A distinction between reformed theology and reformed soteriology

This is a purely informative post simply because I've seen people miss the distinction between Reformed Theology and Reformed Soteriology. For those who understand this better than I, I accept correction. I really don't intend to post after this, but I would like to see what people write in response.

Reformed Theology: This is the broader category. One could lump Covenant Theology in here, and I'm fairly certain that Reformed Theology would cease being reformed theology if Covenant Theology were removed from it. This broader category includes the small category "Reformed Soteriology" as a general rule, but I believe that there is an exception to this. I believe that it would be proper to see Reformed Theology and Covenant Theology as interchangeable terms. However, I think that one should take note that some, in "reformed theology's" more popular usage (general internet conversation), use the label in less of a "covenant theology" sense, and they use it more in a soteriological sense. I think that some would use the label "reformed theology" to designate a theology that is like the Reformation; one that is constantly reforming or seeking to mold itself to the pattern laid out in Scripture.

Reformed Soteriology: This category has a lot less of a semantic range/elasticity of meaning (fluidity of meaning) as the previous. Restated, this description is more concrete in meaning. This description is generally given as a description of a theology that stresses God's sovereignty in salvation. It can generally be equated with Calvinism. However, it would be wise to note that some do describe themselves as leaning more toward a Reformed Soteriology. This would be stated to guard against a wholesale agreement with/association with the typically unpopular and vilified term "Calvinism". For example: One may agree that election is unconditional, God's grace accomplishes what it intends, man is depraved to the capacity of being unable to do any good (toward God/vertical dimention), and that God will complete what He begins in salvation which necessitates man's perseverance in the faith. However, this person man be at odds or struggle with a particular atonement. The person may decide to say that he/she leans in the Reformed direction regarding soteriology.

Why write this? What is my purpose? I'm writing this simply because I've seen a lot of people falsely equate "Covenant Theology" with "Reformed Soteriology". This is false because the one does not necessitate the other. One is broader; the other is more narrow. One would affect eschatology; the other would be much less likely to affect eschatology. One (Covenant Theology) deals more with an overarching view of Biblical history in terms of covenants (works, (redemption), grace); the other deals more in how God's eternal purpose in salvation of His elect is taking place. All that this post is pointing out is that great error and confusion takes place when this distinction is missed.

For an example of how Reformed Theology/Covenant Theology are not the same as Reformed Soteriology consider John McArthur. He is dispensational in eschatology and reformed in soteriology. Some may call this a failure to be consistently dispensational, but this is to miss that dispensational theology is not at odds with reformed soteriology. Further, dispensational theology is definitely NOT that narrow to exclude reformed soteriology.

For the person who just wishes that we could just read out Bibles, this post is to (hopefully) help people communicate with eachother. I'm not just going to dismiss the confusion and say that we just need to read our Bibles. The terms are out there. I'm just trying to make a call to others to be more careful in how they use them and for others to be more careful to really seek to understand what another is really saying. Charity demands that we listen to eachother! So yes, read your Bible, makes sure the Word is the foundation of your theology (not the other way around), but don't be lazy in seeking to understand what the other person is really trying to say/write. With this stated, I'm totally open to the criticism of others. I don't wish to misrepresent, and if I have, please correct.

As a final clarification: yes, there is overlap between the two, but I was trying to highlight some key distinctions. (just wanted to make that clear)

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Charlie's picture

Caleb, I appreciate your effort at making distinctions. You are much more gracious than many even to suggest that perhaps certain historical words carry definite content which should be maintained against linguistic relativity. So, acknowledging that ultimately labels are a bit arbitrary, I will say how people I know use the terms.

To give you an idea of my context, I am in the PCA and am acquainted with many of the conservative leaders of other Presbyterian/Reformed and some Reformed Baptist denominations, who might call themselves TR (Truly Reformed).

In general, the word Calvinist has gotten pretty loose, generally referring to the 5 points of Calvinism and the necessary consequences attached to them. Calvinistic refers to people who might quibble with a point but still keep the overall framework.

On the other hand, the word Reformed carries (or they are wishing it to carry) a more restricted sense. The minimum requirements to be "truly Reformed" would be: 5 points + covenant theology + adherence to a Reformed confession. Many would add the Regulative Principle of Worship also. Within this group, the big arguments are whether Baptists really believe in covenant theology and whether you can hold the RPW and sing uninspired texts.

Note, by this standard, John Piper, John MacArthur, Detroit Baptist Seminary, and Wayne Grudem are NOT Reformed, but they are Calvinist or Calvinistic.

At any rate, I think there is some merit in letting people who"own" the term define the term, and in having that termed defined in a way that is somewhat continuous with its use in previous generations.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Brian Jo's picture

And then to make things even more confusing, you have those Reformed Baptists... Cool

Caleb S's picture

Charlie wrote:
Caleb, I appreciate your effort at making distinctions. You are much more gracious than many even to suggest that perhaps certain historical words carry definite content which should be maintained against linguistic relativity. So, acknowledging that ultimately labels are a bit arbitrary, I will say how people I know use the terms.

To give you an idea of my context, I am in the PCA and am acquainted with many of the conservative leaders of other Presbyterian/Reformed and some Reformed Baptist denominations, who might call themselves TR (Truly Reformed).

In general, the word Calvinist has gotten pretty loose, generally referring to the 5 points of Calvinism and the necessary consequences attached to them. Calvinistic refers to people who might quibble with a point but still keep the overall framework.

On the other hand, the word Reformed carries (or they are wishing it to carry) a more restricted sense. The minimum requirements to be "truly Reformed" would be: 5 points + covenant theology + adherence to a Reformed confession. Many would add the Regulative Principle of Worship also. Within this group, the big arguments are whether Baptists really believe in covenant theology and whether you can hold the RPW and sing uninspired texts.

Note, by this standard, John Piper, John MacArthur, Detroit Baptist Seminary, and Wayne Grudem are NOT Reformed, but they are Calvinist or Calvinistic.

At any rate, I think there is some merit in letting people who"own" the term define the term, and in having that termed defined in a way that is somewhat continuous with its use in previous generations.


Thanks for the input Charlie.