Reformed Theology

The System Behind the Reformation of Zwingli and Calvin

David R. Bickel

What is theology?
What is Reformed theology?

Differences between Reformed theology & Lutheran theology

Reformed theology and the Gospels
The end times and the mission of the church

Reformed theologians
Reformed biblical theology and redemptive-historical hermeneutics
Reformed churches

The six days of creation


What is theology?

Theology is the understanding of God. Christian theology is the understanding of God and the relationship of God to mankind, as taught by Jesus Christ. An introduction to Christian theology presents the basics of what he taught. He did not come to merely teach ethics or to help people through life's problems, but he proclaimed the good news that through him God offers forgiveness. His message is objectively true.

What is Reformed theology?

What Reformed theology is not. Reformed theology is not fatalism, determinism, hyper-Calvinism, or dead orthodoxy. Contrary to popular opinion, confessional Reformed theology affirms the freedom of the human will in the sense of real moral agency, regarding the idea that God is the author of sin as blasphemy. Many Reformed theologians also stress the need to pray.

What Reformed theology is. Reformed theology, as opposed to Lutheran theology, is the system of religious thought held by those who sought to reform the church according to the word of God even more thoroughly than did Martin Luther and the Reformers in fellowship with him, but without adopting all the changes of the Radical Reformation.

Lutheran versus Reformed soteriology

For the purpose of this comparison, “Lutheran” designates the position confessed in the Book of Concord, and the wide range of views held by conservative churches descended from the Reformed tradition is represented by the Arminian and Calvinistic ends of the spectrum. Like Martin Luther, confessional Lutherans agree with some, but not all, of what have become known as “the five points of Calvinism” (TULIP).



Cited as support

Do sinners cooperate with God to bring about their state of salvation? More precisely, is regeneration synergistic as opposed to monergistic?






John 3:3-9

John 6:44-46

John 3:16-18

Is election conditional on the will of sinners?






John 1:12-13

Romans 9:10-13

Revelation 22:17

Does God desire the salvation of all sinners enough to die for them?






1 Timothy 2:1-6

John 10:3-11

2 Peter 2:1

Can a true believer temporarily lose faith and salvation?






1 Corinthians 10:1-14

Romans 8:29-30

1 Corinthians 15:1-2

Do the teachings of the Bible on the above topics have apparent contradictions?





Romans 11:28-36

Logical consistency

Logical consistency

Another Reformed/Lutheran comparison chart (Lutheran affirmation of unconditional promises) | Calvinistic denial of unconditional promises

Lutherans and the Reformed differ not only on soteriology, but also on sacramentology.

A Reformed critique of Lutheran theology
A Lutheran critique of Reformed theology

Reformed theology and the gospel accounts

Reformed theology, like Lutheran theology, is sometimes criticized for relying too much on the writings of Paul. (These critics usually assume that Paul's theology disagrees with that of Jesus.) However, the theology of both Paul and the Reformers is based largely on the teachings of Jesus that are recorded in Matthew and Luke: seek the kingdom of God. In fact, the best Reformation theology is derived from the whole counsel of God, interpreting unclear Scripture in terms of clearer Scripture, not from individual passages taken out of context.

In The First Christian, P. F. M. Zahl argued that Jesus' message that all are completely helpless sinners in need of salvation stemmed from his unique theology of the end. See the customer review entitled "Creative, compassionate, shocking" for a brief summary.

The gospel records are ancient, but are they accurate? See why to believe them.

The end times and the mission of the church

A Reformation view of the end times encourages the fulfillment of the mission to the Gentile nations. Salvation was confined to Israel until Jesus Christ defeated Satan though his death on the cross. In fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, Jesus has been given all power in heaven and in earth, by which he now rules his church through the Spirit promised for the last days. Satan can no longer accuse God's people of unpunished sin, and his power has been limited, so that he will no longer deceive the nations, which are now hearing the good news of forgiveness and undeserved salvation through Christ. Believers are promised continued success as they overcome Satan by their testimony of the truth, until he will again be allowed to deceive as he did before the coming of God's kingdom. Then Christ will return to destroy both Satan and the Antichrist, to judge all people, and to live forever with those who have believed the good news of the kingdom, that God freed them by vanquishing his enemies. But the present time is the age of Satan's confinement, the age of the gospel.

Full Preterism is sometimes associated with Reformed theology but is more accurately seen as a modern form of the Hymanean heresy.

Reformed theologians

In Calvin's commentaries and in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, he explained many teachings of the Bible. Confessional Reformed churches stand united in agreement with the theology of grace taught by Calvin. However, most such churches of the English-speaking world have departed from Calvin's teachings on the relatively minor issue of the Sabbath.

Following Luther, Calvin clearly demonstrated from the word of God that pardon is obtained from God by faith alone, only because Christ was punished for the sins of others, in their place, so that they would not receive the penalty of hell that their sins deserve. He also answered many objections; for example, some have tried to take what the New Testament says about rewards to imply that heaven is a reward earned by good works. Calvin replied that the biblical teaching that eternal life is a reward for good works (Institutes 3.18) does not mean that eternal life can be earned or deserved, but that the promised gift of eternal life encourages believers to continue in righteousness by reminding them that the sacrifices they make for the sake of obeying Christ will be more than compensated in the age to come (Institutes 3.18.4). That is why eternal life is not only presented as a reward for good works, but also as compensation for suffering because of righteousness (Institutes 3.18.7).

Calvin's views on baptism and the Lord's Supper represent a position in some sense intermediate to a frankly non-sacramental position and positions teaching power in the sacraments to save by God's grace.

Reformation Ink has writings of many other Reformed theologians. More introductory as well as advanced articles can be found at the Threshold. Modern Reformation applies the theology of the Bible to contemporary Christianity in America.

Reformed biblical theology

And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, "In you all the nations shall be blessed". Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree"), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
[Galatians 3:8, 13, NKJV]

Reformation theology is not primarily systematic, but exegetical. Rather than using the artificially literal method of interpretation of many American evangelicals, Reformed "redemptive historians" attempt to interpret the Bible with the Christ-centered method the apostles used when they appealed to the Old Testament. Web articles, sermons, free books, a discussion group, and more web articles exemplify the continued use of this redemptive-historical approach from a Calvinistic perspective. To get a balanced view of the hermeneutics of the disciples, nothing is better than studying how they actually argued on the basis of Old Testament passages.

Geerhardus Vos is widely respected as a leader of twentieth-century Reformed biblical theology, which is helping to restore the church's long-standing emphasis on the saving works of God in history. Perhaps the best reason to follow the Christian Year is that then "Our worship will be anchored in the events of salvation history: the coming of Christ, the ministry of Christ, the suffering and death of Christ, the resurrection and exaltation of Christ, and the coming of the Holy Spirit" (Calvin College, web page moved or deleted).

Good exegetical theology and good systematic theology reinforce each other. The First Christian provides an excellent example of integration. Reformed exegesis does not lead to finding contradictions between inspired authors, and each doctrine taught by systematic theology should reflect the thought of at least one inspired author.

Thus, while any list of interpretive rules will sometimes fail to be useful, it is usually helpful to take the author's intent into consideration. The authors wrote in order to make some impact on their original audience, and Christians would do well to consider the impact God intends his word to have on them today. That impact is not always some "application" in the sense of a concrete, external action, but is often a greater appreciation for God's mercy and the resulting love for him and for others that will not be immediately noticed.

For a Lutheran viewpoint, see "'All Theology is Christology': How Does Every Passage of Scripture Reveal Christ?" (David P. Scaer, Modern Reformation).

Some Reformed churches in North America

Churches of these denominations consistently teach Calvinistic doctrines:
Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), est. 1973
Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP), est. 1782
Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), est. 1936
Others in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council

Some Baptist churches and churches of other denominations also affirm Calvin's soteriology. The Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, by contrast, is not called "Reformed" since it rejects Calvin's departures from Catholic theology.


The six days of creation

Although Reformed theology has traditionally interpreted the Genesis creation days literally and chronologically, many confessing Calvinistic theologians instead believe Moses arranged them to fit a literary framework. Two leading conservative Reformed denominations, the PCA and the OPC, allow their officers to hold a variety of viewpoints on the subject.

David Roth provided a Christ-centered interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:3.

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Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

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Dawning Realm proclaims the good news of the kingdom as confessed at Caesarea Philippi, Nicaea, and Augsburg.
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Last modified: January 16, 2016 9:25 AM
Author information. David Bickel confesses the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Augsburg Confession, and the other documents of the Book of Concord because they faithfully summarize the sacred writings of the prophets and apostles. As a layman, he lacks the call needed to publicly teach in the church. | professional web page

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