Reformed Theology - Questions and Answers
Q. What is Reformed Theology?
A. By James Montgomery Boice... Reformed theology gets its name from the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, with its distinct theological emphases, but it is theology solidly based on the Bible itself. Believers in the reformed tradition regard highly the specific contributions of such people as Martin Luther, John Knox, and particularly John Calvin, but they also find their strong distinctives in the giants of the faith before them, such as Anselm and Augustine, and ultimately in the letters of Paul and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Reformed Christians hold to the doctrines characteristic of all Christians, including the Trinity, the true deity and true humanity of Jesus Christ, the necessity of Jesus' atonement for sin, the church as a divinely ordained institution, the inspiration of the Bible, the requirement that Christians live moral lives, and the resurrection of the body. They hold other doctrines in common with evangelical Christians, such as justification by faith alone, the need for the new birth, the personal and visible return of Jesus Christ, and the Great Commission. What, then, is distinctive about reformed theology?
1. The Doctrine of Scripture.
The reformed commitment to Scripture stresses the Bible's inspiration, authority, and sufficiency. Since the Bible is the Word of God and so has the authority of God Himself, reformed people affirm that this authority is superior to that of all governments and all church hierarchies. This conviction has given reformed believers the courage to stand against tyranny and has made reformed theology a revolutionary force in society. The sufficiency of Scripture means that it does not need to be supplemented by new or ongoing special revelation. The Bible is the entirely sufficient guide for what we are to believe and how we are to live as Christians.
The Reformers, and particularly John Calvin, stressed the way the objective, written Word and the inner, supernatural ministry of the Holy Spirit work together, the Holy Spirit illuminating the Word to God's people. The Word without the illumination of the Holy Spirit remains a closed book. The supposed leading of the Spirit without the Word leads to errors and excess. The Reformers also insisted upon the believers' right to study the Scripture for themselves. Though not denying the value of trained teachers, they understood that the clarity of Scripture on matters essential for salvation makes the Bible the property of every believer. With this right of access always comes the responsibility of careful and accurate interpretation
2. The Sovereignty of God.
For most reformed people the chief and most distinctive article of the creed is God's sovereignty. Sovereignty means rule, and the sovereignty of God means that God rules over His creation with absolute power and authority. He determines what is going to happen, and it does happen. God is not alarmed, frustrated, or defeated by circumstances, by sin, or by the rebellion of His creatures.
3. The Doctrines of Grace.
Reformed theology emphasizes the doctrines of grace, best known by the acronym TULIP, though this does not correspond to the best possible names for the five doctrines.
T stands for total depravity. This does not mean that all persons are as bad as they could possibly be. It means rather that all human beings are affected by sin in every area of thought and conduct so that nothing that comes out of anyone apart from the regenerating grace of God can please God. As far as our relationships to God are concerned, we are all so ruined by sin that no one can properly understand either God or God's ways. Nor do we seek God, unless He is first at work within us to lead us to do so.
U stands for unconditional election. An emphasis on election bothers many people, but the problem they feel is not actually with election; it is with depravity. If sinners are as helpless in their depravity as the Bible says they are, unable to know and unwilling to seek God, then the only way they could possibly be saved is for God to take the initiative to change and save them. This is what election means. It is God choosing to save those who, apart from His sovereign choice and subsequent action, certainly would perish.
L stands for limited atonement. The name is potentially misleading, for it seems to suggest that reformed people want somehow to restrict the value of Christ's death. This is not the case. The value of Jesus' death is infinite. The question rather is what is the purpose of Christ's death, and what He accomplished in it. Did Christ intend to make salvation no more than possible? Or did He actually save those for whom He died? Reformed theology stresses that Jesus actually atoned for the sins of those the Father had chosen. He actually propitiated the wrath of God toward His people by taking their judgment upon Himself, actually redeemed them, and actually reconciled those specific persons to God. A better name for 'limited' atonement would be 'particular' or 'specific' redemption.
I stands for irresistible grace. Left to ourselves we resist the grace of God. But when God works in our hearts, regenerating us and creating a renewed will within, then what was undesirable before becomes highly desirable, and we run to Jesus just as previously we ran away from Him. Fallen sinners do resist God's grace, but His regenerating grace is effectual. It overcomes sin and accomplishes God's purpose.
P stands for perseverance of the saints. A better name might be 'the perseverance of God with the saints,' but both ideas are actually involved. God perseveres with us, keeping us from falling away, as we would certainly do if He were not with us. But because He perseveres we also persevere. In fact, perseverance is the ultimate proof of election. We persevere because God preserves us from full and final falling away from Him.
4. The Cultural Mandate.
Reformed theology also emphasizes the cultural mandate, or the obligation of Christians to live actively in society and work for the transformation of the world and its cultures. Reformed people have had various views in this area, depending on the extent to which they believe such a transformation possible But on the whole they agree on two things. First we are called to be in the world and not to withdraw from it. This sets reformed believers apart from monasticism. Second, we are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner. But the chief needs of people are still spiritual, and social work is no adequate substitute for evangelism. In fact, efforts to help people will only be truly effective as their hearts and minds are changed by the gospel. This sets reformed believers apart from, mere humanitarianism. It has been objected to reformed theology that anyone who believes along reformed lines will lose all motivation for evangelism. 'If God is going to do the work, why should I bother?' But it does not work that way. It is because God does the work that we can be bold to join Him in it, as He commands us to do. We do it joyfully, knowing that our efforts will never be in vain.
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Q. What is Calvinism?
A. By Charles Dunahoo of PCA, CEP..... "2009, marked the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birthday. Why should we take the time to remember someone of so many years past? Simply because of how God used him to impact the Protestant Reformation and to shape theology with his life, teachings, writings, and emphasis on the sovereignty of God. His system of theology set the course for Protestant thinking. God used John Calvin in a most remarkable way and enabled him to clearly define Christianity in its purest, most biblical and Protestant form.
When we think of John Calvin, we usually do so in a manner that suggests a person who was driven to write volumes of books, treatises, and letters focused on theology and doctrine. Those who know Calvin through his writings and teachings first think of his emphasis on the sovereignty of God and God’s revelation in the Scriptures. Those who are not that familiar with those resources often think of him as the man who taught the “horrible decrees” connected with predestination. They envision the thin man with a pointed face and goatee who was sickly most of his life or the man who encouraged burning at the stake those considered to be heretics.
In discussions over the years with people regarding Calvin, I can generally tell whether a person has actually read Calvin’s writings or simply heard about him from other sources that may or may not be sympathetic towards his teachings. For example, I was recently interviewed by a high school student for a history project because of my Presbyterian affiliation and age. Listening to the young man, especially as we talked about Calvin, I could tell he was getting a picture of Calvin from someone who had never read Calvin. I had to tell him that he was being taught from a perspective that misunderstood what Calvin and Calvinism were all about.
Without counting them all, I have more than ten biographies of John Calvin and have been reading back through some of them for the past several weeks. I was sparked to do this by a new biography by Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life (IVP). Though many of my following comments will reflect aspects of all the biographies, much of Selderhuis’ work helped with this article and is the biography I would recommend to you. You will find it comprehensive, readable, and consistent with other biographies, though written in a different style and format.
Most of you know enough about Calvin to also discern the difference between what people say Calvin said and what he actually said. Calvin was a holistic thinker who understood the importance of thinking God’s thoughts after Him, and the Scriptures were the spectacles through which he was enabled to see God’s truth. It was his rule of faith and practice. He wanted to know everything he could know about God; but as he learned, he realized that God was incomprehensible and there were things that he could not know. Hence, he concentrated on the things that God showed him in the Scriptures. Knowing God is the sovereign God, Calvin knew that through His general grace (common grace) that all truth was God’s truth; and whether he found truth in the special revelation of God’s Word or in the general grace areas of life, truth was all about God.
However, for our purpose here, we want to focus our thinking on John Calvin as an educator. So much of our educational philosophy and foundations can be traced back to him, whether we speak of education in the home, the school, or the church. There is so much to be said, but I will of necessity be selective.
While Robert Raikes is called the father of the modern Sunday school, a careful reading of Calvin’s life will reveal that three hundred years prior to Raikes, Calvin had a Sunday afternoon school for children and youth, primarily to teach them the catechism of the Christian faith.
When Calvin agreed to Guillaume Farel’s insistence that he come to Geneva to teach and preach. Calvin agreed but to do it in the following way. First, he would establish the Reformed faith among the people of Geneva to enable them to be people of the Word. This of course required their being able to read and then understand the Scriptures. Ronald Wallace points out in his Calvin, Geneva, and the Reformation that “it is not surprising that when the citizens of Geneva accepted the Reformed faith, they also at the same time agreed to make a new start with the education of the young.” Calvin’s plans included schooling as his first priority. Wallace points out that in the 1540’s some of the greatest educational experts of the time were at work in Geneva.
Acting on his main concern of establishing the Word of God in the Reformed sense, Calvin would always have as his priority catechizing the youth. In 1537 Calvin wrote his first catechism, Instruction in the Faith. This way of learning using questions and answers was designed to teach the young the Christian faith. He wrote, “The Church of God will never preserve itself without Catechism.” “‘True Christianity’ should be taught in ‘a certain written form.’ Such catechetical instruction would promote unity, supply deficiencies even of some ‘pastors and curates’ and help people not to be led astray by ‘presumptuous persons.’” Not only did Calvin spend his Sunday afternoons teaching children the catechism, he also had the council of Geneva insist that parents assume a major responsibility in the process. About four times a year, church leaders would meet with children and their parents to evaluate and examine their progress in the teaching. This is how Calvin’s catechism became a key resource along with Scriptures.
Calvin was desirous that covenant children be confirmed, generally around the age of 12, and make a public profession of faith, which for him was the door from baptism to the Lord’s Supper. When they could recite the catechism from memory, it was generally accepted as a public profession of faith; and they were admitted to the Lord’s Table. Calvin’s catechism became extremely popular and was translated into several different languages. It was a key reference in the later writing of the Heidelberg Catechism and a good companion to his Institutes.
Calvin insisted that the Geneva Academy, which was his second priority to teaching the children, was to have teachers of the highest standard anywhere. The Geneva Academy opened with 600 students and during its first year grew to more than 900. There were two sections of the institution. Students first went to college with seven grades where they learned to read French, Greek, and Latin. This was called the schola privata. Part two of the institution was called schola publica. In this second level students were taught to be exegetes of the Bible, to learn the basics and be able to explain them. They preached and were evaluated. On Saturdays, students focused on practical theology led by ministers that Calvin and Theodore Beza had discipled. The records show that students came to Geneva from all over Europe. Working with Theodore Beza, the educational institution became second to none.
Following his constant reference to the church as the mother with God as the Father, Calvin did not hesitate to refer to the church as “l’ecole de Dieu,” the school of God. A mother gives birth, nourishes, and educates her children, which according to Calvin is the role of the church. Thorough knowledge of the Bible was essential, because only by knowing the Bible was a believer able to know what God wanted and how God must be worshiped. Calvin wrote that even up to the grave God calls us to His school.
Calvin not only helped establish many schools, he was clearly a promoter of Christian education, or should I say education that is Christian through and through. According to Selderhuis, another important influence Calvin had in Geneva was to give children a significant place in the church. Selderhuis points out that Calvin mobilized the children for singing. With his emphasis on proper schooling, Calvin also believed that the parents could learn from the children.
However, Calvin did not see education as an end in itself. He believed that he had a twofold mandate from God: to train men for the ministry of the Word and to train men for the civil government. His Mondays were spent discipling pastors. This practice allowed him to impress upon clergy the importance of having a pastor’s heart and scholar’s mind and the importance of developing the ability to teach truth in a comprehensible way. Calvin was known for his brevity. One biographer said this characteristic did not refer to length of articles, sermons, or lectures, but to sentence structure. Calvin was a writer-educator.
For Calvin, the educational process required knowing something of the humanities as well as the Word of God. As you read Calvin’s writing, especially in Institutes of the Christian Religion, you quickly find him quoting people such as Plato and Aristotle.
"We have given the first place to the doctrine in which our religion is contained, since our salvation begins with it. But it must enter our heart and pass into our daily living, and so transform us into itself that it may not be unfruitful for us."
Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III
Whatever we know of Calvin, he was not only a scholar but a real pastor. He was not only a preacher but a teacher par excellence. He insisted that all clergy be learned men with the ability to teach truth to the ordinary person as well as the highly educated.
I remember how impressed I was as a young Christian when I worked al a summer camp whose seal was the Calvinistic seal. The seal showed a heart held securely in a hand; and the slogan was, my heart I give thee promptly and sincerely, or another translation could be willingly and honestly.
It is obvious from Calvin's leaching and life example that the only successful teacher and educator is the one who lives a life consistent with his teaching. Some of Calvin's biographies have been titled, The Genius of Geneva, The Man God Mastered, Calvin the Contemporary Prophet, and Selderhuis' John Calvin: A Pilgrim s life. He set a standard for us to be people of the Word with an understanding of the world into which the Word of God has penetrated. He set a standard for godly living by following the Word of God. He challenged us to see God's hand in all things working to accomplish His purpose and to know, whether we understand or not, that God controls all things that come to pass. He will complete the work He has begun in us; and yes, there will be a final restoration of all things. It was Calvin's understanding and insistence on the sovereignty of God over all things that has given us a kingdom perspective. along with a world and life view that enables us to see truth and reality as God reveals it to us through His special and His common grace."
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Q. What is the importance of the Puritans?
A. By Dr. Don Kistler......In many of the Puritan portraits shown on our website, it says that many of these men were suspended from their ministry, and/or excommunicated for 'non-conformity.' To most Christians today, the matter of conformity and non-conformity are at least unknown, and at best considered to be irrelevant. But the story of the Protestant faith in Great Britain and America is that of men who, for the sake of conscience, guided by Scripture, could not conform to the dictates of their church. And the matters becomes more confusing–at least in our day, and most likely in their own–when we consider that the Church of England at that time was not considered by anyone to be apostate! So we have thousands of godly ministers being suspended from the ministry, stripped of their licenses to preach, and excommunicated by a Christian church, which still believed in justification by faith alone, the deity of Christ, the faithful preaching of the Word, and church discipline.
Some questions surely arise, such as: What were the issues? Why couldn’t they all 'just get along'? How can we be so impressed with men who were disciplined out of a Christian church? Would we admire a Jeremiah Burroughs as much if we thought of him as a suspended, excommunicated minister? Would we have him in our pulpits today if he were alive? In this essay, we hope to shed some light on some of these questions.
On August 24th, 1572, a dreadful massacre took place. The Huguenots, the French Protestants, were slaughtered by the edict of Charles IX. Thousands were hunted down and shot, or otherwise barbarously destroyed. After this took place, all the princes of Europe expressed their indignation except the King of Spain and the Pope. In Rome, great rejoicing took place, and the messenger who brought the news of the massacre, which came to be remembered as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, was liberally rewarded. The pope went out publicly in a grand procession, performed high mass with all the splendor of his court, and ordered the Te Deum to be sung to celebrate the event. According to Richard Baxter, 'thirty or forty thousand Protestants perished by religious Roman zeal.'
That same date, August 24th, was chosen by the professedly Protestant rulers of England, 90 years later, to put into force a new 'Act of Uniformity,' which was designed to expel great numbers from the church. It is generally acknowledged that over 2,000 godly ministers were expelled from pulpits and lecterns all over England. The demands under which they were placed by the Church of England were such that it left them with a choice: either conform to what they considered to be unbiblical demands, or refuse to conform and accept the penalties and consequences. But these men could not commit perjury; they could not profess to approve what in reality they condemned; they could not adopt what they believed to be false, nor could they abjure what they considered to be true. In their minds, they were placed in a position in which they could submit to man or obey God, and, of course, most of them chose the latter alternative.
It was Henry VIII who denied the supremacy of the Pope of Rome, but by doing so he set himself up as the Pope of England by making his will the standard of religious faith and worship. King Henry disavowed the pope’s authority because he would not annul his marriage. But there remained many 'popish trappings' in the worship of the Church of England, and much corruption, which was what the Puritans wanted to 'purify' or reform.
When the first English sovereign of the Stuart line ascended the throne as the successor of Elizabeth, though he had been brought up under Scottish presbyterianism, and had professed to regard that as the purest church in the world, it was soon manifest that he was determined to maintain the Episcopal church. The Puritans were told that they were conform to the King and to the Church of England. Unfortunately, when the King is head of the country and the church, to disobey in the church is to disobey the civil magistrate as well.
Some of the issues to which they had been asked to conform revolved around these actual questions:
Is your communion table so placed within the Chancel as the Canon directs?
Doth your minister pray for the king using his whole title?
Doth he receive the sacrament kneeling himself, and administer to none but such as kneel? Doth your minister baptize with the sign of the cross?
Doth he wear the surplice while he is reading prayers and administering the sacraments?
Are the graves in the church-yard dug east and west, and the bodies buried with their heads to the west?
Do your parishioners kneel at confession, stand up at the creed, and bow at the glorious name of Jesus?
The Church of England considered all of these, and over 130 others, to be so essential that absolute conformity to all of them was required. There was no 'liberty of conscience' in any of these matters.
Under Archbishop William Laud, non-conformists were sentenced to pay heavy fines, to stand in the pillory, to have their noses slit, their ears cut off, to be branded on the cheeks with hot irons, and to suffer long imprisonments, even unto death. When Cromwell established the Commonwealth, religious liberty was granted to dissenters, and devoted ministers had liberty to preach the gospel and conduct worship in the manner they preferred. But after the death of Cromwell, Charles II drifted towards civil and religious tyranny. Those who advised him determined that those who had ranked as Puritan divines should be cast out of the Church. They decided that there must be full uniformity in the Church, and that a new 'Act of Uniformity' should be passed, which required that everyone who ministered must be ordained with Episcopalian orders, no matter what their previous ordination may have been; each minister must give his full and unqualified adhesion to everything in the Book of Common Prayer and Service Book.
This was passed into law by parliament, and all ministers were given until August 24, 1662 to comply, or give up their pulpits and teaching positions in any public institution or school. They would be forbidden to exercise their ministry in any way other than that appointed by the Church of England, and, if they did not conform, would lose the profits of their livings for that year. On that fateful day, over 2000 ministers and teachers either resigned their livings or were ejected by the Church of England for refusing to conform.
There was one great principle prevailing with them all: they ought not to yield obedience to the civil ruler in what they believed to be contrary to the will of Christ. They could not give that subscription to a book of human composition which they believed to be only due to the Word of God, and especially to a book which, in their judgment, contained many things contrary to the teachings of that Word.
They could not renounce their prior ordinations without thereby declaring that those ordinations were invalid. They could not allow themselves to be forced to use, without any liberty of conscience, a number of ceremonies in religious worship, and to wear certain vestments, which they felt savored of superstition and which were relics of Romanism.
Philip Henry, father of the famous Matthew Henry, stated that he could not submit to re-ordination, which was done by 'the laying on of the hands of the presbytery,' and that he dared not do anything that looked like a renunciation of it as null and sinful. This would have made invalid all his previous ministerial work. He, and others, could not give his 'unfeigned assent and consent to all and everything contained in the Book of Common Prayer,' for that would be to affirm everything in that books as true and good.
Their objections to the Book of Common Prayer were based on their belief that it taught some things contrary to the Word of God. For example, they believed that it taught baptismal regeneration; it required godfathers and godmothers in baptism, to the exclusion of parents; it required making the sign of the cross at baptism, which they felt was a superstitious addition to a divine ordinance. They would be forced to reject all from the Lord’s Supper who would not receive it kneeling; they could not consent to pronounce all saved over whom they were required to read the burial service; and it required them to read the apocryphal books under the title of Holy Scripture.
Their refusal to do these things made these conscientious ministers liable to excommunication, because, in essence, they were seen as charging the Prayer book with containing things repugnant to Scriptures; they were seen as affirming some of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as erroneous. And for this, they were excommunicated until they 'repented and publicly revoked their wicked errors.' In fact, the Act of Uniformity declared that they were to be regarded and treated as if they were dead.
Most of the Puritans had signed the Solemn League and Covenant, and the Act of Uniformity required them to renounce that document. The Puritans saw the imposition of such demands as sinful, and that to obey them would be equally sinful. One minister named Atkins declared that he would die for his king, but he would not be damned for him!
For this non-conformity, these men, in varying degrees, were abused, mistreated, forced out of their churches and pulpits, imprisoned, and deprived of their livings. Some of them took the approach that only God can call a minister, and only God can remove a minister. Joseph Alleine died at the age of 36, in prison for non-conformity. John Bunyan spent 12 years in jail for the crime of continuing to preach. Some of them preached with soldiers holding loaded guns to their heads. Some preached in the churchyard since they were forbidden to preach in the church itself. Some preached in the streets. Some who were imprisoned found their congregations gathered outside their jail cells on Sunday mornings, and so preached to them through prison bars.
Edmund Calamy, one of the most prominent ministers in London, would not conform. He decided to attend his former church for worship, but the supplying minister failed to show up, so the congregation asked Calamy if he had a sermon he could give them. He did so, and was arrested.
Another Puritan was arrested for praying with a parishioner, being told that 'praying is preaching.' There are accounts of ministers being beaten in the pulpit while preaching by soldiers. Because of their attempts to circumvent these restrictions, the Five Mile Act was passed, which forbade anyone who would not conform from preaching or teaching within a five mile radius of a church or public school!
Each account of preaching after the Great Ejection of 1662 brought with it an automatic prison sentence of 3 months. Christopher Ness, most known for his book An Antidote Against Arminianism, was excommunicated 4 times! It certainly becomes problematic to think of recommending Christopher Ness to one’s pastor to fill the pulpit, and then explaining that he has been excommunicated by a Christian church, and has spent time in jail for his contumacy!
Many of the Puritans started private congregations in their homes. Others started theological schools in their homes. Some left England and went to Holland; others came to America, such as Thomas Hooker, John Cotton, John Norton, and many others who distinguished themselves as New England Puritans. It was a dark day for the Puritans, and ultimately led to the end of the movement. But today we regard these men as heroes, and rightly so. No church can demand that which the Bible does not demand, and men are obligated to disobey if they are being asked to sin against a conscience that is held captive to the Word of God. It is not a lack of submission to refuse to do that which a governing body does not have biblical warrant to ask in the first place. The sin, then, is on the imposing body, not on the non-conforming person.
Read More about The Puritans.....
History and Theology of The Puritans, a course by J.I. Packer at Reformed Theological Seminary (ITunes)