Summarizing Distinctives of Reformed Faith and Practice
A friend asked me the other day what I thought were the key 4-5 distinctives of Reformed theology. I gave my answer, but have found myself pondering that question. I think I would rephrase it to “the distinctives of Reformed faith and practice.” Reformed theology is not just about reforming doctrine, but practice. It’s an embodied, lived tradition of the church. So what separates Reformed faith and practice from other Christian traditions, particularly the (Ana)Baptist, Lutheran (though there is a lot of overlap here), Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, and Wesleyan traditions? I think the best resources for a quick overview are John Calvin’s The Necessity of Reforming the Church (1544), William Perkin’s A Reformed Catholic (1597), and R. Scott Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confessions (2008). So Reformed churches are,
Catholic and Creedal. The Reformed are Reformed Catholics (in distinction to Roman or Eastern Orthodox Catholics) and fully embrace the Catholic tradition expressed in the Apostles’, Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian creeds. To be Catholic is to affirm and submit to Nicene Christianity as biblical Christianity. Nicene Christianity in particular defines the biblical and Catholic doctrines of the Trinity and Christ’s divinity and humanity. The Reformed also affirm and look to the church fathers for guidance.
Sola Scriptura. All Christians affirm the authority of scripture, and the Reformed are no different. But where differences do lie is in the uniqueness and interpretation of the Bible. The work of the Holy Spirit is never separated from the revelation of scripture and so the Reformed reject any new revelation outside of scripture, and hold that all interpretive tradition, including from the church, is fallible. The Bible is the normative standard for biblical interpretation, meaning that the church is to be reformed according to scripture, not reformed according to its history of scriptural interpretation. God’s will revealed in scripture is the only rule for faith and practice.
Confessional. Reformed churches hold to extensive doctrinal statements (confessions of their faith) that summarize their understanding of the core of biblical teaching. The most famous ones still in use are: The Westminster Confession and Catechisms (Presbyterian churches descending from Britain), The Three Forms of Unity (composed of the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort; held by Reformed churches descending from the Netherlands and Germany), The Second Helvetic Confession (a Swiss-Reformed confession still held by Hungarian Reformed churches and some Swiss churches), and the 39 Articles of Religion (held by the Anglican church, alongside the Book of Common Prayer).
Covenant Theology. Often called federal theology, covenant theology is only fully expressed in the Westminster Standards out of the Reformed confessions, but versions of it are found in the other confessions and the majority of Reformed writers. Covenant theology divides history into two eras: before and after humanity’s fall into sin. Post-fall, all God’s redemptive works have been united in purpose and effect (the covenant of grace of salvation in Christ) but administered in different ways throughout history (the Abrahamic covenant, Mosaic covenant, etc.) culminating in the new covenantal administration in the person and work of Christ. As Adam was the pre-fall representative of humanity, so now Christ, as true human, is the representative head of the recreated humanity in salvation by his filling the offices of prophet, priest, and king. In filling these offices, Christ is the mediator of the church. Covenant theology is the “architectonic principle” of the Westminster Standards and frames the way the Reformed read scripture.
The Supremacy of God. God is supreme over all creation, and actively governs it and its history. God is entirely free, meaning that he is not bound or influenced by creation, but rather directs it. Therefore, salvation is entirely and exclusively by God’s free grace, from initiation to completion, and is worked, along with all else in creation, by God for his glory. Because God is the greatest good and source of all that is good, it is good that creation operates to glorify him, and that is the chief purpose of humanity: to glorify God. Because God is the greatest good, to find salvation in union and communion with him is to find true eternal enjoyment.
Salvation is by Grace Through Faith Alone. Most of the the famous five Solas and the Calvinistic acronym TULIP apply to this distinctive. Affirming the Catholic tradition, the Reformed teach that people are incapable of acquiring salvation apart from God’s grace due to the sinfulness of humanity. With the rest of Protestantism, the Reformed also affirm the Bible’s teaching that the person and work of Christ alone are sufficient to salvation and are immediately applied by faith to his people through the Holy Spirit. Christ in his work (incarnation and life, death, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost, return) effectively saves those for whom he accomplished his work; Christ saves his people, he does not make them savable. This application of Christ’s redemptive work (justification, sanctification, adoption) comes by grace alone (i.e. nothing about the convert motivated God to save them and God did not renovate them prior to salvation to make them worthy of it). Faith is the lone means of resting in and receiving the finished work of Christ for salvation.
The Sacraments Are Effective. There are two sacraments for the church, baptism and the Eucharist, which are signs and seals of God’s salvation in Christ. Baptism is about the washing away of sin by the pouring out of the blood of Christ for forgiveness and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit for new life. The Lord’s Supper is about feeding on Christ, the bread of life, as he nourishes and sustains his people in the Supper. Baptism is for converts and the children of believers, and both sacraments effect what they represent. This occurs by divine appointment through the recipient resting by faith in the promise of God represented by the sacraments. Neither sacrament automatically provides Christ through the liturgical ritual, but are means of Christ applying the benefits of salvation (union with him) by faith. So the sacraments effect salvation as means by which God produces faith in the promises of Christ by his grace.
The Rule of Worship. Often called the regulative principle, the rule of worship holds that God is only to be worshiped as he has expressly prescribed in scripture, and is not to be worshiped in any other way. The biblical fountain of this principle is the 2nd Commandment, and applies to the gathered worship of the church. Worship of God in word, sacrament, and prayer with the assembled people of God is not extra to the faith, but the result and goal of salvation. Worship is dialogical: God speaks to his people by his word, and his people respond by song and prayer.
The Church is Synodical and Pastoral. Church leadership is to be pastoral, meaning a shepherding of the people of God through preaching God’s word and administering the sacraments in the worship of the church. The congregations of the church are to be connected to each other in terms of pastoral ordination and doctrinal deliberation. There is a wide variety of polity models to achieve this in Reformed churches, but presbyterianism is the most common.
Ethics. The Reformed believe that God’s character is expressed in a moral law intuitively known to all people. This moral law is set out in the 10 Commandments and is summarized by Jesus as loving God will all your being and your neighbor as yourself. The law demonstrates God’s character and moral standard, our inability to meet it in our own power, and how Christians should live in gratitude for the salvation found in Christ. While the way the law is applied varies from setting to setting, its meaning and obligation is for all people in all times and in all places. The 10 Commandments are also not just rules, but promises. Because Christ keeps the law and the believer is united to him, the believer progressively grows in keeping the law and in glory will perfectly keep it.