I like to contemplate on what it means to be ‘Reformed,’ because that’s where I find myself, theologically. I reflected on this a few posts ago, a bit; I was communicating how being ‘Reformed’ has certain connotations associated with it, usually negative (well, if you’re ecclesially situated, as I am). My friend is reading I. John Hesselink’s classic little book On Being Reformed: Distinctive Characteristics and Common Misunderstandings, he encouraged me to pick it up, so I have (I have intended to get to him, at some point anyway, so now is the point). In his first chapter he deals with the misunderstanding “That the word “Reformed” refers primarily to those denominations which bear that name, especially those of Dutch origin (this is his title for chapter 1). He underscores how his understanding of being ‘Reformed’ developed over time. He grew up the son of a Dutch Reformed pastor in Michigan, and so this is all he knew. Later, he did his doctoral work under Karl Barth, and he also studied with Emil Brunner. Anyway, he came to appreciate something that I have been trying to trumpet here often (and we do in our book as well), and that is that being ‘Reformed’ represents a spirit more than a letter or a particular cluster of denominations. You see, I grew up the son of a Baptist preacher-man, and currently we happily attend a Calvary Chapel (which by constitution are against the ‘Reformed’ tradition — of course that’s only because folk in Calvary Chapel have a very limited view of what being ‘Reformed’ means and what it entails [and this is not limited to Calvary Chapel folk] — if they understood what it meant, I think many of them would realize that in fact they fit within the ‘spirit’ of what it means to be Reformed both formally and materially); both of my ecclesial situations are in the ‘Free-church’ tradition, and both are congregational (somewhat) in format. Here is what Hesselink has to say about what it means to be ‘Reformed’, beyond the common misconception that this is dictated by, by being associated with certain “Reformed-denominations” (like the Pressies):
[I]n the United States and the British Commonwealth there are numerous ministers and theologians who serve Baptist, Congregational, and Anglican (Episcopelian) Churches but who consider themselves basically “Reformed” in their theology. I find it intriguing, for example, that for many years the standard text in systematic theology at Western Seminary [Holland, Michigan] was not that by the famous Presbyterian Charles Hodge or by Christian Reformed scholar Louis Berkhof, but the three volume work of Augustus Hopkins Strong, a Baptist theologian from Rochester Seminary. One of the leading Calvin scholars in the United States, the late Ford Lewis Battles, was of Congregational background, and many of the finest Calvin scholars in the English-speaking world are Anglicans: Philip Hughes, James I. Packer, and T.H.L. Parker.
In conclusion, then, Reformed comprehends a large, international group of churches as well as countless individuals who belong to denominations that are called neither Reformed nor Presbyterian. Hence, any time we who belong to the Dutch Churches (RCA or CRC) here in the United States imagine that we are the principal representatives of the Reformed tradition, we are both presumptuous and in egregious error. On the other hand, there is no need to be shy or defensive about the name simply because in the Anglo-Saxon world the term Presbyterian is better known. Few ecclesiastical theological terms are more respected and honored that that of Reformed.
We can be justly proud as long as we remember that the word denotes a task more than an accomplishment. Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est! “A Reformed church must ever be reforming itself”—in accordance with the Word of God. [I. John Hesselink, On Being Reformed, 7-8]
I am one of those Congregationalist ‘Reformed’ guys, and of course I walk and breath in the ‘spirit’ of what that means, and in the ethos of the Reformed mantra that Hesselink ends with. In fact our forthcoming book entitled: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church, is squarely situated in the very place that Hesselink sketches above. And of course what it means to be ‘Reformed’ also has a multi-faceted conceptual/material range; there is not a monolithic voice when it comes to every duck in the ‘Reformed’ row. And that is what I continue to hope to clarify for so many folks who seem to think that being Reformed equals being a 5 point Calvinist. It doesn’t.