Among the many trends in the New Calvinism (or the Young Restless and Reformed movement) is the prominent dislike of the word “religion.” I’ve heard a lot of people speak and write about religion as being a moral straitjacket, rigid, and not Christian. They say religion is one thing, the gospel is another thing. Essentially they think of religion as being legalistic or a method for earning salvation. So today we hear many Christian preachers say religion is a bad thing.
I disagree with this rhetoric; I think it is fine and even biblical to speak of religion in a positive way – i.e. “true religion” or “the Christian religion.” For example, the title to Calvin’s magnum opus isn’t just “The Institutes,” it’s “The Institutes of the Christian Religion.” Well before Calvin, Augustine write a piece called “On True Religion.” There are many examples like this. For an example from Scripture, James uses the term positively:
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:26-27, emphasis mine).
In other words, there is true, good, and biblical religion. This is the way the Reformers talked about religion, this is why many Reformed theologies and writings speak so much about religion in a good sense. Religion definitely wasn’t a naughty word for our forefathers in the faith. At the same time, there is false religion, religion that is untrue and which God hates (i.e. Col. 2:23). That is the religion we should speak against.
Here’s how Richard Muller defines religion based on the Reformed scholastics’ use of the term:
“True religion is most simply defined by the Protestant scholastics as the right way of knowing and honoring God, involving knowledge of God, love of God, and fear of God, leading to an honoring or veneration of God. …The orthodox further distinguish true from false religion…. True religion …can be distinguished into objective religion and subjective religion. Objective religion is religion objectively considered as man’s knowledge of God as revealed in Scripture, in the law, and in the gospel. Subjective religion… is the effect of this knowledge of God in the life of man, the individual and corporate love, fear, and worship of God” (Dictionary, p. 261-2).
Yes, there is false religion. We should warn against that. But we shouldn’t shy away from the word “religion;” this opens up confusion for interpreting texts like James 1:26-27 and for reading the older Christian writings. It may be shocking, trendy, and it may grab attention, but in the end stomping on the word “religion” isn’t overly helpful.
To borrow Francis Turretin’s method, we ask, “Is religion bad?” Answer: we distinguish.