More on Being Essentially Reformed…

June 7, 2010 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

A commenter (“That Bad Dog” – check out his blog here) left such a great explanation for precisely what is wrong with the phrase, “Essentially Reformed.”   Here is what he shared:

1. The problem of “essentials”

It is a theological axiom that whenever someone puts the word “essentially” in front of a doctrine, it is because they intend to deny something that has previously (and sometimes universally) been regarded as actually essential to the doctrine.

Example: If someone says they are “essentially Trinitarian”, it is because they deny some part of the historic, accepted, creedal definition of the Trinity, but don’t wish to face the consequences of an honest admission of fact.

Another axiom of theology is that, the more a person is departing from a doctrine, the more he will seek to control the public definition of the doctrine. Rather than just saying, “I agree with the doctrine of X to this point, but disagree here,” people try to sieze control of the definition itself, to insist that they belong under the umbrella and should be unchallenged. Same thing here with Purswell/SGM and the “Reformed” banner, which brings us to…

2. What is “reformed”, and who gets to define it?

First, a point of history. “Reformed theology” is often confused in popular talk with “Reformation theology” but this is not correct. Reformed is a stream of Reformation theology, but the Reformation river includes Lutheranism, and the anabaptists, among others. Importantly, the Lutherans do not consider themselves Reformed, even though they embrace the 5 Solas, which should immediately suggest that there is more to it.

Reformed theology, in a historical sense, refers to the theology which emerged first (mostly) in the Swiss reformation, then developed in the Dutch and second English Reformations, and which is represented in the primary creeds of those churches: in the Continental churches, the Three Forms of Unity (Heidelberg Catechism, Synod of Dordt, and the Belgic Confession); in England, the Westminster Confession, and the other confessions derived from it (2nd London Baptist, etc.).

It is true that these confessions embrace the 5 solas, and TULIP. It is not true that this is where the distinction ends. All of these confessions teach Covenant theology, the third use of the Law, federal headship, the Israel-Church identity, and a host of other interrelated doctrines. If you had asked these men what the Reformed essentials were, they would have replied “read our Confessions, we wrote in them what we regard as essential.

So the question is this: Should “Reformed theology” be defined by the historic creeds of the Reformed churches, which were held with little alteration for hundreds of years, and continue to be used today…or, by people like Purswell who deny substantial amounts of that creedal content.

This is not just a semantic question. There is nothing wrong with saying that you are influenced by Reformed theology, or that you embrace the 5 Solas, or TULIP. But I do wish men like Purswell would stop insisiting that they are actually Reformed, or the word will eventually become as useless as the word Evangelical. John Macarthur, for example, is not Reformed by any historic definition. He is a an Calvinistic dispensationalist who has shown more and more influences from Reformed theology, but he denies several key Reformed doctrines, due to his dispensational beliefs. This doesn’t make him bad, BTW, and it doesn’t prove he’s wrong. Maybe he’s right and the creeds are wrong. But it does mean that he is not “Reformed” in the historic, creedal sense. 

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“Bad Dog” promised that he’d come back and add more.  If he does, I will update this post.

© 2010, Kris. All rights reserved.