You Might Be “Reformed” If…

You Might Be “Reformed” If….

The rise of the so-called “young, restless, Reformed” movement during the past decade has given rise to concerns about the uses and misuses of the label “Reformed.” Recently, Southern Baptist and Calvinist pastor Wade Burleson has waded in on the debate. (http://www.wadeburleson.org/2013/06/the-truth-will-set-you-free.html) I’m not going to respond to his post here; I don’t want him to think I’m “dogging” him. I’ll let Reformed apologists respond to his claim that most Reformed people tend to focus on law more than grace.

A lot of people seem to want to claim the label “Reformed” for themselves and their beliefs. Sometimes it’s difficult to see what they all have in common. One problem is that many Calvinist Baptists and “Bible church” folks are claiming to be Reformed while many in the historic, confessionally Reformed churches are denying the Baptists’ and Bible church folks’ claims to being Reformed.

So who is really, truly Reformed—in the historical-theological sense as opposed to just the self-described sense? (Anyone can call themselves Reformed in this great land of ours, but that hardly means everyone who does automatically is.)

It won’t help to consult a dictionary. Especially in theology labels mean how they are used. But whose use gives a label its meaning? And what do you do when two or more parties claim a label and use it very differently? What do you do when one party has had the label for centuries and doesn’t want newcomers to the label using it for themselves?

The problem is that “Reformed” is, like many useful and seemingly inescapable religious and theological labels, an essentially contested concept. It’s also indexical; its meaning depends on context and who is using it.

To older Lutherans (this may not be the case as much anymore) “Reformed” means any and all non-Lutheran Protestants. (Those Lutherans tend not to recognize Anabaptists as Protestants, so they usually aren’t categorized as Reformed.) In such older Lutheran taxonomies, even Methodists are Reformed. This use of “Reformed” is driven in part, at least, by the older, common Lutheran perception that they are the only Protestants who truly uphold salvation by grace alone through faith alone by teaching (and really meaning) “simul justus et peccator.” Non-Lutheran Protestants, so this Lutheran narrative goes, all tend to hold to a “third office of the Law” whereas Luther and true Lutherans recognize only two. (The third office of the law supposedly taught by non-Lutheran Reformers such as Bucer, Zwingli and Calvin is the law of God as guide to pleasing God and proving salvation.)

In my book, anyway, only a Lutheran gets to use “Reformed” in that way and even then I think it’s a tenuous use, even though it goes far, far back in theological history.

An opposite us of “Reformed,” in terms of narrow application, is that of some theologians in the historically Reformed churches (usually descending from the Dutch or Southwest German) who insist that ONLY those are truly Reformed who hold confessionally to the “three symbols of unity”—the Heidelberg Confession and Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. All others are pretenders (to being truly Reformed). According to this use of “Reformed,” even Presbyterians are not Reformed—even though they may be Calvinists.

Somewhat broader, but still strict historical-theological, is the use of “Reformed” by those consider all Protestants Reformed who belong to churches that look back to, revere, and generally abide by a group of Reformers that include Bucer, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, Cranmer and the Puritans—including the non-Baptist Dissenters, the Congregationalists (who wrote the Savoy Declaration). To them you cannot be Reformed and practice believer baptism only. At the root of this use of “Reformed” lies “Covenant Theology”—the idea that baptism of infants corresponds to circumcision under the Old Covenant; it is a rite of inclusion in the covenant between God and his people (even if it is not in and of itself salvific). In this view, only churches and their members can be Reformed; individuals who happen to embrace Calvinism are not thereby made Reformed. And Baptists and others who practice believer baptism only are not Reformed, even if they are soteriologically monergistic.

Very close to that use of “Reformed” is that of the World Communion of Reformed Churches—a group of over one hundred historically-theologically Reformed denominations all of which claim some allegiance to the Reformation and post-Reformation Reformed confessions. One of the great ironies of modern religion is that the Remonstrant Brotherhood of the Netherlands, which traces its roots back to Simon Episcopius and the Arminians who were expelled from the United Provinces by the Synod of Dort in 1619 but returned after 1625, is a charter member of that Reformed umbrella organization.

Many Reformed theologians of the historically-theologically Reformed churches (Reformed Church of America, Christian Reformed Church, United Church of Christ, et al.) are raising their voices against the popular equation of “Reformed” with “Calvinism” that leads to many people in baptistic circles, to say nothing of totally individualistic people, self-identifying as Reformed.

Admittedly, nobody has a copyright or patent on the label or identity “Reformed,” so we will have to watch and see how the label changes in use and therefore meaning over the years. Speaking for myself, I tend to have sympathies with those in the historically-theologically Reformed churches who object to every Calvinist calling himself or herself Reformed.

And yet, I see that this is not a new phenomenon. When I was coming up through the ranks in American evangelicalism I noticed it was popular for most evangelical theologians, including Baptists and many others who practiced believer baptism only, to call themselves “moderately Reformed.” Often it meant only “vaguely Augustinian” and/or “not Wesleyan.”

I once found myself sitting next to a well-known Reformed theologian who had recently become president of a non-denominational evangelical seminary. We had a conversation about Pentecostals (he knew I grew up Pentecostal) and he boastfully (so it seemed to me) talked about “Reformed Pentecostals.” What he didn’t seem to realize, even after I explained it to him, is that in Pentecostal circles, anyway, “Reformed Pentecostal” simply means “non-Wesleyan.” For whatever reason, Pentecostals who do not believe in a “third blessing” (entire sanctification) have come to be labeled by scholars “Reformed Pentecostals.” It’s a misnomer and has nothing to do with being Calvinistic, let alone in some continuity with the historically Reformed traditions.

The same practice has filtered in among Arminians. Those who identify as baptistic now tend to call themselves “Reformed Arminians”—to distinguish their theology from Wesleyan Arminians. Wesleyan Arminians (e.g., Nazarenes) believe in entire sanctification; “Reformed Arminians” do not. Whether that justifies calling themselves Reformed is, of course, debatable.

In Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities I defended the view that at least some Arminianism belongs in the broader “stream” of Reformed Protestantism. What I meant there was that it is neither Lutheran nor Wesleyan. Arminius himself was a minister of the Reformed Church of the United Provinces (what we now call the Netherlands). Certainly from a Lutheran perspective Arminians are Reformed.

So, as you can easily see, “Reformed” is an essentially contested concept. It’s very difficult to generalize about it. The upshot is that if someone says to me he or she is Reformed my response, before forming any opinion about the person’s theology, has to be “in what sense?”

  • Jack Harper

    Roger, in my limited exposure to reform theology, being reformed means Calvinist and non-dispensational. The problem as I see it is that those of us that are not Calvinist or dispensational, fall somewhere in between and it would be hard to be labeedl reform.

    • Roger Olson

      Well there you go. Everyone has a different idea of what “Reformed” means. Yours is one among many.

  • Charles Kinnaird

    Thanks for the historical overview on the use of the term “Reformed” (not to be confused, of course, with Reform Judaism). Two quotes come to mind. One of my professors, the late William Hendricks, used to begin a topic with definition of terms he would be using. “It’s bad enough to be understood,” he would say, “let alone misunderstood.” The other quote is from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in which Humpty Dumpty said, “When I use a word (he said scornfully) it means exactly what I choose it to mean.” With all due respect to Humpty Dumpty, his is an undisciplined and shallow academic approach.

  • http://geoffreyholsclaw.net/blog/ geoffh

    Roger,

    This is a very important and needed post. I regularly have conversations with my wife (raised CRC) about the Reformed (Young, Restless, and Reformed) influences in Evangelicalism and she is regularly confused b/c she can’t figure out why they would call themselves Reformed.

    These distinctions are why David Fitch and I in “Prodigal Christianity” regularly call the young, restless, and reformed crowd the “Neo-Reformed” because they are generally non-denominational in government, non-sacramental, baptistic in theology and practice, but have a Calvinistic soteriology.

    • Roger Olson

      Maybe instead of calling them “Neo-Reformed” (which sort of has a positive ring to it–like “new and improved”) you should call them “deformed Reformed?” I know that’s how some of my Reformed friends see them!

  • Charlie Payne

    Roger: The Burleson link takes me to a Baylor Univ sign in page which is username/password protected – Have another link for us mere mortals? I liked your post – helpful for us arm-chair theologians who are trying to make sense of it all.

    • Roger Olson

      I didn’t know that. When I clicked on the link it didn’t take me there–it took me directly to the news article reporting on and quoting (in whole) the statement. So far I haven’t found a more direct source. Did you try “Googling” it?

  • Don

    Am I the only one who was expecting a parody of Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck”? As you have detailed here, “reformed” is hard to pin down…and I, for one, am still confused.

    • Roger Olson

      My point precisely. But also–I think Baptists should probably stop calling themselves “Reformed” as, historically and theologically, “Reformed” indicates beliefs Baptists do not hold.


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