What Is Reformed Theology?

See also: What Does It Mean To Be Reformed

by. Robert Johnson

The most common question we are asked by people who hear about the Institute is “What is Reformed theology?” It is an excellent question, one for which a short answer is, at best, reductive, and, at worst, misleading. In this essay, Robert Johnson attempts to answer this question, rather than narrow, way.

What is “Reformed”?

Generally, all the churches that grew from the sixteenth-century revolt against the Roman church, can be called reformed. However, the term “Reformed” specifically designates that branch of the Reformation of the western church originally characterized by a distinctively non-Lutheran, Augustinian sacramental theology with a high ecclesiology but little regard for ecclesiatical tradition that is not traceable to the Scriptures or the earliest church. Those churches in the “Reformed tradition” are regarded as being in the line of churches that grew from the Reform in certain Swiss free cities and cantons, in non-Lutheran Germany, and in Hungary, Bohemia, and southern France in the early and mid sixteenth century.

The leaders of this branch of the church understood themselves to be “reformed” in two ways: first, they were “reformed” from what they believed to be the defective practice of Christianity promulgated by the corrupt Roman Catholicism of the day. Sometimes, this position is summed up in the phrase “Ecclesia Reformata, semper reformanda,” which means “the Reformed church, always to be reformed.” In the context of the sixteenth century (and the mind of the Reformers) this phrase does not mean that the church is always morphing into something new with the passage of time (a common misconstrual in our own day). Instead, this seventeenth-century motto is consistent with the Reformers’ idea that they were not innovating, but “turning again” to the form of the church and belief originated by Jesus Christ, lived out by the first disciples and early church, and born witness to in the writings of the Old and New Testaments shorn of later additions.

Second, as implied above, Reformed means rejecting the idea that tradition can provide a sufficient form for matters of belief. Instead, the Reformers insisted that “the Word of God” was the only ultimate source of appeal in matters of faith, and that all other sources of knowledge, including a church’s tradition, had to appeal to this central source.

Where did Reformed theology originate?

John Calvin, perhaps the greatest theologian of the Reformed tradition, did not see himself as creating a new “school” of theology. He saw himself, and other Reformed pastors, as carrying on the work of the apostles. Even his own work as a sixteenth-century reformer was, in his view, derived from that of Martin Luther, who he termed “most respected father.” Calvin’s magnum opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, was not a work in which he advanced all his own ideas about the Christian faith, but freely used the work of other theologians from all periods of church history in order to construct his own theological system. Reformed theology is, then, first and foremost a Christian Theology, not meant to cast away the ancient learning of the church, but to draw it close and renew appreciation and allegiance to it.

No one should assume that Calvin either began the Reformed Tradition or that Calvinist perspectives constitute the totality of Reformed thought. Remember that when Calvin stopped in Geneva in 1536 (having only recently come into the Reform himself), he was prevailed upon to stay by Guilliaume Farel. Farel was one of the founders of the Reform in Geneva, which happened the year before Calvin’s arrival. In Zurich, Heinrich Bullinger, took over the position of lead pastor for that city in 1531, 12 years after Huldrych Zwingli initiated the Reform in that city. When Calvin was banished from Geneva in 1538, he went to Strasbourg where he learned immense amounts from the leading pastor there, Martin Bucer. Bucer had fostered the Reformation of the city in 1523.

This says nothing of the Reformed tradition as thought and lived in Bern, Constance and Mülhausen, or in France, Germany, Poland, Bohemia, the British Isles or Italy. And, lest we forget, Calvin is not the only Reformed theologian: Zwingli (who died four years before Calvin joined the Reform), Bullinger, Wolfgang Capito, Zacharias Ursinus, Johannes Oecolampadius, Caspar Hedio, Martin Bucer, and Peter Martyr Vermigli all left theological and occasional writings and liturgies, and the list could go on. Calvin is sometimes made to be the exemplar of Reformed theology, but Reformed theology is, by no means, limited to him. So, rather than tracing Reformed theology to Calvin as the sole source, Reformed theology is better imagined as a river into which many sources flow and from which many streams originate.

What distinguishes a theology as “Reformed”?

This is not a simple question to answer, simply because it is deceptive to point to any one Reformed theologian and name him or her as the model for all others, although Calvin is most often made to stand for this duty. Some scholars of Reformed theology contend that there is no honest way to describe a monolithic Reformed theology , and, instead, point to a set of common characteristics of Reformed theologies. One such approach is that of B. A. Gerrish in his article “Tradition in the Modern World: The Reformed Habit of Mind” from the collection Toward the Future of Reformed theology , which the publisher has graciously permitted us to post on our site (you may also purchase the book by clicking the title at left).

Another perspective on what Reformed theology means came from Heinrich Bullinger. Bullinger believed in predestination, but was not convinced, as Calvin was, that God destined some to damnation (there are other differences as well). Although not nearly as well known as Calvin now, he was enormously influential in the sixteenth century, especially in the British Isles. Some claim that it is actually Bullinger’s version of Reformed theology that is prominent in most places today.

There are other proposals for what makes theology “Reformed.” The syndics at the Council of the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619), in their deliberations over what made Reformed theology reformed, gave rise to a mnemonic: the Gospel in a TULIP —

Total depravity,

Unconditional election,

Limited atonement,

Irresistible grace and the

Perseverance of the saints.

Formed in response to a radical theologian who opposed the orthodox Calvinistic idea of predestination and election (Jacobus Arminius: see Arminianism below), many see the TULIP as emphasizing the things that Calvin (for example) believed to be supporting — not leading — concepts in his theology.

The Assembly at Westminster (1643-1652) presents yet another approach to Reformed theology . Meant to regularize the English reformation, Parliament commissioned the Assembly to bring the English church closer to the doctrines and practices of the Calvin-inspired Scottish church. For the Westminster divines, Reformed theology meant a strong commitment to a high view of Scripture, along with an uncompromising stand on predestination and the immutable nature of God’s Covenant of Grace. Meeting in defiance of the English king, the Assembly drew up, among other documents, the Westminster Confession of Faith, which attempts to balance the seemingly dichotomous notions of Christian freedom, and captivity of the Christian to the Word of God (understood as “no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture,” understood as both the Old and New Testaments).

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834), often recognized as the “father of modern theology” was the son of a Reformed pastor, and claimed the designation of “Reformed” for himself as well. While many today view Schleiermacher as having cast aside Reformed theology because of his departure from some orthodox expressions of Reformed theology , Schleiermacher himself believed that the very nature of Reformed theology was development, traceable from the days of the New Testament to his own era. Schleiermacher held that, in order to maintain its ability to communicate the truth about human existence as being in need of God’s provision for redemption in Jesus Christ, all theology had to take into account new learning that is always reframing the human intellectual quest. Instead of being a destroyer of Reformed theology , Schleiermacher saw his role as simply one of the continuing stages of development in Reformed thought. No works of Schleiermacher’s are available on the internet, but a good, brief synopsis of Schleiermacher’s thought is Brian Gerrish’s A Prince of the Church.

We could continue with a variety of figures from around the globe. However, this should give you some idea of the variegation of Reformed theology from its very beginnings, as well as its formative stages. If pressed to make generalizations, one might sum up the common elements in most Reformed theologies like this:

  1. Reformed theology is not some new revelation, or new brand of theological thought, but is, in its best examples, what the church has rightly believed throughout its history. Similarities between its doctrines and that of other traditions should be welcomed and celebrated as a “family resemblance” with others in the household of God.
  2. Reformed theologies take seriously the idea of God’s sovereignty over all things. Therefore Reformed theologians seek the implications of God’s creation of all things in space and time.
  3. Reformed theologies traditionally base their convictions on the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments. Most Reformed theologians would go on to say that the Word of God is, first and foremost, Jesus Christ, and theology must always find its first allegiance to him.
  4. Reformed theologies affirm that Jesus Christ is God’s witness to the world in terms of love, grace, mercy, and justice. Reformed theology has always affirmed that God’s salvation, offered in Jesus Christ is always granted without regard to merit.
  5. Reformed theologies have upheld the importance of the two sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and contend that both have correlate effects in spiritual reality, if not actual change in the substance of the sacramental elements.
  6. Reformed theologies, believing that God’s sustaining providence suffuses all things, have always instructed Christians that the proper response to God’s provision for all creation is fervent gratitude that shows itself in devout thought, speech and action. Therefore, Reformed communities have always been involved in shaping and ameliorating the civil societies in which they live.
  7. Reformed theologies take the ministry potential of the laity very seriously, and many Reformed groups (not all) have the peculiar tradition of ordaining certain lay members to participate in the ministry of the church as elders and deacons, but not making them members of the clergy.

Reformed theology today

Today, it is probably more appropriate to speak of Reformed theologies, instead of the Reformed theology. Everywhere the Reformed churches have been planted, they have taken on a distinctive character, whether it be in William of Orange’s Holland or in nineteenth century Korea. Since the spread of Reformed theologies in the seventeenth century, many contemporary denominational families started out as self-conciously Reformed (many of the theological terms used in this essay are nicely defined in the Dictionary of the Presbyterian & Reformed Tradition in America.

One of the difficulties in identifying a Reformed theology is that groups are often “Reformed” in some respects, while affirming doctrinal approaches typical of other theological perspectives in others. Some groups reject infant baptism, but are strict double-predestinarians. Others, while accepting infant baptism, and some belief in predestination, will also include the office of bishop in their church hierarchy—something that might well have confounded some of the original Swiss Reformers (though not Calvin). Or, in rejecting hierarchy, some churches that are attracted to Reformed theology have no connection to other church bodies, and are entirely separationist and congregational. Still other groups that seem distinct from the Reformed family have Reformed roots.

For example, the first Baptists of England were essentially Reformed in their theology  until moving to the United States where the freethinking stance of Roger Williams and the adoption, by more conservative Baptist churches, of the Arminianism of their Methodist revival partners nearly eradicated their strong Calvinism. Today, many Baptists—particularly in the U.S., and churches established through U.S. missionary efforts, are committed Arminians. However, there are still a significant number of Reformed Baptists.

The Anglican church was, in the days not too long after its founding, substantially Calvinist, a fact reflected in their Thirty-nine Articles, which are still contained in Anglican and Episcopal prayer books (although the Articles are not rigorously regarded as authoritative). The Assembly at Westminster was regarded as an attempt to purge the Anglican church of the structures and beliefs inherited from its beginnings as a member of the Roman Church, and so to bring it in line with Continental and Scottish Reformed thinking. While the influence of the Westminster Assembly on the Anglican church passed with the adjournment of the Long Parliament, there are still many Anglican/Episcopal theologians and priests who find their home in Reformed approaches to doctrine.

America’s Puritan forebears were decidedly Reformed. In the United States, some of the most famous theologians from this continent were Puritans (notably Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards). Today, a large number of Congregationalist churches, which grew directly from the Puritan tradition, still find affinity with Reformed theology.

Not all Reformed groups sprang from the Reformation era. In Italy, the Wadensians, a sect with roots in the twelfth century opposed the excesses of the medieval Roman Church and taught a simple gospel of poverty, modesty, sobriety and evangelical fervor, rejecting Roman Catholic doctrines for which they could find no scriptural warrant (such as purgatory or granting of indulgences). After contact with Bohemian Hussites, they eventually became part of the Reformation, deciding to adopt the Swiss Reformed movement’s theological orientation. This ancient group is still active today, with its major concentration still in Italy.

It is hoped, however, that this brief essay will help visitors understand the breadth—as well as the depth—of Reformed theology in the world today