How Reformed is Reformed?
Here is a question I’ve considered as of late: What does it mean to be a “Reformed” Christian? The question arose for me, a United Methodist, as I considered the theology of some of my Baptist brothers who have some Reformed beliefs but are not fully aligned with what the term has meant historically. What is required to be Reformed? Can there be degrees of Reformed thinking?
It seems best to start with a couple of semi-Reformed options. Take, for example, someone who would identify himself as a “Reformed Baptist.” As I understand this descriptor, it refers to someone who holds a Calvinistic soteriology and a Baptistic understanding of church government, church ordinances (including adult-only baptism, of course), regenerate church membership, and, perhaps, an eschatology that wouldn’t normally be identified with the Reformed tradition (e.g. premillenial). On the other hand, you might take someone like myself. I don’t hold to a Calvinistic soteriology with regard to unconditional election. I do, however, affirm justification by faith alone on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ as well as Reformed understandings of the sacraments (infant baptism and spiritual presence), the covenantal scheme of redemption, and eschatology. In light of these affirmations, it would seem that I have more theological commonality with the Reformed camp than my Reformed Baptist friend who uses the term in question in his own self-identification. Which of us is more Reformed? Are either of us Reformed? Is it an all or nothing package? How Reformed must one be in order to be truly Reformed?
History may shed some light on the question. Jacob Arminius considered himself quite Reformed, though he disagreed with Beza on the matter of unconditional election. Arminius and his disciples, the Remonstrants, considered the Calvinist-Arminian disagreement to be an in-house debate. I’m quite close to Arminius, as far as I can tell. This would seem to lend weight to the consideration that within the Reformed tradition there might be room for a charitable soteriological disagreement within the larger framework of Reformed thought. Though many, I’m sure, would disagree.
Labels can be abused, at times. But they can also be helpful. We need ways of summarizing belief systems so that we don’t have to say something like, “I’m a justification-by-grace-on-the-condition-of-faith-infant-baptizing-sacramental-covenantal-postmillenarian.” It would be easier just to identify myself as a Reformed Methodist or a Reformed Arminian. Such a descriptor might indicate an overall affirmation of the typical covenant theology of the Reformed tradition as well as an evangelical Methodist or Arminian soteriology.
So, what shall it be? Is this an all or nothing issue? Can I be a Reformed Methodist?