripture about missions and evangelism.

Furthermore, adherents to the Reformed faith appropriately base some doctrines upon what they call “necessary, logical implications of the Scripture.” But the moment when we start talking about “logical implications,” we enter the human realm where the remnants of our fleshly natures can corrupt our thinking. That which is based on the clear teaching of the Scripture is divinely inspired; but anything based on man’s concept of “logical implications” is open to question.

Sometimes our Reformed faith loses its Biblical perspective. It does so if it opposes foreign missions and Sunday schools, as does the Primitive Baptist doctrine, or when it says, “I cannot tell a man God loves him because I don’t know if he is elect.”

Hair-splitting and quarreling are prevalent in Reformed circles. A casual glance at the history of Reformed Churches will show that the reputation they have gained through the years for being overly contentious is, sadly, all too well justified. This kind of faith fits rather well the old cliche, “. . . rather argue than eat.”

Biblical perspective is lacking when the Reformed faith lays almost exclusive preaching emphasis on teaching the Reformed faith but uses the Scripture only as a sort of proof text to support the main subject. If a seminary graduate conceives the major purpose of his ministry to be getting all the members of his church to understand and embrace the Reformed faith, he has somehow gotten off center. He is ignoring a higher priority—to teach the members of his congregation the Scriptures.

Students from some seminaries are thoroughly indoctrinated in the Reformed faith, and this is good. But many do not know the Scriptures nor how to apply them. People need to know Scripture before they can begin to understand the Reformed faith.

Being Reformed does not necessarily mean being a mature Christian, as some seem to imply. If the Reformed faith has value—and it does—all of that value is derived from the Scriptures and the place to start preaching and teaching is with the Scriptures, not with a system derived from them.

Recently, two young ministers whom I know personally have said to me, “I am starting to preach a sermon series on Sunday mornings on the five points of Calvinism. My new congregation does not seem to know too much about the Reformed faith.”

To both these ministers I replied, “Brother, you have gotten hold of the wrong end of things. What your people need to know is Scripture, and you should press diligently toward training your people in the Scriptures. Important though it may be, the Reformed faith is a derivative.”

The Reformed faith has lost its Biblical perspective when a church or a denomination becomes sterile. Strangely enough, extreme emphasis on the Reformed faith—without putting it into proper perspective—can and too often does result in spiritual sterility. Statistics on professions of faith can reveal a very sad picture. True, there are other causes of Church and congregational sterility, but failing to keep the Reformed faith in perspective can be and often is a major factor.

It is also possible for an adherent of the Reformed faith to use the term too often, like the very “Baptistic” Baptist who can hardly open his mouth without saying Baptist. We who know and love the Reformed faith should remember that this term is not used in the Bible. Any people we seek to influence can get to the place where they say, as one member said to me not long ago, “I am sick and tired of hearing about the Reformed faith. I am fed up to the ears with it.”

Thus we can tend to judge everything by how “Reformed” it is, rather than by Christ’s standards. By such an approach we can leave the impression that doctrinism is more important than Christ Himself. If we are not careful, we can glorify a theological system above the Head. When that happens, our interpretation of the system is out of focus.

Moreover, preoccupation with Reformed theology makes theological snobs of us and creates pressure groups within a denomination. We who hold the Reformed faith should do so with humility instead of being lifted up with pride, arrogance and bigotry. We need to humble ourselves, get down on our faces before God and mourn because of our own sins. The Reformed faith is out of perspective when pride takes over, when it becomes a point of contention which splits churches and denominations because of an arrogant and “holier than thou” attitude.

Finally, the Reformed faith has lost its Biblical perspective when it tends to rule out all whom we consider to be not truly Reformed. Many of our churches today are being split on this account, torn apart by ministers or elders who push the “Reformed” approach out of perspective. For instance, in two recent papers, the authors seemed to look upon the Reformed faith as representing some kind of perfectionism, and they opposed or pitied people who did not measure up to their idea of perfectionism.

Some try to rule out what God is doing through Billy Graham and Campus Crusade, saying they make salvation “too simplistic.” But we should beware lest our presentation becomes too complicated. It may not even touch base with the ordinary fellow, and even dedicated Christians are alienated as well, because they do not understand what the preacher is talking about.

Disagreements between those espousing the Reformed faith and other evangelical conservatives weaken the testimony of the Gospel. Such polarizations are unnecessary. “Reformed” and “evangelical” are not mutually exclusive nor should they be made so.

If we begin to think that our major mission in life is to “convert” sincere Christians of differing persuasions to the Reformed faith, we are out of perspective. Those who know the Reformed faith well can and do have deep convictions. We also need to have a becoming humility, not looking with pity or scorn upon Christian brethren who are not Reformed.

To keep our Reformed faith in perspective, we should remember that He who said, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” also said, “Ye should go and bring forth fruit” (John 15:16). Some suggest this fruit is the “fruit of the Spirit” mentioned in Galatians 5. If that were all, why did our Lord give us the word “go”? Polarization often occurs when one person does not understand another.

The evangelical should be willing to give close attention to the study of the Reformed faith. Likewise, the Reformed minister should try to understand evangelicals. The evangelical should be more evangelical because he is also Reformed. The Reformed man should also be more evangelical because he is Reformed. Too often, however, it does not seem to work this way. May God help us!

The Reformed faith is in proper Biblical perspective when it:

—Evangelizes vigorously, weeping over lost souls of men as did our Saviour over Jerusalem and is moved with compassion, as was our Lord when He saw the multitudes.

—Demonstrates becoming humility, “esteeming another better than self,” as the Apostle Paul said. Surely Reformed people ought to be more humble than people holding any other system of doctrine.

—Talks more of Christ than of the Reformed faith, and more of the Scripture than of doctrinal distinctives.

—Is more concerned for the salvation of a man’s soul than for teaching him the intricacies and details of what is “truly Reformed.”

—Brings forth much fruit. We who are Reformed should not forget that He who said, “I came to save the lost” also said, “I came to seek the lost.” We must follow the example of the Apostle Paul who said, “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men, for the love of Christ constraineth us, as though God did beseech you by us, we pray you in Christ’s stead, be reconciled to God” (II Cor. 5:11, 14, 20).

Our Lord also said, “Herein is my father glorified, in that ye bring forth much fruit and that your fruit should remain.” We who make much of the sovereignty of God and declare the chief end of man is to glorify God must never forget that God is most glorified by our bringing forth “much fruit.” Our Lord, remember, cursed the barren fig tree.

—Preaches the Gospel in simplicity and in the Spirit as our Lord did, not as a demonstration of our scholarship or intellect. The seminaries should turn out men with burning hearts, not men educated away from the people; men with a passion for souls, not just intellectuals.

Brethren, let us glory not so much in the Reformed faith as in the cross of Christ by which we are crucified to the world and the world to us (Gal. 6:14).

The Christian faith is balanced in every respect. Every passage of Scripture has its balance. Error in interpretation occurs when we lose sight of that balance. God is one and yet three persons. Christ our redeemer has two natures, but one in person. Salvation comes by faith but faith is dead if works do not follow.

God’s sovereignty in election is balanced by man’s responsibility. When things get out of balance in any one of these paradoxes, they are out of perspective and error results. The same is true of the Reformed faith. It is good, but when it gets out of perspective, it can work much mischief.

Brethren, let us keep our Reformed faith in perspective, just as we claim to do carefully in interpretation of the Scriptures.


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