Reformed theology — or Calvinism — gets a bad rap. Calvinists are often seen as condescending, believing themselves to be part of God’s “elect.” It’s a cold, rigid theology that leaves no room for grace, oppresses women, and eliminates the need for evangelism. Or is it?
A number of people (see here, here, and here) have written of a Calvinist revival happening in Christianity. The theology’s main proponents are some of the most prolific, publicized (and polarizing) voices: Tim Keller, Matt Chandler, John Piper, John MacArthur, and Mark Driscoll, to name a few. Though Calvinism and its counterpart, Arminianism, are roughly equal in numbers of adherents, Calvinists get most of the press — much of it misleading.
So, here are 10 things to know about Reformed theology:
1. Reformed and Calvinist are generally used interchangeably.
First, Calvinism is a system of theology, not a denomination. And it was one stream of theology to come out of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. Lutheran, Anabaptist, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches all sprung up as a result of the teachings of the Reformers, who, in addition to Calvin, included theologians like Martin Luther, John Knox, and Ulrich Zwingli.
Broadly speaking, Calvinism encompasses the whole of Reformed theology and its doctrinal distinctives. Many more churches hold to Reformed teaching than just the Reformed Church of America and the Christian Reformed Church. For example, some of today’s most outspoken Calvinists are Southern Baptist.
2. Reformed theology is more than the five points (or TULIP).
Calvinism is often distilled into the moniker TULIP — Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. But, this systematic packaging is reductive and doesn’t nearly represent all that Reformed Christians believe. It is not creed, nor was it chosen by Calvinists to summarize their beliefs. In fact, the teachings that later become TULIP were a response to the Arminian Five Articles of Remonstrance.
While the five points summarize well the Calvinist principles of faith, they don’t say much about how that faith is expressed. They don’t express the high role of the sacraments — baptism and the Lord’s Supper — as a means of grace, a physical portrayal of the promise of salvation that is the gospel. And while the five points are true, they are not the truth. Speaking on being a Calvinist, John Piper says, “We begin as Bible-believing Christians who want to put the Bible above all systems of thought.”
(Also of notable importance to Reformed theology are the five solas — scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, God’s glory alone. See the Westminster Confession of Faith for a more comprehensive exploration of the doctrines to which Calvinists ascribe.)
3. There is a broad spectrum of beliefs within Reformed Christianity.
Calvinism is a 500-year-old theology that people may think they’ve defined with an easy-to-remember acronym, but it’s still an ongoing point of contention. Not all Calvinists are five-pointers — some are seven-point Calvinists, as John Piper half-jokingly calls himself, and still others don’t necessarily “wave the Calvinist flag,” but hold to a Reformed understanding of the Bible.
There are New Calvinists (also called the Young, Restless, Reformed) and “Old” Calvinists, the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America — an eclectic mix of doctrines falls under the Reformed superstructure. There are Reformed Christians who believe human free will and divine predestination are binary, and those who find a way to reconcile the two. Some Calvinists hold to the idea of reprobation (or double predestination), and many more don’t. As divisions exist within Christianity, so too among its Reformed.
4. Reformed theology is humbling, but it’s also about ultimate joy.
God’s glory and our joy are inextricably linked. So, while the Reformed view of God’s ultimate sovereignty humbles the believer, who has nothing to do with his own salvation, it does not diminish his worth. Christians are carrying out an ultimate purpose that results in God’s glory and our satisfaction.
Reformed theology reorients the believer to a God-centered view of reality. As Michael Horton writes, “God is not a supporting actor in our life movie. We exist for his purposes, not the other way around.” The end purpose of human life is to glorify God. The reason this isn’t bleak for us is that God is glorified by our enjoying him eternally. In Desiring God John Piper explains it this way, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Enjoying. Satisfied. These are good things for us.
5. The Reformed view of women is not oppressive.
To a lot of people (especially outside of the church), the Reformed view of specific gender roles seems retrograde. Yet, a number of modern, fully educated women accept as biblical the Reformed church’s view of complementarianism — essentially that man was made to reflect Christ’s sacrificial relationship to the church and woman to reflect the church’s submissive relationship to God.
What complementarianism really means has been twisted, not least by people inside the church. In no way does “submissive” mean a woman must be a silent, covered-up, stay-at-home housewife who shouldn’t be involved in ministry and whose only purpose in life is to marry, have children, and blindly follow her husband. Rather, Mary Kassian writes, “Who we are as male and female is ultimately not about us. It’s about testifying to the story of Jesus. We do not get to dictate what manhood and womanhood are all about. Our Creator does.”
(For more, read Thabiti Anyabwile on how complementarianism is made clearer by the Great Commission.)
6. The Reformed view of the Bible as “inerrant” doesn’t mean “literal.”
While Reformed theology teaches that the Bible is the inerrant word of God — that it is true, accurate — that doesn’t necessitate a literal reading of every word in the Bible. Though inerrancy and literalism are often joined together, they need not be to still affirm the authority of the scripture. Says Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul, “The focus on the veracity of what Scripture actually affirms also allows us to take into account the use of poetic imagery.”
In the same vein, if Jesus spoke in parables, why should we not see in parts of scripture the God-intended use of metaphors, hyperboles, symbols, or any other literary device? Their use doesn’t make the scriptures any less accurate, any less inerrant.
7. Reformed theology is a celebration of God’s grace.
More than anything, Reformed theology exalts God’s grace by hinging entirely upon it. Total depravity means there is no way apart from God that any human would seek God on his own. We are completely “dead” in sin. Yet, the beauty of Reformed theology is that God came after us anyway and makes us alive through the gift of faith by his grace — a grace powerful enough to overcome our resistance to it. Here’s an analogy I heard recently that describes the Reformed view of grace:
You’re dead at the bottom of the sea, lungs full of water. God jumps in, pulls you up, and makes you alive again — and he does so because of his great love. We are entirely at the mercy of God’s grace to rescue us.
8. Reformed theology manifests in a variety of cultural expressions.
The stereotype of Reformed Christianity is that it’s full of old, stodgy white guys. While that certainly exists within Reformed Christianity, it’s not exclusively so. I go to a highly multicultural (largely Hispanic) nondenominational church that holds to Reformed theology and has members who bring tambourines that they shake from their seats during worship, others who clap and mumble “thank you, Jesus” throughout the sermon, and a pastor who performs communion and reads a benediction at the end of each service. All of that is to say, Calvinism is attracting many more than the “typical” players — further shown by its representation within Christian hip hop.
9. The Reformed idea of “election” doesn’t negate evangelism.
It’s commonly assumed that if God has chosen from eternity who is saved, evangelism is rendered pointless. But Calvinists believe that God chooses to work through his people and through their preaching of his word to save those he has chosen. (See Romans 10.) God’s sovereignty over salvation, says Reformed theology, fuels the desire to evangelize. The pressure is off the Christian to persuade a person to believe — he trusts God to save even those who seem to him the furthest from faith. Because God chose to save independent of character or behavior, the Reformed preach to all, as no one is beyond the hope of salvation that was ordained from eternity.
Michael Horton, author of For Calvinism, says that election is what makes evangelism worthwhile. Without it, none would choose Christ, none would choose salvation — “we would all be left in our sins and there would be no point to evangelism.”
10. Reformed theology ≠ Jesus.
Often, Calvinists are accused of being cocky, arrogant, abrasive — usually toward those who don’t share the Reformed theology they believe to be exclusively accurate. The danger comes in elevating the theology, the doctrine above Christ. In the end, Reformed theology doesn’t perfectly answer or satisfy every question we have, for God is bigger and beyond any system or framework that we contrive.
I like the way pastor Art Azurdia reorients us to Jesus by saying, “The evidence of God’s mercy in your life isn’t determined by how much theology you know, by how many books you read, but by your active goodness to people in misery and in need.”
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