What is Reformed Theology? – Introduction

*This blog is part of a series I am writing on the Covenant Reformed Church website.

what-is-reformed-theologyBefore we get into the details of Reformed theology, I want to debunk a few of the stereotypes, misnomers and flat out errors that have a tendency to pop up whenever Reformed theology is mentioned. People have a tendency to fear that which they don’t understand, or to oppose that which they only know via stereotypes and unfair and biased characterizations. This whole series of blogs is intended to waylay those fears.

We begin this series by dealing with a few general statements that will help to set the direction of our future discussion. As we move along, these statements will become more clear and defended with more specificity.

Reformed theology is an ancient faith – Reformed theology is older than anabaptism, Mennonites and Arminianism. Reformed theological belief can be traced back to the very early theologians of the church, not in its fullest expression of course. It is safe to say that the early church, though not in any fully formed way, was Reformed in theology from the time of the very first exegetes and theologians, Augustine (354-430) being the earliest and most famous one. (Actually Paul began systematizing Reformed theology in Ephesians, Galatians and Romans, et. al.) In fact, the Reformation was a call by Luther, Calvin and many others to return to the ancient faith, to the faith that they believed the Catholic church had abandoned. They called for the church to return to its ‘Reformed theological roots’ and to abandon the Pelagianism and sacramentalism that had crept into the church. Two additional notes. First, Reformed theology does not reach its fullest expressions, or systematization until after the Reformation. Hence the term ‘Reformed’ to describe it. Second, Reformed theology is not a church movement but a theological one, as it transcends denominational boundaries. For example, John Piper, Bruce Ware and Thomas Schreiner are Reformed and they are Baptist in church affiliation. John Murray, Richard Gaffin and Philip Ryken are Reformed and they are Presbyterians. There are, however, denominations who call themselves ‘Reformed’, but we must not make the mistake of assuming that Reformed theology only popped up after the Reformation, or when Reformed churches did.

Reformed theology is orthodox – Orthodox means simply, “right faith”. In theology it refers to beliefs that have been historically affirmed as right faith by the church. The ancient creeds regarding the Trinity and Christology, etc. Reformed theology is NOT a deviant faith, or theology. It is not a cult, or heterodoxy, or anything like that. It is reflective of the beliefs of the church from its very origins. It is part of the Protestant faith and is not a new or deviant theology.

Reformed theology is thoroughly biblical –  Reformed theology does NOT take a few isolated texts and interpret everything through them. Nor does it take a certain theological position and interpret everything through that grid. I heard of someone who said that Reformed theology ignores 95% of the Bible and focuses only on 5% of it in order to believe what it does. This is totally bogus, and reeks of ignorance. Just take a look at the number and variety of verses referred to in the Westminster Confession or read any decent Reformed theologian and you will see the truth. Reformed theology is exegetical at its core. This means that for the Reformed faith, biblical theology leads into systematic theology. No Reformed theologian argues in any other way. The Bible as the “whole counsel of God” is always the first and foremost reason for any belief and thus it is the starting point of all theological inquiry. To quote the Westminster Confession, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.” (This 12 minute video by John Piper is a MUST watch.)

Reformed theology is NOT Calvinism – It is typical for people to associate Reformed theology with John Calvin. But that is misguided for a number of reasons. First, Calvin never started a movement, nor does he have any followers the way, let’s say, Luther does. There are Lutherans, a church movement, but there are no ‘Calvinians’ in the same way. Those who would refer to Reformed theology as Calvinism are doing so because they misunderstand Calvins’ place in the whole of Reformed theology. Second, if Reformed theology could be identified with a theologian, it should be with Augustine, a theologian who lived at the turn of the 5th century – although even this would be incorrect. The beliefs of Augustine were standard for the church and Calvin simply reaffirmed what Augustine (and others) outlined, and expanded on it. Last, the Reformed faith has a wealth of theologians, exegetes and confessions that it calls upon for its beliefs. Calvin is not the only one, nor is he even the main one. To call Reformed theology Calvinism is to miss the mark by a wide margin. All Reformed theologians worthy of the name would follow Jonathan Edwards lead, “I should not take it at all amiss, to be called a Calvinist, for distinction’s sake: though I utterly disclaim a dependence on Calvin, or believing the doctrines which I hold, because he believed and taught them; and cannot justly be charged with believing in every thing just as he taught.”

Reformed theology is NOT just about election / predestination – This is a serious error, that pigeon-holes Reformed theology incorrectly. The Reformed faith is so much richer than this one doctrine. The doctrine of election is in the Bible. A Christian cannot deny election; it’s everywhere in Scripture. So a biblically faithful believer must believe in this doctrine, but WHAT he believes about it determines whether or not he is Reformed or something else. A Reformed theologian comes to his belief about election based upon exegesis and theological reflection. It is a biblically driven conclusion before it is a theological statement and belief. Also, Reformed theologians do not deem election to be the fountainhead of their belief, as though everything is interpreted through that grid. It is part of a much richer and deeper theological position gleaned from exegesis and biblical theology.

As we move into our discussion of Reformed theology, remember what it is NOT. Evaluate and understand it on its actual merits, not on stereotypes, straw men, or false characterizations.

Soli Deo Gloria

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