There Is No Reformed Faith

(This post is an edited version of two earlier posts – one from May 2010 and the other from January 2011.)

[[UPDATE: 12/8/12 – Please note Dr. R. S. Clark’s comments below; he’s a dear friend of mine and his notes below are worth considering.  This is a discussion worth having in a cordial, brotherly way.  I do not claim to have the last word, nor do I think the last word has been spoken on this topic.]]

I’m not entirely comfortable with the term “the Reformed Faith.”  I cherish, teach, and defend Reformation truths, but I avoid using the term “the Reformed Faith.”  I don’t think it is helpful.  I like how Mike Horton explains this topic.

“Although we do not have a God’s-eye perspective, we do belong to a community that is defined by the inbreaking of the age to come that relativizes all times and places, putting in jeopardy all of our cherished locations in this age.  It even challenges our tendency to find our ultimate identity in our own denomination or tradition.  While vigilant to uncover our own prejudices that work against it, we strive toward a catholic hearing of God’s Word.  From this perspective we should not speak of a Reformed faith or an Orthodox theology or a Lutheran confession, but of a Christian faith, theology, and confession, from a Reformed, Orthodox, or Lutheran perspective.”  Michael Horton, People and Place (Louisville: WJK, 2008), 210.

Horton says the following elsewhere:

“In my view, it is inappropriate for us to refer to our [Reformed/Presbyterian] confession as the Reformed Faith.  The Reformed churches did not (and do not) believe that they were confessing the Reformed Faith, but that they were confessing the ‘undoubted Christian Faith’ in their confessions and catechisms.  There is a reason that this wing of the Reformation called itself ‘Reformed.’  Unlike the Anabaptists, Reformed churches understood themselves as a continuing branch of the catholic church.  At the same time, the Reformed wanted to reform everything ‘according to the Word of God.’  Not only our doctrine, but our worship and life must be determined by Scripture and not by human whim or creativity.” Always Reformed (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 123.

I don’t mean to be a semantical nitpicker, and I realize I may be in the minority here, but for reasons Mike Horton noted I dislike the term “the Reformed Faith.”  Instead, I use other terms like “the Reformed tradition,” or “the Reformed part/branch of Christianity,” or “the Reformed perspective” or something similar.   So I don’t use the term “the Reformed Faith” on this blog or in my other writings.  Now you know…the rest of the story.

shane lems

10 thoughts on “There Is No Reformed Faith”

  1. Brothers, I want to dissent a bit. I don’t disagree with the point Mike is making and we should probably say “Reformed tradition” or “Reformed confession” (hey, someone should write a book on that!) more than we do but when I say “Reformed faith” it’s just a shorthand way of saying “Reformed tradition” or “Reformed faith.” In other words, I don’t think it’s as inherently sectarian as or misleading as is being suggested.

    The expression “Reformed faith” goes back at least as far as the late 17th century. Johannes a Marck used it in his commentary on the Revelation (In Apocalypsin Iohannis commentarius seu analysis exegetica(Amsterdam, 1689), 143.

    Petrus van Mastricht, who used it in his Theoretico-practica theologia (Utrecht, 1699), 1055, 1066, in describing the history of the persecution of the Reformed in the NL under the Spanish and possibly in reference to Lutheran/Reformed dialogues (p. 1067).

    When doing this search I also noticed the expression, ecclesia reformata. If we shouldn’t say “Reformed faith” should we also stop speaking of the “Reformed Churches” or Reformed Church? After all, aren’t we “Christian Churches” in the same sense in which we hold the “Christian faith”?

    We say “Reformed Church” and “Reformed faith” as a short hand way of saying, that branch of the historic Christian Church that confesses and practices the Reformed theology, piety, and practice. We need the shorthand because the long hand won’t fit on most church signs or bulletins!


    1. I’m with you, Scott! With much respect for Shane, I think this is splitting hairs. “Reformed Faith” has been used for centuries to signify those who adhere to the Bible and what is taught therein.


    2. Thanks for the comment, Scott. Something I always appreciated in seminary – and continue to appreciate – was your knowledge of how our Reformed forefathers used language. You continue to teach me, though I’m no longer at WSC.

      I’ve personally never been in a position where I found it cumbersome to say I confessed the “Christian Faith as part of the Reformed Tradition,” thereby needing the shorthand, but how you depict this is a good reminder that the expression “Reformed Faith” is not necessarily unnuanced.

      Keep up the good work over at WSC, and I think I speak for Shane, keep up your fine writing over on the Heidelblog!


      1. Andrew, Shane, et al

        Thanks for this. I appreciate the cordial nature of the discussion.

        I was aware of this thesis, that we shouldn’t speak of “the Reformed faith” but hadn’t given it a lot of thought. Then when I saw the post, some questions occurred to me and so i did a little digging. I appreciate what Mike is saying and, as I say, I don’t fundamentally disagree but I also want the freedom to continue using the shorthand where and when it is appropriate. It might not be a appropriate in every setting, particularly where the readers/listeners/dialogue partners might not be conscious of the all that is encoded/embedded in the short-hand.

        Thanks for your good work and encouragement. I hope that you all have a blessed Lord’s Day.


        1. What you say is a good point – the freedom to use the shorthand when appropriate – and how you define certain settings where it is not appropriate addresses the main concerns I have that have usually kept me from using it.

          I certainly don’t want to become overly narrow about which expressions are acceptable. In most of the discussions I’ve been having, I’ve been trying to stress the catholicity of the Reformation. Claiming to be a Christian in the Reformed tradition has worked best for me in those settings. But again, I can’t help but think that even this last sentence sounds a bit subjective.

          I forgot to comment last time about this, but your comparison with how we speak of “Reformed” churches instead of “Christian” churches seems appropriate. I hadn’t really thought of it that way. It seems reasonable to say that the adjective “Reformed” modifies the nouns “faith” or “church” in essentially the same ways.

          Anyway, this has been good food for thought. Thanks, Scott!


  2. But in the 16th and early 17th centuries wasn’t “Reformed” used to mean “Protestant” in distinction from Roman Catholic rather than Calvinist in distinction from Lutheran? I’m not sure of the time line. Not trying to make much of a point here beyond a matter of clarification.


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