In response to the “Who or What Gets to Define ‘Reformed’?” post and others like it, some have argued that if the definition of Reformed includes a certain (paedobaptist) view of Baptism then it should also include a certain polity. Some have argued that I should have to say that John Owen is not Reformed because he was not presbyterial in polity.
I reply by noting that the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Westminster Standards, say relatively little about church polity. The Belgic Confession (Articles 31 and following) mentions the three offices of minister, elder, and deacon. The Westminster Standards mention no offices nor do they mention a polity. The Canons, of course, do not mention polity. The absence of polity (beyond the mention of the offices in the Belgic which doesn’t necessarily commit one to a presbyterial polity) in the Reformed confessions is fatal to the argument that polity and sacraments are equally important in the Reformed Confessions. Thus it is not the case that if the adjective “Reformed” is defined in a way that necessarily excludes Baptists that therefore it must also exclude this or that polity. Clearly polity does not play the same role in the Reformed confessions as the sacraments do.
So, is John Owen Reformed? Of course he is. There were episcopalians and presbyterians at Dort. There were presbyterians, congregationalists, and episcopalians at Westminster. Savoy was congregationalist. The mainstream of Reformed polity is presbyterial (note the lower case) but that’s never been of the essence esse of being Reformed. It is of the “well being” (bene esse) of being Reformed. Even today, if you look at the United Reformed Churches in North America (my federation) documents, you’ll see that we do not describe presbyterial polity as being of the essence of the church. Many of our congregations were effective congregational prior to becoming part of the federation. As far as I know, the Dutch Reformed tradition has tended to speak of “the churches” rather than “the church” (which is perhaps a more Presbyterian way of speaking; note the upper case).
The Baptist argument is that they are the logical fruition of the Reformation but the plain fact is that the Reformed Churches have never accepted that argument. One of the reasons that the Reformed Churches have never accepted the Baptist view (and one important reason why we should reject the attempt to re-define “Reformed” to be latitudinarian about the sacraments is because the Baptist view of the sacraments presupposes a quite different hermeneutic than the Reformed.
The truth is that, on Baptism, all Baptists are Anabaptists and all the Reformed rejected that view and the hermeneutic and view of redemptive history latent or explicit in it. The Reformed began defending the unity of the covenant of grace from the earliest days of the Reformation. Heinrich Bullinger wrote a treatise defending the unity of the covenant of grace against the Anabaptists in 1534! In that treatise he spoke for all the Reformed theologians and churches. We all see a fundamental unity of the covenant of grace from Adam to Abraham to the New Covenant. We understand, in contrast to the Baptists, the New Covenant is new only relative to Moses (Jer 31; 2 Cor 3; Heb 7-10). In Reformed theology, piety, and practice (the Reformed confession), the Abrahamic covenant was given under the period of types and shadows and all those types and shadows are fulfilled, but the substance of Abraham’s faith was, so to speak, Christian (Gal 3). Therefore, according to the Reformed Churches the promises that God made to Abraham are still in effect: “I will be a God to you and to your children.” We see this re-affirmed in Acts 2:39.
Those are facts that cannot be overcome. Thus the Baptist who identifies with aspects of the Reformed confession is left to argue a theological case that the Baptist view is the most consistent Protestant view etc. Now we’re not doing history but theology. We’re not talking intent but openly talking about re-defining a term with a fixed historical, theological, and ecclesiastical usage.
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