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.
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is Information Coordinator for a law-enforcement digital library service.