Historical Theology

10 Popular Misconceptions of Reformed Theology

1. Reformed Theology is a Biblicism

In the discipline of Philosophy, epistemology is the study of knowledge: what knowledge is, what counts as knowledge, and the mechanism through which the person apprehends knowledge. The assertion of Biblicism is an assertion of epistemic (mental) authority. Biblicism contends that the Bible only is the rule for faith and life for Christians. Neither science, nor church tradition, nor conventional wisdom are our authorities in life, only the Bible. Biblicism is expressed in catch phrases like, “we have no creed but Christ and no authority but the Bible!” Reformed Theology, in distinction to this, posits that the Bible is the only infallible authority regarding the most necessary matters of faith and salvation (Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone). Here, infallibility means impossibility to err. Thus, Reformed Theology is not Biblicism in that it does not readily throw out the creeds, councils, and confessions of the church – nor science or history. It simply doesn’t place subordinate authorities (creeds and confessions) on the same level as Scripture. Whereas the Scripture alone is the norm of norms without norm (it cannot be subject to any higher authority), the right interpretation of Scripture is a providential concurrency between the individual and the church, the former generally submitting to the latter. Scripture alone is infallible but it is not the sole authority; God providentially guides the church into the correct (though not infallible) interpretation of Scripture.

2. Reformed Theology is Calvinism

In modern usage, Calvinism has been reduced to a system of salvation (which answers to the question of how men get saved). Historically though, Calvinism referred to the entire substructure undergirding the written corpus of John Calvin. Thus it included not only his doctrines of predestination, providence, and salvation but also a view of the church, Sacraments, creation, and ext. Reformed Theology is not co-extensive with either of these two definitions of Calvinism; so-called “mere Calvinism” is an essential aspect, but not the whole of full or broad Calvinism (the structure of Calvin’s thought). And the structure of Calvin’s thought is not the whole of “Reformed Theology” though Calvin and his thought were necessary, historically, in order for the full budding of Reformed thought to flourish. Calvin’s thought, therefore, furnished the ground for later confessional developments (the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Synod of Dort, and Helvetic Confessions, and ext). In other words, Calvin is an indispensable Theologian within the Reformed tradition, but he is a part not the whole. Likewise, the doctrines of grace (mere Calvinism) are indispensable doctrines with regard to the whole of the Reformed system of Theology, though they are not by any means the whole. Reformed Theology encapsulates an entire worldview, not just a view of how someone “gets saved.”

3. Reformed Theology is a Manicheanism

If you recall, Catholic Theology is a “Sacerdotalism.” Sacerdotalism contends that God “deposits” grace into the Catholic church for the salvation of persons. This grace is then dispensed via the co-operative act of clergy and layman through the Church’s various Sacraments (The Lord’s Supper and Penance for example). The individual, therefore, is always dependent on the will of the priest and Church in order to attain salvation. Reformed Theology repudiates such dogma. According to the Reformed there is, in fact, no mediator between God and man except Christ; and Christ is not apprehended through works done in righteousness but through the act of gracious reception (i.e. faith). The individual sinner apprehends God through faith due to of a prior act of grace on the part of God (regeneration) which is caused, not by his own “free-will,” but by free-grace of God. Due to Reformed Theologies’ total rejection of man’s works as primary in salvation, many opponents have accused Reformed Theology as being a “Manicheanism” wherein, salvifically, one simply waits upon God to effect his work being unable to do anything within the process. The “Manicheans” advocated a passive approach to God’s grace, hoping Him to simply “effect” his grace upon them. Reformed Theology, against Manicheanism, posits that man is always to attend to the various “means of grace” which God has appointed. The “means of grace” in Reformed Theology refer to the primary means alongside which God has promised to do His work of salvation (the reading of Scripture, the hearing of the preaching, prayers, and the Sacraments). Thus, Reformed Theology states that God is not bound to the church, her sacraments, the Bible, and ext. as a universal, necessary rule; rather, he has bound us to them consequently and as by promise. Though God is free to transcend the means of grace (the church, her sacraments, preaching, ext), He has willed, according to His promise, to come to do His work of salvation alongside them. Reformed Theology posits that God does not work through various channels (as in Sacerdotalism), (as in Manicheanism) but alongside these various means, mysteriously, at His own pleasure.

4. Reformed Theology is anti-sacramental

Similar to the objection above, many accuse Reformed Theology as being anti-sacramental. This is understandable due to the implicit rejection by many evangelicals of a full and robust Reformed Theology in favor of a “mere” Calvinism. Accordingly, these so-called “Reformed” people have nothing in common with the Sacramental heritage of our confessional documents. The Theology of these so-called “Reformed” people is more akin to the Zwinglian and Anabaptist wings of the Reformation, less so with the other magisterial reformers (Luther and Calvin). In short, a sacrament is a rite wherein the grace signified in the rite is really conveyed by God alongside that rite at His own discretion, in His own time. In other words, the thing which is signified in the rite (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) is really conveyed to the person who apprehends the sign by faith according to the Spirit’s work. In Zwinglian Theology, the sacraments are mere instruments for remembrance (God does not utilize them in a mysterious way to convey that which is signified). Likewise, in the London Baptist Confession, the particular Baptists use the language of “ordinance” to describe Baptism, whereas the Westminster Confession uses the language of Sacrament. All of this to say that in Reformed Theology, the Spirit works alongside the Scriptures and the sacramental rite in order to mysteriously effect that which is signified. In the case of Baptism, the salvation signified therein is not tied to the moment of it’s administration (those infants that are baptized are not necessarily saved at the time of their Baptism). Nor is the grace signified in the Lord’s Supper given to those who partake of it by a mere act of eating; rather, the Sacrament, in God’s providence, arouses faith through which God sovereignly bestows the grace signified in the rite. Reformed Theology, therefore, retains the high regard for the Sacraments without making them Lord’s as in Lutheran and Catholic Theology.

5. Reformed Theology is anti-ecclesiology

Similar to the objection above, it is supposed by some that Reformed theology is anti-ecclesiological (in other words, Reformed Theology has no place for the church). This, again, I believe is due to the practical reduction of Reformed Theology to merely the place of a system of salvation (the five points of Calvinism). The Reformation, before it was a reformation of our view of salvation, was a reformation of worship. As the story goes, the Roman magisterium was knee-deep in idolatry and the Reformers wished to rid the church of human traditions by introducing worship according to the Word of God alone. In this vein, the Reformed tradition by and large has recaptured and pioneered doctrines such as the regulative principle of worship (we worship only as God as explicitly and implicitly commanded us in His word), the reality of the Lord’s day Sabbath (the command of God to worship Him on His appointed day, weekly), and the providential care that God has shown to His people in giving them church officers (ministers, elders, and deacons). In addition to this, Reformed Theology places primacy on the preaching of the Word of God as the Word of God and the setting-apart of the Sacrament as a sacrament by the Word of God. In short, the Word of God, in Reformed Theology, is never divorced from the church of God. The Word of God rules the church; the church of God ministers to her own according to the Word of God.

6. Reformed Theology is anti-philosophical

This objection is a by-product of the Biblicist revolution spoken of above. If the Bible alone is the sole authority for faith and life and an implicit rejection of tradition and human philosophy is contained within that doctrine, then we must repudiate both tradition and philosophy. This is erroneous because it fails to distinguish between the traditions of men and the tradition of God and because it fails to distinguish between the philosophy contained within the Word of God and the philosophies’ of men. Scripture itself contains it’s own tradition (a body of doctrines which constitute a whole), which together constituted form a worldview (a philosophy). What is rejected in the Scriptures is man-made tradition and man-made philosophy. This is not to say that the structures and true findings of man-made philosophy cannot be apprehended by the people of God in order to better serve our flourishing (Moses learned from the Egyptians; Paul and Apollos from the Greeks). Rather man-made philosophy, like church tradition, is always subject to the Word of God as God clearly speaks in Scripture. To this point, there is an entire trajectory within Reformed Theology which utilizes the philosophical categories of Aristotle in order to clearly set forth the totality of Reformed Theology (this school is the Reformed Scholastics; their greatest representative is the Theologian Francis Turretin).

7. Reformed Theology is Revolutionary

Having in large part inherited much from Luther’s reformation, Reformed Theology is categorized as revolutionary in a way similar to Marx, French Revolutionaries, and Enlightenment Philosophers. According to this line of thinking one must dare to think for oneself, trust no tradition of those come before you; burn it to the ground if it doesn’t make sense to you. In contradiction to this, Reformed Theology is largely a Conservatism and a Humanism. It is a Conservatism in that it looks upon the fathers of the church with high regard, only throws out custom when contrary to the Word of God and seeks to preserve the inheritance which it has received from those who’ve come before. As a Humanism, it adheres to the mantra Ad fontes! Ad fontes means “back to the sources.” The Reformers were attempting to go back to the Scriptures as the infallible authority and retrieve the doctrine of the early church fathers (Iraneus, Tertullian, and, most notably, Augustine).

8. Reformed Theology is a Determinism

Reformed Theology is deterministic, but it is not a determinism. To be clear, Reformed Theology emphasizes the absolute sovereignty of God, not only in our salvation, but in the total array of human affairs. God is absolute and from His absoluteness He predestines, governs, and guides all things which do come to pass, even and especially men’s salvation and damnation. Yet Reformed Theology always insists upon the mysterious unity of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility; all that is necessary to predicate man’s responsibility is contained within the providential sovereignty of God. How this works is admittedly a mystery but at-least this much is certain: men are not computational machines (robots), who are effected by God as though He were a puppet master; rather, God has so constituted the universe as it’s sole primary and ultimate cause but has instituted secondary causes in order to effect his ends. In addition to this, and contrary to natural determinism, men are not mere animals. Men are rational animals. As such, they have the implicit ability to transcend their natural impulses according to higher rational standards (unlike the birds, bees, rocks, and trees). Further, regenerate men are definitively free from sin and thus have the capacity to transcend (though not perfectly) the sin nature (unlike the unregenerate). Men, in other words, within Reformed Theology, are in all the best ways free; and being free, they are radically responsible for their actions.

9. Reformed Theology is an Intellectualism

This may be one of the saddest errors in our circles today. Anthropologically, people who categorize themselves as “Reformed” practically relegate emotional life of Christians to a secondary status. “The heart is wicked, so don’t trust it!” they say. Their doctrine is that heart refers to the emotions of persons, whereas in Scripture the heart refers to the fundamental-personal commitment of individuals which undergirds their actions, thoughts, and feelings. Thus, it is not the feelings that are bad rather it is the fundamental disposition of the person. Again, it is not actions “as such” that are bad, rather it is the heart that is bad. Mind is good, but an unregenerate mind is bad. For this reason, Reformed Theology has been categorized as an “Intellectualism.” The intellect is good and immaculate; it is the body, the emotions, and the will that are evil. Reformed Theology states that undergirding all phenomena of the human person is a fundamental heart commitment to either God or the Devil, the flesh or Christ, the kingdom or the world. To be fair, there are intellectualists within the Reformed community, but it is by no means a fundamental doctrine to the entire system – they could be wrong.

10. Reformed Theology is fully codalized

There are a significant amount of Christians who act as though Reformed Theology and thought is fully codalized. They treat it as though it admits of no error in principle and any deviation from the confession of faith is, as a transcendent principle, an error. Though this may in fact be an error (and usually is). It is an error in consequence, not an error in principle. It is an error because the system of the confessions is true, not that the origin of these confessions is such that the confessions are incapable of error. We revere the confessions of the Reformed tradition because of their faithfulness to the Word of God and because they are our fathers whom we honor. Yet in our own day, as in days past, there are disagreements between aspects of the Reformed Confessions and even more-so amongst Reformed Theologians. Thus, treating any one of the confessions as absolute is the contradict the spirit of the whole; rather, they should be seen as subordinate authorities which work together as a wide pond which many different brethren swim in. Contradiction to the greater mass of the confessions, though, should be definitively regarded as outside the bounds of Reformed Orthodoxy (which is not the same thing as catholic or Christian orthodoxy, nor Protestant Orthodoxy). Doctrines which are contrary to Reformed Orthodoxy would be those which contradict the mass of our confessions and Theologians or which strike at the vitals of our system as a distinct interpretation of the Word of the Lord.


Photo Credit: J.J. Jordan

7 comments on “10 Popular Misconceptions of Reformed Theology

  1. jamesbradfordpate

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Scott Edward Graybill

    How are you using the term “codalized?” I don’t believe that it is an actually word in English.

    Thanks.

    Like

  3. Pioneer Library

    In a technical sense, I believe you’re right about #2 (“Reformed theology” ≠ “Calvinism”) because I consider myself Reformed but not Calvinist. That said, on a popular level, what I have noticed is that Calvinists en masse stopped calling themselves “Calvinist” (around 2010) and started calling themselves “Reformed,” when they mean the same thing by the word “Reformed” here in 2019 that they meant by the word “Calvinist” back in 1990. It means TULIP.
    I find it sad that, given the richness of Reformation theology, so many people encapsulate all it means to be a Christian as TULIP.
    Great post. Your posts about doing philosophy as a Christian are challenging and I hope to continue to glean from them.

    Like

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