Thursday, October 22, 2009


When I were a lad, I spent my time in churches which were very keen on being Reformed. Discussions could be had about who was 'really' Reformed and who was just faking. I enjoyed it at the time. More recently, I've had conversations with people about what it might mean to be a 'Reformed charismatic' - something that never came up in my youth, as we all knew that 'Reformed' and 'charismatic' were mutually exclusive terms. I wonder whether it might be useful to run down the different ways the word 'Reformed' is used, to aid us in our scintillating chats about who is in and who is out?

'Reformed' could be used in a purely historical sense. In the 16th Century, the Protestant Reformation led to the emergence of three great Protestant churches: the Lutherans, the Anglicans, and the Reformed. (On another reading of history, there were maybe just two big strands, with Anglicanism being a subset of Reformed. I think this is less useful, descriptively and analytically, just because of the huge differences between Anglicanism and other 'Reformed' churches). Obviously, there are now churches which would claim descent from the Reformed wing of the Reformation. It is a fact that many of them, particularly on the Continent - although one could also think of the URC, now tend towards a theology which is either a significant modification or a near-total repudiation of the theology of the 16th Century Reformed. Still, they have an obvious claim to the title. Perhaps we should speak of church today which have 'Reformed heritage', thus acknowledging the link without making any theological claims.

'Reformed' could also be used in a theological sense, in at least two ways. We could identify a 'thick' Reformed theology and a 'thin' one. On the thick understanding of 'Reformed', we would be talking essentially about the Christian Institutes of John Calvin. Reformed theology is covenantal and paedobaptist, characterised by a particular view of the relation between Word and Spirit, cessationist with regard to miraculous gifts, presbyterian in church polity, placing a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God in revelation and salvation. I think you could make a good argument for this being the most comprehensive definition of 'Reformed', and the most useful, for reasons to be explained. We could perhaps talk about churches which espouse this theology today as having 'Reformed doctrine'.

The 'thin' understanding of what it means to be theologically Reformed tends to take a subset of the beliefs above, which are taken to be the 'heart' of the whole system, and makes these beliefs the meaning of 'Reformed'. This tends, in practice, to mean being Calvinists in terms of how people are saved, espousing a high view of the sovereignty of God. There are many churches that would take this line, and we could perhaps talk about them having 'Reformed soteriology'.

So, who is Reformed?

On the first understanding, the URC is and newfrontiers isn't. The URC stands in a direct line of succession from historically Reformed churches, whereas newfrontiers does not.

On the second understanding, the URC is not, nor is newfrontiers, nor is any baptist church. In the UK, you could go to the Free Church of Scotland, or perhaps the EPCEW. You'd struggle to find any other churches that are doctrinally Reformed in this maximal sense.

On the third understanding, newfrontiers is Reformed, as are all FIEC congregations I've ever been to, as are many evangelical Anglican churches.

My own judgement would be that we should use 'Reformed' in the second sense, primarily. I think it is useful to give a word the maximum definition it will take, for purposes of clarity and analysis. I also think it is clear that the historically Reformed would want us to think of theology and not merely heritage as the defining mark of their movement.

So I think only presbyterians are Reformed. We could perhaps use qualifying language to show the relationship that other churches stand in to this tradition - whether historic or theological. Personally, I am an anabaptist, holding (lightly modified, but still very clearly) Reformed soteriology and a (more heavily modified) Reformed understanding of Word and Spirit. Perhaps I could say I am an anabaptist with a theological debt to Reformed theology. But I'm not 'properly' Reformed, and I'm okay with that.


  1. I agree, I don't care if I can't have the label. But usually, as a brief summary that christians understand, saying I am a 'reformed baptist' is a helpful shorthand.

  2. To be honest, I prefer to think of reformed as a verb not a name.

    It's kinda meaningless on its own - reformed by what, into what?

    the question becomes clear: are we being reformed by the word of God, or by tradition/every wind of doctrine

    Dare I say it, that it seems to me that when reformed becomes a name, as if it's a perfect participle, a finished act, then this is fine insofar as we are reforming an organisation/charity/trust/mission according to its founding purposes and principles (this is why many say the anglican church can be "reformed" while the roman church cannot, but really both are being reformed by their doctrinal tradition - the question is what you're going to end up being reformed into - namely, the image of trent or the image of 39articles.

    ...the french have a great phrase, "céder la parole à quelqu'un" - it means to cede, or yield the microphone, the floor - to let someone speak. That's the key question. Do we let God's word reform us?

    I'd say it's possible to be reformed by the word of God from any tradition or culture - into a reformed tradition or culture, not a monolithic one. Africans become reformed Africans, not remade Europeans. The question is whether we yield the platform to the God who speaks - and hear the gospel which stands as a critical voice, able to judge and redeem any tradition or culture - including, thank God, piety.

  3. Jonathan: certainly, I wouldn't launch a campaign to forbid anyone who isn't a Presby from designating themselves Reformed in casual conversation. I do think it's helpful to be more precise sometimes though.

    Chris: I sympathise, but the problem is 'seeking to be reformed by God's word' or whatever would be something that all evangelicals would hopefully claim. My feeling is that this phrase, in itself such a powerful definition of Biblical Christianity, cannot hold its value/meaning within the terms of the 'who is Reformed?' discussion.

    That might indicate that the discussion is pointless. But since it doesn't seem likely to end anytime soon, I feel precision and careful definition would be helpful.

  4. So, if there are then basically no reformed churches in the UK what can we reformed baptists (FIEC, Newfrontiers etc) call ourselves that has some historical reference and descriptive value?

  5. Well, I guess we're anabaptists if we want a historical label. The paedobaptist thing, linked to the view of covenant, is such a key part of Reformed theology. If we're dropping that, we're significantly different from Reformed orthodoxy.

    After that, you'd have to make a divide between FIEC and Newfrontiers by virtue of different views of the Spirit's work and relation to the Word.

    I am starting to wonder whether there is a term we can use. Maybe something like Political Compass, but for theology, might be useful!

  6. Anonymous5:29 pm

    Daniel, if you give the same treatment to the word 'anabaptist' as you do to reformed, you'd soon discover it isn't all that great for being applied to the kind of people Bish is on about.

    There is, however, a fairly long historical and theological tradition of 'reformed baptists,' people like Bunyan, who would actually fit somewhere between your 2nd and third definitions of 'reformed.' Their reformed theology is slightly beefier than just being soteriological Calvinists (as in, 4/5-pointers) and yet on covenant they differ a fair old bit from Presbyterians. This makes 'Reformed Baptists' a pretty meaningful term, historically and theologically, I'd argue.

    I also reckon your definition of 2. is too narrow. I appreciate the point of trying to be as meaningful as possible, but I think the gap between definitions 2 and 3 are too wide. Congregationalists like Jonathan Edwards for example, and tonnes of Amyraldians in the C17th, would be far closer to 2. than many of those in 3. on a whole host of things. To exclude them from a tight definition of 'reformed' renders our use of the term historically inaccurate.

    Something like Muller's 'Post-reformation reformed dogmatics' is pretty good at taking a wider canvas on reformed orthodoxy, without losing the meaningfulness and usefulness of the term (which using it for all those who kinda like 'sola scriptura' and think 'Calvin was a dude' does a bit).

  7. Pete, that's a useful comment. I am aware of simplifying, and making things black and white which are much more complex in the real world. I'm happy to reinstate the term 'Reformed Baptist', and perhaps even to label myself with it.

    My concern is that words become meaningless if we allow them to be emptied of their content, and this can happen little by little. If you don't have a reformed view of covenant, a reformed view of the Spirit, a reformed view of Scripture - i.e. if you are a baptistic charismatic - can you really keep calling yourself reformed? (Can I?)

  8. Anonymous6:55 pm

    I think I basically agree with what you're saying here Daniel. Words need to be historically, theologically meaningful and practically useful for discussion and defining.

    I think one of the problems is that the constituency in your particular example here (reformed charismatics) are not actually the best at self-definition. I'm not saying that to have a go at them. And at one level I don't really mind if they self-identify as reformed. But I have noticed that tight, cogent definitions (those that are useful for discussion with others anyway) which define their distinctives over against others, are not something they excel in as a 'movement.'