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The Many Meanings of “Reformed”

I find it quite amusing these days to be classified by some as “Reformed”, when I’d barely heard the term for most of my Christian life. I grew up in Baptist circles that didn’t use the term “Reformed”. In fact, the first time I heard it used of my church was when a student attending a local Bible college told us that the lecturers there regarded our church as Reformed.

Since then, I’ve come to understand the many imprecise ways that “Reformed” is used.

First, the broadest use seems to be a kind of identifier as non-charismatic. In some circles (particularly in South Africa), the two categories of views on the spiritual gifts are not cessationist and continuationist, but Reformed and charismatic. This binary division becomes the way a person tries to categorize your understanding of spiritual gifts and the baptism of the Spirit. Of course, with the rise of the Sovereign Grace movement and the continuationist teachings of John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and D. A. Carson, Reformed and charismatic no longer stand as antithetical terms. Conversely, the vast majority of Southern Baptists and Fundamentalist Baptists would be moderate Arminians who hold to eternal security, but are strongly cessationist. One’s position on the charismata is not necessarily linked to whether or not one accepts Reformed theology.

Second, an almost equally vague use identifies Reformed with a certain approach to corporate worship. If your church sings hymns, has a fairly modest worship service without disco balls and metalheads jamming with Fender StratoCasters, you will be considered by some as Reformed. Certainly, the Reformation reformed worship, and the Reformed are often associated with sober worship, but this is not necessarily the case. By this loose definition, A.W. Tozer (an Arminian) was Reformed. Conversely, have a look at Reformed youth conferences. Google “Reformed rap”. And read Peter Masters’ critique of the worship in the New Calvinism. Conservative worship and Reformed are no longer Siamese twins.

Third, the slightly more accurate use of the term identifies Reformed with Calvinistic doctrine. Calvinism is really a subset of Reformed, not the other way around. Calvinism is a particular view of soteriology: how saving grace manifests. Calvinism, in its moderate, strict, and extreme forms deals with the doctrines of election, the effectual call, the perseverance of the saints, and the extent of the atonement. If you line up with the five points of TULIP, many consider you Reformed. Purists won’t accept anything less than five-point Calvinism, but the theologically informed know that Calvinism and Arminianism represent a spectrum of positions, not a binary choice. When understood this way, it is possible to be Calvinistic, without being Reformed, in the strict sense.

(By the way, the five points of Calvinism have little to do with the five Solas of the Reformation. The five solas rescued the Gospel from Roman Catholicism, and could (and should) be affirmed by anyone who holds to the gospel of justification by faith, whether Calvinist or Arminian.)

Fourth, the theologically accurate use of Reformed identifies a school of Protestant theology that involves a lot more than the five points of TULIP. Reformed theology necessarily includes covenant theology, and the form of covenant theology that requires paedobaptism. The church is understood not as an opt-in, voluntary organization, but as an opt-out, involuntary covenant community which one enters by being born into believing households that baptize in infancy. This strict form of covenant theology excludes believers baptism. In this very precise use of the term, Baptists cannot be Reformed: the term Reformed Baptist is an oxymoron. Reformed theology sees the sacraments as efficacious in some sense, and generally excludes premillennialism (eliminating Charles Spurgeon, Robert Murray M’cheyne and George Muller from its ranks). And if you think I’m making this up, get it from the horse’s mouth: Richard Muller of Calvin Seminary tells you what he thinks of Reformed Baptists:

In this very strict sense, the Reformed are necessarily Calvinists, but not all Calvinists are Reformed.

Therefore, if I am asked, “Are you Reformed?”, I will give what sounds like an irritatingly evasive answer. “Well, I am proudly Protestant, and believe in justification by faith alone. I do worship in a conservative fashion, adhering to the Regulative Principle, and I don’t subscribe to Pentecostal or charismatic views of the charismata or the baptism of the Spirit. I am a compatibilist in my view of the human will in salvation, and recognize sovereign election and the effectual call. But I am a Baptist, and a premillennial one at that. So, depending on your definition of Reformed, you tell me: am I Reformed?”

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

8 Responses to The Many Meanings of “Reformed”

  1. Paul,

    I accept four of them rightly defined. I believe election is unconditional (though not arbitrary). Because of total depravity, the call must be effectual (though I do not equate the effectual call with regeneration itself). I actually believe faith precedes regeneration according to John 1:12, though I think a preceding work of the sanctification of the Spirit (2 Thes 2:13) is what brings about this faith.

    While I accept that Christ substituted for His Bride, I don’t see a clear negation of atonement for the non-elect in Scripture that would restrict the provision of atonement to the elect alone. Instead, I see texts that appear to teach Christ provided atonement for all men. So I see a universal provision of atonement, with an application of that atonement restricted to those who believe.

  2. Nice article.
    Helpful especially since it is normal to use terms that are clear to us but not so clear to others.
    In some circles to use the term “reformed” brings a spike in blood pressure and not much else is ever accomplished.

  3. Well said, David! Glad someone is addressing this issue–it’s been a pet peeve of mine for years. All of the sudden it’s hip to be “Reformed” and everyone and their brother is using the term.

    I would even go a step further and say that “Calvinistic” is frankly a very poor definition of “Reformed,” no more helpful than the first two definitions. There are plenty of Arminian Baptists out there, true. But I’ve known just as many Dispensational, Fundamental Baptists who are modified Calvinists or even five pointers. Definitely NOT Reformed. It’s more than possible to be Calvinistic and not Reformed–it’s actually pretty normal.

  4. “Calvinism and Arminianism represent a spectrum of positions, not a binary choice.”

    Love it! Thanks David, well said. I feel a storm brewing :-).

  5. The article by Richard Muller was fascinating. I’ve read Covenant Theologians defend their positions, but in one succinct article covering such breadth of subjects was fascinating. When presented as Muller presents it, the position struck me as sounding like an evangelical Catholicism. From there it becomes clear why they are [merely] “reformed.”

  6. It gets even more complicated when you try to parse among Presbyterians and their various subscription levels. Some don’t allow the title “Reformed” to anyone who takes any exception to the Three Forms of Unity.

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