A Wonderful Illustration Of The Necessity Of An Objective Definition Of Reformed

Trevin Wax and David Fitch have been in a dialogue in which each of them has published a post expressing appreciation for the other’s tradition. Wax identifies as Reformed and Fitch as Anabaptist. The reader can draw his own conclusions as to how much Wax and Fitch have in common with each other as opposed to how much they have in common with historic, confessional Reformed theology.

Here, however, I wish to engage Wax’s characterization of the adjective Reformed. In Recovering the Reformed Confession and in this space, I have argued that there is a stable, historic, definition of the adjective: God’s Word as confessed (theology, piety, and practice) by the Reformed churches. As a matter of history, there was no doubt as to what was meant by the qualifier Reformed from the mid-16th century until about the mid-20th century. Martin Chemnitz knew what Reformed theology was in the 1580s. Robert Bellarmine knew what Reformed theology was in 1615. The Synod of Dort knew what Reformed meant in 1618–19, when they rejected Arminianism. As I documented in RRC, Charles Hodge indicated that there was no doubt about what it meant in the mid-to late 19th century and there is no evidence of any substantial shift in meaning until after the mid-20th century. That shift began quietly. It was not a matter of ecclesiastical action nor the result of scholarly historical or theological reflection. Rather, it was a matter of what is today called “branding” or marketing. In the 1950s some Presbyterians (the Dutch and German Reformed not so much) and Particular Baptists began to refer to the latter as “Reformed Baptists.” At the same time the neo-orthodox movement, led by Karl Barth (1886–1968) was asserting radical new directions in Reformed theology in which Barth, who had become the world’s leading “Reformed” theologian, had radically re-defined Reformed theology by rejecting the Reformed view of Scripture, the distinction between law and gospel, the covenant of works, infant baptism, and much of the rest of what had been confessed by the Reformed churches since the mid-16th century. Indeed, as my colleague Ryan Glomsrud has argued (here and here the early assessment of Barth was correct) Barth became an Anabaptist.

Gradually, led largely by evangelical, para-church entities, it has become common place to use the adjective Reformed so broadly, so disconnected from the history and tradition of the Reformed churches, that the word is in danger of losing its meaning. Wax’s essay is a clear example of what happens when we abandon the historic and objective definition of Reformed. He raises the question of how Fitch defines the “contours of the Reformed heritage,” whether he is thinking of the “Reformed tradition in its distinctively Calvinistic soteriological position.” This, he says, is one possibility but there is a “broader framework” by which one may define Reformed. Whom does he want to include within this framework? He begins with Os Guiness and Charles Colson, as examples of those who have adapted the “worldview and  its distinctive approach to creation, fall, redemption, and restoration” of Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920). Wax concedes that he identifies with the tradition but does not himself “line up exactly with Calvinist soteriology” but “appreciates the worldview emphasis one finds within this tradition.” Most strikingly, however, he wants to include “John Wesley under the Reformed moniker, even though he was an Arminian with his own Wesleyan twist on the doctrines of salvation.” Wax concedes that, e.g., N. T. Wright and Wesley would not line up with the “classical” Reformed tradition but he argues that Fitch is wrong to juxtapose Wright with the Reformed tradition. Wax argues that Wright operates “within the basic Reformed worldview and outlook.” According to Wax, this breadth “indicates the beauty and strength of the Reformation tradition.”

John Calvin,  John Owen, Thomas Boston, and Charles Hodge were Reformed. How do we know? Because, despite the diversity among them on certain issues, they all subscribed essentially the same theology, piety, and practice as reflected in the Reformed confessions, whether the Genevan, the Westminster, or the Savoy. There is a certain diversity of thought among them but much of that is due to the different circumstances in which each found himself. Calvin was a mid-16th-century pastor and theologian. A century later Reformed theologians found themselves addressing more sophisticated opponents in Bellarmine, the Socinians, the Amyraldians, and Remonstrants. In the 18th century, Boston combated a renewal of neonomianism within the Scottish Church. In the 19th century Hodge was facing the hydra of Enlightenment rationalism, empiricism, and Higher Criticism. So, though these writers are all organically related by their core commitment to the same system (outline and particulars) of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice, it took on a somewhat different cast in each case.

To include, as many do, Karl Barth, and to include (as Wax does) Chuck Colson, N. T. Wright, and John Wesley in the “Reformed” house makes the definition of Reformed so difficult as to be border on incoherence. However influenced Colson might have been by the neo-Kuyperian social and cultural agenda, he compromised the article of the standing or falling of the church (justification) in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together project. Wright is a leading proponent of the “New Perspective on Paul.” Again, this movement rejects the Reformed confession concerning salvation. The same was true, of course, of Wesley, who was an “evangelical Arminian,” who opposed the Reformed soteriology with might and mane. Further, his definition of theology and method was radically different from the Reformed. If the Synod of Dort has anything to say about the definition of Reformed, and they do, they described the Remonstrants (Wesley’s theological forefathers) as Pelagian. What hath Pelagius to do with Geneva?

The first problem with this approach to defining Reformed is its relentless reductionism. After Wax is finished, what does Reformed actually signal? Evidently not much other than divine sovereignty and a “worldview.” Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas were strong advocates of the doctrine of divine sovereignty but none of them were Reformed. As important as “worldview” is (and it is), we do not confess it. If the adjective Reformed is a house where late-modern evangelicals wish to dwell, should not that house have more than a few two-by-fours left standing?  By contrast, as defined by the Reformed churches and summarized in their confessions, and reflected in their theology, piety, and practice, the Reformed house is fully developed.

Second, both Wax and Fitch admire Kuyper’s social agenda but Kuyper himself would not recognize Wax’s reductionist characterization of his theology, piety, and practice. Kuyper was a confessional Reformed minister. He stood before God and the church and literally subscribed his name beneath the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. He swore an oath before God and the church to uphold, teach, and defend the same with all that was within him and he did that with great energy and skill. The confessions were a part of Kuyper’s marrow. In other words, Kuyper’s doctrine of sphere sovereignty had a theological context. It also had a cultural and historical context. It may (or may not) be possible for broadly evangelical predestinarians and self-described Anabaptists to appropriate his social theories but it must be recognized at least that Kuyper was neither a neo-Kuyperian nor a late-modern, broad, predestinarian evangelical. He was not not a Baptist nor an Anabaptist. As an accomplished scholar of the Reformed tradition, Kuyper knew the sharp and irreconcilable differences between the radical subjectivism of the Anabaptists and the Reformed confession.

If there are as many definitions of Reformed as definers, then the word has lost all meaning, it means whatever the user wants it to mean. For those of us still living in the Reformed house, however, this is a problem. Namely, because we still live here. We still make the Reformed confession with “heart and mouth” (Belgic Confession). The Reformed confession is not a mere relic of the classical period. So, with all due respect and affection to our predestinarian and neo-Kuyperian evangelical friends, the house still stands. You are welcome to admire it but we prefer that you not deconstruct it just yet.

    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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  1. Thanks for this helpful article. No doubt our Lutheran brethren would object if a Baptist who came to accept the Lutheran position on Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper started calling himself a “Lutheran Baptist.” Confessional Lutheranism is an objective, historical reality with its own theology, piety and practice, and “Lutheran” is not a label that can be redefined according to personal whim. As you point out, the same is true with the “Reformed” label. It has an objective, historic meaning.

    I like your suggestion that our “Reformed Baptist” brethren be described by more objectively and ecclesiastically accurate terminology, such as “Particular Baptists” (as they used to be known as), or as “evangelical predestinarians” (hadn’t heard that one before, but I like it).

  2. I put this article on my timeline and one of my friends who loves Barth objected. Basically I think it’s hypocritical to call Barth an Anabaptist, something he would never have claimed himself, nor do his followers of him, when you are making the case for the proper use of theological labels. What do you say to that?

    • Richard,

      I’m not surprised. Many neo-orthodox (and Barth-influenced evangelicals) think of him as the paradigmatic modern Reformed theologian but, as Glomsrud notes, Barth abandoned the Reformed confession at multiple places. How much may one deny and remain Reformed? He rejected the Reformed doctrine of Scripture, God, covenants, and sacraments to name but a few. His doctrine of Scripture was that of Thomas Muntzer as was his doctrine of baptism.

      Was Barth Reformed because he called himself that? If so, we’re back to the problem of Narcissism: “I’m Reformed (which is in question), I think p, ergo p is Reformed.” If all the Reformed churches confess that God’s Word teaches a certain covenant theology that entails infant baptism in the New Covenant and Barth rejects that, how is still Reformed? If all the Reformed confess a covenant of works and a covenant of grace or a distinction between law and gospel and Barth rejects that, how is he Reformed? We haven’t even got to Christology and anthropology or soteriology proper. I should like to know in what ways Barth actually agreed with the Reformed churches?

  3. Sorry. I was not clear, they objected to him being labelled Anabaptist. Particularly as you wanted to be precise about the use of the reformed label it seems unfair to not be so precise about the Anabaptist label. I guess the question is are you confident in labelling him an Anabaptist?

    • Richard,

      I gave links/leads to some of Dr Glomsrud’s work. Anyone who will can check it out.

      Barth adopted Muntzer’s doctrine of revelation snd his view of Baptism. Like Muntzer et al he rejected the law/gospel distinction.

      Why wasn’t he an Anabaptist? He certainly wasn’t Reformed. He wasn’t Lutheran. He wasn’t Roman.

  4. I very much appreciate this article and the need to exercise caution in our use of terms, or else they will be emptied of all meaning. I was raised in a Baptist church. I have over time gravitated much more to a Reformed position. In fact, I have gravitated so far that I have been willing to reconsider my stance on baptism, which of course is the holy grail of the Baptist tradition. Unfortunately, whereas my reading on most other areas of Reformed doctrine has led me into a greater appreciation and eventual acceptance of the same, on this point I seem to become more troubled the more I read, for I feel that the doctrine of baptism is somewhat at odds with the doctrines of grace (i.e. predestination and justification). So my reluctance to cross this last barrier between myself and Reformed theology is actually because of my respect for Reformed theology. Now, does that make me a “Reformed Baptist”, or just “Baptist”, or just “Reformed”, or as I most suspect…caught between two worlds with no end in sight?

    • Hi Amy,

      Thank you for this. There is a traditional designation for those Baptists (since circa 1644) who have identified with aspects of Reformed theology but who reject the Reformed way of reading scripture, the Reformed covenant theology, and the reformed doctrine of church and sacraments. That designation is, “Particular Baptist.”

      My own view is that though, formally, it appears that the Particular Baptists merely cut and paste from the Westminster standards, omitting a few things here and there, the differences are really much more substantial.

      As to crossing the hurdles to Reformed theology, piety, and practice it is a longer journey then it might seem. This is because it involves a paradigm shift. It is almost revolutionary.

      Here are some resources that might help:


  5. Thank you for that thoughtful response. The Westminster Confession and the catechisms are precious documents and worthy of respect. The oddity of my position, I suppose, is that I actually do buy into Reformed covenant theology as the organizing principle of scripture. I prefer the Reformed view of communion, which gives it so much more depth. I don’t think I reject the “Reformed way of reading scripture” at all, except on this one point. Unfortunately, it is such an important point, that one may well conclude that it hollows out the Reformed understanding of covenant theology. I do think I am a quite a bit closer to being Reformed than Barth ever was. Well, I am not attempting to convince anyone one way or the other – merely to say that there are some poor souls caught in my position. We have the Baptists telling us, “Go hang out with the Presbyterians!” And the Presbyterians say, “Go hang out with the Baptists!”

    • Amy,

      It is not just one point. The Particular Baptists have a different reading of the history of redemption, which is how they arrive at a different understanding of the new covenant, a different understanding of the relationship between Abraham and Moses, a different view of the church in the new covenant, and a different view of who is to be baptized.

      Take a look at the curriculum linked above and take a listen to the Heidelcast cast series on covenant theology and baptism. Perhaps they will help.

  6. So if Owen is Reformed, is it correct to say that presbyterian government is not a required part of being Reformed? Does church government not reveal one’s way of reading scripture, the same way that one’s administration of the sacraments does?

    How does one guard against creeping error with no regional church, rely on congregation to be a check on pastor and elders and vice versa?

    I tried the Heidel-search but didn’t find a direct answer, I would be happy to review any links you might have on the subject.

    • Hi Jerry,

      Here are some resources on the general question of defining Reformed:


      Specifically, there were Congregationalists, Presbyterians/Reformed (in polity), and Episcopalians (in polity) at both the Synod of Dort and at the Westminster Assembly. Further, the Savoy Declaration was drafted by Congregationalists, led by John Owen, and they were recognized as Reformed.

      So, no, polity is not of the essence of being Reformed. Sometimes we have distinguish between the “being,” and the “well-being” of the church. A presbyterial polity is arguably of the well-being of the church but not the being or essence of the church.

      The framers of the London Baptist Confession (1644) were, however, not recognized as Reformed because the difference was more substantial.

      No, I don’t think that differences in polity reflect the same kinds of hermeneutical differences as differences on baptism, because the latter is the result of a wave reading the whole of Scripture where as I doubt that is the case with polity. John Owen, though he became a Congregationalist, had a Reformed reading of the history of redemption, a Reformed understanding of the nature of the new covenant, and a Reformed understanding of the continuity of the Abrahamic covenant with the new covenant. That is why he always help to and defended infant baptism.

      I am with you, I think a connection or polity is to be preferred both on biblical and practical grounds but the truth is we do not know exactly what the nature of the connection was either in the first century or the second century AD. I am confident that it was not an Episcopal structure and I think there is evidence for presbyterial government it is quite possible that in the second century anyway, there were congregational arrangements.

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