Christianity: Reformed Christianity

Donald K McKim. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.

Overview

Reformed Christianity emerged in the sixteenth century out of the Lutheran and Anabaptist traditions of the Protestant Reformation. “Reformed” refers to a number of church bodies worldwide. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a voluntary organization, represents approximately 70 percent of the world’s Reformed Christians. In 2003 it had 218 churches in 107 countries with more than 75 million members (who subscribed to more than 60 different confessions of faith). Most churches are called Congregational, Presbyterian, Reformed, and United, and most are minorities in their countries.

Reformed churches are diverse, but they share a common heritage going back to John Calvin (1509-64) and other important figures. These theologians stressed God’s freedom as well as his desire to enter into covenantal relationships with humanity. They believed that God worked through the Old Testament nation of Israel and ultimately sent Jesus Christ into the world to live and die and be raised again to provide salvation for those who believe. God freely bestows the gift of faith in Christ to those whom God chooses. These believers constitute the church and become the people God uses to share the message of Jesus Christ and to serve God’s purposes in the world. These emphases on God’s freedom and his covenant are key beliefs in Reformed Christianity.

History

Reformed Christianity is rooted in the sixteenth-century reforms begun by Martin Luther (1483-1546), yet developed on a separate path. Such major reformers as Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) and John Calvin (1509-64), as well as Martin Bucer (1491-1551), John Knox (c. 1513-72), and Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75), gave impetus to the movement. The Reformed agreed with Luther’s criticisms of Roman Catholicism but disagreed on certain theological issues. Calvin’s writings, especially his Institutes of the Christian Religion, articulated Reformed theology.

After Calvin’s death, Reformed Christianity advanced throughout Europe. It took root in Switzerland and Germany, expanded into France, and spread to Scotland, the Netherlands, and England with particular effectiveness. The Synod of Dort (1618-19), in the Netherlands, rejected Jacobus Arminiu’s views on predestination and promulgated the five points of Calvinism: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints (TULIP). Later the Westminster Assembly (1643-48), in England, produced the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), which articulated doctrinal understandings and a presbyterian form of church government by elders through presbyteries. Church bodies that held theological beliefs similar to those of Presbyterians but who advocated a local, independent form of church government became known as Congregationalists.

Large numbers of Reformed Christians emigrated from the British Isles and Europe to the American colonies, and the early history of the United States demonstrates the strong influence of Calvinists, who were involved in the nation’s political, cultural, and religious life. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century missionary movements spread the Reformed faith throughout the world. Dedicated missionaries established churches and ministered through education and health care in South America, Africa, and Asia. The effects of their efforts are still found today.

Throughout the twentieth century many Reformed churches participated in worldwide ecumenical and missionary endeavors. During this period Reformed Christianity grew strongly in the Southern Hemisphere, where a majority of the world’s Reformed Christians now live. A large number of Reformed Christians are also found in Asia, with Presbyterians the largest Protestant group in South Korea. In western Europe and North America, Reformed Christians are a declining percentage of the population.

Central Doctrines

Reformed Christians share common beliefs with other Christian traditions, particularly the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Jesus Christ. They recognize God as triune (the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and sovereign over all. The centrality of Jesus Christ is crucial, with the Reformed confessing him as “God with us” (the Incarnation) and “truly God and truly human”—the eternal Son of God who lived and died and was raised again to provide salvation, which is the restoration of the loving relationship between God and humans that has been broken by sin.

Reformed Christians affirm the doctrines of Protestantism, emphasizing that salvation is the freely given gift of God, offered by God’s grace, and received by sinners through faith. Faith is focused on belief and trust in Jesus Christ as the savior who has taken upon himself human sin. Through Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the dead, sinners are adopted into the family of God and are saved. Salvation comes by God’s grace, through faith, and not by human efforts or actions. The Reformed affirm the Bible (Holy Scripture) as the Word of God and as the medium through which the knowledge of God and God’s actions through Jesus Christ are known.

Reformed Christianity may often emphasize the doctrine of election, or predestination, as associated with the followers of Calvin. Election is a biblical theme indicating that it is God’s grace alone that gives people the gift of salvation. God has chosen, or elected, a people to enter into relationship with him and to glorify and serve him in the world. The elect serve him through the covenant community, the church. The church is the people of God, who order their life in accord with his Word in Scripture. The people of God seek to be faithful stewards of the creation entrusted to human care and to worship the one, true God—known in Jesus Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit in human hearts—rather than any other person, power, or ideology, which would be the sin of idolatry. God’s people work for justice and peace in society, as these are God’s purposes for all people. These beliefs lead Reformed Christians to take active roles in society and culture, seeking their transformation through God’s power.

Reformed Christians stress God’s initiatives. God “made the first move” in creating the world, in coming to sinful humanity in Jesus Christ, in extending salvation through grace, and in giving the gift of faith to the people of God by the work of the Holy Spirit. The Christian’s response is to live a life of gratitude and to praise God for this wondrous love. The Christian turns from sin and lives in obedience to God’s will and law as a grateful response to the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Moral Code of Conduct

Reformed Christians believe salvation is a gift of God’s grace, received through faith (trust) in Christ, and made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit, whose regenerative power causes the believer to be born again, or made into a new person. Thus, Christians are oriented toward serving and loving God rather than sinfully turning inward toward their own needs.

The Reformed acknowledge that Christians continue to sin and do not always act in accord with God’s will. God’s forgiveness is extended to them, in Jesus Christ, when they confess their sin in repentance and then resolve to follow God’s will.

Reformed Christians look to the Bible as the source of their knowledge of God’s will. A Christian code of conduct is basically to seek to follow the example of Jesus Christ. More broadly, Reformed Christians stress that Christians follow God’s law as revealed in Scripture and that this is the way to know the conduct God wants of Christian people. The moral law, revealed especially in the Ten Commandments, is God’s declaration of the way human society and human lives should be ordered.

Reformed Christians emphasize that Christians must willingly follow God’s law. They do so not to gain their own salvation—that is, in the belief that by obeying God’s law they will earn salvation. Instead, obedience to God’s will as expressed in his law arises as a Christian’s grateful response for the free salvation given in Jesus Christ. Following the law of God is the result of salvation, not its cause. The Christian willingly obeys God’s law as a grateful expression of love and gratitude for the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Sacred Books

Reformed Christians honor the Bible as the Word of God. Here God is uniquely and authoritatively revealed. No other book or source can convey the true knowledge of God in the way the Bible does. Reformed Christians look to the Scriptures as the supreme source of the knowledge of God, the means of communication God has used to convey to humanity who he is and what he has done.

Sacred Symbols

The cross stands at the center of Christianity. Reformed Christians, like other Protestants, honor the empty cross of the resurrected Christ as a sacred symbol of their faith. An empty cross topped by a crown is often a symbol in Reformed churches, while historically a rooster adorning their steeples is a reminder of Christ’s coming return in judgment.

Most often the Reformed are wary of investing symbols with much prominence. They fear that the symbols themselves will detract from the realities they represent. Any absolutizing of a symbol would be a form of idolatry—one of the central sins to be avoided.

Early and Modern Leaders

Reformed Christians have been active in many contexts. Well-known historical figures who were adherents of Reformed Christianity include Isaac Watts (1674-1748), an English non-conformist minister and prolific hymn writer; George Whitefield (1714-70), a Church of England evangelist whose tour of the American colonies was pivotal in New England’s Great Awakening; David Livingstone (1813-73), a Scottish physician, missionary, and explorer in Africa; and Robert E. Speer (1867-1947), an American Presbyterian lay leader and a central figure in the American missionary movement.

Major Theologians and Authors

Among the most important historical and contemporary figures for Reformed Christians are those theologians who have provided biblical and systematic expositions of the Reformed faith. These include Ulrich Zwingli, who began the Swiss Protestant Reformation, and John Calvin, whose works became the most important Reformed theological writings. Later important theologians include Theodore Beza (1519-1605) and Francis Turretin (1623-87). Leading Reformed theologians in the Netherlands include Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) and Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), who each wrote important works in systematic theology. An important Reformed theologian in the United States was Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), who wrote penetrating theological treatises. Charles Hodge (1797-1878), of Princeton Seminary, produced the significant, three-volume work Systematic Theology. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), through his massive Church Dogmatics, was a dominant Reformed voice in the twentieth century.

Organizational Structure

Reformed churches are either presbyterian or congregational in church government. Presbyterianism features a series of graduated governing bodies, with the presbytery as the central governing unit. This central governing unit is composed of ministers and elders (elected leaders of local congregations) from a specific geographical area. In a congregational polity each local church has complete jurisdiction over its own church life.

Houses of Worship and Holy Places

In the Reformed view there are no holy places. Worship can take place anywhere. Reformed Christians build houses of worship to promote and enhance the worship of God.

The architecture of Reformed churches has been significantly influenced by the conviction that the proclamation of the Word of God and the sacraments are central to worship. This has resulted in a central pulpit in the worship space, often raised to emphasize the importance of preaching. The Lord’s Supper is administered from a Communion table set on the level of the congregation, as opposed to a high altar, to emphasize the equality and fellowship of all congregants.

What is Sacred?

Reformed Christians do not recognize any human elements as sacred. That which is sacred is God—known in the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven, there are no sacred objects, persons, or places on earth to be worshiped. To worship thus, in the Reformed view, is to practice idolatry, which gives undue honor to that which is not God. In general, this is the theological view of other Protestant churches. The use of symbols in worship and in other liturgical practices, however, is more prominent in some other Protestant bodies than among the Reformed.

Holidays and Festivals

The festivals celebrated in the lives and churches of Reformed Christians are the historic festivals of the universal Christian church, particularly Advent, Christmas, the baptism of the Lord, Lent, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost, and Christ the King Sunday. Individual congregations may have their own traditions and practices around some of these holiday festivals. In general, worship during these days is oriented toward the religious meaning of the particular festival. Historically some Reformed churches have eliminated the traditional Christian round of holy days.

Mode of Dress

Reformed Christians’ mode of dress varies according to the particular societies and cultures in which they live. While normal Christian prescriptions for modesty and avoidance of ostentation are present, Reformed Christians are free to adopt modern-day dress in their own cultural settings.

Dietary Practices

There are no dietary practices prescribed or suggested for Reformed Christians. The Reformed regard food as a good gift of God, necessary for the sustenance and enjoyment of life.

Rituals

Weekly worship services are a central part of the Christian experience. The Reformed emphasize that worship is for the people of God, who gather to honor and worship him, to pray, to listen to his Word, to celebrate the sacraments, and to be nurtured in their lives of faith to serve God in the world in all they do. Worship services feature hymns, prayers, a sermon, the sacraments, an offering, and, often, announcements related to the local congregation.

Sacraments are an outward ritual or sign of an inward reality. In contrast to some other traditions, the Reformed usually do not celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper at every worship service. The frequency of celebration in Reformed churches varies. The Lord’s Supper, instituted by Christ, is given to strengthen the faith of believers and is a means by which the benefits of salvation achieved by Jesus Christ are sealed in the lives of those who have faith. Jesus Christ is spiritually present in the sacrament but not in a physical or substantial form.

The sacrament of baptism is occasionally celebrated during worship. The Reformed tradition typically stresses infant baptism, while also acknowledging adult baptism as the means by which, through a profession of faith in Christ, a person is received as a member of the Christian community. In the case of infants who are baptized, both the parents and the local congregation make promises to raise the child with a knowledge of God’s love in Jesus Christ. When the child comes to an age of accountability (the exact age varies, though many churches set age 12 as standard), a personal confession of faith can be made as the young person becomes a church member. This process is called confirmation.

Rites of Passage

While Reformed churches acknowledge only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, other dimensions of Christian experience, or rites of passage, are also part of church life. Weddings are performed in Reformed churches to acknowledge marriage. Funerals are often held in Reformed churches as a service of witness to the Resurrection as well as to acknowledge death and the life to come. The focus of funerals in Reformed churches is on the eternal life that Jesus Christ gives as a result of his resurrection rather than on the life of the deceased alone.

Membership

Membership in Reformed churches is open to all. Reformed churches seek to bring others into their communities of faith through sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Reformed churches use traditional as well as innovative forms of missionary activities, such as contemporary media, including the Internet. Reformed Christians hold that the gospel of Jesus Christ is to be shared with all people and that vigorous efforts must always be made to spread Christ’s message through words and deeds. They also recognize that the Holy Spirit causes a person to make a profession of Christian faith.

Religious Tolerance

Many Reformed Christians support the freedom to worship, religious tolerance, and ecumenical participation. Not all Reformed churches are as committed to ecumenical endeavors as others. Reformed Christianity sees itself as one stream of Christian belief, or one part of the Christian family. Despite theological differences with other churches, Reformed Christians can celebrate the great commonalities of Christian faith and recognize that the ties that bind them together with other Christians are more and greater than the doctrines that divide them. Reformed Christians have often fought against political oppression, while working for peace and justice for all persons.

Social Justice

Reformed Christianity is sometimes said to adopt the paradigm of “Christ the transformer of culture.” This means the emphasis of the Reformed church is to bring the gospel to bear on all societal and cultural institutions and practices, so that the power of God can work within the structures of a community or country. The quest for social justice is part of this paradigm. Reformed churches have consistently made social pronouncements that focus on contemporary issues, and they have been active in efforts to fight poverty, support education, and champion human rights.

Social Aspects

Social dimensions of life are important for Reformed Christians. Support for healthy marriages and stable families is shared by the Reformed with other Christians. While the Reformed view marriage as ordained by God and intended to be permanent, Reformed Christians can also recognize that error and sin are part of Christian existence, and so they may recognize the validity of divorce on occasions. The Reformed may also view the human family as a witness, or pointer, to the family of God, the church, into which believers in Jesus Christ are adopted through faith.

Controversial Issues

There is no unanimity among Reformed Christians on contemporary controversial issues such as birth control, divorce, abortion, and the role of women in religion. Societal and cultural differences may affect the way these issues are understood in different settings. Theological arguments on different sides of these issues can be, and are, made and debated. This means Reformed thinking and practice vary among the global Reformed churches.

Cultural Impact

Reformed theologians have spoken of God’s “common grace,” which is God’s restraint of human sin. This view enables Reformed Christians to participate fully in cultural life, including the liberal arts and those other aspects of human society that promote positive values and communal life. Thus, Reformed Christians are free to participate widely and vigorously in all dimensions of culture—political, economic, social, and religious. They may join in common cause with non-Christians to promote shared values and collective goals.

Reformed contributions to the arts and sciences include the work of Rembrandt van Rijn, the seventeenth-century Dutch painter, who gave visual artistic expression to Reformed ideas. In the political sphere, Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), English soldier and political leader, embraced a Calvinist faith in his attempt to reform English government. Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), president of the United States from 1913 to 1921, was a devout Reformed believer whose faith greatly influenced his approach to politics and his zeal for a League of Nations.

In the Netherlands Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), a leading Reformed theologian, was also a prominent journalist—as well as a member of parliament, founder of the Calvinist Free University of Amsterdam, and prime minister. Yoshitaka Kuman (1899-1981) was a Japanese minister and theologian who, through many writings, was significant for contextualizing Christian theology within Japanese life and culture. Samuel Habib (1928-98), an Egyptian church leader and president of the Protestant Council of Egypt, wrote more than 70 books. American cultural icon Fred M. Rogers (“Mister Rogers”; 1928-2003)—an educator and popular host of children’s television programs—was a Presbyterian minister.