What Does It Mean To Be Reformed?


A couple of days ago I listened to a very interesting episode of Mortification of Spin, a podcast for the Alliance of Confessional Evangelicals, about the tenth anniversary of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement or, at least, the article that gave the name to that movement.

One of the most interesting parts of the discussion was whether or not the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement is really “Reformed” and the clear answer that they gave to that question was, as one “Reformed” theologian would put it, “Nein!”

Well, the issue of what actually makes a person “Reformed” is a pretty familiar topic but I thought that I would add my two cents.  But, instead of dealing with the criteria that they offered in the podcast, I thought it would be interesting to look at three fairly well-established ways that the term “Reformed” has been used (realizing that there are others, of course!) to show that the issue of who is and who is not Reformed is a little bit more complicated than most people think.

1. A Church Body That Holds to the Three Forms of Unity

So here’s the first definition for what it means to be Reformed: a Reformed Church is a church body holds to the Three Forms of Unity. Just in case you aren’t familiar with the Three Forms of Unity, the Three Forms of Unity are the doctrinal statements that are traditionally held by churches in the Dutch Reformed tradition: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. In Canada and the United States, if a church is named _________ Reformed Church, you can usually assume that it is a historically Dutch church that holds (or, at least, historically held) to the Three Forms of Unity.

So in this sense, it would be strange for a Baptist or some other type of generic evangelical to refer to themselves as Reformed since I personally don’t know of any Baptist churches that use the Three Forms of Unity or even a modification of the Three Forms of Unity as their official doctrinal statement. And if they were to call themselves “_________ Reformed Church” and put that on their sign, I think that most people would end up being pretty confused.[1]

But, in this sense, it could also be said that Presbyterians aren’t really Reformed either because they hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms rather than the Three Forms of Unity. In a Canadian or American context, if a Presbyterian Church put “__________ Reformed Church” on their church sign it would be just as confusing as a Baptist Church doing the same thing.  Of course, one could argue that the Westminster Standards have essentially the same doctrine as the Three Forms of Unity (which isn’t quite the case).  But, still, if a church was called “___________ Reformed Church,” most people would be surprised if they found out it was a Presbyterian Church.  What about the term “Reformed Presbyterian”?   Well, that just sounds really strange in my ear.

It should be kept in mind, though, that this first understanding of “Reformed” makes most sense in a Canadian or American context because of their very large number of Dutch immigrants that came to both countries. There are other Reformed Churches in Europe who use the term “Reformed” in their names but have historically only held to the Heidelberg Catechism and/or the Second Helvetic Confession.  But we can leave them out for the moment since those churches don’t have as strong of a presence in the United States of Canada (assuming that most people who read this are from those contexts).

 2. A Church Body That Historically Held to the Three Forms of Unity

This second definition is related to the first one. In this case, “Reformed” can refer to a church body that looks back to the Three Forms of Unity as their traditional doctrinal standard but don’t hold to it in any real sense of the term.

Let me give you one example of a “Reformed” theologian that falls into this category. For those of you who know me, you may or may not know this but I’m Dutch (well, part Frisian and part Dutch) on my mother’s side.  My mom’s maiden name is Kuitert.  Well, we have a very, very, very distant cousin named Harry Kuitert (we have a Kuitert family tree website in Dutch that goes pretty far back: http://www.kuitert.kuitert.info/Tjalling%20kwartierstaat%20met%20frame.htm). Harry Kuitert is considered to be a Reformed theologian. He was a professor of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam until 1989 and was actually the successor of G. C. Berkouwer. However, Harry Kuitert denies the deity of Christ, which means that he obviously doesn’t hold to the Three Forms of Unity anymore.  And I’m sure there are many other areas where he disagrees with the Three Forms of Unity. However, he is still considered by many to be a Reformed theologian because he was part of a church that historically held to the Three Forms of Unity.

Something similar can be said of Karl Barth. Karl Barth came from the Swiss Reformed tradition and is usually referred to as a “Reformed” theologian because of the church that he came from. I have to admit, I was taken aback the first time I heard Karl Barth being referred to as a “Reformed” theologian.  But that’s how people refer to him in academic theology.

3. A Church Body That Holds To a Non-Miraculous View of the Sacraments

This final definition will probably get the most objections from all sorts of different angles (and I’m very well aware of how poorly formulated this definition is) but here it is: a Reformed Church is a church body that holds to a non-miraculous view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Now I better pause here and define what I mean by “non-miraculous”. By non-miraculous I mean (a) that they don’t believe in the physical body of Christ being present in the Lord’s Supper and (b) that they don’t believe in baptismal regeneration. Again, I’m aware that “non-miraculous” is probably not the best word to use since (a) Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper probably wouldn’t be seen as non-miraculous by its adherents and (b) some historically Reformed beliefs about baptism border on baptismal regeneration for babies who also happen to be elect.

However, from a confessional Lutheran perspective, the term “non-miraculous” fits the bill. In this sense, “Reformed” means to hold to a non-Roman Catholic or non-Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism (restricting ourselves to forms of Christianity that historically have its base in Western Europe). In other words, if you’re not Roman Catholic and you’re not Lutheran, you’re Reformed. The issue here is not which confession of faith you hold to or whether or not you believe in a certain view of predestination/election: the issue is how you view the sacraments.

Now, of course, there would be very few people who call themselves “Reformed” who would define the term “Reformed” in this way, but it makes quite a bit of sense historically.  And even though there are other differences that separate confessional Lutherans from the Reformed (i.e. what is allowable in worship, the form of worship, the relationship between the covenants, church government), historically the most important difference is their views on the sacraments. And I would argue that at least some of these differences stem from differing views of the sacraments, but that is another issue. But the reality is that the sacraments, specifically the Lord’s Supper, were the main point of division between Lutherans and the Reformed during the early years of the Protestant Reformation and, from a confessional Lutheran perspective, still is.


So what does it mean to be Reformed? Well, it depends on who you’re asking and in what context. But I think it’s safe to say that defining “Reformed” as “adhering to the five points of Calvinism,” “believing in a Calvinistic view of election,” or “having a high view of God’s sovereignty” is a relatively new innovation. That’s one reason why Lutherans scratch their heads when people today call Martin Luther a Calvinist or believe that Lutherans today are Calvinists too. I think we can understand what they mean by that– it has to do with a belief in the bondage of the will (i.e. total depravity) and unconditional election – but it still doesn’t make any sense. Perhaps the day will come when the term “Reformed” is universally understood to mean what it means in the term “Young, Restless, and Reformed,” but it is not this day.  So, for at least some in the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement, I would add my “Nein” to the hosts of the Mortification of Spin.

[1] I think the term “Reformed Baptist” is getting close to being established enough for people to understand what that term means. Usually “Reformed Baptist” means “adhering to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith,” a Baptist confession of faith based on the Westminster Confession of Faith.


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