On Being Reformed: What’s In A Name And Come On Over And Join Us

As I am continuing to make my way through Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless, Reformed I see that he has finally interacted with what I call the old line or old guard Reformed. On pages 108-114 there is discussion of the relationship of the resurgence in Calvinistic oriented evangelicalism and the historic Reformed denominations. I am disappointed in the almost contemptuous or dismissive attitude Collin takes to those within historic Reformed denominations and institutions.

It’s a new day in Calvinism when Baptists and charismatics have become chief spokesmen. Until the last few decades, Calvinism would have connoted sixteenth- and seventeenth century statements such as the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism. Most evangelicals would have associated Reformed theology with Grand Rapids, Michigan, home of Calvin College and the Christian Reformed Church. Or they thought about Philadelphia, home of Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Now the momentum has shifted to evangelicals who affirm Calvinist soteriology but not neccesarily the broader Reformed tradition of covenant theology, including infant baptism. (109)

I have a few thoughts and these piggyback off of my comments from my post a few days ago about whether Jonathan Edwards could be considered Reformed. If there is a spectrum that extends from what I will call the broader Calvinistic oriented evangelicalism to the historic Reformed faith, Edwards is somewhere closer to the historic Reformed faith than the Calvinistic oriented evangelicalism Collin Hansen chronicles for us in this book. For instance, Edwards, for all his support of the revivals of the First Awakening, was a cessationist. No matter how hard one tries, that is a fact one can’t deny. Edwards also baptized babies. Yes it is true he wondered about this because of his view that God’s attributes had to be displayed in his creation and he found it hard to understand how God’s glory and mercy could be displayed in the life of an infant. However, he baptized infants all the same. And Edwards was a strong advocate of covenant theology as a whole. Unfortunately people (including many learned scholars) have been misled by Perry Miller’s scholarship. Perry Miller misunderstood covenant theology and so he misunderstood Jonathan Edwards. But Edwards has his own unique eccentricities. He, as great as he is, is not the sum and substance of historic Reformed confessionalism.

And I was interested to see that Hansen commented on Darryl G. Hart’s criticisms of Jonathan Edwards (and these have been and will be echoed by R. Scott Clark and others). I am not convinced completely by Hart and Clark, however some of their concerns are valid. I am not convinced, as I noted in my post on Edwards, that one has to choose between doctrine and life. That is an unfortunate bifurcation that arose within Reformed circles as a response to the First Awakening. And I note that Hansen interacted with Michael Horton as well. Historically, the supporters of the First Awakening appear to be non-confessional or anti-confessional. Edwards himself, as I noted in the comments section of my post on him, fares not better on this score. Confessions are healthy and necessary. I am always suspicious of an anti-confessional Christian because I want to know what he or she is trying to hide.

My point in this post (and you may be wondering if I have one!) is that the name Reformed has a history behind it. It stands, historically, for that theology that stems from the Reformed side of the Reformation. That theology, as Richard Muller has pointed out, involves John Calvin’s input, but also the input of many others. And this theology was codified on many occasions in the early years of the Reformation, but I would argue this codification reached its Zenith in the period of high Scholasticism (not, mind you, a dirty word!) when the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards were formulated. I believe these documents clearly express and display the system of doctrine that is Scripture. Does that mean I don’t distinguish between the confessions and Scripture? Not at all. But it does mean, as a minister in a historically Reformed denomination, that I have gone on public record as affirming that the Westminster Standards are the clearest expression of Scripture. Does that make them infallible or unchangeable? Not at all. But the process to change them is purposefully slow and hard. After all, we do not want our subordinate doctrinal standard to change with every shift of wind.

So as a matter of honesty and integrity I think we must reserve the term Reformed for this expression of Christianity. Even Collin Hansen sees this in a sort of left-handed way in the comments I cited above. I have no desire to slight my Calvinistically oriented evangelical brothers and sisters whom our Lord seems to be blessing. But we in the historically Reformed churches are also experiencing the Lord’s blessing as well. I am not impressed with numbers. Of course numerical snobbery works both ways. A denomination or congregation that is small is not necessarily blessed by God. Neither is it necessarily condemned. And so a large denomination or congregation is not necessarily blessed or cursed either. To assess the spiritual health of a church one must know many other things besides its size. What is the nature of its theology and teaching? What is the vitality of its life? These count. But lets have honesty in the use of the term Reformed. Lets not degrade the name as the word evangelical has been degraded.

Those of us in the historically Reformed tradition hold to what we hold to and live the way we live as Christians because we believe that the confessions we embrace teach the truth and inculcate a lifestyle consistent with that confession and profession of faith. That means we affirm some things and deny others. I have no desire to belittle a brother and sister in Christ. However, I cannot affirm X without at the same time denying not-X. In other words, if I think covenant theology is the most biblical expression of the theology of the Bible (and I do), that means any departures from that theology will be looked upon with concern. Why settle for second best? I happen to practice infant baptism because I think it is biblical, not because I am hanging on to a vestige of Roman Catholicism or medieval tradition. And I happen to think that the word or revelatory gifts of the Spirit, which were given for the initial establishment of the church, are no longer operative in the church today, regardless of what anyone else thinks or says. Does that mean my Reformed Baptist friends are not Christian? Not at all. Does that mean my more charismatically inclined Calvinistically oriented evangelical brothers and sisters are insignificant? May it never be! But lets be honest. As excited as I am to read about the growth of Calvinisitically oriented evangelicalism, I am more excited about full-strength, full-throttle Reformed confessionalism of a historic stripe. Now, in all fairness, Collin Hansen does interact with Ligon Duncan, who I think represents this perspective. And I think that I can also learn from my Calvinsitically oriented evangelical brothers and sisters. But I am left with one single question.

Why not come on over to the historic Reformed faith and denominations, like the OPC, PCA, and URC and embrace a full-blooded Reformed theology and life? I would be thrilled to welcome you.

11 Responses

  1. Timothy M

    Thanks for your interaction with this book. I have heard similar critiques of Hansen’s lack of appreciation for the historic Reformed faith. It seems the surge of strong predestinarianism has been voiced in conferences like Together for the Gospel and Gospel Coalition.

    Honest question, how do you think we as Reformed should respond to conferences like these and to brethren like these (obviously w/ love)?

    Having attended T4G ’08, it seems many are making this their revivalistic ‘fix’ where they see all their ‘heroes,’ so to speak. I do not know if such things compromise our confessionalism or not.

    I appreciate the invitation to Reformed Christianity and think we as RPCNA should be voicing such an invitation. As a pastor do you think there is anything more we can do to bring TULIP-types into Reformed churches?

    Have a blessed Lord’s Day

  2. Nicholas T. Batzig


    I am going to step in and try to answer your excellent question. I am not representing any of the other guys on this blog–just myself. I am enormously thankful for each and everyone of the T4G men. I think they are faithful, God-fearing, Christ honoring men who seek to preach the message of the cross. How could anyone not appreciate that?

    This being said, I think that Presbyterians in general need more of that zeal and love for the Gospel. Doug Kelly has a section in his book “Preachers with Power” in which he explains that the Gospel was really taken out of Presbyterian pulpits in the 1920’s as the center piece of our preaching. I think to some extent he is correct. But this does not mean that Covenant theology is circumstantial to Reformed theology. Covenant theology is Reformed theology. I think that Peter Lillback has very aptly shown that even Calvin had a Covenant Theology.

    We need to answer the T4G fans who dislike Covenant theology with a zeal for preaching the Christ of the Covenant. Mark Dever and the other Baptistic, New Covenant Theology guys are not slow to criticize CT men. So we should not be slow to criticize NCT and other modified forms of a Calvinistic theology. But, we should do so in love. I am thankful for C.J. Mahaney and the Sovereign Grace Calvinistic Charismatics, but if we are correct biblically we need to be able to answer the criticisms leveled at a cessationist theology. If the gifts have ceased, and we have biblical precedent for saying that (and I most certainly think we do) then we should be proving that continuation of supernatural gifts is not biblical.

    All in all this is a very difficult question to answer on the whole because we live in a very time when we need men like the T4G men who are not covenantal. Perhpas a T4G session between Lig Duncan, and the others needs to occur on their theological systems. I for one and convinced that CT is correct. If this is the case we should be able to persuade some of our NCT brothers. This is not something indifferent as many Presbyterians are making it. It is the truth about God’s word.

    In my humble opinion, Presbyterian and Household Baptists need to be writing more books on the cross and on subjects that are of first importance. The Baptistic Calvinists are doing this in droves and that is why they are having such a large influence.

    As far as Collin Hansen’s statement about confessions is concerned, it is a most unfortunate plug against systematic theology–even if he is not intending it to be so. Even Mark Driscoll teaches through the Heidelberg Catechism.

    Just some thoughts!

  3. Jeff Locke

    Hi everyone,

    Jeffrey, thanks for your thoughtful post. It seems like there’s been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere lately about what it means to be “Reformed,” and I appreciate your gentle but firm tone in your post.

    I find myself in a strange in-between place. I hang out with confessionalists all week (I’m a fellow student with Joseph Randall at Westminster CA), but attend a Sovereign Grace church on the weekends. I’ve been in Sov Grace for 4 years and have no plans to leave, but I thought maybe I could add a little to your discussion of CT vs. NCT, as least as it relates to “us” (in SG).

    There is a lot of respect for the historic Reformed confessions within SG. I was first introduced to the Heidelberg Catechism here (despite having attended a couple PCA churches before coming to SG), and I know many people in SG who hold to a basic covenant theology (we just don’t necessarily agree that the NC is administered through the family. Personally, it’s hard to be paedobaptist while holding to justification by faith alone, but that’s another story…). The covenant of works is pretty plain to many of us in SG, though I know that the senior pastor at the church I currently attend does not believe it’s there (and I’m sure there are others like him). I do not know how much CT was taught at the SG Pastor’s College in the past, but I do know that Lig Duncan taught a class on CT at the SG PC this year (ah, the joy of abbreviations). I don’t know how much of an endorsement of CT that is by SG, but I think it probably means we by and large lean in that direction.

    The standard line that you hear in SG churches is that we are “essentially reformed” in our theology. Now, there is nothing in the SG statement of faith about CT, but the only way I personally depart from historic reformed articulations of CT is when it comes to baptism (and I don’t think I’m alone). Do you think it’s valid to call ourselves little “r” reformed with the “essential” qualifier? I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

  4. Jeffrey C. Waddington


    I would not quibble over words. Although using the qualifier “essential” would seem to suggest that covenant theology/infant baptism is not an essential element of full-strength Reformed theology. But I appreciate the sentiment behind the use of the expression.

    I am not sure why you think infant baptism and justification by faith are inconsistent. I am sure you realize, as a matter of history, that the Reformers did not. After all, baptism is not an outward sign of an inward change. By that I mean baptism points to the promise of God that should the person receiving the sign trust in Christ God will fulfill his promise to save that person. So God could command Abraham to circumcise all the males in his household whether they had personally expressed faith or not. I do not believe that a person is saved because he is baptized.

    If you look at Genesis 17 you will see a twofold paradigm for circumcision/baptism. Abraham, as one who is of age must believe, then be circumcised. Isaac and Ishmael, must be circumcised and then believe. And Col. 2:11-12 show that circumcision in the OT and baptism in the NT point to the same spiritual reality: union with Christ and spiritual cleansing. But there is also an outward or visible result of circumcision/baptism and that is inclusion in the people of God with all its benefits and responsibilities. Remember that in the OT, as Paul reminds us in Romans 2:28-29 and 9:6-8 not everyone who was Jew ethnically was a Jew spiritually. Where we perhaps differ is in thinking that the NT no longer works with this corpus per mixtum principle. I believe it does. And I believe that this understanding of how God works salvation is essential to being Reformed.

    So in the end, we struggle with words. We do need to be careful with words. However I think we also need to deal with each other in godly love.

    I am happy to cheer you on, but I will have to demur on the issue of infant baptism and covenant theology.

  5. Nicholas T. Batzig


    I am thankful that you mentioned that you were introduced to the Heidelberg Catechism at a SG church. I think what I wanted to explain, contra Collin Hansen, was the fact that many of the neo-calvinists do have a appreciation for Reformed confessions, and others do not. My point to Dr. Clark on the Christ the Center interview (and I suppose that is what set all this discussion off) was that there are some who call themselves Reformed Baptists who hold to the London Baptist confession, and others who call themselves Reformed Baptists who do not.

    What makes this discussion very difficult is the fact that the word “Reformed” is being used in a very undefinable way. If what is meant by Reformed presently is an adherence to the five points of Calvinism and the five solas, then I am fine calling our sovereign grace Baptists “Reformed.” But if what is meant by “Reformed” is an adherence to the historic Reformed confessions then I could not do so.

    This does not mean I will not work side by side with other brothers who differ on issues like baptism and spiritual gifts. But the five points and five solas need to be there unequivocally.

    That being said, I am going to post some lecture series on baptism by William Shishko and Edward Donnelly. I would recommend that you listen to them carefully. I am willing to read anything that a Calvinistic Baptist brother would ask me to read on baptism.

    I guess my chief concern in all this is that we patiently, lovingly, and diligently try to understand why we believe our theological systems are correct. We live in a day when everyone seems to have his own theological system and therefore adherence to a historic Reformed confession is not popular. It is much more acceptable to do theology in an exegetical vacuum and then find support for conclusions in this or that part of a confession of faith. I for one would love to have a discussion of the theological systems that are contained in Reformed Confessions without ignoring biblical exegesis on the issues.

    Find me a platform and I will be glad to engage on this subject.

  6. Dustin


    Since part of this post is meant to piggy-back your previous post on what “Reformed” means, I will follow up. I’m still not seeing support for you seeing “Reformed” as referring to those who held to Presbyterian ecclesiology. It seems like your answer is that you base it upon the confessions that were Reformed, but you’re only counting those confessions as Reformed which accord with your already assumed definition of it. If men like Owen and Goodwin cannot be considered Reformed (in the narrow sense), what are they? There is a good word for Reformed men who held to Presbyterian ecclesiology, Presbyterian. You are essentially making Reformed and Presbyterian completely synonymous, whereas the word historically appears to be more broad than simply “Presbyterian.” I think that is why men like Owen and Goodwin have always been considered Reformed (narrowly), and then to be more specific you may call them Congregationalists.
    I certainly want to be historically accurate in how I use terms, so if my understanding is wrong your corrections would be appreciated. However, your reasons for making Presbyterian ecclesiology part of the definition for Reformed (and excluding for example Goodwin, whose main difference was ecclesiology) would be helpful.

    I appreciate your willingness to defend the significance of the term and your not wanting to see it become meaningless. Also, I would agree that it must mean more than I like TULIP and the 5 solas. Yet, my contention is simply that it has been and must be understood as a broader term than you have defined it (not = to Presbyterian though they made up the majority of the Reformed tradition). This is probably why Muller’s great work on what the Reformed Orthodox taught includes a number of non-Presbyterian men. Your thoughts are appreciated and since defining a word is a small matter, though important, and I don’t want to spend much time on small matters. But, if you could provide some more arguments and support for narrowing your definition in the way you have, that could be a good final word on the matter. Thanks again and keep up the good work!

  7. Jeffrey C. Waddington


    Actually you are correct that the word “Reformed” has applied to men like John Owen, who as far as I can tell, is a quintessential Reformed theologian. However, I do believe that Presbyterianism is what is taught in Scripture and the WS and 3FU, so I still think that “Reformed” in its fullest sense does refer to Presbyterianism.

    I am not trying to unchurch others by seeking clarification. But to me, to be Reformed is to be Presbyterian. Were Owen alive and I could converse with him I would challenge him on his congregationalism. Of course there are some who think he reverted to Presbyterianism. I am not sure how serious to take that view, but it is out there. I can benefit from Owen without making him Presbyterian, however.

    So let’s think of the broader Reformed tradition as concentrically embracing Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and Anglicanism in some sense and out from there to even broader circles.

  8. Jeff Locke

    Nick and Jeff,

    I do appreciate the desire that both of you have to speak about these things in love. This is a difficult thing to do, especially given the fact that we are all convinced of the correctness of our doctrine and exegesis. The richness of the history of the Reformed denominations can be and often is a stumbling block for many Reformed brethren, as it is a wonderful history and can be cause for pride. It is also a gracious gift of God to give his churches so many centuries of solid biblical teaching and faithful service to draw upon. I pray that in the definitions debate, the confessions and traditions would be the latter rather than the former.

    In that spirit, I’m sorry for the off-handed comment on justification by faith being inconsistent with paedobaptism. Ultimately, I think it comes down to how much continuity one sees in the administrations of the covenant of grace from the OT to the NT. It is clear that circumcision and baptism are parallel, but it is not as clear that they are as equal as I think historic reformed theology would have them. While I certainly believe that the visible church will always be a mixed community (I mean, you read 1 John and it’s clear that there will be people in the church who are not elect), Scripture seems to teach that repentance (faith) and baptism go hand-in-hand. The debate could be fruitful, but I do hope the result would be an increased spirit of brotherhood in spite of differences. Understanding what “reformed” means is important for clarity’s sake, but should be done with great care and humility. May the Lord be gracious to us in allowing us to be faithful to his call on our lives.

  9. Jeffrey C. Waddington


    Are you related to John? Just kidding!

    Seriously, thank you for your comments. If we learn how to communicate more clearly and without unnecessary heat this is good.

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