In the Reformed camp there is a big problem with conflation. If you’re not familiar, conflation happens when two separate things are brought together to appear as if they are one. Dictionary.com defines it thus: “the merging of two or more sets of information, texts, ideas, etc. into one.” Understanding this problem can clear up a lot of misconceptions.
Conflation was a problem long before the Reformation officially began in 1517. It actually goes back to Constantine and his conversion to Christianity. Constantine was a Roman Emperor who reigned from 306 to 337 A.D. Upon his conversion to Christianity in 312, he implemented several things for which the church should be grateful. The Edict of Milan in 313 eased the intolerance in the Roman Empire against Christians and he convoked the First Council of Nicaea in 325 which produced the Nicene Creed.
For all the good he did for Christianity, it cannot be forgotten that Constantine was a warrior. As Emperor of Rome, he integrated the Sword and the Word. In fact, Thomas Aquinas argued that “Church and State are two swords which God has given to Christendom for protection; both swords, however, are by Him given to the pope and the temporal sword is then by the pope entrusted to the rulers of State.” (Quoted in The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, p44). For support of this position, proponents pointed to Peter’s presentation of two swords to Jesus in Luke 22:23. From his words, “Lord, here is two swords,’ the Church constructed the doctrine that Jesus intended His Church to have two swords, the “sword of the Spirit” which the clergy wields, and “the sword of steel” which the soldier wields. You can read more about how this came to be and the fallout from it in the excellent book, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, by Leonard Verduin.
As the years passed, the idea of the Church controlling the state became so ingrained that most people didn’t see a difference. The roles of each had been conflated into one role. As a result, the Church controlled the affairs of the State. This conflation was emphasized when dissenters were questioned about their loyalty. In the interrogations, dissenters, usually in prison, regularly would hear the question, “Should there be a magistrate, and should he sustain the Word of God?” For the questioner this is a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. There are no other alternatives. But to the one questioned it was clearly two questions. For him it was a ‘yes’ AND ‘no’ question. “Yes” to the question whether there should be a civil ruler, and ‘NO’ to the question whether it is his duty to sustain the Word of God. For the one asking, a negative answer to the question of whether a magistrate has the duty to sustain the Word of God was the same as saying there should be no magistrate. The result of these interrogations often ended in death, with the state carrying out the executions on behalf of the Church, while the Church sustained her perceived purity by relegating the responsibility to the State.
It would remain this way into the Reformation. One only has to look at John Calvin’s Geneva to see the horrific repercussions of such a policy. Unfortunately, the Reformers had no intentions of challenging this status quo. Though they challenged much of the Church’s doctrine, as they were faced with separating the magistrate from the clergy, each one succumbed to the lure of the Papacy.
In addition to Calvin’s Geneva, for example, when the City Council of Zurich let it be known that all contemplated reforms in the religious arena had to be officially approved by them first, Zwingli submitted. Likewise, Martin Luther stopped short of a full reformation, content to walk hand in hand with the State, bogged down halfway between Catholicism and the New Testament Church organization.
With this background in mind, it is no wonder that many in the Reformed camp have no problem with conflating arguments. They have a long history of doing so. Though the Reformed do not conflate the magistrate and the clergy per se, they do conflate a number of things that the Bible assumes are separate.
For example, it is not uncommon to hear someone make the comment in regard to salvation, “Either God is Sovereign, or Man is Sovereign.” By this they mean that salvation is 100% of God and 0% of man. Of course, non-Reformed also believe that Salvation is 100% God and 0% man. But the Reformed have conflated two things (not to mention redefined the term ‘sovereignty’) and combined them into one. They combine man’s choice to repent and God’s choice to save all those who repent into a single action and call it salvation. That is conflation. (That is then followed by building a strawman of man’s so-called sovereignty).
Another area that gets conflated often times is the idea of finding favor with God and meriting salvation. The Reformed act as if someone’s finding favor with God equals being saved. A person can do the things pleasing to God, acting in faith long before they are saved. Lydia is a case in point. Lydia was a God-fearer. She worshiped the God of the Jews. She hosted prayer meetings. In all of these acts, she would find favor with God. But it wasn’t until Paul and his companions arrived, preached Jesus to here that she believed and was saved. We could speak of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, of Cornelius in Acts 10 or all of the God fearers in Acts 13. Does God save those who find favor with Him? Yes. But it is two separate acts, not one.
Finally, it is common to hear the Reformed speak of the Atonement as if it is synonymous with Salvation. The Atonement was an event that took away the sin of the world. While is it a necessary requirement for someone to be saved, it is not what saves. The Atonement affects every human being, removing the sin that separates them from a holy God. But salvation comes only to those who humbly repent and accept the gift of salvation. Without the Atonement no one could be saved, but with the Atonement, anyone can be saved.
The Reformed have followed closely in the footsteps of the Reformers. From the early days of conflating the role of the magistrate and clergy to continued conflation of various ideas to make an incoherent systematic seem coherent, it seems to be a prerequisite. This conflation comes at the expense of scriptural veracity. The Bible assumes man has a genuine choice in salvation, the Reformed reject it. The Bible assumes people can find favor with God prior to being saved, the Reformed reject it. The Bible applies the Atonement to all mankind and salvation to those who believe, the Reformed reject it. All of these are conflations of what the Bible says.