“What does it mean to be Reformed?” is a question I have asked catechism students for most of my ministry in order to help them become, so to speak, ecclesiastically self-aware. After all, they are members of Protestant Reformed Churches, and catechism serves to prepare them to become mature, confessing members of these churches.
The word Protestant in “Protestant Reformed Churches in America” is not as significant as the word Reformed. “Protestant” refers mainly to the PRCA’s origins in 1924/25. For a time we were protesting Christian Reformed Churches. Eventually, after the protests were unsuccessful, we took to ourselves the name Protestant Reformed Churches in America. Today, most would explain our use of the word Protestant as “not Roman Catholic,” indicating our origins in the Reformation. Which is appropriate. In addition, our name is Protestant Reformed Churches, not church. But the more important word in our name is “Reformed.” What does it mean to be Reformed?
The year 2015 is the ninetieth year of the existence of the PRCA and thus an opportune time to reflect on our name and identity as a church of Jesus Christ in the world. For those who have newly joined our denomination—although most have been catechized prior to joining— this may be a brief refresher course. Young Protestant Reformed members reading this may find out that their pastor’s explanation of Reformed in catechism was not merely his personal opinion. And, for those who do not know what “Protestant Reformed” is, this is an opportunity for the PRC to offer a positive and public witness. We are, and we want to be, fully and genuinely Reformed.
We are glad to identify ourselves as Reformed. Some do not know the term, or know only a caricature of it. But others are embarrassed to claim this as part of their identity. Or, it may be considered sinful pride to label one’s self as anything other than “Christian.” Witness the modern trend of removing denominational affiliation from church signs. New churches are adopting names that say nothing about what they stand for, like “The River,” “The Link,” “Encounter,” “Movement,” “Pulse,” “Beat.” Or the names tell only place— “(Your-town-here) Community Church.” Possibly these names tell more about the churches than first glance would indicate—they do not want you to know what they stand for; or, they want to be known as trendy. I have always encouraged our churches who construct new signs by the road to put the place—Hudsonville, Redlands, Wingham—in smaller print than the denominational identity—Protestant Reformed Church. Not because that’s essential, but because it indicates a desire to be transparent, as well as unashamed of who we are (which is not the same as being proud).
If some are embarrassed to be known as Reformed, there is, on the other side of things, a resurgence in the number of Christians who are eager to be identified as Reformed. The population of self-identified Calvinists is swelling. Those who read books and blogs are familiar with the “young, restless and Reformed,” or the “New Calvinists.” There is something very encouraging about a renewed interest in and commitment to the sovereignty of God and the “doctrines of grace,” as the five points of Calvinism are sometimes called. We pray that the faith that gives all glory to God for salvation will continue to spread. Yet being a Calvinist is more than confessing the doctrines of grace, and commitment to being Reformed involves more than embracing God’s sovereignty.
We are Protestant Reformed Churches.
For us, to be Reformed is to be biblical. It is simply to be Christian. Identifying as Reformed is not an attempt to be something other than what Christ calls His church to be. But since hundreds of groups, unfaithful to Jesus Christ and His Scripture, call themselves Christian, it is necessary to distinguish ourselves from them by our name. On the other hand, because many others are very similar to us in faith and life, yet not close enough to be united institutionally, we must distinguish ourselves from them as well. In the former group would be Roman Catholics. In the latter, many other Reformed or Presbyterian churches.
In the past, when a distinctive confession of faith was valued, churches understood the need for a distinctive name—a kind of flag they hoisted on their ship. Thus Baptists, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, Methodists, and all the other church groups were plainly identified in their faith and life by their name. Our name is Reformed.
Holding convictions and announcing them in a name is not smug arrogance. It is not sectarianism. Holding convictions about faith and life and announcing them in a name is a desire to be faithful to God and His Word, and transparent to those who may want to join our churches. It’s also a recognition that the ecclesiastical landscape is strewn with churches that are not true churches any longer, because in their history they lost a conviction that Christ is truth, lost the boldness to broadcast their faith, lost a sense of who they were historically, and lost the realization that churches are destroyed under the judgment of God for lack of knowledge. True, churches can be destroyed in God’s judgment for other things as well, like pride in the truth without loving the truth. Or pride in a name without loving what the name represents. But that’s a story for a later article. Here the point needs to be made that convictions and transparency about those convictions are vital.
Things Christians used to die for are less important to some than what university logo shows on their car window, or what political party they advertise on their license plate. The things Christians used to live for are sometimes dismissed with a shrug, or a sneer. Pretty soon the church becomes little more than a human institution for satisfying one’s social appetite.
Not to hold convictions and publicize them in a name may well indicate the sentiment that one form of Christianity is as good as any other. And that’s one step away from becoming a false church. I pray this does not sound arrogant.
I pray that all Christians— especially those who are called Reformed Christians—have strong convictions about what it means to be Christian, and advertise those convictions. The Protestant Reformed Churches and our ecclesiastical family in the world believe that true Christianity is most faithfully represented in Reformed Christianity. If not, honesty requires that we join some other church communion.
But who has the right to declare what is Reformed Christianity? Is there somewhere an authoritative definition of Reformed?
I think everyone would agree that the designation “Reformed” came from the time of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century when large groups of believers separated themselves from the corrupt Roman Catholic Church, reforming the church. These were designated Protestants. And when Calvinists among them distinguished themselves from Lutherans and Anabaptists, these Calvinists were called Reformed. In England, Scotland, and Wales these Calvinists were called Presbyterians, identifying themselves more by their church government than their history. But on the mainland of Europe they were called Reformed.
In the early seventeenth century, the Reformed were distinguished from Arminians by the Canons of Dordt.
In the Netherlands the Gereformeerde Kerken (GKN) separated in 1834 from the Hervormde Kerk (the larger state church). In 1886 another group separated itself from the Hervormde Kerk. All of these claimed to be, and wanted to be Reformed, over against a departure from the Reformed faith.
Among the Dutch immigrants that came to America in the nineteenth century, some who joined the Reformed Church in America soon determined that they could not belong to that denomination and formed a new Reformed denomination— the Christian Reformed Church. In 1924 the Protestant Reformed came out from the Christian Reformed. Out of the same CRC, fifty years later, came the Orthodox CRC and the Christian Reformation Church, claiming to be truly Reformed. In the 1990s, led primarily by the formation of Mid-America-Reformed Seminary (MARS) in NW Iowa, thousands more left the CRC, eventually forming the United Reformed Churches. These also claimed the name Reformed, but would not be identified as Christian Reformed.
To speak of our Presbyterian relatives from the UK, the fragmenting and fracturing of Presbyterianism into different denominations because of varying degrees of unfaithfulness to that name, means that the old proverb—“One Dutchman a church, two Dutchmen a denomination, three Dutchmen a schism”—is not so ethnic as one might think. There are as many or more Presbyterian denominations as (Dutch) Reformed.
And all lay claim to faithfulness to “Reformed Christianity.”
So men from most of these denominations have written books describing what they believe to be the heart and core of what it means to be Reformed. (The interested reader may ask for a short bibliography of 15 such books.)
In the editorials that follow, I will try to point out from history and tradition—and especially the official documents of Reformed churches—what is the best answer to this question: What does it mean to be Reformed? The matter may not be as black and white as one would like it to be. But it is not so subjective as one might think, and certainly not mere personal opinion.
For most of my ministry as I taught catechism to the young adults, I identified three main areas that they needed to concentrate on as they thought of themselves as members of a Reformed church and as Reformed believers. Almost weekly I reminded them of three words—Covenantal, Calvinistic, and Confessional—and then asked them to give voice to what each of these words means. For mature Reformed Christians, in order to be more careful as well as more comprehensive, it would be good to add two other elements (also starting with “C” if only for memory’s sake): Reformed believers put a strong emphasis on Church, and have a distinctive view of the Christian Life.
Covenant. We start with Covenant. The reality of covenant friendship with the triune God whom we love because He first loved us, is the heart of the Christian and Reformed faith.
Calvinism. That covenant relationship must be understood properly—Calvinistically. How and why God entered into friendship with a people, and whether that relationship can ever end, are answered by the Calvinistic doctrines of the sovereignty, efficacy, and particularity of grace; and the unconditional character of double predestination.
Church. Those whom God befriends will join themselves to a true Church. Reformed believers are not individualistic in thinking or living, but ecclesiastical because Christ is (). To be Reformed is to understand church membership, the church’s worship, her government, her discipline, and more.
Confessional. A Reformed church is Confessional. That is, she adopts and teaches creeds as official and binding expressions of the faith of the Scripture. An integral part of her church life is using these confessions. Inseparably involved with being confessional is that she has a sense of, and deep appreciation for, history and tradition.
Christian life. At this date in church history, it is also necessary to say that Reformed believers and Reformed churches have a unique perspective on the Christian life. Especially some New Calvinists, and all neo-Calvinists, have a view of the Christian life that is not historically Reformed.
God helping, we will explain each of these five elements in at least one editorial in the coming months.
We are Reformed Christians. To God alone be glory.