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.