I was recently asked to write about, what is Reformed theology? This is what I wrote:
The distinctives of Reformed theology are best understood historically, theologically, and practically.
First, understood historically: Reformed theology was born from the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century. When Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the many other Reformers emerged as internal critics of the practices of the medieval Roman Catholic church, they reintroduced and reemphasized teachings from centuries before that had been overshadowed by the traditions of Rome.
As the Reformers’ teachings gained traction, new theological traditions emerged, mainly Lutheranism in Germany and Scandinavia; Anglicanism and later Methodism from the Church of England; and the Presbyterian and Reformed churches of Scotland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. The spiritual descendants of the latter group are historically described as Reformed.
Second, understood theologically: The best-known theological emphases of the Reformation are the “Five Solas,” each of which is still central to Reformed theology. Reformed theology is biblical — “sola scriptura”; the Bible alone is the written Word of God and is the only rule to direct us in glorifying and enjoying Him. Reformed theology is Christ-centered — “solus Christus”; there is no salvation apart from the person and work of Jesus Christ. Reformed theology emphasizes faith — “sola fide” — in God’s grace alone — “sola gratia.” Reformed theology teaches that we, and indeed the entire universe, were created for “soli deo gloria” — the glory of God alone.
In addition to the Five Solas, Reformed theology emphasizes a big view of God. He is the creator and sustainer of all things; apart from him nothing was made that has been made, and it is in him that we live, move, and have our being. He is fully sovereign over all his creation, even down to the thoughts and actions of all his creatures, and he governs everything for his own glory.
Third, understood practically: Reformed theology’s big view of God means we should respond to him with reverence and trust. We should be reverent because God is not to be taken lightly. His commands are good, and they are the way of life. We ignore them at our own peril, partly because ignoring them means choosing a way of self-inflicted suffering, and further because he is a jealous God who will not allow his creatures to steal his glory.
Reformed theology’s big view of God should also cause us to trust him, because he knows us better than we know ourselves, and he knows the paths he has laid out for us. We can walk or wait, depending on our circumstances, in confidence, knowing that the God we follow is both great and good. We can obey him in faith, knowing that even when he leads us through a valley of shadows, he is there with us to guide and comfort us.
While none of these distinctive beliefs are exclusive to Reformed theology, this combination of emphases is unique to our tradition, and we are deeply grateful to those from whom we have received this faith.