What does it mean to be ‘Reformed’?

I have always been fairly comfortable describing myself as ‘Reformed’. The sort of theology I have found most energising and informative for my own ministry, prayer, and thinking has been recognisably within a Reformed tradition; the denominational tradition which has formed me finds most, at least, of its roots in the recognisably Reformed tradition of the English separatists and Puritans; and so on.

The tag, like any other, carries the potential of misinterpretation: for a while British Evangelicals were apparently¬† supposed to decide whether they were ‘charismatic Evangelicals’ or ‘Reformed Evangelicals’. I have always wanted to tick both boxes (for those who have seen Rob Bell’s Everything is Spiritual, this is the moment to grab a marker pen and say ‘Yup!’). ‘Reformed’ is at least well-defined theologically, however, and so less available for misinterpretation than many other labels.

A couple of years back, I became gradually aware that it was becoming fashionable to be ‘Reformed’ again. In the States, John Piper and Mark Driscoll, amongst others, were (in different ways) creating a re-energised Reformed Evangelicalism; in this country a certain species of Anglican evangelical found in the tag a rallying call for a more defined and aware self-identity; younger leaders in my own denomination found a cause and an identity in some mixture of these various renewed traditions. The old ‘Reformed’ vs ‘charismatic’ distinction is thankfully more-or-less collapsed; others, equally unhappy, have sprung up in its place (Reformed evangelical vs ‘open evangelical’; Reformed vs emergent – where’s my marker pen…)

Colin Hansen’s Young, Restless, and Reformed captured a mood well. It was a mood that I found puzzling – there is so much that is good about it, at least from where I am sitting. People were beginning to understand again that the doctrine of election is pretty central to the gospel; were committed to serious, doctrinally-informed Biblical preaching; were wanting to combine theological seriousness with fervent worship and a commitment to evangelism. As some of my American friends would put it, ‘what’s not to like?’ And I got on well with the folk I met who self-identified with the tradition. But something niggled; something wasn’t quite right.

It wasn’t any particular doctrinal position: I could and do wish one or another of these folk thought differently (or even just more…) about this or that, and I object strongly to the focus on denying the preaching ministry to women which seems endemic within the movement, but that wasn’t the problem I felt; it was more about tone that content – a sense that it wasn’t what was being said, but the way it was being said, that disturbed me.

At a conference this week, I think I put my finger on it (the conference was a colloquium of the excellent Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in Britain project, and so circled around some of these areas, but it was really a matter of thoughts coalescing in my mind, not any particular paper or comment, that got me thinking this way). In published writings and public pronouncement, these people too often feel (to this reader/hearer at least) just too convinced of their own rightness. In my experience, it is rarely true when you meet them one-to-one, but in public, the tone is just somehow wrong – too brash; too self-confident; not, strangely, Reformed enough.

At the heart of the classical Reformed tradition, perhaps particularly in its Baptist expressions, is an intense and intrinsic self-criticism. As the great slogan has it, ecclesia reformata semper reformanda. A slogan, incidentally, too-often mistranslated. The participles are both passive: the church has been reshaped and remade (by the agency of God), and always will be reshaped and remade (by the agency of God).

Because of this, true Reformed Christianity necessarily sees all its pronouncements and conclusions as provisional. Its confidence – and it should be confident – is a humble confidence, based not on a conviction of its own rightness, but on an awareness that, in the good sovereignty of God, honest efforts may be used for good even if misguided. God has spoken; but our words are not His words, and our unshakeable belief in His truthfulness can never become an unshakeable confidence in our correctness.

The classical accounts of Reformed faith parse this carefully: it is not because there is new revelation, but because our sinfulness and blindness will constantly need correcting; the faith is delivered once for all to the saints, but we constantly distort and warp it. The necessary ongoing correction and repair of the church is not our work (if it were there would be no hope), but God’s. God will carry out this work by His Word through His Spirit, and so every encounter with Scripture in a Reformed church is potentially a moment of judgement and recreation (with the minister called to the task of preaching the words that will undermine her authority and reconstruct her calling).

When the (apparently impeccably Reformed) Lords of the Scots Congregation met with Oliver Cromwell, demanding a commitment to impose presbyterian polity as the price for their support in war, his reply was, famously, ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ – think it possible you may be mistaken.’

It remains good advice to anyone who is confidently Reformed.


  1. Jason Goroncy
    Apr 25, 2009

    Well put Steve.

  2. Marty Foord
    Apr 26, 2009

    Amen and hear, hear!

  3. Shawn Bawulski
    Apr 26, 2009

    Well said. To add a bit of evidence to your main point, I’ve read an influential leader in the Reformed Evangelical movement in the US (I named my dog after him, by the way) who in effect said that Arminians must/will adopt a more Calvinistic view of divine sovereignty if they are to progress in the sanctification process. Without commenting on the truth value of that idea, I certainly found it less than humble and less than helpful.

    Another worry I’ve encountered with self-identifying as “Reformed”: in the US at least, often the term designates a particular theological system that is considered, at least by its adherents, to be “all-or-nothing”. I like to think that one can be rightly considered “Reformed” if one holds generally Reformed views of things like soteriology and divine sovereignty, even if one does not subscribe to covenant theology, amillenialist eschatology, pedobaptism and pressupositional apologetics. More than a few times I have been informed that my discomfort with these doctrines means that I’m not truly Reformed (enough). I thought part of being Reformed means semper reformanda, but maybe I just don’t understand because I’m not really Reformed. I think I’m OK with that.

  4. CTN
    Apr 27, 2009

    Spot on!

  5. CTN
    Apr 27, 2009

    I should say that I’ve noticed far too many Emergent christians in the U.S. who’ve formally adopted the epistemic humility that you’re talking about, but because their process of reformation lacks divine agency as its origin, Emergent leaders too often end up acting with just as much of a fundamentalist and segregationalist attitude as their conservative counterparts, usually summed up with: “They just don’t get it.”

  6. Terry
    Apr 27, 2009

    I appreciated this post, Steve; thanks. I also liked the phrase ‘the bowels of Christ’!

  7. Katye Stone
    Apr 27, 2009

    Dr. Holmes,

    I appreciate your thoughts here. While I don’t really consider myself Reformed (I’m still figuring these things out), I grew up in a Reformed tradition and found your insights interesting. As a woman, I heartily Amen! your comment about women in ministry. I also am with you on the need for humble confidence.

    I am a student of religion and philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and will be coming to St. Andrews to study theology and philosophy for fall semester. I just happened to come across your blog. Maybe I will get to meet you in the fall!


  8. John Maiden
    Apr 28, 2009


    You’ve hit the nail right on the head! Your experiences of the neo-Reformed resonate with my own. I too have been warmed by their committment to various aspects of classical Reformed theology, but uncomfortable with the tone of it all. The newer expressions of the movement can come accross in public as brash, intransigient, and, well, just a little arrogant. As I think you infer (and I also attended the EFP conference in December last year), in terms of ‘tone’ there is sometimes a wiff of fundamentalism in their public pronouncements.


  9. Steve H
    Apr 28, 2009

    @all: thanks for your comments, folks, and apologies to be some time in replying – my laptop briefly died last week.

    @Jason, Marty, Terry: just, thanks.

    @Shawn: to be Reformed is to be committed to certain doctrinal definitions (I’d pick Heidelberg and the Second Helvetic over Westminster any day, but, whichever…); and also to be committed to semper reformanda. How these commitments relate is an interesting question. (British) Baptist confessions were always written with a note of provisionality, that gave one answer to the issue, one I am comfortable with, but a more classically Presbyterian take insists that Westminster is a set of ‘subordinate standards’, but sometimes fails to offer any mechanism for how those standards might be changed if found wanting when judged against Scripture. BTW, what’s your dog called?!

    @Chris: I know what you mean about ’emergent’ types, although, as in any movement, there is considerable variety…

    @Katye: welcome! Do look me up when you’re over here.

    @John: I remember your excellent paper in Oxford, John; welcome to the blog. I’m not sure I would choose the word ‘fundamentalist’ for what I’m looking at here – it seems more culturally confident than classical Christian fundamentalism, and so of a different tone. As ever, it all depends on how you define the term, of course.

  10. kim fabricius
    Apr 28, 2009

    Thanks for that, Steve.

    Do you know Brian Gerrish’s essay, “Tradition in the Modern World: The Reformed Habit of Mind” (in David Willis and Michael Welker, eds., Toward the Future of Reformed Theology: Tasks, Topics, Traditions [Grand Rapids and Cambridge, U. K.: William B. Eerdmans, 1999], pp. 3-20)? Gerrish lists “five notes of the Reformed habit of mind”: deferential (“to the past”); critical (“even of the fathers”); open (“to wisdom and insight, wherever they can be found”); practical; and reformed according to the Word of God (“the foremost note of all”).

    When certain people or events conspire to make me ask, “What the hell am I doing here?”, I often return to Gerrish for the answer.

  11. John Maiden
    Apr 28, 2009

    Yes, they certainly seem more culturally confident and aware – Mark Driscoll was, I believe, an early pioneer of the EC movement as we now know it. I’m always impressed with the way he handles the secular press (I think of recent CNN interview). Also, Tim Keller stands out as someone who is confidently Reformed but also irenic.

    Thank you for the randomnly generated avatar. There is actually a startling resemblance… JM

  12. Steve H
    Apr 28, 2009

    Thanks for stopping by, Kim.

    I have the book, but I fear I have not read Gerrish’s essay – on your recommendation, I will, however. (I know Gerrish mostly through his Calvin work, which is too revisionist for my taste, so I probably skipped this essay in a hurry.)

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