David B Hunsicker
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Ecclesia en Exodus Blog

Thoughts on Christianity and the Church after Christendom.

Being Reformed

International Monument to the Reformation (“Reformation Wall”), Geneva, Switzerland.

International Monument to the Reformation (“Reformation Wall”), Geneva, Switzerland.

One question that I’m pondering at the moment is the question, “what does it mean to be Reformed?” As I look at various pieces of literature, there are a handful of ways people tend to answer this question. It seems to me that most of these are either historical, dogmatic, political, or some combination thereof. For instance, among the historical approaches, I would include attempts to trace the development of a Reformed tradition from Switzerland across the continent, to England, Scotland, and then throughout the world via colonial expansion.

Attempts to emphasis a dogmatic core to the Reformed tradition often take one of three courses. First, there are those that identify the Reformed tradition with Calvinism. On these terms, the theologian John Calvin and the Calvinist theology that has been encapsulated in the famous T-U-L-I-P acronym become the identifying mark for Reformed theology. Second, there are those who identify Reformed theology with key Reformation era slogans like the 5 solas (sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus christus, soli Deo gloria) or the expression ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei (the church Reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God). These slogans are intended as shorthands that evoke doctrinal claims that Reformed churches hold in common: the authority of Scripture, justification by grace through faith, a monergist account of salvation, the provisional nature of the church’s authority under the Word of God, and the like. A third approach is to define Reformed theology over and against Lutheranism. This seems to be approach taken by both Bavinck and Barth at the end of the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th respectively.

Those who seek to identify a common political element to Reformed identity tend to emphasize the conciliar form of church governance that occurs in Presbyterianism (Conciliar is Joseph Small’s term). From Calvin’s Geneva to France, the Netherlands, and Scotland, churches were quick to adopt a conciliar or democratic fomula whereby elders formed a session (classis/consistory) that oversaw the leadership of a church, pastors and elders together formed a presbytery (colloquy) that oversaw the governance of a regional group of churches and synods and assemblies that oversaw presbyteries, all of which were constituted of representatives from the various presbyteries (Leith, 37).

Finally, some attempts to define Reformed theology operate between history and dogmatics as either a history of doctrine or as a historically conscious dogmatics. In the case of the former, someone like Richard Muller exemplifies historical work that clarifies what the term “Reformed” has meant historically. In Muller’s case, this work has the effect of reminding us that Reformed is not reducible to merely Calvinist. In the case of the latter, someone like Michael Allen’s recent Reformed Theology exemplifies a dogmatics that is informed by the sort of historical insight that someone like Muller provides. Far from reducing a treatment of Reformed theology to Calvin and Calvinist theologies, Allen is concerned to treat key doctrinal themes with care and attention to the range of possible doctrinal positions that one might hold while still being firmly within the Reformed tradition.

It strikes me that none of these approaches is sufficient in its own right. Allen’s is preferable to the extent that it attempts to hold together a historical-genetic account of a living tradition called “the Reformed tradition” with some basic theological convictions that must exist for that tradition to continue to exist in ideological continuity with its predecessors.

Should we try to define a dogmatic core—a list of essential tenets—I think we can agree at this point that we cannot reduce the Reformed tradition to Calvinism. Indeed, we cannot even reduce Calvin to Calvinism if Calvinism is preoccupied with questions of predestination alone. That is not to say that we ought to distinguish between Calvin and the Calvinists—or try to save Calvin from the Reformed tradition—as some have tried. It is simply to say that caricatures of Calvin and TULIP have often occluded the development of a more robust Reformed theology.

Neither can we simply appeal to Reformation-era slogans, or indeed, any particular doctrinal claim. For as soon as you say sola scriptura, we have disagreements about what that means ranging from questions of inspiration and accuracy to interpretation and continuing authority. Or, again, as soon as you say semper Reformanda, we arrive at a debate regarding whether the emphasis ought to be on the tradition of the churches Reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries or on the continuing need for reformation today—on the keen insights of our forefathers or on the contemporary discernment of the Spirit’s movement.

Defining the Reformed tradition over and against Lutheranism is of significant but limited value. In very specific doctrinal discussions, we can learn a lot about what it means to be Reformed by determine what it cannot mean. In this regard, the Reformed tradition was often forged in dialogue with and opposition to Lutheran theology.Although we could say the same for Roman Catholic and Anabaptist theologies, Lutheranism is particularly helpful because the Lutherans and the Reformed often presented a unified front vis-a-vis these other theological positions. It is in the internal disagreements between the two traditions that we learn the most about what it might mean to be Reformed. Even so, there can only be a limited value to mapping out the negative space around the term.

Finally, then, it seems to me, that the necessary step forward in a discussion of what it means to be Reformed is to simply live with the uncomfortable truth that what it means to be Reformed is subject to debate. At the end of the day, the best approach towards developing a working definition of Reformed may not be to work with any particular theologian’s voice or historical snapshot; instead, the best approach may be to pay attention to what actual Reformed churches claim to believe today. To do so would be to look at the gamut of Reformed confessions that churches currently hold to be adequate statements of faith. And that is a theme I hope to pick up soon.