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 the 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. Where differences lie is in the uniqueness…
A pastor friend of mine and I were discussing the meaning of this phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, stimulated by Ligon Duncan’s recent article on the subject. Duncan helpfully lists out a number of options for its meaning:
- That it refers to the spiritual agony Christ felt on the cross. This is the meaning put forth by the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 44) and held by John Calvin (Institutes 2.16.8-10). Duncan rejects this as the historic intent of the phrase since it comes after burial of Christ in the creed.
- That it refers to Christ descending into hell and freeing Old Testament saints from captivity and bringing them with him to heaven. The idea here is that Sheol/Hades/Abraham’s Bosom all refer in various ways to the abode of the dead in general, with the dead being sorted into hell and heaven only after the redemptive-historical work of Christ. Calvin strongly rejected this view, but modern Reformed thinkers like J. I. Packer and Sinclair Ferguson teach a modified version of it.
- That Christ was providing a second chance to the damned to repent, which Duncan, correctly, rejects.
- Duncan emphatically ruled out the possibility that Jesus was paying for sins by suffering in hell, a view common to the Word of Faith movement.
- That it refers to the fact that Jesus really, truly died and continued in the state of death. Duncan accurately states that this is both the intent of the creed, and also that it is the view that best fits with scripture. This is the view taught in the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q&A 50).
Interestingly, Duncan doesn’t mention the historic Lutheran view that Christ descended into hell in victory, smashing the power of the devil (e.g. Formula of Concord, IX), though this view does overlap a bit with the idea that Christ in his death freed the Old Testament saints…
I was frustrated with the lack of good, simple family trees explaining the American Reformed landscape, so I made my own. Better, more interactive versions are to come (high quality link here).
The North American Anglican, as is their purpose, has recently published two articles explaining and defending different aspects of historic episcopal polity. The first was an explanation by Alexander Whitaker of Anglicanism’s retention of the term “priest” to describe their ministers, the second a survey of the patristic basis for historic episcopacy by Drew Keane. Both of these article represent the problem that Presbyterians like myself have had with episcopal polity: the conclusion is determined in advance, then a justification is sought out for the practice.
Whitaker asks rhetorically,
But if in the New Testament there are no Christian priests as we know them, and if Scripture identifies Christ as our one great high priest and the church as a priesthood—where and what is the basis for having some other sort of priest at all?…Anglicans would respond that these questions should be pointers to why it is right to have priests, and what functions they serve. Indeed, it could be said that Anglicans have priests because Christ is our one priest and because his Church is a priesthood of all believers (emphasis original).
No Reformed Presbyterian should have a problem with Whitaker’s description of a priest’s function, but Whitaker’s rhetorical question raises our crucial critique…
Our church is a gospel church that is gospel crazy for gospel living. We believe that gospel discipleship makes gospel people who create gospel change and gospel dynamics. We believe in gospel administration for gospel organising. Gospel youth work is essential for gospel kids. A gospel welcome for gospel needers!
Ramsey argues that the gospel isn’t simply the announcement of news (Levy’s position, as well as Michael Horton’s and Tim Keller’s mentioned in the article), but does include “advice”. Ramsey relies on Anthony Burgess (a Westminster Divine and hero of mine) to make the case for a narrow and broad definition of the gospel, and I think is generally correct. But I wanted to take a stab at defining the gospel, and avoid the “narrow v. broad” paradigm for an organically expanding definition that encompasses both the news of what Christ has done and the need for response…