What is Reformed Theology? Part 1: A Historical Look

Today I am beginning a series of posts on Reformed Theology.  To some of you, this may be unfamiliar language.  To others, you may begin to roll your eyes because you are so familiar with this discussion, you don’t want to hear one more argument over what might appear to be futile and pointless discussion about obscure doctrines.  Many see doctrinal debates as pointless, unnecessary, and irrelevant to the Christian life, but I hope to show that this is not the case and that this sort of thinking is actually a symptom of the very theology I am hoping to show is unbiblical.  So, I beg you to bear with me as I attempt to outline what Reformed Theology is and why it is important, even vital, to the health of the individual Christian and the Church.

I hope to explain Reformed Theology in three ways: historically, doctrinally, and practically.  That is, first I hope to show where Reformed theology comes from historically, then I hope to explain what the theology actually is, and finally, I hope to explain the practical implications Reformed Theology has on us individually and on local churches that embrace and preach it.

A Historical Look:

Reformed Theology is the theological tradition of biblical understanding rediscovered by the Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 16th century.  While some would limit the term to describe only pastor/theologians like Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, I use the term to describe the theological tradition that was based on the writings and ministries of Luther and Calvin with respect to the doctrines of the sovereignty of God, humanity, the work of Christ, and the application of salvation.  I think this is the way the term is widely used.

The doctrines central to Reformed Theology are central to Christianity because they deal with the very message of Christianity itself, the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In fact, it is because the Reformers believed the gospel had been lost by the Roman Catholic Church that they articulated the theology which we are going to discuss.  So, it is important from the outset that we recognize that this discussion is not a discussion about some fringe issue like what the time-line of Christ’s return will be or whether or not the gifts of prophesy and tongues exist today.  This discussion is about the heart of the Christian faith: our need for Christ, the work of Christ, and how the work of Christ is applied to us.

Although Luther and Calvin lived in the 1500’s, it would be wrong to assume that Reformed Theology did not exist until they lived.  What I mean is, it would be a mistake to assume that because the label ‘Reformed Theology’ did not exist until the Reformation, the Church never believed this theology before then.  This mistake is made time and time again by those who make the unsophisticated argument that since the Church did not articulate a doctrine exactly as we do now with the terms we use now, the doctrine is a late development of thought and not core to Christianity.  For instance, some argue that since the Church did not articulate that the Son of God was fully God and of the same substance as the Father until 325 A.D., this was not the original or only teaching of the church before that.  In every age, the Church has had to defend and clarify its doctrines against heretical theology relating to the issues of the day.  In the early church, Greek philosophy brought many challenges and influences into the Church related to the issues of ontology (being).  This led the church to focus on clarifying issues like the nature of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity.  In recent years, the Church has responded to higher criticism with a clearer articulation of the doctrine of Scripture.  At the time of the Reformation, many in the Church like Luther and Calvin began to notice that the Roman Catholic Church had lost the historic understanding of the gospel and thus the proper understanding of what constitutes a church, and so it was in this context that they began to restate and clarify what the bible teaches about these issues.

The theology that developed in the Roman Catholic Church during the Scholastic and Renaissance periods leading up to the Reformation must be understood for us to understand why Luther in particular gave attention to the doctrine of justification as he did.  The great theologian Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274) and others before him relied heavily on Aristotelian categories and presuppositions.  Aquinas and others sought to ground biblical doctrines in reason and thus used Aristotelian logic to justify or to show the reasonableness of Christianity to doubters.  This overconfidence in human reason led the Roman Catholic Church to begin to talk about justification as something in which both man and God participate.  This view is called Sacramentalism.  Sacramentalism, which the Roman Catholic Church still holds to today since these views have been made permanent through the council of Trent in 1545, is the belief that Jesus purchased salvation through his blood and gave salvation to the Roman Catholic Church to distribute through the sacraments (which include but are not limited to baptism and the Eucharist).  Thus, a person is justified before God through faith initially, but then must continue to do the works Christ has instituted in order to continue receiving righteousness.  They argued, and still do, that a person is justified by faith, but not by faith alone, for we must do the works of God in order to merit the grace of infused righteousness.

There are many implications of this theology, but I will only highlight a few.  First, this view of justification confuses the legal declaration of God (justification) with the ongoing work of the Spirit to conform a person into the image of Christ (sanctification).  The two are blended into one thing rather than seeing them as distinct and yet inseparable works of God.  Second, this view contains an overconfident view of man’s capability to turn to God.  Despite’s Augustine’s refutation of Pelagianism (which taught that man had free-will since Adam’s sin only served as a bad example to us and did not bring guilt and corruption into the world), the Roman Catholic Church still failed to account for the power of sin over us which enslaves us and prevents us from turning to God in faith.  Third, this view is nothing but a disguised ‘earn your salvation’ theology.  Of course, Roman Catholics argued, and still do, that they believe in salvation by grace alone, but they cannot deny that a person can fall away from grace if they fail to do what they are supposed to do to merit access to the storehouse of salvation Christ purchased.  They argued that a person could begin justification through faith and grow in actual righteousness but then cease to continue and thus not achieve enough grace to be finally righteous in the end.

It is in this context that Luther and Calvin challenged the Roman Catholic Church.  They saw throughout Europe corruption and legalism as priests used their power as holders of divine grace to manipulate and control the lives of peasant and king alike.  As a result, Luther and Calvin wrote and preached grace from beginning to end.  They studied and showed the church again the ancient belief from Scripture that salvation begins and ends with God and is received through faith alone, which is itself a gift of grace.

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