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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Theology for the Community

Time Magazine featured Karl Barth on April 20, 1962 (see yesterday’s post). It also included a summary of this theology under the title, “Theology for the Community”:

The science that Karl Barth pursues gets its subject matter from God; but it would fail, he says, if it did not serve the community of men the way a pendulum serves a clock. Barth’s theological output is so vast that only a handful of men have ever read all his works. But for those willing to try them, his books offer wisdom and wit as well. A sampler of Barth’s views:

On Heaven

People have often made fun of this idea of “ascending into heaven.” They have asked whether Christ did it like some kind of bird or aviator. And they have objected that heaven is at the nadir quite as much as at the zenith, and that the ascension should be interpreted in a merely “spiritual” sense. I would not advise anyone to deny this movement from the bottom up. It is not just an illustration. Of course, we must understand the place to which Christ goes, this “right hand of God,” is a divine place. Place and time are not qualities of the creature only. There is a divine time, and a divine place, and God is the origin of time and place. There is a movement “from the bottom up,” not a movement from the ground up to the clouds, but a movement from the human place to the divine place.

On Prayer

If we do not pray, we fail to realize that we are in the presence of God. God opens this road to us; he commands us to pray. Thus it is not possible to say “I shall pray” or “I shall not pray” as if it were an act according to our own good pleasure.

On Scripture

When we come to the Bible with our questions—How shall I think of God and the universe? How arrive at the divine?—it answers us, as it were, “My dear sir, these are your problems: you must not ask me! Whether it is better to hear Mass or hear a sermon, whether the proper form of Christianity is to be discovered in the Salvation Army or in ‘Christian Science,’ whether your religion should be more a religion of the understanding, or of the feelings, you can and must decide for yourself.” The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what he says to us; not how to find our way to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us.

On Marriage

Marriage is “chaste,” honorable and truly sexual when it is encompassed by the fellowship of the spirit and of love, but also of work and of the whole of life with all its sorrows and joys, and when this total life experience justifies at the right time and place this particular relationship. When the relationship is fulfilled in this context, when the fulfillment is sustained by the environment of total coexistence, then and only then is it right and salutary. Coitus without coexistence is demonic.

On Temperance

One maybe a nonsmoker, abstainer and vegetarian, yet be called Adolf Hitler.

On Roman Catholic Mariology

The content of the biblical attestation of revelation does not give us any cause to acknowledge that the person of Mary in the event of revelation possesses relatively even such an independent and emphatic position as to render it necessary or justifiable to make it the object of a theological doctrine. Mariology is an excrescence, i.e., a diseased construct of theological thought. Excrescences must be excised.

On Death & Resurrection

What is the meaning of the Christian hope in this life? A life after death? A tiny soul which, like a butterfly, flutters away above the grace and is still preserved somewhere, in order to live on immortally? That is not the Christian hope. “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” Body in the Bible is quite simply man, man, moreover, under the reign of sin. And to this man it is said, Thou shalt rise again. Resurrection means not the continuation of life, but life’s completion. “We shall be changes” (I Corinthians 15); which does not mean that a quite different life begins, but that “this corruptible must put on incorruption.” Then it will be manifest that “death is swallowed up in victory.” That which is sown in dishonor and weakness will rise again in glory and power. The Christian hope does not lead us away from this life. It is the conquest of death, not a flight into the Beyond.

On Music

If I ever go to heaven, I would first inquire about Mozart, and only then about Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Calvin and Schleiermacher.