What is Reformed Theology?

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.

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Happy Solstice

This time of year, especially on the solstice, I reflect on the days & seasons. God has built into the mechanics of the cosmos a reminder that darkness pivots into light; the cold & quiet of death, in the loss of plants and animals, will lead again to an abundance of life. We are living in a time of redemption. If that doesn’t make you feast and celebrate, even in the darkness, then nothing will.

Yes, I know that the days & seasons are cyclical; summer’s transition to winter is as inevitable as winter’s into summer. The question is always, where will the cycle stop? Will it end with abundance or death?

God has promised that he is a God of life, not death. All the way back in Genesis 1, he set a pattern that he is moving things from chaos and emptiness to order and abundance. Our faith is in that promise.

And so like the lyricists of the Ancient Near East, we believe that winter is temporary and summer is eternal; the wheel stops at noon, not midnight. In that promise we rest and rejoice.

“I never hear from God” – part 2

In an recent exchange of messages with a friend, she relayed that her daughter had recently said she never “hears” from God. This is a tough issue for anyone. I think at some point in their maturation in faith, everyone has to figure out what they think about relating to an unseen God. And that’s not easy.

A couple thoughts came to mind, neither of which was probably very helpful to her. I posted the first one yesterday. Here is the other:

I’ve been struck recently at the ways in which we restrict the parameters or criteria for divine work. Our concept of miracles, for instance, has a surprisingly naturalistic shape: a divine miracle, we think, would be something tangible. I’ll know it’s a miracle by what I see, what I hear, what I feel. A miracle would have an unmistakable tangibility to it, and that’s how I’ll know it’s from God.

But I’ve wondered lately, where do we get those criteria? How do we know miracles aren’t unseen & intangible? How can we be sure that communication from God, his intervention in our lives isn’t found most often in the invisible things? It’s an assumption on our part that when God acts, it will be like this.

Here’s a counter-example: we all have times in our lives that are so awful, or so evil, that we cannot possibly envision anything good coming from them. They’re only destructive; there is nothing good about them. But then some time goes by, maybe many years, and one day we realize that event has actually been used in some constructive way, to build us up. Not that it negates or vacates the evil or the pain we felt (or still feel), but we discover that what we once wrote off as only evil, only destructive, has actually benefited us in some way. Or as Joseph put it in Genesis 50.20, what you meant for evil, God meant for good.

In that realization, something supernatural has occurred. That which no human being could ever do has been done. That which we once would’ve never dreamed of happening has happened. That is the language of miracles, but we don’t count it as such because we’re working with a limited definition of miracles. We’re waiting for something tangible, so we miss the intangible.

But I think everyone has a story like this, when one of the worst things that ever happened to us somehow became one of the best things that ever happened to us. How did that happen? We don’t know; it’s impossible. But nothing is impossible for the God Who Redeems. We just fail to notice his redemption unless it fits into our categories… which it rarely does.

Like I said, that might not have even addressed the issue my friend was raising, but there it is. Do you have any stories like those I mentioned? I’d like to hear them if you do.