Should We Stop Using the Expression “Reformed Faith”?

NB: The post below contains some friendly intramural discussion between colleagues. It’s what scholars do. It’s how we make progress in understanding, by tossing things back and forth and gaining clarity along the way. This sort of thing troubles some people so let me explain briefly. Several years ago my dear friend and colleague Mike Horton published a series of academic volumes (see below) that experimental in nature. He was saying, in effect, “here’s what I’m thinking, what do you think?” They were an invitation to dialogue. So far I’ve read two of the four but as I teach history and not theology my attention is usually focused on older (dead) writers. A few of my students have asked me about this question and when I saw it on a sister blog (see below) I did a little digging and offered a comment and then thought I should do some more digging and expand that comment into a post to offer context.

I shared this post with Mike and we are quite agreed. He is looking for a way to signal the catholicity of the Reformed faith, that what we believe is the Christian faith. At the same time we want to signal that the Reformed doctrine and practice (the Reformed confession) is the most faithful expression of Christianity. Amen and amen! Thus, this is not a matter of theology (doctrine) or practice or piety. This is a question of rhetoric, i.e., how we should speak about a certain question.


My dear friend and colleague Mike Horton, from whom I have learned more than I can say in a brief blog post—he was the first one to explain clearly in my hearing, in 1998, what it means to distinguish law and gospel in preaching—has argued in his award-winning volume, People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology that we should not use the expression, “the Reformed faith.” He writes,

“In my view, it is inappropriate for us to refer to our [Reformed/Presbyterian] confession as the Reformed Faith. The Reformed churches did not (and do not) believe that they were confessing the Reformed Faith, but that they were confessing the ‘undoubted Christian Faith’ in their confessions and catechisms. (p. 123)


…we strive toward a catholic hearing of God’s Word. From this perspective we should not speak of a Reformed faith or an Orthodox theology or a Lutheran confession, but of a Christian faith, theology, and confession, from a Reformed, Orthodox, or Lutheran perspective (p. 210).

My friend and colleague at The Reformed Reader, Shane Lems, posted these quotations to explain why he doesn’t use the expression “the Reformed faith.” Here’s my reply (corrected and expanded). Shane and I have also been discussing this question cordially.

Brothers, I want to dissent a bit. I don’t disagree with the point Mike is making and we should probably say “Reformed tradition” or “Reformed confession” (hey, someone should write a book on that!) more than we do but when I say “Reformed faith” it’s just a shorthand way of saying “Reformed tradition” or “Reformed confession.” In other words, I don’t think it’s as inherently sectarian as or misleading as is being suggested.

First, the history: The expression “Reformed faith” goes back at least as far as the late 17th century.

  • Johannes a Marck used it in his commentary on the Revelation (In apocalypsin iohannis commentarius seu analysis exegetica (Amsterdam, 1689), 143.
  • Petrus van Mastricht used it in his Theoretico-practica theologia (Utrecht, 1699), 1055, 1066, in describing the history of the persecution of the Reformed in the NL under the Spanish and, I think, in reference to Lutheran/Reformed dialogues (p. 1067).

Usage of the expression does seem, however, to have gained steam in the 19th century. E.g., the 19th-century English translation of Beza’s biography of Calvin used the expression “the Reformed faith” to translate the expression “vera religione” (Iohannis Calvini vita a Theodoro Beza …. in Theodori Bezae Vezelii, volumen tractationum theologicarum, (Geneva, 1582, 367). Other searches bring up 19th century results. So, there is at least some precedent going back to the late 17th century for the expression.

There are parallel expressions from the classical period. Calvin used the expression “Reformed doctrine” in a letter to Heinrich Bullinger (28 March 1554).  He also used the expression “the Reformed religion” in a letter to Admiral de Coligny (16 April 1561). Several Dutch Reformed Church orders (church constitutions) used the same expression in a way that seems quite like the way we speak of  “the Reformed faith.” The church order of the Synod of Middelburg (1581) says:

43. No one shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper except one who, according to the custom of the church which he joins, has made confession of the Reformed religion, who has testimony of godly behavior, without which  those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.

This language was repeated by a number of other church orders, including that of the Great Synod of Dort (1619).

Another place we see this expression is the Socinian Racovian Catechism (1605)

By means of a young man named William Trie, a native of Lyons, then residing at Geneva in consequence of having embraced the reformed religion, he procured some sheets of it to be conveyed to France, and put into the hands of the inquisitor at Lyons, with an intimation that the author was in his neighbourhood (p. xiv).

and again,

Sigismund the Second, who had permitted the open profession in his dominions of the Reformed religion of the schools both of Wittemberg and Geneva, naturally directed their views to that quarter (ibid, xviii).

What these instances suggest is that the phrase was well established and understood by 1605, but that still leaves the matters of truth, practice, and intent.

Is there such a thing as “the Reformed faith”? Yes and no. When doing the search for the expression “Reformed faith” (in Latin and in English) I also noticed the expression, ecclesia reformata. If we shouldn’t say “Reformed faith” should we also stop speaking of the Reformed Churches or Reformed Church? After all, aren’t we Christian Churches in the same sense in which we hold the Christian faith? We say “Reformed Church” and “Reformed faith” as a short hand way of saying, “that branch of the historic Christian Church that confesses and practices the Reformed theology, piety, and practice.” We need the shorthand because the long hand won’t fit on most church signs or bulletins.

There is a “Reformed faith” insofar as that shorthand expression refers to a particular theology, piety, and practice. Insofar as, however, that theology, piety, and practice is catholic (universal) it is not particular to the Reformed churches. So the question is really how to signal the one, i.e., that which unites us with the church in all times and places, and the many, i.e., that which distinguishes our theology, piety, and practice from other branches of the church and post-apostolic tradition.

The problem does not seem to be the expression per se but weaknesses inherent to shorthand expressions. We see this when “by faith alone” (sola fide) is shortened to “faith” as in the sentence, “I believe in justification by faith.” That’s a true sentence but potentially misleading since it omits what the confessional Reformed and Lutheran churches regard as an essential qualifier, “alone.” When we say, “Scripture is sufficient for faith and life” we mean, “sufficient for the Christian faith and the Christian life.” We don’t mean to signal that the Bible is to be used in ways that it was not intended to be used, e.g., as a flight manual. So, I take Mike’s argument as a salutary warning to speak more fully more often and to be careful when we do use the expression “the Reformed faith” lest we be unclear or misunderstood to be signaling claims that we don’t intend to make but I’m not sure that I’m quite ready to give up the expression altogether.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    It seems that while it is important to emphasize the universality (catholicity) of the Christian faith, the Reformed do not believe there are many ‘faiths’ running about that are ‘valid’. The Westminster Divines could say about marriage of Christians that they ought to marry those who “profess the true reformed religion” (WCF, 24.3).

    Is it not valid to say “Reformed faith”, because we actually believe this is nothing less than Biblical religion and faith? There isn’t a Lutheran or Anglican faith (from our perspective) but only a Christian faith that is faithfully summarized in our confessions but happens to be perverted on certain points in other traditions. The Reformed faith is an equivalent then to Christian Faith. It is the right and proper expression of the catholic faith once for all delivered to the saints. It is the true religion as the confessions describe.

    The church consistories/sessions for instance do not have access into God’s election but rather have the confessions to define a valid profession. This is not to say there are no Christians outside the ordinary means appointed through the visible church (Word and Sacraments and officers) but it is to say that outside of those bounds officers have no jurisdiction. Thus, they only can judge things according to outward profession (i.e. according to the catechisms and confessions which summarize Scripture).

    In other words, we as Christians are given the Christian Faith concretely and particularly, not abstractly (i.e. mere Christianity), and thus all that Christians have available are the outward marks of the true church and her religion. To say the Reformed Faith is to say the Christian faith as we know it. All else is a perversion of that true religion and faith.

    I know this will sound controversial to some but this is what we are saying when we confess the Creeds and Confessions (i.e. “This” is the Faith and “That” is not). This is the Christian Faith. There is no Kantian essence of Religion which all forms partake without the Forms in which they are garbed. No, when the Reformed confess the RPW we say the form and essence of Christianity cannot ripped asunder. To do so is to deform the Gospel itself. There is no true Faith walking around other than the Reformed Faith. This is not arrogance but it is to believe in something and not nothing. Is this not a proper way of thinking about the topic?

  2. 1. I have always used the following meanings

    ‘reformed’ = Magisterial Reformation
    ‘Reformed’ = Calvinist
    ‘Lutheran’ = following Lutheran Confession
    ‘Luther-ite’ = following M Luther (if there be any difference from ‘Lutheran’ – admittedly a rather idiosyncratic usage

    I would thus favour ‘Reformed tradition’

    2. The danger with Timothy’s suggestion is that Calvinists will not then see Luther-ites as Christians, and then the reverse follow too. We do not want a return to religious wars but serious contention between the two would be merited if they both felt that the other side was letting slip a primary gospel truth

  3. R S

    What would you say to the many Reformed ministers who DO use the NT (and even the OT) as a ‘flight manual’ for Christians (as well as of course a warning to unbelievers)?

  4. No. Please keep using the expression. It is helpful in differentiating those whose hermeneutical grid is governed by a Confessional authority from those of us that rest in the Word alone. =)

  5. Tempest in a teapot.

    I’ve used the phrase “The Reformed Faith” hundreds of times. I always try to explain what I mean by it. Ain’t giving it up. Its benefits (which are many) far outweigh its deficiencies (which are few and inconsequential).

  6. Rome calls itself Catholic, the Mormons are saints and the arminian evangelicals says they believe the Bible. No doubt they all would believe the “undoubted Christian faith” if we asked them.
    So what are we suppose to do?
    Use the God ordained means of words/names to distinguish.

    We are reformed catholics, the Mormons ‘aint and since everybody believes the Bible – including the guy down at the corner bar who believes it is a bunch of bunk – we spell out what we mean by the last in confessions, creeds and catechisms.
    Unless we want to toss those “paper popes” also.

    Call it what you will, the true Protestant religion, the reformed religion, the reformed faith, biblical Christianity, etc. there is a time for all things and different labels at different times.

    FTM the reformed churches are “reformed” because on the basis of Scripture, they seceded from the deformed Roman church and reformed the church in doctrine, worship and government.

    While one argues for the thing and not the sign/word/label, we do that by means of words/signs/labels. ‘Taint no way around it.

  7. I get MH’s point but – bear with me for a second – we are talking about words, and words should be effective in communicating from one person to the next. Now, a large and sprawling entity may be able to capture certain words (hence the Roman Catholic Church), but smaller groups will tend to simply be unitelligible in doing the same thing. Consequently, if we just call ourselves something like “the Christian Faith” only the speaker will know what he is communicating while the listener really doesn’t receive much information.

    Moreover, the Reformed themselves might tend to lose something of our distinctives by using generic labels.

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