Reformed or Calvinist or Both? An Important Distinction

Reformed or Calvinist or Both? An Important Distinction December 18, 2019

Reformed or Calvinist? Or Both? An Important Distinction

Recently I decided to use as my main textbook for a course in systematic theology a relatively new volume of “dogmatics” by two Dutch theologians. Like most Dutch Protestants they are Reformed. But are they Calvinists? Not necessarily. This takes some explaining, especially for American evangelicals.

Here in America, for some decades now, the labels “Reformed” and “Calvinist” have been used interchangeably, as synonyms. If someone is Reformed it is assumed they hold to Calvinism in its best-known soteriological sense—belief in total depravity, unconditional election of individuals (“double predestination”), limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints (the elect). This soteriological belief system has been dubbed TULIP. Who created the acrostic and when is a matter of some debate, but it seems to have arisen among Calvinists about a century ago.

Calvinism also usually includes belief in meticulous providence, the belief that whatever happens is “designed, ordained, and governed by God.” That is, God’s sovereignty is all-determining even if God determines sin and evil indirectly through secondary causes.

Now, Calvinism comes in various varieties, but the above two paragraphs offer a general description of its essential elements. Some Calvinists will deny limited atonement and call themselves “four point Calvinists.” Some Calvinists will deny divine determinism of all events, but they usually mean that God does not cause sin and evil; he only renders it certain (the words of Charles Hodge).

Calvinism has enjoyed a tremendous revival in the past three decades. Before 1990 it had its evangelical adherents and promoters such as R. C. Sproul, John McArthur, and James Montgomery Boice (one of my seminary professors). Its “hotbed” (or “seedbed”) in America was Westminster Theological Seminary. (I’m talking here about the mid-20th century.) Westminster was and is also Reformed. But Calvinism has long existed among Baptists who may call themselves “Reformed” but are not—according to the World Communion of Reformed Churches and those at Westminster and other truly Reformed seminaries. And not only Baptists but also many “Bible churches” have long been Calvinist in their soteriology but not truly Reformed (whatever they may say).

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.* 

To historical and systematic theologians this rise of identification of “Reformed” with “Calvinism” and vice versa is annoying. Even many theologians strongly embedded in the Reformed tradition have scoffed at the idea that being Calvinist in soteriology is enough to make one historically-theologically Reformed. The two are related but distinct. And, in fact, many Protestants are Calvinist but not Reformed and many others are Reformed but not Calvinist.

Let’s begin from the Lutheran perspective. According to Lutheran theologians, all Protestants are either Lutheran, Reformed, Wesleyan, or Baptist-Anabaptist. In fact, I have one volume by a Lutheran theologian that lumps Wesleyans/Methodists into the Reformed category. Now let’s switch to the very conservative and traditionalist Reformed perspective. Although the World Communion of Reformed Churches includes Presbyterians, many very strict Reformed theologians consider Presbyterians not truly Reformed.

Historically-theologically, being “Reformed” means holding to the “three symbols of unity”—the Heidelberg Confession and Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of the Synod of Dort. However, this does not hold true in Europe where many Reformed Protestants do not hold to the Canons of the Synod of Dort. But all of them would affirm the Heidelberg Confession and Catechism. But many European Reformed Protestants and at least some in America (especially those of the Dutch tradition) have shrugged off soteriological Calvinism or so revised it that it is no longer recognizable compared with the TULIP scheme.

Here I will name some well-known and influential Reformed theologians who were/are not Calvinist in the “TULIP sense” even if they do consider Calvin one of the important founders of the Reformed tradition: Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Jürgen Moltmann, G. C. Berkouwer, Hendrikus Berkhof, Alasdair Heron, T. F. Torrance, Vincent Brümmer, Donald G. Bloesch, and James Daane. All of these and many others belong to the wider Reformed tradition but can only be called “Calvinist” in a very attenuated and (to American minds) unusual sense. To the best of my knowledge (and I have read all of them), not one of them adhered/adheres to the TULIP scheme or was/is a divine determinist.

A case can even be made, and has been made, that Jacob Arminius and the early Remonstrants were Reformed but not Calvinist and that many non-Wesleyan Arminians since the seventeenth century belong to the wider Reformed category—historically and theologically.

Here is a factoid that ought to surprise many Americans who equate being Reformed with being Calvinist and vice versa: the Remonstrant Brotherhood of the Netherlands, the denomination that began with Arminius’s early followers (such as Simon Episcopius) is a charter member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches.

I could go on and on about this distinction (viz., between being Reformed and being Calvinist), but I will end simply by asserting once again that one can be Reformed but not Calvinist (in the classical TULIP soteriological sense including double predestination and a decree of reprobation and divine deterministic sovereignty) and one can be Calvinist but not Reformed (as in many American “Bible churches” and among many Baptists). The confusion arises partly from the fact that many American evangelical Calvinists prefer to call themselves “Reformed” and that because (I suspect) Calvin’s name has come to be associated with extreme harshness and even murder (viz., the burning of Servetus). But unless you believe in infant baptism as the New Covenant equivalent of Old Covenant circumcision you are almost certainly not Reformed in the classical sense. And you really ought to stop calling yourself “Reformed.” It’s like someone who doesn’t believe in or practice speaking in tongues calling himself/herself “charismatic” just because he/she raises hands in worship (while singing contemporary Christian songs). (That’s a subject for another blog post!)

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

Browse Our Archives