From the Archives: What Does "Reformed" Mean?

From time to time Baptist (and other) friends ask me, “What does ‘Reformed’ mean, anyway?” They have come across a Baptist or Bible church that now styles itself “Reformed” or have heard someone describe a leader as having “gone Reformed,” and they’re finidng the term a bit confusing. The question doesn’t come to me from seminary graduates or church history majors. So here I offer an answer for the layman—especially the layman who grew up in some variant of independent Baptist.

What it is not

It may be helpful to begin with what “Reformed” is not. It is not one thing. Nowadays, even well informed people mean different things by the term. Still, because the last several decades have witnessed a revival of theological seriousness in parts of American Christianity, and because that revival has had much Reformed influence running through it, many have taken to using the term to mean nothing more than “theologically serious.” Some even seem to be claiming the label just because it’s trendy.

There is a more or less correct definition of “Reformed,” to be sure. But if your goal is to know what people mean, you’ll have to accept the reality that there is no single, clear intent.


The term “Reformed” does have a history. If we imagine ourselves in the middle of the Middle Ages in Europe, we find that Christianity consists of the Roman Catholic Church and a few obscure fringe groups. The gospel is still known and believed by many, though usually along side other beliefs not truly compatible with it. Eventually Martin Luther and other teachers lead a return to the authority of Scripture and to the pure gospel of salvation by grace through faith. Along with the work of these men, increases in literacy in general, and biblical literacy in particular, eventually bring changes in society and the church that a truckload of books can’t fully describe. We call it the Protestant Reformation because so much was being re-formed. We call those at the forefront the Reformers.

The theology that emerged at this time (mostly mid-16th and early 17th centuries) is properly known as Reformed Theology. It emphasized five famous “alones,” expressed in Latin by the word sola (or solus, or soli, depending on grammatical details). Each of these solas was a response to widespread error in the Roman Catholic Church: sola scriptura (the Scriptures alone), sola gracia (grace alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), sola fide (faith alone), and soli deo gloria (the glory of God alone).

As Europe rearranged itself ecclesiastically, theologically, socially, and politically, it became vital for groups to articulate their beliefs in confessions of faith. Though the many ethnic/political/ecclesiastical groups differed on various points, the early confessions (and other similar documents) showed a remarkable degree of consensus. The Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort were (and still are) especially defining. The Westminster Confession became the standard in England and Scotland and continues to be a defining document for many churches and denominations around the world.

Used properly, the term “Reformed” expresses substantial (if not total) agreement with the doctrines and practices defined in these widely-recognized Reformation documents.


Today, individuals and groups claim “Reformed” to express agreement with the views of the Reformers in select areas. Much cross-pollination has occurred between historically Reformed (that is, churches/denominations that actualy formed during the Reformation) and other groups, partly due to the fundamentalist movement in America in the (mostly) 20th century. When theological liberalism (that is, the inerrancy-denying, miracle-denying, doctrine-upending academic movement) became a force in the US, defenders of the fundamentals of the faith banded together for a time to oppose it. For a while, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans and many others interacted more than usual and got along unusually well. With more respectful listening, some increased mixing and matching of doctrines and practices was sure to happen. Add the American independent spirit to the mix—and the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention—and you begin to see why we have so much variety in the “Reformed” concept today. Theological conservatives all read each other’s books, attend each other’s seminaries, dialog at shared theological societies, and more.

Slowly, even relatively insular independent Baptist fundamentalists have become more Reformed-theology-aware and history-aware, and its leaders are finding a lot in Reformed doctrine and practice that they believe to be both biblical and potent against many of the ills of our times. Many of my generation and younger are eager to identify more strongly with doctrine and practice that has deeper historical roots.

Though there are as many notions of “Reformed” as there are notions of “new and improved,” it is possible classify most who claim the name under one of the following overlapping (and usually cumulitive) headings.

1. Reformed in soteriology

Soteriology refers to the doctrine of salvation. Many who style themselves Reformed mean only that they embrace most or all of the Reformed views of depravity, predestination, grace, and perseverance of the saints. The most famous formulation of Reformed soteriology is the famous “five points” popularly refered to as Calvinism (though you can find them all in Augustine and earlier, and as a list of five they didn’t appear until after Calvin). I’ve met a fair number of leaders who self-identify as Reformed who apparently mean nothing more than that they hold to 4 or 5 of the “points of Calvinism.” (Those who hold to these doctrines usually prefer to call them the Doctrines of Grace or something similar, since these ideas do not properly belong to a guy named Calvin.) These brothers are not Reformed in any other sense and should abandon the term. It only confuses people.

2. Reformed in worship

For my purposes here, I use “Reformed worship” to refer to self-styled Reformed folks who intend to convey that they appreciate certain elements and emphases in worship that are historically associated with Reformation practices: reciting of creeds, litanies, Scripture reading patterns and schedules (use of lectionaries), some iteraction with the liturgical calendar (Advent Season, Lent, etc.), weekly communion (which they may or many not refer to as “eucharist”), and the like. In varying degrees, leaders and ministries that claim “Reformed” in this sense may also be heard speaking of “means of grace” and “sacraments.” Some of the “Reformed Baptists” I know are Reformed in soteriology and somewhat Reformed in worship, and there is nothing else reformed about them. As with those who are Reformed only in the first sense above, most of these should probably avoid using the term. Some are so noticeably Reformed in their worship, their use of the term is probably helpful in identifying how they do things. In addition, some Reformed Baptists (and other churches of Baptist heritage) are Reformed in some of the ways described below.

3. Reformed in eschatology

Eschatology is the doctrine of last things or the end times. In Reformed theology, Christ’s return tends to be seen as non-complex event—that is, He does not come in the clouds and take those who believe up to be with Him (i.e, “the Rapture”) then, years later, come to the surface of the earth to begin His reign. Reformed eschatology today tends to be either amillennialist (no distinct thousand-year reign of Christ on the earth—He just reigns forever), postmillennialist (Christ comes to His kingdom after it has formed on the earth, basically through the church), or “panmillennialist” (It’ll all pan out in the end—that is, “Let’s just not fuss over the details”). Many of the more recently “Reformed” churches consciously avoid taking a position on the details of Christ’s earthly reign and the sequence of end tmes events. These tend to also be Reformed in the first and second senses above.

Closely related to eschatology, a system of biblical interpretation that eventually became what we now call Covenant Theology also has a strong relationship to the term “Reformed.” Covenant Theology consistently rejects the pretribulational, premillennial perspective. For that reason, even those of the more recently-“Reformed” variety tend to be critical of Dispensationalism as an approach to interpreting Scripture.

4. Reformed in ecclesiology

Ecclesiology is the doctrine of the church. This item might better be termed “polity,” but I’m lumping some things together for simplicity. Many groups who identify as Reformed hold to items 1-3 above and also practice several components of Reformed church structure, leadership, and membership. The historically Reformed churches baptize infants and tend to be governed by synods, presbyteries and the like (or in the case of the Anglican branch and its offshoots—bishops, archbishops, diocese, etc). It would probably be a mistake to associate all elder-led structures with Reformation ecclesiology since elder-led local church structure has a strong history in both mainstream Reformed and Anabaptist traditions. (For more on how Anabaptists fit into the Reformation, see Radical Reformation.)

My entirely-unscientific impression is that most of the recently-“Reformed” churches reject infant Baptism and favor some form of congregationalism as a method of church governance. Hence their claim to being Reformed mostly ends somewhere in items 1-3.

5. Reformed in the historic sense

These leaders and ministries are characterized by all of the items above and trace their roots to denominations formed during the Reformation. The Reformed Confessions and related documents define their beliefs and practices (except in the case of several mainline denominations that have abandoned their doctrinal heritage). These include Presbyterian churches, various denominations with “Reformed” in the name (Christian Reformed Church, Dutch Reformed Church, etc.). Because the Lutheran groups branched off early and developed their own doctrinal standards separately (for example, the Augsburg Confession), they tend to not be included in what people mean by “Reformed” today.


What I’ve attempted here is to suggest a relatively simple way to go about figuring out what someone means when he claims to be “Reformed.” Understanding that the term has a historically proper meaning and a host of less-legitimate modern variations, you could ask the self-styled Reformed individual a series of questions to get an idea of what he or she means by the term.

  • Do you mean that you hold to the Reformed view of salvation and the doctrines of grace?
  • Do you mean that you hold to a Reformed approach to worship? (If so, in what sense, to what extent?)
  • Do you mean that you hold to amillennialism, postmillennialism, or prefer to avoid dogmatism on the entire topic?
  • Do you mean that you believe in infant baptism or that local churches should be governed by regional assemblies of leaders?
  • Do you mean that you are a member of a historically Reformed church and hold to its doctrinal standards and practices?

After some attentive and respectful back and forth, you’ll probably walk away with pretty good idea of where the individual fits on today’s Reformed spectrum. If you really want to be thorough, sit down with a copy of the Westminter Confession and discuss agreement and disagreement point by point. You’ll probably both learn something valuable. In the end, you might end up agreeing that “Reformed” does not properly convey what either of you believes and practices.

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Aaron Blumer's picture


Some might find the discussion on the original post helpful. You can find it here.

Philip Golden Jr.'s picture

I skimmed through the comments on this post's original discussion and was encouraged by many who pointed out that Historic Premillenialism from a Covenantal viewpoint is a very legitimate expression of "Reformed" theology within Baptist circles. Much more could be said here but I think in the current state of evangelicalism, we are beginning to see a deemphasis on Eschatology in "conservative evangelicalism" so I would argue that one's eschatology or even systematic theology are becoming less of an indicator of one who is truly "Reformed." I think this is even more evident with the growth of the "gospel-centered" movement like TGC which is unabashedly Reformed but attracts a large group from diverse viewpoints in systematic theology.

The issue of systematic and eschatological theology aside, I would love to hear some discussion on whether or not Baptists could (and/or should) trace their history to the Protestant Reformation. Trail of Blood conspiracies aside, I think there can be a strong argument made that, from a purely historical sense, Baptists arose from the Protestant Reformation. Some will argue that we came from the Anabaptists and the Radical Reformation (which might be a legitimate way to look at things) but it seems, in my understanding, that Smyth was more influenced by the Magisterial Reformers than the Anabaptists and, therefore, Baptists can and should rightly be regarded as emerging from the Protestant Reformation in the same way the Presbyterians, Anglicans, and others emerged.


Phil Golden

Aaron Blumer's picture


A Baptist History text we read in seminary (Leon McBeth or Macbeth, if memory serves) made a case for Baptist descent from the English Separatists. I thought it was pretty persuasive.
But I lean more toward a mixed view now: English Seps (Reformed) plus cross pollination from anabaptist thought (radical reformation).

Philip Golden Jr.'s picture

I should clarify what I said, specifically in reference to Smyth. I believe that he was influenced by the Reformers (through Anglicanism and the Separatists) very early on but we must admit that he eventually ended up with the Anabaptists later on.

At TGC this year, I was able to attend Dr. Haykin's session about the Anabaptists and the Radical Reformation. It was very enlightening. While he did not agree with the contention that Baptists arose from the matrix of the Anabaptists, he, nonetheless, admitted that it was an entirely legitimate way to look at Baptist history. You can listen to that workshop here:



Phil Golden

Scott Matthew's picture

I know Baptist history isn't the article's main point, but I think Philip is right.  I understand Baptists today descended from the early English Baptists, most of whom repudiated the European Anabaptists like Hubmaier (90 yrs ealier) as unorthodox, basically saying, We are not them & they are not us. 

Don Johnson's picture

On which Baptists you mean. The English Baptist strain clearly comes from the Separatists who came from the Puritans. European Baptists had more Anabaptist influence. Baptists in America are a mix with some groups being more influenced by one strain over the other, but others much more of melting pot. There is something to American Baptists being their own strain, coming out of the Whitfield revivals from among the American Congregationalists (themselves descendants of English Separtists).

Michael Haykin along with Anthony Chute and Michael Finn have a good one volume history The Baptist Story, which gives the basics (and doesn't include MacBeth's snide shots at fundmentalists and conservatives alike). I reviewed The Baptist Story here.

Another feature of the various strands of Baptists is the wide difference on things like eschatology and other points as mentioned earlier. There are key distinctives that identify Baptists as compared to other believers, but that doesn't mean they have a unified systematic or hermeneutic.


Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Aaron Blumer's picture


I don't recall the details now, but I have read that there were some phases of Smyth's life where the biographer identified some exposure/interaction with Anabaptist leaders. I got the impression that, at most, Smyth's theology and practice were sort of seasoned with a few pinches of radical reformation/anabap. ways. But the pizza was English Separatist/Reformed.

But America being what it is, mix and match influences seem to have abounded (more than maybe anywhere else?) from colonial days onward, and certainly anabaptist influence occurred later if not specifically in Smyth.

But when people ask me if I believe we modern baptists should see the anabaptists as our forbears, I usually advocate against looking at it that way.

An interest test example is attitudes toward "the world." The Schleitheim anabaptists had a *very* different view from the Reformers of what "the world" (in a negative sense) is, and believers'/the church's relationship to it. (See See article IV)

The mainstream Baptist view is somewhere betwen the Reformers' and anabaptist's views, but arguably closer to the Reformers: "separation of church and state" (See Baptist Distinctives)

dgszweda's picture

As someone who sits in this circle, this was a pretty good article.  I would make one comment on eschatology.  While I would say that was is written is generally true, their is a very broad spectrum.  Most don't spend a lot of focus on it.  Part of the reason it is not a focus, is that they do not believe we can properly interpret it as well as we think we could.  We feel that since the OT authors did not understand their prophecy and were able to accurately interpret it, than what confidence do we have in being utterly dogmatic on the execution of Revelation.  What we do all agree on is that Christ is coming back, and there will be a judgment.

Philip Golden Jr.'s picture

So it seems that American Baptists were influenced by just about everyone- separatists, the Reformers, Anabaptists and maybe even the Bible every now and then! Wink

As an interesting aside, I recently read somewhere that Baptists before the 20th century mostly believed in Baptist Successionism? Is this true?

Take this quote from Spurgeon:

We believe that the Baptists are the original Christians. We did not commence our existence at the reformation, we were reformers before Luther and Calvin were born; we never came from the Church of Rome, for we were never in it, but we have an unbroken line up to the apostles themselves. We have always existed from the days of Christ, and our principles, sometimes veiled and forgotten, like a river which may travel under ground for a little season, have always had honest and holy adherents.

Not that I want this to devolve into an extended discussion on Baptist history but I did find this quote curious.

Excellent article, by the way, Aaron!

Phil Golden

dgszweda's picture

Philip Golden Jr. wrote:

As an interesting aside, I recently read somewhere that Baptists before the 20th century mostly believed in Baptist Successionism? Is this true?

Yes, but not sure if it was held by all Baptists.  I know that my grandfather and great grandfather, who were baptist fundamentalist pastors believed in this, as was the Baptist circles that they were involved in.  They were from the Texas/Oklahoma region.

Bert Perry's picture

Now if we believe in the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, that a man of ordinary intelligence can get a great amount of truth by reading it earnestly, wouldn't we conclude that, whether or not there was a "Landmark" or "trail of Blood", you would have a certain number of people whose faith became somewhat Baptistic through all of church history?  They wouldn't have to even know about each other, really.  

I'm not quite sure that's where Spurgeon was coming from, but it's certainly a position I think I can at least defend.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture


That is the spiritual-kinship theory. I, too, can get behind that.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Philip Golden Jr.'s picture

I get the idea of spiritual kinship as opposed to the traditional views of Baptism successionism, but what are the markers? Believer's baptism as opposed to paedo-baptism? Polity? Separation of Church and State? 

In other words, how many of the so-called "Baptist Distinctives" does a historical group or figure have to hold to be considered kin? I think if we rely on this model, we would find ourselves in serious disagreement with some of our "kin" on major Baptist Distinctives, so can we really call them kin?

I am a Baptist because I think it best reflects the teachings of the NT regarding the church, however, I will freely admit that we are a relatively new iteration of Biblical Christianity arising from the principals of the Reformation and the English separatists. Perhaps we had similarities to other groups throughout history, but, I think the differences we have with such groups should lead us to stand apart from them from a historical perspective rather than reading into them a Baptist heritage.

And, I apologize for hijacking this discussion about what it means to be Reformed and having it really go off topic to now discussing different theories of Baptist history! My main question was to ask whether it is correct to assert that Baptist's have a Reformed heritage historically and I think the answer to that question is not a straight "yes" or "no" but a "mostly."

Phil Golden

TylerR's picture


I agree with your "mostly" comment.

I've thought a lot about Baptists over the years. I could nuance this more, but here is where I stand on the origins of Baptists as a recognizable group:

  • I really don't care where Baptists come from or how long they've been around; it's a pointless question. Pondering it won't change anything, or lead anyone to God's coming Kingdom. 

Having said that, I think the Baptist position is the best explanation of NT polity and people ought to know why they are what they are. The historical question just doesn't interest me too much. I had seminary professors who were very passionate about Baptist history. Not me. I'm all for discussing the merits of different polity positions, but not the historical warrant for it.   

I think Baptists are mostly a product of the Protestant Reformation.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

I'm pretty much with Tyler.  I see today's Baptists as mostly coming out of the Reformation, though differing with our Presbyterian/Reformed brothers on many specifics.  

Regarding how close we must be to be considered "kin", the old joke about one Baptist being about to rescue another, but checking in on all the minutiae of theology and practice comes to mind--the joke that closes with him not rescuing the brother at all because of some small difference, of course.  But really, maybe it's better to describe "near kin" where the earlier groups have been at least trying to do some form of Sola Scriptura, and coming to the conclusion that we ought to immerse believers.  Historically, it's simply unfair to expect them to have come up with all five Solas, all five Fundamentals, and the full acrostic for "Baptists" without having an English language where that would make sense at the time.

Plus, given that the victors write histories, and earlier groups were routinely slaughtered by Rome, we're going to have some difficulty figuring out what they actually believed and practiced..  I'm OK with a kinship that can only be partially proven, or which only partially exists. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Philip Golden Jr.'s picture

I agree Bert. The problem comes when we start describing them as Baptists and tracing our lineage back to the apostles. (Although, the only person in the NT associated with any modern denomination is John "THE BAPTIST!" Take that Presbyterians!) :o

Phil Golden

Rob Fall's picture

the Anabaptist to be the Continental Cousins to the Anglo-American Baptists.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

J. Baillet's picture

Mr. Blumer, your post stands the test of time. As relevant and helpful today as three years ago. Your approach to the issue is insightful. Most of the comments I would make were discussed and adequately covered in the comments from 2014. I believe that the weakest portion of your post is in regard to Reformed Worship. The Regulative Principle would be at the heart of Reformed Worship and is a distinguishing factor between Reformed Churches and Lutheran Churches. Your description primarily applies to the Anglican Church which, having greater or lesser Reformed influences over the centuries, is not a Reformed Church per se. There are Anglicans such as J. I. Packer who hold to Reformed Theology, but they are a small minority in the Anglican Church today and have been a minority historically. Although Reformed Worship tends to be liturgical to some degree, many Reformed Churches either reject the liturgical calendar outright or pay it little heed as a relic of Roman Catholicism and violative of the Regulative Principle. The preaching of the Word is central to Reformed Worship with the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper as well as prayer being essential elements. Reformed Worship is reverential worship with the reading of Scripture and singing of psalms and hymns generally being important components. Finally, but certainly not of the least importance, the Christian Sabbath is to be sanctified.

In regard to Reformed Ecclesiology, the episcopal form of government is not Reformed. Although the Anglican Church and its offshoots may be episcopal, they are not per se Reformed, and this feature would be a vestige of Roman Catholicism. The Church of England is a product of the Reformation but has never been fully Reformed.

Nevertheless, these are minor points. As a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, an historically Reformed Church, I thank you for your post.


Aaron Blumer's picture


Thanks, J.
The couple of times I've attended worship at a Presbyterian church, it was definitely more "high church" than the average independent Baptist. Though they did not seem to be doing much with the liturgical calendar, the Scripture readings did seem to be following a lectionary keyed to the calendar.
Most recent one was, I think OPC, also.
Maybe you can tell us more about how lectionaries are typically used.
In the community where I live, there is also a Christian Reformed church and some other flavor of Reformed. These quite visibly identify with the calendar.

J. Baillet's picture

Aaron, Presbyterian and Reformed Churches do tend to have a more "high church" feel in their worship than the typical Baptist Church. I have been a member of GARBC and independent Baptist churches before more recently (the past 8 years) being a member of a reformed evangelical church and now an OPC church. As with Baptist churches, worship in Presbyterian and Reformed Churches can vary significantly. The worship at Faith Free Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC would more resemble a formal Baptist service whereas Second Presbyterian Church, a PCA church in downtime Greenville, would be much more intentionally liturgical with the Rev. Richard Phillips wearing a Genevan robe. Some churches in Presbyterian and Reformed circles have not been immune to the advance of "contemporary worship" but would still tend to be more liturgical. Many in these circles would say that "contemporary worship" is a departure from Reformed Worship.

As you note, there is a variance in regard to the church calendar. Although I am not an expert on the issue, my sense is that churches in the continental Reformed tradition (holding to the Three Forms of Unity, i.e. the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort), are more likely to observe some form of the church calendar than the Presbyterian churches of English or Scots heritage (holding to the Westminster Standards).

Lectionaries are typically used on specific occasions, such as the administration of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, the public acceptance of church members, the solemnization of marriage, and the burial of the dead. The lectionary is not a rigid form for there is freedom within the forms. The order of worship at my church on Sunday morning is as follows: Call to Worship, Salutation and Opening Response of the congregation, Invocation and Hymn or Psalm, Scripture Reading in unison (over time, the congregation reads through Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon), reading in unison from the Westminster Standards, Hymn or Psalm, Silent Confession of Sin, Worship in Prayer (by the Minister with the congregation joining with him at the end to recite the Lord’s Prayer), Worship in Tithes and Offerings, Offertory Response, Scripture Reading by the Minister, Expository Sermon from this Scripture reading, Hymn or Psalm, Benediction and Final Response of the Congregation. Most people, including the Presbyterian and Reformed themselves, concentrate on the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards, but the Reformed tradition also has directories for public worship which set forth the principles and practices for the public worship of God.

I hope that this is helpful in defining and describing Reformed Worship.


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