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Reformed Theology: More than Five Points

The last few years have seen a great resurgence of interest in Reformed theology. It went from very much in the background of Christianity to being very much in the mainstream. Suddenly it was on the cover of Christianity Today and TIME and was the theme of hundreds of books and blogs. People across the world were discovering the ancient doctrines of grace and building a new and widening community of Reformed believers. These were exciting days.

But ever since this thing began, I’ve been wondering about its future and what will remain after The Next Big Thing inevitably comes along. As I ponder the future, I’m increasingly concerned that the Reformed theology of many within the movement is little deeper than five points of Calvinism that describe salvation. This is troubling because Reformed theology is not merely a few points of doctrine we believe but a theological stream we enter into. It doesn’t address only questions about salvation but also about life and church and everything. Reformed theology has a present and a future, but it also has a deep past. As we move forward we need to keep looking back.

Let me provide an example. In the past couple of years, inside and outside the church, we’ve seen an increased emphasis on social justice. When an emphasis like this springs to the forefront of our conversation, we have an ideal opportunity to remind ourselves that we are part of a theological tradition. Our first instinct as Reformed Christians ought to be to consult our theological stream. This is because we are not the first generation of Reformed believers, and many great minds have already considered what it means to be most fully consistent with this theology. This often gives us a helpful starting place for our big questions. So, for example, question and answer one of the Heidelberg Catechism asks famously, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” The answer begins with “that I am not my own but belong in body and soul both in life and death to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” After beginning theologically, the answer ends practically: “Therefore, by his Holy Spirit … he makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.” Thus, already in 1563, Reformed Christians were thinking about Christian truth and its practical outworking in life.

Alongside the Heidelberg Catechism, the Dutch Reformed tradition gives us the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort. The Presbyterian tradition gives us the Longer and Shorter Catechisms as well as the rest of the Westminster Standards. Baptists can look to the London Baptist Confession of 1689. Beyond that, we’ve got large numbers of systematic theologies and other great resources to inform and guide us. We don’t stand alone here in the 21st century but have hundreds of years of truth to rely upon.

That’s not to say that the Reformed tradition is inerrant or exhaustive. There may be areas of shortsightedness or areas that remain to be developed. Five hundred years of history have clarified a lot, but undoubtedly not everything. It’s possible that its doctrines of social justice and social action have been overlooked or underdeveloped. It’s possible this has been an area of sin or failure. But still, the tradition ought to provide us our starting place for contemporary questions and concerns. This is true of social justice, worship, vocation, and every other issue we may encounter in our attempts to consider how Christian truth works itself out in action.

My encouragement to all of us who are Reformed is to dig a lot deeper than the five points of Calvinism. Our tradition is much richer than only the answers to our questions about how God saves sinners (though those answers are plenty awesome!). We need to orient ourselves within an established, living tradition. We need to know its past before we attempt to chart its future. We need to know its past in order to guarantee its future. We are reforming but also Reformed.

(Thanks to our friend Gracie for coming over and spending a few hours typing for me as I dictated; her work included this article.)

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