What Do We Mean by Reformed?

In this article Johnny Carson surveys our contemporary understanding of the term Reformed before examining some practical considerations for Refocharismissional churches.

A Loaded Term

In a set of lectures (based on his book on the subject), R. C. Sproul answered the question What is Reformed Theology? based on three layers:

  1. Catholic (i.e. “universal”, not “Roman”)
  2. Evangelical
  3. Reformed

His reason for doing this was to state that although to be Reformed has its own specific convictions, these are found within many beliefs commonly held by Evangelicals as part of the Catholic (universal) faith. In other words:

The Catholic aspect of Reformed Theology is that it was a call back to the apostolic faith affirmed by the early church.

The Evangelical aspect of Reformed Theology is that it has in common fundamental tenets held by gospel-centred denominations of all stripes.

Although everyone who is Reformed is Evangelical and Catholic; not everyone who is Catholic and Evangelical is Reformed. So far, the term eludes us.

History is Messy

Related to this is history. If you were to take a course in church history, the course would be broken down in terms of phases and eras such as ‘Early Church,’ ‘Medieval Church,’ ‘Reformation’ etc. Of course, at the time, no one living during these periods stopped and thought, “we’ve moved from early to medieval!”

Generations that live through significant moments of either ideology or activity are certainly aware of them, but it is not until later that terms are often assigned, or in some cases developed. The label Reformed is one of those terms. This is because movements are rarely monolithic. There is often nuance and difference of opinion that appear within this.

For example, Luther’s call for reform in 1517 was different than the call of the Puritans, in the middle of the seventeenth century. This is because there were a lot of councils, debates and approaches that took place at different locations, and at different times. The call for “reform” was true enough; but the context of that term was being dictated by the current cultural and ecclesiastical moment. Furthermore, the way to reform was also a matter of debate. The Reformation can be traced down two streams – the Magisterial Reformers and the Radical Reformers, and within these two streams are variations as well.

As confessions and catechisms were formed, the fact is that to be reformed in a broad sense meant you could be Lutheran, Presbyterian or Independent. Yet within these various denominations were significant differences regarding church government, the sacraments, and worship.

The Approach We’re Taking

It is in light of recognising the loaded aspect of the term, and the development of it, that we take the term Reformed in a moderate sense that covers two areas:

1. An Adherence to the “Five Solas”

In the most general sense – and in the evangelical sense that R. C. Sproul mentions – we are Reformed due to adhering to the five ‘solas’ of the Reformation (sola from the Latin ‘alone’).

We whole-heartedly affirm that we are saved by the grace of God alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, as this is revealed in the Scriptures alone, all going to the glory of God alone.

We therefore reject salvation by any other means – including the sacramental system of Roman Catholicism. We will however generally abstain from the term Protestant, believing this to be too much of a stumbling block to evangelizing this island at large because of the politicizing of the term in our context. Nevertheless, theologically we want to be as crystal clear as we can about the nature of salvation as revealed in the gospel, with Scripture being our supreme authority.

2. A High View of God’s Sovereignty in Providence and Salvation

The layer now goes deeper, because although all Evangelicals can subscribe to the above definition of salvation, the nature of grace and how it operates distinguishes the Reformed view from that of other Evangelical beliefs. Reformed Theology holds that the grace of God is supremely active, and is necessarily so, in order for sinners to be saved. Sin is pervasive, affecting every aspect of humanity so that salvation is by definition an activity of God and God alone.

This is not something I can go into now, but if you were to put a label on to me, I am Calvinistic in my understanding of salvation. I believe the Triune God operates in total unity in his plan of redemption – the Father predestines, the Son purchases those predestined, and the Spirit powerfully persuades the elect onto salvation.

So why not use the phrase “calvi-charis-missional”? Aside from it sounding naff, there are two reasons:

First, Calvinism comes with a lot of baggage, and is easier to caricature. In the words of Alister McGrath, Reformed is “a more neutral term” than Calvinist (Reformation Thought: An Introduction, p.9).

Secondly, it is a term that appears later than the term Reformed. Calvin was only eight years old when Luther began to stoke the flames in Wittenberg. Furthermore, pre-Reformed movements had already existed prior to Luther, such as the Lollards who had been influenced by John Wycliffe in the middle of the fourteenth century.

Here’s the Plan

It is now that we run into difficulty, because many who identify themselves as Reformed would say I have not gone far enough. What about Covenant Theology, and its related practice of infant baptism? What about the third use of the law or the Regulative Principle of Worship?

Contributors to Refocharismissional write from a variety of perspectives from within the movement. Some for example are credo-baptistic, modern worship-singing, go-out-and-eat-in-a-restaurant-on-a-Sunday pastors. At one time in history they would have been ex-communicated by Reformed churches – or even drowned! Others are from a paedo-baptist, traditionally Reformed denomination, such as the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Observers may state that if you don’t baptise babies or include statements concerning Covenant Theology that you cannot be truly Reformed. Calvinistic, yes; but not Reformed. But I’m not claiming a monopoly on the term, and I don’t believe we’re trying to reinterpret the term, but here is our plan forward.

As new articles appear on Refocharismissional, we will be embracing the width and depth of the body of Christ. We want to encourage brothers and sisters who can subscribe to being Refocharismissional from within their tradition as a means to strengthen fellowship and mutually encourage.

Additionally, this is what we also acknowledge: We will have Reformed friends whom we can be blessed by, who couldn’t touch our charismatic emphasis with a barge-pole, but are big hearted enough to call us friends and family, and want to see this island flourishing under the gospel.

Similarly, we will have charismatic friends who feel nauseous at the thought of Calvinism, but who have much wisdom in navigating through charismatic practice and have a place at the table.

We want to be a bridge to co-operation, and a means to iron sharpening iron. Here we stand, we can do no other.

Johnny Carson

Johnny is married to Sandra and pastors The Way Church Ballyclare.

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