Is the Reformed Faith Just an “Accent”?

HB reader Joseph Grigoletti pointed me to an interesting article on the website of the Christian Reformed Church in North America that seeks to explain to visitors what it means to be Reformed. The article says, in part:

Reformed Christians are a small part of a much larger body of believers who love and serve Jesus Christ. We’re part of a family that includes Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Evangelical, and a host of other churches that confess and practice the Christian faith. Reformed teachings are shared by denominations other than the Christian Reformed Church. What’s different is the emphasis that we might place on them.

It continues by quoting Cornelius Plantinga, who wrote:

Our accents lie more on the sovereignty of God, on the authority of Scripture, on the need for disciplined holiness in personal Christian life, and finally, on Christianity as a religion of the Kingdom

It says that the Reformed faith “teaches the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all creation.” It recognizes that all Christians affirm this to some degree or other but that “Reformed believers place a lot more emphasis on this teaching than many other Christians do.” As a consequence, it argues, “Reformed believers have invested a lot of their energy and resources in Christian education (Christian day schools, colleges, and seminaries), Christ-centered political/social action, and parachurch ministries to those in need.”

Seeking to affirm the reality of the church universal, the article affirms a common language to the faith of “all Bible-believing Christians” but it urges Reformed Christians to be “proud of your accent. Thank God for it. Add yours to the rich diversity of tongues that speak of the great things God has done.”

There’s a lot here with which confessional Reformed folk should resonate but it also raises questions we should address. Let’s consider them serially.

We realize that there are Christians in other communions and we do want to be properly ecumenical. We do confess, in the Nicene Creed, “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”  Nevertheless, we also confess, in Belgic Confession Article 29 that there is a true church which has marks and that can be discerned. This is not an idiosyncratic thing to say. It’s what the churches, including the CRC, confess. Reformed churches confess that not every congregation that calls itself a “church” really is one. Thus, we should probably doubt the claim that the Reformed churches are “part of a family that includes Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Evangelical, and a host of other churches….” It is one thing to say that there are believers in all those communions, it is another thing to say that we are all churches, in the same sense of the word, and that what distinguishes us is really a matter of emphasis (and, one might add, perspective). I doubt that way of accounting for the differences between the (Eastern) Orthodox, Roman, Evangelical, and Reformed traditions is accurate or that it does justice to those other accounts of the faith. Rome does not confess that her differences with the Reformed churches are a matter of “emphasis.” Rome says that we are not really churches and we confess that Rome is a false church. That’s not just perspective or emphasis. These are competing truth claims about the same terms at the same time. One must be true and the other wrong.

There second question is whether the emphasis of the Lordship of Christ is a Reformed distinctive. This obviously a “hot topic” because it touches on the problem of the relations between Christ and culture and Christian schools and other such issues. When the article accounts for the Reformed faith as distinctively interested in the Lordship of Christ over every area life, that is certainly true and it echoes particularly the response of Abraham Kuyper and the neo-Calvinists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the Netherlands and in North America to resist the inroads of the Enlightenment and to re-assert the primary authority of God’s Word relative to human reason.

Nevertheless, I think that a devout Romanist could affirm most of what the article says about Lordship and Christian schools. After all, in this country anyway, the Romanists developed an extensive network of “parochial” schools at every level. Romanist universities such as Notre Dame, Loyola are considered among the finest in North America. There are a few Reformed colleges in North America. They are fine schools but there is no “Calvinist Seven” college basketball league being formed but there is a “Catholic Seven” league being formed next season. That’s only symbolic of the cultural influence that these schools have accumulated because of the quality of their schools. The article also cites Reformed concern for the poor and social action as a consequence of the Reformed view of sovereignty but again one’s mind turns to Catholic Social Services and the many other Roman Catholic social services agencies that exist. Doesn’t the manifestation of Roman Catholic concern for the poor dwarf that of the Reformed? Setting such comparisons aside, it’s not immediately clear how these things are evidence of “distinctively” Reformed thinking. After all, no one taught the sovereignty of God over all things in providence more forcefully or clearly than Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Before him Gottschlak of Orbais did so in the 9th century and Augustine before him in the 5th century. After Thomas, there arose a number of late medieval theologians who emphasized divine sovereignty. Martin Luther articulated divine sovereignty powerfully in 1525. None of those folks was “Reformed” yet they believed in all the things that the article listed.

Finally, we should questions the characterization of the Reformed faith as an “accent.” It was perhaps intended as an inside joke. The CRC is historically an immigrant church composed largely of Dutch (and Friesian) immigrants to North America and, as immigrants, they have been known to speak with a Dutch accent. Thus, there has been a lot of talk in Dutch Reformed (and particularly in CRC) circles in recent years about whether they need to “burn the wooden shoes,” i.e., change their relation to their Dutch heritage. This expression has been used both by “progressives” in the CRC and “conservatives” outside the CRC. This debate has been ongoing in Dutch Reformed circles for a long time. The CRC had heated debates a century ago over whether they should conduct their ministry primarily in Dutch (Nederlands) or whether they should speak English. It wasn’t just an argument about linguistics and missions. One great fear on the part of opponents of the wide-spread adoption of English was that by so conforming to the prevailing culture the Reformed would also be infected with the prevailing American religion, which they described as “Methodism” or revivalism.  As it turns out, those, such as Foppe Ten Hoor, who worried about such things had a valid concern because that is exactly what happened to the CRC. It did become infected with broad, American evangelicalism. Whether that is due to the adoption of English and whether the adoption of English was ever really an option, is another question. It was never really an option to remain a Dutch-speaking church. Since the Dutch were in an English-speaking nation they had to become an English-speaking church. The question, then, was how to become an Anglophone church without becoming a revivalist.

We do not live in the 16th or 17th centuries and for that we may be thankful. Were we living then you would not be reading this on a computer or a mobile device because they wouldn’t exist and I would likely be dead since lifespans were considerably shorter. Nevertheless, we can learn from the 16th and 17th centuries and particularly from our confessions written then. The Belgic Confession (1561) was written to explain to Roman Catholics and Anabaptists (who, today would fit in very nicely with American “evangelicals”) and to others the ways in which the Reformed faith is like those other traditions and the ways that it is not. The confession emphasized the catholicity of the Reformed understanding of the faith. We don’t think of ourselves as having discovered something new. We think of ourselves as recovering God’s Word, which is quite old, and much from the early church (100–500AD), the medieval church (500–1500AD), the Reformation (1500–1600), and post-Reformation (1600-1700) churches. The Reformation was, to a large degree, a purification of the Western church of things that had developed rather recently. Contrary to popular belief, much of what makes the Roman church distinctive was not formalized until the 13th century and the rest wasn’t formalized until the 16th century. A worship service in the 3rd century looked a lot more like a confessional Reformed service does now that it did a post-Tridentine Roman mass.

The Belgic Confession certainly does teach divine sovereignty over all things and that is something we need to assert against autonomy-asserting, modern rationalism, subjectivism, and empiricism. The Belgic was written long before the need for Christian schools, at least in the sense in which we use that term, so those schools do not have confessional status. They are an important and useful extension of the family’s responsibility to see to the Christian education of children. The real question is whether the Belgic characterizes the Reformed faith as one accent among many?

Article 9 says,

This doctrine of the Holy Trinity has always been affirmed and maintained by the true church since the time of the apostles to this very day against the Jews, Mohammedans, and some false Christians and heretics, as Marcion, Manes, Praxeas, Sebellius, Samosatenus, Arius and the like who have been justly condemned by the orthodox fathers. Therefore in this point, we do willingly receive the three creeds namely, that of the Apostles, of Nicea, and of Athanasius; likewise that which, conformable thereunto, is agreed upon by the ancient fathers.

There we see an example of the Belgic’s affirmation of genuine catholicity but also its willingness to distinguish itself from error. In article 22, the Belgic distinguishes between true and false knowledge of God and between true and false faith.

We believe that for us to acquire the true knowledge of this great mystery the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith that embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him.

True faith trusts in the finished work of Christ for us, imputed to us, and received through true faith resting in and receiving Christ’s righteousness alone. This confession distinguishes from Rome, from (Eastern) Orthodoxy, and from much of contemporary “evangelical” theology and piety. It does not regard this confession as a mere accent but as a matter of truth and error.

This is why the Belgic was willing to speak of true and false churches and true churches as distinct from “sects” that call themselves “church.” The Belgic operates under a different set of assumptions, one that is not easily squared with reducing the Reformed faith to a mere accent in a babel of languages.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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8 comments

  1. Where can I learn more about those arguments about doing ministry in English among the Dutch Reformed? I’m partly interested because I am tired of hearing some people in political discussions say that immigrants from the past (Europeans) were more willing to assimilate and leave their mother language behind compared to recent (i.e. Latin Americans) immigrants. I am also curious as to whether the same can be said of German Lutherans?

    • Alberto,

      Here are some sources:

      Bratt, James D. Dutch Calvinism in Modern America: A History of a Conservative Subculture. repr. ed. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2002.
      Kromminga, John. The Christian Reformed Church: A Study in Orthodoxy. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1949.
      There are resources here.

  2. Alberto makes a good point about the German Lutherans. They were indeed reluctant to give up their “mother tongue” after arriving in the States. In fact, many of them held German-only services (sometimes as a separate service from the English ones) well into the 1950’s.

    However, they ran into two major obstacles to their cultural biases: World War 1 and World War 2. As Germany began to throw its weight around in 20th Europe, American German immigrants came to be regarded with suspicion. They often felt compelled to stage “loyalty parades” in cities with major German-speaking populations, carrying the American flag, held high. It is a major reason why, much to the consternation of confessional P/R, one will find both the American flag as well as the synodical flag on either side of the chancel area (platform) in most Lutheran churches – they felt pressured to demonstrate their citizenship even though many of them subscribed to a 2K view of scripture.

    Such was less likely the case with the Dutch speaking immigrants who were usually on the side of the Allies during the major wars (though there were noted exceptions and collaborations, particularly during WWII). So they were better able to maintain their ethnic enclaves (and associated Reformed communions) than were the Germans.

    Then there’s the matter of education. Most European immigrants arrived in this country with at least a basic eduction, enabling them to read and write in their native tongues. To them, learning English was more a matter of being willing to meld into the new culture than the structure and vocabulary of a new language. From what I’ve witnessed this is not so much the case with people of Latino origin. A few years ago when I did some work for the 2010 Census I was given small sheets of paper to hand over to residents, explaining what we were doing and under whose authority. One side was printed in English and the flip side had the same content printed in Spanish. Upon encountering folks who couldn’t understand my English, I often found that they also couldn’t read the Spanish on the piece of paper. Because many of them come from poor countries and lack a basic education they would have an up hill battle to learn to speak English, not to mention read and write it.
    Anyway, that’s my view of it.

    • I can’t speak in general (would probably require a study, and I tend not to trust some groups), but in my experience growing up with immigrants from all over Latin America, they all had at least a sufficient ability to read and write in Spanish; but I grew up around mostly Pentecostal and other Protestant Hispanics (can I refer to Pentecostals as Protestants?). It could in part a heritage due to religious influences. If what you say is true, it could be in part due to Roman Catholicism’s lack of encouragement to read things like the Bible, compared to mostly Protestant countries. But today, I seriously doubt whether your average immigrant, undocumented or not, is unable to read and write in their language, regardless of their religious association. I will probably ask a Spanish professor I know to find out more.

      One more thing about Germans. I took a German class once with a professor that teaches at USC, and the professor mentioned, although I would like to find some documentation, that German came close to being the official language of the United States; at the very least, it actually came to a vote in Congress.

  3. Would that the CRC took as seriously her confessional heritage as she does her legacy of Christian education.

    While Ten Hoor may have been onto something, another perhaps more plausible way to explain the trajectory away from the confessional heritage and toward broad evangelicalism is the underlying worldviewism. And if that’s true then more confessionalist Reformed communions that are also high on day schooling might take a lesson from the culturalist CRC and moderate the day school zeal. Or at the very least, moderate the criticism of worldviewism since that seems to be the exact point of day schooling (in the era of a fully assimilated generation, which is to say, it’s no longer about maintaining the social cohesion of an immigrant sub-culture).

  4. Use of the “accent” analogy (and all analogies have limits) helps express our catholicity and the communion we continue to embrace via the creeds with the much broader church. I would suggest (and I’m open to correction) that Reformers like Luther and Calvin considered themselves “reformed catholics” rather than sectarians. “Protestant” both embraces a broader community while simultaneously critiquing it. Many Reformation documents including Calvin’s Institutes and the Belgic Confession were written to express both continuity and critique with the Roman church.

    Richard Muller makes this point in his fine essay “Was Calvin a Calvinist” “There is, in the first place, the fundamental continuity of the basic tradition of ecumenical and creedal catholicity, which, of course remained in place in the theologies of the Reformed and Lutheran branches of the Reformation as well as in the Roman Church.” http://www.calvin.edu/meeter/Was%20Calvin%20a%20Calvinist-12-26-09.pdf

    I believe we are a part of the “catholic church” and not a sect. The accent analogy I think expresses this well.

    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for this. I’m quite familiar with Richard’s work—I’m quite indebted to and grateful for it. Catholicity isn’t really what is at stake here. The Reformed have been contending since the 16th century that we are the true catholics and that Rome is a sect. See this series on the HB on Perkins’ account of Reformed catholicity. The Reformed didn’t describe their theology, piety, and practice as just one accent among many. They taught and we confess that our faith is catholic but that the Anabaptists and the Romanists’ theology, piety, and practice is catholic. So, if we’re to keep the analogy of “accent” then we should say, with the Belgic and Canons and the HC, that Rome and the Anabaptists are speaking another language. In the analogy we might say that the Lutherans have an accent but we may not simply assume that we’re all speaking the same language.

      Yes, certainly the Reformed thought of themselves as following Luther and Reforming, in a sense, the Western medieval church. We shouldn’t assume, however, that Trent was part of that Reformation. In other words, the Patristic church is one thing, the medieval Western church is one thing and Rome is another. At Trent, Rome cut herself off from the Fathers and the medievals in significant ways.

      So, we are very much a part of the great, broad swath of catholic Christianity beginning with the Fathers, through the medieval church, into the Reformation and post-Reformation but, if we’re paying attention to the Belgic then we have adjust the metaphor appropriately. It’s a little more spikey that the language used in the article.

  5. IMO the reason why the reformed churches are called reformed, is because they re-formed their doctrine, worship and government on the basis of Scripture alone – which also meant they necessarily separated from the deformed Roman church and returned to the apostolic faith at the same time.

    Luther and the Anglicans on the other hand, only reformed their doctrine. Worship and government were seen as indifferent and modern American evangelical arminianism concurs with that take, without at least the ballast of the gospel, never mind a confession. Consequently they are blown about, if not more and more capsized by every strong fad in the world including the ecumenical which says the Romanist is our brother in Christ.

    Ouch.

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