The Problem of the Minimalist Definition of “Reformed”

An essay on being Reformed was brought to my attention (the essay is no longer published on the original source) many years ago now.  It is an interesting piece because it represents a widely held position among Evangelicals and the broader Reformed world and I want to challenge its implied premise. The fundamental question is this: What must one believe to be Reformed? The second, and closely related question is, who defines what Reformed means?

Of course, these questions have been on my mind for several years. They are the major questions that fuel Recovering the Reformed Confession. On one level, it is exciting that there are a lot of young, restless, and Reformed folk out there. We see them in worship every Sabbath. By the grace of God, we try to offer them cognitive and ecclesiastical rest, as it were. Obviously, a sinner only finds his true Sabbath rest in Christ and in his finished work for sinners (Heb 4), but that rest is administered in the visible church (i.e., the divinely instituted covenant community of Word, sacrament, and discipline). We see the same sorts of YRR entering seminary. It is truly exciting and encouraging to be able to fellowship with the students, to learn from them, and to help form them for a life of ministry.

On another level, the renewed popularity of the Reformed faith brings certain challenges. First of these is the definition of the adjective Reformed. The first truth of the Reformed faith with which most evangelicals come into contact is the doctrine of election or predestination or “the doctrines of grace.” These doctrines are absolutely essential to being Reformed. One can no more be Reformed without them than one can be a human and not breathe, but just as there is more to being human than breathing, there is much more to being Reformed than the doctrines of grace.

This essay argues that the great problem of a minimalist definition of the adjective Reformed is that it tends to Narcissism (i.e., defining it in our own image). Instead, we ought to seek to be defined by it, and to that end we need a proper, objective definition of what it means to be Reformed according to the public, ecclesiastical confessions of God’s Word by the Reformed Churches.

In fairness, the essay to which I am responding does offer some acknowledgment of this truth. It does make a passing reference to the Westminster Standards (including the Westminster Confession, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and the Westminster Larger Catechism) and a single brief essay can only do so much. Fair enough. Yet this essay, it seems to me, makes a couple of mistakes that are too common when it comes to defining the adjective Reformed. It turns essentially to the Five Points of the Synod of Dort, and to them it adds two more points: evangelism and personal responsibility in the world. I will address these two points in order.

Now, the Canons (Decisions) of Dort, written in response to the Remonstrants (Arminians), are non-negotiable for Reformed folk. Indeed, those who have actually read the Five Points know that the free offer of the gospel is clearly taught in them (2.5), and that is the fundamental act of evangelism. This is not, however, how evangelism is defined in the essay to which I am responding. This question would draw us into another essay, but let it suffice to say that the definition and practice of evangelism in Evangelism Explosion (EE) was unknown to the Synod of Dort.

I say this as a certified EE trainer (Del City, OK 1980s) and past practitioner. Nevertheless, over the years, I have concluded that it is a form of individualized revivalism. When classical Reformed theology thinks of evangelism, it thinks of the public proclamation of the gospel by ministers of the Word. Do individual Christians have an obligation to give witness to the faith and to their faith? Absolutely! The Reformed confessions, whether Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 65) or Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 88, thank you Darryl Hart) repeatedly teach that God operates through the “due use of the ordinary means” or “through the preaching of the Holy Gospel” to bring sinners to faith. We pray fervently for the conversion of the world and for the conversion of particular sinners, but we expect the Spirit to do so through the preaching of the Word. Lay witness is important (John 9) but it is not evangelism. Inefficient? Yes, but by American standards, Christ’s kingdom is terribly inefficient. The cross is a scandal, and the preaching of it is foolishness (1 Cor 1–3).

This leads to the second point: cultural engagement. This has been another major occupation of this space. The essay in question seems to assume a certain model of cultural engagement, the “Reclaiming America,” model that, while popular among a certain segment of American evangelicals and fundamentalists, may not have a lot to do with the Reformed confession—at least not as received by the American Reformed and Presbyterian Churches. There is no question whether individual Christians must live out their faith according to God’s Word. That is a given. There is no question whether God is sovereign over all things and whether he has revealed a fixed moral norm (his law) that is binding on all people and places in all times and cultures. He has. He revealed his moral law in creation and inscribed it on the conscience of every human. By that standard every human is subject to judgment and stands, inasmuch as one is outside of Christ, condemned justly.

Further, Christians have a moral obligation to God and neighbor to seek to apply the second table of the law (love to neighbor) in the public square. Because, according to Calvin, we live in a twofold kingdom, one spiritual (the church) and one civil, we have different vocations in each kingdom. In evangelism (as defined above), we seek to minister Christ’s kingdom in this world by the use of the means of grace and discipline. As members of the civil, common kingdom, we seek to love our neighbors by seeking their welfare and by asking the magistrate to fulfill his responsibility to execute civil justice.

There is, however, much more to being Reformed than these seven points. We have a Trinitarian doctrine of God. We have a doctrine of man as created and as fallen. We have a Christology which we confess. Indeed, for us, Christ is at the center of the Christian faith and the history of redemption. To focus briefly on three topics, the Reformed churches all agree that salvation is administered within the visible church through the preaching of the gospel (which we define as justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone) and the administration of sacraments. We all agree that the biblical doctrines of the covenants of redemption, works, and grace are the organizing principles of our theology. Reformed theology, piety, and practice is covenantal. We all agree that our covenantal doctrine of the church and sacraments requires particular doctrines of Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and worship. Christ promised to Abraham: “I will be your God and your children’s God” (Gen 17) and he has not revoked that promise. Indeed, he repeated it at Pentecost in Acts 2:39. This distinguishes the Reformed theology, piety, and practice from most modern evangelicals. We also confess that, in the Lord’s Supper, Christ feeds us on his body by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit. This distinguishes us from most modern evangelicals. Finally, the Reformed are unanimous in their theology of worship. We do that in worship which God commands and nothing else. We call this the Regulative Principle of Worship, and it sets us apart from virtually all evangelicals and from most other traditions which operate from a very different principle (“we may do whatever is not forbidden”). It is true that the Reformed churches have not been very faithful to our confession in this regard, but in the spirit of semper Reformanda (always reforming), we have good reason to hope that we are beginning to recover our theology, piety, and practice.

In order to continue this Reformation toward becoming ecclesia Reformata (the church Reformed) again, we must have a definition of the adjective Reformed that embraces far more than predestination and the doctrines of grace, and something other than a populist doctrine of evangelism, and a transformationalist approach to cultural engagement. The problem of minimalist definitions is always that they lead to Narcissism. One gets to define things in one’s own image. The Reformed confessions, however, provide us with a public, ecclesiastical, historic, and biblical account of our theology, piety, and practice so that, if we define the Reformed faith according to our confession, we avoid Narcissism and the problems inherent in minimalism.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2008 and has been updated for republication. 


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  • 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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7 comments

  1. Thanks for this helpful article on the definition of “Reformed.” As a “Reformed Baptist,” this has always been confusing. My take away is that we need to be more precise in our language. As a “Reformed Baptist,” I love the WCF, Dort, 3 Forms, Institutes, and am creedal like those of the Reformation. But after that, I recognize the great differences in how we read the Covenants. This has to put us into a different category. I could be more deliberate in distinguishing between”Reformed” and “Calvinistic.” It would also be more accurate to return to using the historic “Particular Baptist” nomenclature to help with this distinction. JH

  2. What makes the Reformed faith good is not what is distinctly promoted (at the expense of…), as much as what is guarded against.

  3. I’m so thankful for your unmovable stance on this Dr. Clark. I tried to emphasize it in the PCA I was attending. It wasn’t gladly or openly received. They’d like to leave room for differing thoughts on it, yes I said a PCA.
    Blessings.

  4. Dr. Clark,
    First of all, thank you very much for taking a hard stand on what it means to be Reformed. I believe that too many self-proclaimed Rofeformed folks don’t really have any idea what that means, but like how it sounds.
    In that vein, I’m curious to get your take on something that’s been bugging me.
    What would you say regarding a person who claims to hold to the Three Forms of Unity, yet promotes teachers who deny natural revelation?
    I seem to have gotten stuck in a sort of a loop in my own thinking about this, and would like a fresh take on the subject.
    God bless you!
    -S. Hoverson

    • Sam,

      The denial of natural revelation is sadly widespread in the Modern Reformed movement. They are unaware of the broader natural law tradition in Reformed theology or they know and reject it. There are streams in the Modern Reformed world that have fed this antipathy to natural law. Chief among them is Karl Barth, who rejected natural revelation and natural law. More than a few neo-Kuyperians have rejected natural law under the mistaken conviction that it entails rationalism or denial of divine authority. It’s been very difficult to get folks to read even basic literature (e.g., Calvin) on natural law in the Reformed tradition.

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