What Is Reformed Theology?
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©2011
There is often confusion about what is meant by “Reformed Theology.” It’s not the “Theology” part that gives people a problem. That clearly means that this is a view about God and how he is made known to us. It’s the “Reformed” part that has acquired many different meanings.
To some, being reformed means any change of something into something different. But renovation or remodeling is not quite the same as reforming it. Reformation means changing the form of something back into it’s original shape after it had become deformed in some way.
A simple illustration always comes to my mind. When I was young my dad and I would make lead soldiers. We would melt down pieces of lead, then pour it into a mold. When it cooled the mold was opened and I had a nice set of toy soldiers to stir my imagination in games of battle.
After some rough skirmishes the soft metal would bend or even break. The soldiers didn’t look battle ready when their rifles, arms, or legs were bent or broken off. The simple solution was to take them back to the kitchen table to melt them down again. We would pour the melted metal back into the mold so they would again emerge with their original shape.
In time the same thing happens to the teachings of God’s word. Mishandling of various texts causes the truths of Scripture to become deformed. They no longer resemble what God actually said. It most often takes place slowly. Questions are asked that try to look behind the things God has chosen to make known to us. Theories are offered to attempt an answer to the questions. Soon the models we think up become part of the facts we plug into other more highly developed theories. Before long the original theories are treated with the same authority as the biblical facts. What emerges is a distorted theology.
The Reformers of the 16th century saw a need to get back to the original teachings that derive from the Bible alone. Theories were doubted when they included assumed facts which were merely based upon earlier imagined truths.
Late in the afternoon, on Thursday the 18th of April, 1521, Martin Luther stood accused of heresy. He was a simple monk, a scholar, and pastor. He had been called to stand before an awesome court. It was made up of the Emperor himself, Charles V. Along with him was the Archduke Ferdinand and six electors of the Empire. There were 24 dukes who were each powerful sovereigns over their own countries. There were ambassadors from England and France and a great company of archbishops, bishops, and other dignitaries from the Pope.
Luther was being charged with defying the beliefs promoted by the Church of Rome. There at this historic meeting at Worms, he spoke a few simple but famous words which reflected the tsunami that was beginning to wash over the world at that time.
The day before he had been asked by the formidable Dr. Eck to retract and to disavow what he had written in 20 some books and pamphlets laid out on a table there in the court. Very humbly, Luther asked for a delay of one day to carefully consider his answer. It wasn’t that he doubted what he believed or what was right. He recognized how important his answer was. He wanted to give it prayerful consideration.
The day had come for him to give his response. he explained that his writings were of various kinds, some quoting the word of God directy which could never be disavowed. But regarding his challeges to some of the teachings of the church which were not supported by Scripture he spoke these historic words:
“I cannot submit my faith either to the Pope or to the Councils, because it is clear as day they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless, therefore, I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or on plain and clear grounds of reason, so that conscience shall bind me to make acknowledgment of error, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything contrary to conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.”
The result of re-forming what was believe about God came to be called “Reformed Theology.” What had been accepted as fact was being poured back into the mold of Scripture to restore the original shape God had revealed in his written word.
Our Westminster Confession clearly takes the same reformed position.
1:10 The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”
The Reformed Theologian is not in love with his theology. He loves God’s word and grace. He lets go of his dearest beliefs in a moment if they do not conform to what he discovers in the Bible.
We humbly rest upon the warning given in Deuteronomy 29:29,
“The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
We have enough to deal with in working to understand what God tells us in his written word. We dare not presume upon those things which remain unrevealed. When human inventions distort what God has said we need to be reformers for our present age. All that we believe must be poured back into the mold God has given so that a purified theology comes out, a set of beliefs that are formed by nothing less than, nothing more than, what God has revealed to us in his word. That is what we mean by “Reformed Theology.”
(Note: The Bible quotations in this article are from the King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)