What Does “Reformed” Mean?

What Does “Reformed” Mean?

by Pastor Dave Holmlund

“Reformed theology” and “the Reformed tradition” are references to the heritage of historic Protestantism’s consistently biblical doctrine and practice.  These days it is common for individuals or churches to describe themselves as “Reformed” merely for holding to the so-called “five points” of Calvinism or some other characteristic of many Reformed churches, but being Reformed includes more than this.

 When the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century sought to purify the church of unbiblical doctrine and practice, they often spoke of the need to “reform” the church according to God’s word.  Although this was a reaction against the Roman Catholic Church, it was also an embrace of the Scriptures’ unique authority, a return to the doctrine and practice of the apostolic church, and an outgrowth of various reforming currents in the medieval church.  While many of these changes took place at the hand of Martin Luther and his German colleagues based in Wittenberg, a much more geographically diverse collection of Protestant theologians, ministers and congregations came to agree upon doctrinal creeds, liturgical (worship) reforms, and characteristics of church polity which became known as “Reformed” as opposed to “Lutheran” (the Lutherans maintained what the Reformed considered rather peculiar doctrines of Christology and the sacraments along with many liturgical practices of the Roman church).  Despite many hardships in these early years, these two Protestant theological traditions thrived in the post-Reformation period. 

 While John Calvin is certainly a major figure among those early Reformed thinkers, he was only one man among dozens of early Reformed theologians and church leaders who shaped the Reformed tradition in Switzerland, Germany, France, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Hungary and beyond.  Many of the Reformed denominations which Americans know today (Presbyterian, Congregational, Dutch Reformed, German Reformed, etc.) reflect the early geographical and linguistic barriers of essentially like-minded Reformed churches in various parts of Europe which were in turn imported into America by those immigrants who differed more in language and nationality than in doctrine or worship. 

 While this Reformed expression of Christianity has roots in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it became an enduring form of Christianity through written creeds and the churches which embraced them.  Some of the great Reformed confessions from this period are the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Irish Articles, the Canons of the Synod of Dort, and the Westminster Confession of Faith with its Shorter and Larger Catechisms.  The Westminster Standards were embraced by the Presbyterian churches in England and Scotland, and they remain an outstanding summary of Christian doctrine as taught by the Bible and embraced in the Reformed churches of early Protestantism.

 While many Protestant denominations originating within the Reformed tradition have slowly but deliberately moved away from their Reformed identities regarding doctrine, worship and church polity, there remain millions of Reformed believers scattered across the globe in congregations which continue to uphold the original creeds of the Protestant Reformation.  It is these churches, many of them upholding the Westminster Confession or the Heidelberg Catechism, which are truly the embodiment of the Reformed tradition today.  Far from being a “dead orthodoxy,” many of these churches are showing significant growth and fruitfulness because they continue to preach the gospel faithfully in contrast with many other churches which are either doctrinally shallow or altogether heretical in their teaching.  Only when the gospel is preached faithfully can sinners be reconciled to a holy God through Jesus Christ.  Mature Christians are also finding that they and their families hunger for the nourishment which is consistently found in confessionally Reformed churches.  Meanwhile, Reformed worship and Reformed ecclesiology add to the contemporary appeal of historic Reformed theology.  Worship services in Reformed churches are characteristically reverent and edifying when compared to the casual and trivial practices of other Protestant and evangelical churches.  Some Christians are even coming to the Reformed tradition for its church polity which values the spirituality of the church, a covenantal understanding of the children of believers, and the order and accountability of Presbyterianism instead of building churches and ministries around strong personalities and trends which are here today and gone tomorrow.

 If this description of Reformed theology and the Reformed tradition sounds interesting to you, the best thing to do is to get to know a Reformed congregation in your area by joining them for a worship service.  The website of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPaRC) may be of use to this end by directing you to the denominational websites of those churches which are Reformed as described here, and all of these denominations have directories for their local church congregations.