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…
“Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.”
-Westminster Confession of Faith 31.4
It continues to astound me how often P&R churches completely disregard this and believe that it is right and proper for the church to comment on every political issue. I’m looking at you, PC(U.S.A.) and WRC.
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…
The Reformed Church in America (RCA) released its Vision 2020 Report this week, and some of its diagnoses are things to be taken into account for my own EPC. The report recommends that the RCA shift to affinity-based classes rather than being geography-based, allow each classis to determine their position on LGBT marriage and ordination, creating an independent missions board to maintain the RCA’s mission work if the denomination collapses, and mandating a gracious dismissal process for all RCA congregations. The recommendation on the missions board elicited a minority report from the committee that believes “Its structure is voluntary and pragmatic. By design, the agency would be extra-ecclesial, existing outside of the connection and accountability of a covenant community.” This criticism summarizes the warning lights that the RCA’s report contains.
This report and its recommendations are necessary because the RCA has been divided for decades on questions of what its unifying standards and structures should actually be…