“Reformed”: Its Meaning & Use Today

The term Reformed is a very popular one in our day and it can be heard with joyful acceptance in a variety of different denominational and theological circles.  All too often, however, the term is spoken undefined, with the assumption that people know what is being referred to.  Just what does it mean to be Reformed?  What is the historical significance of the term, and how is it being used in our day?

Recently, in Credo Magazine, Richard Lucas has written an enlightening two part article entitled “Are You Reformed?”.  In the first part he provides a historical layout of the Reformed landscape (from the time of the 16th Century Reformation to our own day), discussing the meaning of Reformed as used among Christians from various denominational and theological backgrounds.  In other words, some have a broader (and may I say, more historical) understanding of the term Reformed, whereas others have a more narrow understanding of the term (e.g. soteriological, simple acceptance to the T.U.L.I.P. or Five Points of Calvinism).  The latter is more of a contemporary understanding and tends to be the more dominant perspective in our day.  This is, what is commonly referred to as, the New Calvinism.  Those who are “more historical” in their understanding and use of the term Reformed are typically self-consciously confessional, holding to the Westminster Confession of Faith (if Presbyterian) or the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (if Baptist), for example.

In the second part of his article, Lucas zeros in on the popular acronym that is typically equated with Calvinism, T.U.L.I.P.  More than likely, when a Christian today says that he/she is a Calvinist, what they simply mean is that they embrace the Five Points of Calvinism (T.U.L.I.P.).  These Five Points speak to the area of Soteriology (pertaining to salvation); however, Calvinism is more than doctrines on salvation.  Those who limit their Calvinism to T.U.L.I.P. are typically known as being “Calvinistic” or “Calvinistic in their Soteriology.”  Anyways, in this section Lucas discusses three common misconceptions on the T.U.L.I.P. by discussing its historical development.  His response to these misconceptions are framed as such:

1.Calvin Never Debated Arminius and He Did Not Author the Five Points of Calvinism.  Here Lucas points out the fact that Arminius was only three years old when Calvin died in 1564 (Arminius died in 1609).  Further, Calvin did not coin the term “Five Points of Calvinism” or the acronym “T.U.L.I.P.”.  These were later formulations that were derived from the Canons of Dort, an ecclesiastical response to Arminius’ followers who had written the five articles of the Remonstrance, whereby they stated their disagreement with the Dutch Reformed Church.  Also, the way in which the Five Points are ordered by the acronym T.U.L.I.P. is different in the Canons of Dort (it would read, if we overlayed the acronym to this confessional statement, U.L.T.I.P.).

2. The TULIP Acronym is Only a Little More Than a 100 Years Old. Here Lucas discusses the historical penning of the term or acronym T.U.L.I.P.  Although its original use, with absolute certainty, is still unknown today, it was likely first put forth in a public lecture  by the Presbyterian minister, Cleland Boyd McAfee (1866-1944).

3. TULIP is Not the Only Acronym Proposed to Represent the 5 Points of Calvinism. Here Lucas observes multiple acronyms that have been used by Calvinists to accurately represent the Doctrines of Grace (as they are commonly called).  Some, of course, are better than others.  He also points out acronyms that Arminians have used to succinctly layout their doctrinal stances.

He concludes this article by stating:

Acrostics such as the ones mentioned above can be helpful mnemonic devices, but I think our time as Calvinists will be better spent making not only a biblical case for these Doctrines of Grace that we hold dear, but also a compelling presentation of how they more fully and accurately present God’s love toward undeserving sinners, and how the result of rightly understanding that love will be the deepest experience of our joy in the gospel.

I cannot but give a hearty Amen! to this.  All to often we limit our discussion on the Doctrines of Grace to the Scriptural evidences for them.  While this is important and necessary, we must press forward to discussing the beauty and joy of these Doctrines for our every-day lives.  While being Reformed is more than the T.U.L.I.P. (historically speaking), I do believe it presents the heart of Reformed Theology, for it is none other than the sovereign grace of God in and through the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The Reformers were, afterall, greatly focused on God’s grace in the gospel (amongst other doctrines and practices of course).


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