By Richard Lucas–

Perhaps the question has been posed to you at one time or another.  The appropriate answer it seems depends almost as much on the questioner as the one replying.  For those in the emerging “Young, Restless, and Reformed” category, they might not realize that not everyone else understands the self-describing moniker of “Reformed” in quite the same way.

I have two goals for these blog posts: 1) to sketch out something of the landscape of those who consider themselves “Reformed”; and 2) to provide some historical perspective to the development of the T.U.L.I.P. acronym  in an effort to perhaps curb some misplaced enthusiasm.

Map of the Reformed Landscape

Here I’m merely surveying from my limited experience those who I’ve run into in the modern American Evangelical landscape.  I also will focus on those groups most likely to interest readers of this blog, which is “self-consciously Evangelical, Reformational, and Baptistic.”  My sympathies will become apparent as I don’t withhold my own biases along the way.

The survey really falls into more of a spectrum than separate categories, because there is quite a bit of overlap between various groups.  Nevertheless I think some differentiation will still prove to be helpful, because these groups are often using the word “Reformed” in different senses (i.e. historically, soteriologically, biblical-theologically, etc.).

1) Theonomists

They believe they are the only ones who are consistently reformed.  To them being reformed is applying their bi-covenantal theology in every area of life, including ethics, in a thoroughly consistent manner.  So, not just the OT moral law, but also the civil law is binding today (this is simplistic, but sufficient).  Their claim is that they are the only ones who are truly reformed because they alone hold to the historic Protestant view of the Old Testament law as taught by many of the magisterial reformers.  They are a small minority in Evangelicalism, nevertheless they continue to be a thorn in the side of the next group.

2) Confessionally Reformed

This group is perhaps the most vocal critics of others co-opting the term “Reformed.”  They claim an objective, ecclesiastical, and confessional definition to being Truly Reformed (TR).  Agreement with the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort), or better yet…add three more and get Six Forms of Unity (throw in the Westminster Confession of Faith, as well as the Larger and Shorter Catechism) all from the 16th and 17th Century.

That can get cumbersome, so at times this group simply refers to subscription to the Westminster Standards as its litmus test…but then again, do they mean “loose” or “strict” subscription?  This very question can seem to an outsider like they are more concerned with faithfulness to a document produced in 1646 than they are to the Bible.  One loudly hears protests that the WCF is merely a subordinate standard to the Bible, but I fear this distinction is often lost in practice.

While I often use the term ‘Evangelical’ to refer broadly to those who find unity around the evangel and confess orthodox Christian doctrine in a Protestant heritage, they would not want to bear that label.  This group considers themselves “Reformed Christians,” from which they distinguish themselves from being Evangelicals.

3) Reformed Baptists

This group finds its common identity also around a confessional document from the 17th Century, namely the 1689 Second London [Baptist] Confession of Faith (a baptized version of the WCF).  In this way, there is much shared ethos between Reformed Baptists and the Confessionally Reformed Presbyterians referenced above.  The aforementioned group would not consider those holding a credobaptist position to be Truly Reformed, yet they seem to tolerate them sufficiently as evidenced by the fact that The Institute for Reformed Baptist Studies is integrated with Westminster Seminary California.

They historically ground their Reformed lineage by defending an “English Separatist” view of Baptist Origins (with which I agree) over the “Anabaptist Kinship” view (popular in many SBC circles) or “Landmarkist” view.  Applying the adjective “Reformed” to Baptists is more of a 20th Century development, as their early British Baptist forefathers preferred the terms “Particular” (for particular atonement) or simply “Calvinistic” rather than “Reformed.”

Strictly speaking then, for someone to be a “Reformed Baptist” (with a capital “R”) they would also hold to certain distinctives found in the 1689 Confession.  Besides the obvious adherence to Covenant Theology, they also are practicing Sabbatarians, and would uphold the so-called Third Use of the Law, namely that the moral law of the Old Covenant is regulative for New Covenant believers.

There is now a significant group who has defected from strict 1689 Reformed Baptist circles because they hold to more of a New Covenant Theology view of the law, and hence would not adhere to the distinctives previously mentioned.  However, they are still Calvinistic in their soteriology, so I’ve heard them referred to at times as “Sovereign Grace Baptists” as opposed to “Reformed Baptists,” though I doubt this label is widely embraced.

4) Covenant Theology

When some ask if a particular person or institution is “Reformed” what they really want to know is if they hold to Covenant Theology.  I usually hear the term “Reformed” equated with Covenant (or Federal) Theology by Dispensationalists.

Of course the three previous groups would all hold to Covenant Theology, but here I have in mind something more general.  Being Reformed in this understanding is equated not so much with particular doctrines of soteriology, but with the hermeneutics undergirding a theological system.  In this way, many a Dispensationalist, who embraces TULIP (or most of it anyway), would still not say they are “Reformed” because they reject the Covenant of Works/Grace schema of biblical-theological interpretation.

5) TULIP

In my limited experience, this I believe has become the general litmus test to whether someone can justly use the term “Reformed” in the modern American Evangelical landscape (much to the chagrin of the Confessionally Reformed).  T.U.L.I.P. of course is an acronym to summarize the 5 Heads of Doctrine which came from the Synod of Dordrecht (also from the early 17th Century).  My guess is that many young enthusiasts who would fall into this camp nowadays have probably never even read the Canons of Dort, yet they can rattle off Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints with an air of apostolic authority!

A slightly more inclusive way of referring to this teaching is simply as the Doctrines of Grace.  It’s almost wielded as a Calvinist code word by some, because what unsuspecting Arminian can say he doesn’t like doctrines of grace?

While all the prior groups would also firmly embrace the 5 Points of Calvinism, those in this group might have vastly different ecclesiologies or even varying theological systems.  Yet the unifying factor is that they are all soteriologically reformed.  In this way, everyone from charismatics to emerging types to Southern Baptists could be “Reformed” because soteriologically they advocate the 5 Points of Calvinism.  Some might want to require the 5 Cries of the Reformation (5 solas) too, but usually TULIP is sufficient.

6) Monergistic or Predestinarian

This group is a sort of ‘least common denominator’ approach to being Reformed.  For instance, I have had theology professors who are dispensational (of at least some variety) and self consciously reject Limited Atonement (hence being 4 Point Calvinists), nevertheless consider themselves “Reformed.”  I think what those in this group have in mind would also be a soteriological definition of Reformed theology, but without the specificity of TULIP.  They embrace the monergistic emphasis of teaching on salvation that comes out of the Reformation.

Sophisticated versions of this group will sometimes make some historical arguments to justify their use of the reformed label by arguing that Calvin himself did not hold to Limited Atonement or that there was a variety of views on the extent of the atonement among the delegates to the Synod of Dort.

In more popular church circles, I’ve heard anyone who advocates predestination to be labeled Reformed.   Of course Calvin himself didn’t see himself as an innovator on predestination, though he is often associated with this doctrine.  Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas (who Paul Helm has dubbed “the A team”) all taught predestination, yet it would be anachronistic to refer to any of them as “Reformed.” 

[It should be noted that the broadest possible definition of “being Reformed” would include anyone who claims to be Reformed and can demonstrate some historical connection with the Swiss and French wing of the Protestant Reformation.  But under this big tent, not just the many liberal groups associated with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches would be considered Reformed, but even Arminianism itself.  I’ve kept the groups above limited to those who are theologically conservative and Calvinistic (soteriologically speaking).]

To be continued…

Richard Lucas is a Resident with The NETS Institute for Church Planting and a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.