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What is a Reformed church?

November 1996 | by Malcolm Watts

Luther at the Diet of Worms
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The term ‘Reformed’ has received considerable prominence in recent years. It has become quite common to speak and hear of Reformed doctrine, Reformed practice, Reformed worship etc., but it is to be feared that many Christians are still unsure about the precise meaning of the term. What exactly does it mean? And what kind of church is designated by it? To answer such questions, we need to study the usage of the term in history, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Reformed against Rome

Originally, of course, the term was used at the time of the Reformation and with more or less the same latitude as the term Protestant (a name which first appeared in 1529 on account of the protest of six German princes against the decrees of the second Diet of Spires). Reformed churches were the churches which protested against prevailing error and corruption, and which ultimately renounced all communion with the apostate Church of Rome. Martin Luther had issued the clearest of calls in 1518, writing, ‘The church needs a reformation. This reformation … is the concern of all Christendom or, better still, of God alone.’ By the time of Luther’s death, many churches in Germany and elsewhere had returned to the gospel and to the pristine purity of early Christianity.

Early distinctives

Contrary to Roman Catholicism, they maintained that: the Holy Scripture is the sole authoritative rule for faith and practice;1 religious worship (including adoration and invocation) is the honour which belongs only to God;2 the Lord Jesus Christ alone is appointed and qualified to act as Mediator between God and man;3 a perfect, complete, and final atonement is secured by the death of Jesus Christ;4 Christ is the sole Head of the church on earth and in heaven;5 faith only is the instrument by which sinners are justified (or pronounced righteous) before God;6 and all believers now constitute the priesthood on earth, enjoying the right of direct access to God through Christ.7

Evangelical

Churches which rediscovered these doctrines and began to preach them became known as the Churches of the Reformation or — as Luther preferred to call them — the Evangelical Churches. The word ‘Reformed’ seems to have been first used as another name for Protestants in 1561, at a conference at Poissy, in France. Later, however, the designation ‘Reformed’ was employed to distinguish the Calvinists from the Lutherans. The Calvinists were the followers of John Calvin, who carefully stated and systematized the theology of the Reformation. Calvin, believing Scripture to be the only reliable and adequate source of theology, taught from that Scripture the sovereign and awesome majesty of God. To know him, according to Calvin, is the supreme object of human attainment: ‘All men are born and live to the end that they may know God.’

Calvinistic

In The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which became the textbook of the Reformation, Calvin (following the arrangement of the Apostles’ Creed) expounds the doctrine of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (books 1-3) and then the doctrine of the Church or Society of Christ (book 4). Throughout he exalts the grace of God in the work of our salvation, which is what Scripture itself does.8

John Calvin
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‘We shall never know’, says Calvin, ‘where our salvation comes from till we have lifted up our minds to God’s eternal counsel by which he has chosen whom he pleased and left the remainder in their confusion and ruin.’ Holding God to be absolutely sovereign, Calvin insisted that his Word alone should order the affairs of his church. ‘Justly … does the Lord, in order to assert his full right of dominion, strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do, and at once reject all human devices which are at variance with his command.’ Hence, through reverent and careful study of the Scriptures, Calvin sought to establish a true and proper form of church government (by teaching and ruling elders),9 and the correct way in which God should be worshipped in public assemblies (in praise, prayer, the reading and preaching of the Word, and the gospel sacraments:10 Those who embraced Calvin’s teachings were called ‘the Church Reformed according to the Word of God’, a rather cumbersome title which subsequently was shortened to ‘the Reformed Church’. As far as we can tell, this designation was first used in the more restricted sense in Article VI of the Treaty of Westphalia, a treaty framed and ratified in 1648 to secure for Lutheran and Calvinistic churches equal rights with Roman Catholic churches within the limits and boundaries of the Roman Empire.

Puritanism

As Calvinistic Protestantism developed, the term underwent one further refinement. It came to be applied to Puritanism. This movement inherited Calvin’s theological legacy but expanded his teaching on law, grace and the covenants; and, believing the visible church in England to be still corrupted with the remains of popery, it sought a further reformation of that church according to the Word of God. In the words of Jeremiah Burroughs, ‘In God’s worship there must be nothing tendered up to God but what he hath commanded, whatsoever we meddle with in the worship of God, it must be what we have warrant for out of the Word of God.’ This is, of course, the scriptural law of worship often referred to as the regulative principle.11

In their attempts at thorough reform, the Puritans pointed out that the Reformed churches of the Continent had abolished unbiblical forms, such as government by bishops, the use of the word ‘priest’, the wearing of clerical vestments, the imposition of a liturgy, the office of absolution, the observance of holy days, the public reading of the Apocrypha, prayers for the dead, signing of the cross in baptism, the system of sponsorship (godfathers and godmothers), the service of confirmation, the practice of kneeling at the Lord’s Table (the mode in which Romanists worshipped the host), and the indiscriminate use of confident and triumphant expressions at gravesides. The Puritans believed the English church was hardly deserving of the epithet Reformed. It was, they said, only ‘half-reformed’. Increasingly, they began to refer to ‘the best reformed congregations’. It was Puritanism which became responsible for that remarkable document, ‘The Solemn League and Covenant’, to which the Westminster Assembly subscribed in 1643. This aimed at a ‘reformation of religion in the kingdoms of England and Ireland, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, according to the Word of God, and the example of the best reformed churches’.

Baptist dimension

In the light of the above, we can only deplore the way some have attacked this title and publicly dissociated themselves from it. Some Baptists, for example, emphasizing their Anabaptist connections, claim to trace their origins back through various pre-Reformation sects (such as the Waldenses, Petro-brusians and Paulicians) to primitive and even to apostolic times. This leads them to conclude that Baptist history is distinct from Reformation history and that therefore Baptists cannot be described as Reformed. The argument is seriously flawed, because it fails to take account of the fact that there were Protestants before Protestantism. Certainly, there were Baptists prior to the Reformation — Peter de Bruys and Henry of Lausanne, for example; but there were also pre-Reformation Paedobaptists who opposed Roman dogma and nobly sought the restoration of pure evangelical Christianity — like John Huss of Bohemia. If we include the latter among the forerunners of the Reformation, there surely cannot be a valid reason for excluding the former. Both belong to the Reformed tradition. The late-twentieth century has witnessed a dreadful resurgence of Roman-ism. At such a time it is unhelpful, if not altogether irresponsible, to teach believers to renounce their Protestant, Calvinistic and Puritan heritage. This is something none of us should repudiate: on the contrary, it is something which, in desperate days, we need boldly and unitedly to confess!

Malcolm H. Watts

1 Mark 7:8-9; 2 Timothy 3:15-17

2 Matthew 4:10; Philippians 4:6

3 John 14:6; 1 Timothy 2:5-6

4 Hebrews 7:27; 9:25-28; 10:11-12

5 Ephesians 1:22; Colossians 1:18

6 Romans 3:28; 4:4-5; Galatians 3:11

7 1 Peter 2:5; Revelation 1:5

8 Romans 9:9-23; 1 Corinthians 1:26-29; Ephesians 1:3-14

9 Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Hebrews 13:7,17

10 Ephesians 5:18-19; Colossians 4:16; 1 Timothy 2:8; 2 Timothy 4:2; and Matthew 26:26-30; 28:19.

11 Deuteronomy 12:32; 1 Chronicles 15:13; 2 Chronicles 30:5; Matthew 28:20; Mark 7:7-8; Colossians 2:23.