By Joseph Wolcott
Two centuries later, what are the Reformed actually fighting for?
What is Reformed theology? One must meet seven points in order to qualify as Reformed. 1-3 are not unique to the reformed, 4-6 are, and 7 is somewhat flexible. Because this will be long enough without defending each point, I will be focusing on stating what the Reformed believe rather than exhaustively defending why they believe it.
1. A Creedal Faith
The Reformed churches are creedal. This is something common to all of orthodox Christianity. The Reformed wholeheartedly affirm the four ecumenical creeds (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed, Chalcedonian Definition). The Reformed have always interacted with church history. We consider ourselves Reformed Catholics because we see ourselves as trying to reform to a purer, biblical, catholic tradition (meaning “universal,” not to be mistaken with Roman Catholicism). In short, the first basic criteria of being Reformed is subscription to the four ecumenical creeds and critical engagement with early church history.
2. A Protestant Faith
The Reformed churches are protestant. At a basic level, this means they believe in the 5 Solas of the Reformation. Those are Sola Gratia (Grace Alone), Sola Fide (Faith Alone), Solus Christus (Christ Alone), Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone). All five of these are important, but in practice Soli Deo Gloria tends to shine above the others (not that the other four are unimportant, but Reformed thought tends to emphasize the glory of God in all things). We also hold to the 66-book canon of Scripture. This is a very simple criteria of what it means to be Protestant, but it does sufficiently capture the essentials.
3. A Confessional Faith
The Reformed churches are confessional. While not all confessional churches are Reformed, all Reformed churches are confessional. The Reformed have always written concise biblical summaries of what they believe. I could have made this article a lot shorter by telling you to simply read the confessions if you want to know what we believe.
4: The Doctrines of Grace
This is undoubtedly the most famous distinctive of the Reformed tradition. This is called soteriology, or doctrine of salvation. It is often summarized in the acronym TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints). These points are crude summaries of the five heads of doctrine laid out in the Canons of Dort—a direct response to the followers of Jacobus Arminius (the father of Arminiansm). The Doctrines of Grace are essential to being Reformed, but they are not a sufficient condition; its thinkers stressed other points much more than they did the Doctrines of Grace. It is inaccurate to say believing in the Doctrines of Grace makes one Reformed. In short, the Doctrines of Grace are uniquely Reformed but are often inappropriately equated with being part of the Reformed tradition.
5. A Covenantal Faith
- The Reformed churches subscribe to Covenant Theology as the hermeneutic (theory of interpretation) for reading the Bible. For a history of Covenant theology, I would highly recommend this article. The Reformed see the narrative of the Bible as divided into two covenants: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The covenant of works was the covenant that God made with Adam as representing humanity. The condition was perfect obedience, which Adam failed. The covenant of grace is God’s promise to crush the serpent and send Jesus.
There are several covenants throughout the Bible, but those are part of the covenant of grace. The Reformed believe in one united covenant of grace given in various administrations (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Christ). Because of the focus on the fundamental unity of Scripture, Dispensationalism falls outside of the Reformed tradition. Furthermore, 1689 Federalism/Baptist Covenant Theology explicitly rejects the Reformed reading of Scripture. It emphasizes discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments to an extent that we historically reject. It rejects the “one covenant, two administrations” model of the Reformed. For more information on the difference between Reformed and Baptist covenant theology, see this series.
6. A Sacramental Faith
The Reformed churches have a very particular view of the sacraments, both regarding their substance and the proper recipients. We believe that there are only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Read Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) 161, 163, and Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 27.2 to understand sacramental union and their efficacy. We confess that baptism is for unbaptized adult converts and the children of at least one believing parent. Infant baptism necessarily follows from Covenant Theology. For an excellent series on the case for infant baptism, I would highly recommend this series. Regarding the efficacy of baptism, read WCF 28.6 (see also John 3:5; Acts 2:38; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21).
Because of the sacramental union we can truly say that baptism saves, but only as the Geneva Catechism puts it: “How are these blessings [of salvation] bestowed upon us by Baptism? If we do not render the promises there offered unfruitful by rejecting them, we are clothed with Christ, and presented with his Spirit” (see also Scots Confession Chapter 21, Belgic Confession Article 34, Heidelberg Catechism 69-74). Who are the right recipients of the Lord’s Supper? Baptized believers who approach the table in a worthy manner. We believe we truly receive the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper (Scots Confession Chapter 21), though we receive the benefit only through faith. In summation, we believe Christians truly receive Christ’s body by faith and that the Holy Spirit bridges the gap that exists between Christ and the Christian.
7. A Serious Ecclesiology
The Reformed churches have a particular ecclesiology, a term meaning ‘theology of the church.’ This is the point I will spend the least amount of time on. It’s also a little more flexible than sections 4-6. Overwhelmingly, such churches have a presbyterian church government, though there a some notable exceptions (Puritan Congregationalists, some Reformed Anglicans/Episcopalians). A key point of our ecclesiology is what’s called the regulative principle of worship. Bottom line, this is a more flexible category, but the regulative principle is a must and a presbyterian polity is the norm.
There is more I could say regarding other doctrines that have a special home in our tradition. Yet, I think these seven points I have enumerated are a sufficient minimum for what Reformed means. History matters and truth matters.
The modern popular idea of what it means to be Reformed is a redefinition by people who are outside of our tradition. Many young Reformed people are unaware of their theological heritage. My hope in writing this is that I have given you a taste of how rich the Reformed tradition truly is. The Reformed tradition is a deep tradition much narrower and more beautiful than many of its modern advocates would care to admit.
About the Author
Joseph Wolcott is a marketing fellow for the Institute for Faith & Freedom and a senior history major with a minor in political science. He is a lifelong resident of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and a third-generation pastor’s kid. On campus, Joseph is the president of the Ratio Christi Apologetics Club, where he teaches students how to understand and defend Christianity. In the summer of 2023, Joseph served as an intern at his home church, Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA), where he worked hands-on with his pastors in the various ministries of the church. Upon graduation, Joseph will attend seminary with the intent of going into pastoral ministry.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the writer alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grove City College, the Institute for Faith and Freedom, or their affiliates.