The Meaning of “Reformed” - Geneva College, a Christian College in Pennsylvania (PA)

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February 15, 2016

The Meaning of “Reformed”

Many Geneva College professors, some of its students, and its sponsoring denomination call their theology “Reformed,” a cognate of the word “Reformation.” Some students and professors come to Geneva College quite clear that their theology is “Reformed.” Others have never heard the term before, hear it often, and perhaps wonder what it means. The purpose of today’s column is to explain the word “Reformed” to both groups.

The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation included Lutherans, Anabaptists, and Anglicans alongside “Reformed” churches. So “Reformed” theology was one of the main expressions of the Protestant Reformation. At first, in the 1520-40 period, what distinguished Reformed churches from other Protestant churches was its teaching about the Lord’s Supper (also called Communion, or the Eucharist). After about 1540, it was the doctrine of predestination. By 1600, Reformed theology became identified with covenant theology. Reformed believers today still get into arguments with fellow Christians over predestination and covenant theology (and infant baptism and total depravity and…), but less often over the Lord’s Supper, and rarely about these matters with people outside the Christian fold.

The classic expressions of Reformed theology are the “Three Forms of Unity” (Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt), written originally for Reformed churches on the continent of Europe, and the Westminster Standards from the British Isles. Churches that call themselves “Reformed” in the United States with German, Swiss, or Dutch origins look to the Three Forms of Unity; Presbyterian churches from the British Isles use the Westminster Standards. Certain theologians are also usually counted as teaching reliable expressions of Reformed theology, for example, John Calvin (French), Francis Turretin (Swiss Italian), Charles Hodge (American), and Herman Bavinck (Dutch). 

The main point of the term “Reformed” or “Reformation” is that it intended to reform the existing Catholic Church, not start from the beginning again. That awareness of continuity is one reason why John Calvin constantly interacted in his books with both ancient and medieval writers, like Augustine, Chrysostom, and Aquinas, sometimes agreeing with them, sometimes disagreeing, but always treating them as part of the Christian family. He accepted the Scriptures as his final authority, but he did not refer to, or quote from, only the Scriptures.

There were many central teachings of the existing church that Reformed theology did not try to reform because it accepted them as true: one God in three Persons, maker of heaven and earth, and judge of all; Jesus Christ, God and man in two distinct natures and one person forever; miracles; the facts of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and Resurrection; objective standards of ethical behavior; mankind, male and female, made in the image of God, but fallen into sin; salvation by the grace of God; the Scriptures as the inspired Word of God; and our final destiny in heaven or hell. In today’s world, it is the historic Christian teachings that generally offend an unbelieving society and also divide people within churches (“conservative” against “liberal).”

As part of its identity as a Reformed institution of higher education, Geneva College firmly holds to historic Christian beliefs. In its Foundational Concepts of Christian Education, it clearly affirms them, and in its classes teaches them. So now you know what “Reformed” means—not Presbyterians set right and reformed, but one of the great theological streams flowing from the Protestant Reformation.

Dr. William Edgar, Interim President


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