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I remember visiting home once, years after I had become a Christian and after I had graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary. During my visit, I ran into an old neighbor with whom I had worked while in high school. He told me that he had heard that I had gone to reform school and asked how I was doing now. For those who do not know what a “reform school” is, it is a correctional institution for juvenile delinquents. I wasn’t offended by his assumption. In fact, I still find it quite funny when I think about it, and I’m almost certain that there is a joke about “cage-stage Calvinists” somewhere in there. It took only a few minutes to explain to my neighbor the difference between a reform school and a Reformed seminary, but I think his confusion hints at a larger and more significant issue, namely, the ambiguity of the word Reformed in the minds of many Christians.

The word Reformed has gained a good deal of attention in the United States in recent years. In a widely read 2006 Christianity Today article, Collin Hansen described the rise of “Young, Restless, and Reformed” leaders within evangelicalism. These are men and women who have rejected the revivalistic Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism found in so much of historic American evangelicalism and have begun learning from older theologians in the Reformed tradition, men such as John Calvin, Francis Turretin, and Charles Hodge. The meaning of the word Reformed has also been at the center of ongoing debates in the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination. Many Southern Baptists reject Reformed theology, believing it to be inimical to evangelism and missions. Others now identify as Reformed Baptists. The growth of the Reformed Baptist movement has been incredible, and it has been fueled by pastors graduating from Southern Baptist seminaries and by the teaching of leaders within the convention.

Those within traditionally Reformed denominations such as the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and the United Reformed Churches in North America are sometimes left wondering how to respond to all of these developments. For many in these churches, to be Reformed is to subscribe to specific Reformed confessions of faith and to adhere to a certain kind of piety and worship. Some in these churches argue that the word Reformed loses all meaning if it is not identified with these Reformed confessions.

So, how do we navigate these waters? What does it mean to be Reformed? Here we need to take a step back and look at some aspects of the history of the sixteenth-century Reformation. The purpose of what has become known as the Reformation was to reform the existing church. Several factors led to the ecclesiastical division we know today, but the key point for our purposes has to do with the way that the word Reformed was used. In some cases, it was used synonymously with the word Protestant. In such cases, to speak of “Reformed churches” was to speak of all of those churches in conflict with the Roman Catholic papacy. In other cases, the word Reformed was used in a narrower sense to refer to those Protestant churches that differed with the Lutheran churches, particularly over the doctrine and practice of the Lord’s Supper. The word Reformed in these instances referred to churches associated with the teachings of men such as Huldrych Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and John Calvin.

The purpose of what has become known as the Reformation was to reform the existing church.

As the lines in the sand between the Protestant churches began to become walls, the various churches wrote their beliefs in their confessions of faith. The labels Lutheran and Reformed now had a more definitive content. To be Lutheran was to subscribe to the Lutheran confessions, initially the Augsburg Confession (1530) and ultimately the Book of Concord (1580). To be Reformed was to subscribe to one of the Reformed confessions. Numerous such confessions were written, but those that gained the longest lasting and most widespread use are the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards. The Three Forms of Unity include the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and the Canons of Dort (1619). The Westminster Standards include the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), the Westminster Larger Catechism (1648), and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647).

Significantly, in England, two important confessions were written that modified the Westminster Confession in order to have a confession that expressed different views of church government and baptism. The Savoy Declaration (1658) was a Congregationalist modification of the Westminster Confession, and the 1689 London Baptist Confession was a modification that reflected the views of Particular Baptists on church government and baptism. The distinction between Particular Baptists and General Baptists is important for our purposes because this was a distinction primarily based on different understandings of soteriology or the doctrine of salvation. General Baptists were Arminian. The Particular Baptists of the seventeenth century adhered to the doctrines upheld by the Synod of Dort, doctrines that have since become known as the five points of Calvinism and that are summarized in the acronym TULIP. They rejected Arminian soteriology. Contemporary Reformed Baptists are the heirs of the Particular Baptists.

Given this history, what does it mean to be Reformed? I think a measure of charity and patience is required, because the question does not have a clear-cut answer. The word has a more inclusive definition as well as a less inclusive definition, and both definitions have a long history of use. When I speak of a more inclusive definition of the word Reformed, I mean a definition that includes a larger number of believers who profess to be Reformed—confessional Presbyterians as well as Reformed Baptists, for example. When I speak of a less inclusive definition of the word Reformed, I mean a definition that includes a smaller number of believers—those who understand the word Reformed to be restricted essentially to specific confessions of faith (the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards) and to specific forms of piety and worship.

The more inclusive definition of the word Reformed focuses on a narrower range of doctrines as defining what it means to be Reformed. This more inclusive definition of Reformed is usually synonymous with what most people understand by the word Calvinist. It is focused on the five points of Calvinism and the doctrines of election and predestination. So, if one is a Baptist who believes that the Bible teaches total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints, election, and predestination, then he likely uses the term Reformed Baptist as a self-descriptive label.

The debate over the meaning of the word Reformed is a wonderful opportunity for those on both sides to dig deeper into Scripture and into the riches of our theological heritage while exercising the charity and patience encouraged by that heritage itself.

The less inclusive definition of the word Reformed focuses on the whole range of doctrine and practice contained in the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards. Those who use the word in this sense understand the word Reformed to include far more than the doctrines considered under the heading of soteriology. It includes particular doctrines of the church and sacraments as well. It includes infant baptism, for example. Those who understand and use the word Reformed in this sense believe it makes as much sense to speak of a Reformed Baptist as it would to speak of a Lutheran Baptist.

Those whose churches trace their history back to the time during which confessional lines were being drawn have a legitimate historical reason to define the word Reformed in a less inclusive way. We see evidence for such a definition, for example, in the conclusion to the Canons of Dort. In this concluding section, the Synod of Dort urges those who want to understand what it means to be Reformed to go to the confessions of the Reformed churches and to the synod’s explanation of that confession’s teaching. The synod here is referring specifically to the Belgic Confession. Do you want to know what it means to be Reformed? Read the Belgic Confession and then read the Canons of Dort. That is the answer that the synod gives here.

On the other hand, the long history of the debate between Particular Baptists and General Baptists explains why many contemporary Baptists use the label Reformed Baptist. Their choice to modify the already existing Westminster Confession rather than to create an entirely new confession indicates that they understood their doctrine to have more similarities to than differences from that of the English and Scottish Presbyterians. Of course, there were Presbyterians then, just as there are now, who disagreed with this assessment, but there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason to insist that Reformed Baptists cease and desist in their use of the word since both narrower and broader definitions have existed for centuries. In fact, those who believe that the word Reformed should have a more restrictive definition could view the discovery of Reformed soteriology by many young and restless Christians in the United States and elsewhere as a wonderful opportunity for further discussion on the history and nature of Reformed theology and practice.

At the same time, those who are Reformed Baptists could use the present debate as an opportunity to try to understand why those who define the word Reformed in terms of the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards do so. They could observe that these believers see an interconnectedness between and unity among all of these doctrines and practices that do not allow soteriology to be separated from the remaining doctrines without inevitable distortion.

In short, the debate over the meaning of the word Reformed is a wonderful opportunity for those on both sides to dig deeper into Scripture and into the riches of our theological heritage while exercising the charity and patience encouraged by that heritage itself.

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