Reformed Theology

Reformed Theology

While there is no single liturgical from demanded by Reformed theology, Reformed churches typically regarded Scripture as regulating worship in a manner which presses towards an aesthetic and formal simplicity focused on prayer, the reading and preaching of the Bible, the sacraments, and singing, the latter of which was historically psalmody but now generally includes hymns as well. Such worship is seen as a practical manifestation of the Reformed commitment to the sufficiency of scripture, not simply for doctrine and ethics but also for church practice.

The term “Reformed Theology” has a range of meanings in contemporary church life and theology. It can be used to refer to the beliefs of any Protestant movement that adheres to a broadly anti-Pelagian understanding of salvation, as, for example, in the Young, Restless, and Reformed phenomenon. At a more technical level it refers specifically to Protestant churches that hold as confessional norms the Three Forms of Unity, the Westminster Standards, or (in the case of Reformed Baptists) the Second London Confession.


The Reformed churches trace their origins to the Reformation in Switzerland, specifically to that which originated in Zurich in the 1520s under the leadership of Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531). Zwingli’s reformation was distinguished from that of Luther theologically in its emphasis upon Scripture as the normative rule of liturgical practice (hence, for example, Zurich churches removed stained glass windows and developed a very simple, Word-centered form of worship) and in its denial of the Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper. This latter point led to a formal break between Luther and Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, an event which divided Reformed and Lutheran churches in perpetuity.

While Zwingli provided the initial formative impulse for Reformed theology, others soon came to play prominent roles. Heinrich Bullinger continued the Zurich reformation after Zwingli’s death; Martin Bucer implemented similar reforms in Starsbourg; John Calvin, Pierre Viret, Guillaume Farel, and Pierre Viret, among others, implemented reform in Geneva and its environs. Then, in the later sixteenth century, Reformed churches spread across Europe. To France, the Low Countries, England, and Scotland. By the end of the seventeenth century, churches adhering to Reformed theology were found.

During this period, Reformed theology also planted itself within the university system and this led to a flowering of Reformed thought in the late sixteenth and throughout the seventeenth centuries, of which John Owen in England and Gisbertus Voetius in the Low Countries are perhaps the two greatest examples. Such a fertile period was not to last, however, and the impact of Enlightenment patterns of thought on universities by the end of the seventeenth century meant that Reformed theology, rooted as it was in traditional metaphysics, was soon either modified beyond recognition or displaced within the curriculum.

In more recent centuries, Reformed theology played a significant role in the political and cultural life of the Netherlands, particularly through the figure of Abraham Kuyper who founded a denomination, a newspaper, a university, and a political party. He also served as Prime Minister. In Kuyper, Reformed theology came to take on a cultural ambition not seen since the Reformation of the sixteenth century and, through Kuyper’s friend and colleague, Herman Bavinck, found one of its most articulate and talented theologians. The latter’s four volume Reformed Dogmatics represents the last great attempt to offer a comprehensive account of Reformed theology in dialogue with modernity. One unfortunate dimension to Dutch Reformed theology was the role it played in South Africa where it was used as partial justification for apartheid, although, in a more liberal form, it also proved a resource for those who opposed the regime such as Alan Boesak.

In Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland and its educational institution, New College, provided some theological leadership particularly through its preeminent theologians, William Cunningham and James Bannerman. In America, Princeton Theological Seminary was the center of Reformed theology in the nineteenth century, and its two most famous faculty, Charles Hodge and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, also made significant contributions to Reformed thought, particularly on the issues of evolution and scriptural authority. Further, thanks to American missionary endeavors, Korea, and then after partition, South Korea, became a center for Reformed theology in the non-Western world.

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