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