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On the “Who is Reformed?” Question: Choosing a “What” Over a “Who”

With the growth of Reformed ideas comes a jockeying to define what “Reformed” is and is not; or more frequently, who is and who is not. One hot topic has been whether Baptists have a right to plant their flag on Reformed turf. Those who answer in the negative are typically under the mistaken impression that they own the title and deed to the bulk of Reformed real estate. Many well-known authors and speakers have fallen into the hands of self-appointed Reformed gatekeepers who frequently give a thumbs up or thumbs down on others’ Reformed status.

Counting myself squarely in the “Reformed” camp, I have wrestled with how to sort out this question of who is and isn’t Reformed, and I’ve recently realized that, in one sense, it’s kind of a stupid question. People in generally Reformed circles have a complex set of overlapping, intersecting, and systemically complex beliefs, so asking them to stand single file in one of only two lines does not reflect that complexity.

Instead of placing someone in the Reformed bin or in the non-Reformed bin after a clunky evaluation process, we better serve the person and his or her nuances by evaluating specific beliefs. That method of evaluation should involve a comparison of beliefs to Reformed confessions and creeds, as well as those works that have endured within the Reformed tradition. And for a reminder, all those Reformed confessions and books are only as true as the biblical passages and principles from which they are derived. Pondering whether someone is Reformed is like asking whether someone is “biblical.”

Consider a few benefits to evaluating (when necessary) the beliefs of a person rather than that person in his or her entirety:

  1. Accuracy. The label “Reformed” is not able to bear the burden of accurately encompassing a person whose set of beliefs may include both Reformed beliefs and non-Reformed beliefs. Having to choose one label for such a set of beliefs sacrifices the accuracy of that label to some degree.
  2. Anti-aristocracy. Conversations surrounding this topic often implicitly devolve into who gets placed within the inner circle and who has to look in from the outside; who receives admission to the club and who gets bounced. Speaking of Reformed beliefs rather than Reformed people eliminates a measure of elitism.
  3. Accessibility. Because people often do not express every belief they hold, limiting the “Reformed” label to beliefs rather than people focuses the discussion on that which is public. If Chuck has expressed his appreciation for the practical benefits of predestination within his prayer life but hasn’t said much on the covenants, or baptism, or Old Testament typology, or complementarianism, is Chuck Reformed? Not a great question. Is Chuck’s belief about God’s sovereignty Reformed? That’s better.

I hold this general principle loosely, and at a basic level I’m simply seeking to make a linguistic, terminological point rather than a doctrinal one. I certainly call myself Reformed in ordinary language. I have said things like “B.B. Warfield is Reformed,” “many Reformed theologians…” and other obviously appropriate statements. I subscribe to the Westminster Standards. But when we observe significant swaths of churchgoers who are on their way to a more robust Reformed theology, a complexity that accompanies the current theological flux within Reformed circles should be reflected in our use of the “Reformed” label.

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