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Defining My Terms: Calvinist And Reformed

I have once again dipped into my site’s archives to update and refresh an article I posted in the past. In the past few days there has been much discussion in the forum and in my inbox about how we can define “Calvinist” and “Reformed.” I covered this very topic last year, but since that was over 500 posts ago, I have edited it and will repost it here, hoping it will stimulate some discussion and clarify the definitions. I will treat the terms “Reformed” and “Calvinist” as being synonymous. While some may disagree with this, I believe it is beyond dispute that most people use the terms interchangeably. Perhaps a later article can examine the minor differences between them.

It is important to note that because the Reformed tradition arose from the Protestant Reformation, the term “Reformed” is usually defined in comparison to something else. By affirming Reformed theology you are implicitly denying other theologies, such as Catholic theology (which Reformed theology rose in opposition to) and Arminian theology (which later rose in opposition to Reformed theology). I doubt any sentence in the history of the English language has used the word “theology” as much as my previous sentence. My English professors must be shedding a tear on my behalf. While Calvinism predates Arminianism, it was only codified in the five points after the rise of Arminianism. There is a sense in which Calvinism is both a cause of and the reaction to Arminianism.

Let’s start with some definitions. Christendom refers to all religions that are based at least partially on the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible. Christendom is separated into four main divisions: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Cults. Protestantism is generally divided into two camps: Arminian and Reformed. Very generally, Protestants can be defined as those who are part of churches which arose from the schism with the Catholic Church during the Reformation and who believe (in theory if not always in practice) in the 5 solas. While the vast majority of Protestants hold to Arminian doctrine, we will concern ourselves today with minority who consider themselves Reformed.

A good starting place for any research these days is the Web and a quick search for “reformed” turned up the following definitions that pertain to theology:

  1. A term used to refer to a tradition of theology which draws inspiration from the writings of John Calvin (1510-64) and his successors (see pp. 68-72). The term is generally used in preference to “Calvinist.”
  2. Referring to the Reformation, it’s theology, and/or those subscribing to it. Also used to differentiate a,) Calvinism from Lutheranism, or b.) Continental European Calvinism from Scottish Calvinism, aka Presbyterianism.

Those are both concise definitions but ones that do not capture the full sense of the word.

A far better and more complete definition is found at Five Solas. There Professor Byron Curtis, a professor at Geneva College breaks the definition into four parts. To be Reformed is:

  1. To confess the consensus of the five first centuries of the church:
    • Classic theism: One omnipotent, benevolent God, distinct from creation.
    • Nicene and Chalcedonian Trinitarianism: one God in three eternally existent persons, equal in power and glory.
    • Christ, the God-Man, the one mediator between God & the human race, incarnate, crucified, resurrected, ascended, & coming again.
    • Humanity created in the image of God, yet tragically fallen & profoundly in need of restoration to God through Christ.
    • The Visible Church: the community of the redeemed, indwelt y the Holy Spirit; the mystical body of Christ on earth.
    • The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
    • The Sacraments: visible signs and seals of the grace of God, ministering Christ’s love to us in our deep need.
    • The Christian life: characterized by the prime theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

    It would be correct to say that this is a statement of the Protestant faith more than it is a statement of the Reformed faith. From this list we see that Reformed Christians adhere to all the foundational beliefs taught in the Bible. These beliefs were the foundation of the early church and are based on the teachings of the Bible as interpreted by the apostles and early church fathers. Many of these beliefs were changed or lost as the Catholic Church grew in power and authority from the fifth century onwards. Throughout history there were pockets of non-Catholic believers who held to many or all of these points of doctrine, but they were largely lost until the time of the Reformation.

  2. To confess the four solas:
    • The authority of Scripture: sola scriptura (Scripture alone)
    • the basis of salvation: Sola Gratia (Grace alone)
    • the means of salvation: Sola Fide (Faith alone)
    • the merit of salvation: Solus Christus (Christ alone)

    Again, these form the basis for Protestantism as much as they do for the Reformed tradition. These are the principles that drove the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and separated it from the Roman Catholic Church. These four points of doctrine are based entirely on the Bible and were the theological driving force behind the newly formed Protestant movement.

  3. To confess the distinctives of the Reformed faith:
    • In salvation: monergism not synergism. God alone saves. Such monergism implies T.U.L.I.P., the Five Points of Calvinism from the Synod of Dordt:
      T = Total Depravity U = Unconditional Election L = Limited Atonement, or, better, Particular Redemption I = Irresistible Grace P = Perseverence and Preservation of the Saints

    These five distinct points of doctrine are also known as the five points of Calvinism as they were first articulated by John Calvin after the Reformation was in full-swing. They are based entirely on the Bible. When people speak of being Reformed these five points of doctrine are most often what they are referring to. Most evangelical (non-Reformed) churches do not hold to all of these points. Some hold to two or three (and occasionally even four), but most reject them in favor of Arminian theology. For a more in-depth look at what constitutes Reformed vs Arminian theology, see my four part article which begins here.

  4. Other Reformed Distinctives:

    Professor Curtis goes on to list other points of doctrine he believes are Reformed distinctives. They include: The Regulatory Principle of Worship (which I have written about here), Covenant theology (The Church is the New Israel - this generally means infants are baptized rather than believers) and Life is religion (Christians have neither jobs nor careers; they have vocations (callings)). I would not consider adherence to these principles necessary to consider oneself Reformed and I suspect the majority of Reformed Christians would agree with me. Some of these principles would be part of the distinction between Reformed and Calvinist.

  5. Finally: in everything, Soli Deo Gloria - to God alone be the glory in all things.

    This is, once more, something all Christians would claim, either explicitly or implicitly. In all areas of life we are to give glory to God.

So what does this all mean? To be Reformed is to adhere to the purist teachings of the Bible - to affirm the doctrine taught by Jesus, Paul and the apostles. Scripture is considered the ultimate authority in matters of life and faith and all Reformed doctrine is founded on the whole testimony of the Bible. I am convinced that Reformed doctrine is nothing more than Biblical Christianity. In the words of Charles Spurgeon, “It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.” Were it not for human sin we would have to make no distinction between Christianity and Calvinism.

If you are interested in learning more about Reformed principles, I would suggest the following resources (all links lead to reviews I have written). None of these books is combative or obnoxious. All are well-written, well-researched and respectful towards differing viewpoints.

  • Putting Amazing Back Into Grace by Michael Horton. This is a personal favorite. It is very easy-to-read and does a great job of introducing the principles of Calvinism in a new, fresh way.
  • The Doctrines of Grace and Whatever Happened To The Gospel of Grace by James Boice. These books are a full, contemporary examination of the 5 solas and the five points of Calvinism. I highly recommend these two!
  • Christian Handbook by Peter Jeffery. It is an excellent little book that introduces Christian beliefs from a Reformed perspective.
  • Chosen By God by R.C. Sproul. This book has become something of a modern classic. It is slightly more difficult than some of the other titles, but is still very readable.
  • Desiring God by John Piper - not for the faint-of-heart but does a great job of explaining Reformed principles.
  • The books, sermons, articles and Web sites of the following teachers: John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, John Piper, James White. There are so many more I could list but I will keep the list brief.

If you have other Reformed resources you would like to suggest, please feel free to do so in the comments section of this site.