God’s Sovereignty & the Scriptures
What is Reformed Theology?
– Part One
What do you think of when you hear the words Reformed Theology? Perhaps you remember learning about a monk named Martin Luther nailing a list on a door because he was upset at the Roman Catholic Church. Or perhaps you have heard about the five solas of the Reformation: by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (solus Christus), as revealed by Scripture alone (sola scriptura), to the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria). Or maybe you draw a blank?
In this four-part series, we seek to answer the question, ‘What is Reformed Theology?’ by walking you through the key themes, ideas, figures, and historical milestones of what we call Reformed Theology. We want you to get a basic lay of the land so you can know and love the richness of the historic Reformed faith and the power of the gospel found within its teachings.
Foundational Truths of Reformed Theology
There are many places to start an introduction to Reformed Theology. It is important to grasp what is known as the doctrines of grace (AKA the five points of Calvinism or TULIP). It is good to understand what theologians call the ordo salutis (Latin for the order by which people are saved from sin and death). And it is proper to learn and digest what the big conflicts were between the Medieval Church and the Reformers. We hope to begin scratching the surface on all these points throughout this series, but here in part one, we want to lay out the foundational framework that underlies Reformed Theology.
If you take away anything from this series, it should be these two principles: first, God is in control of all things (this is sometimes referred to as God’s sovereignty or providence); second, God’s word contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is the only ultimate guide for our lives. In these two truths, you will find the crux of all Reformed Theology—who has authority and by what standard is that authority tested.
Reformed thought puts God’s glory at the center of all things. God has manifested His glory in all of creation. All you have to do is look up at the sky, witness a gorgeous sunset, or watch a nature documentary to begin to see it.
All living things exist to glorify their creator. Man particularly was created in God’s image to bring Him glory. Christ died, was buried, and rose again to save sinners, but this too was primarily a testament to the wondrous glory of the Triune God.
Part of recognizing this glory is properly grasping God’s authority over all things. God controls time, space, reality, your life, the lives of the people around you, the movement of animals, the setting of the sun, the gravitational pull of the earth, the flow of the ocean waves, the paths of tornados, and on and on. Anything you can see, feel, hear, taste, smell, think, or know is governed by God. He is the supreme ruler. He has complete sovereignty over us in such a way that the Scriptures presume not a hair can fall from our heads without His knowledge and will (Lk 12:7, Lk. 21:18).
The Reformers deeply understood this and emphasized it in their teachings. Reformed Theology declares Christ’s Lordship over every aspect of life, not just salvation. This is good news. God holds everything in the palm of His hand, therefore we can truly rest. We can trust all of our lives to Him. We can put our worries, cares, and decisions in the hands of a good and righteous king. By His grace He saved us, and by His providence He sustains us.
The Authority of the Scriptures
God’s authority over all things means that we are to obey Him in all things. Fortunately, God has not left us without a word from Him. In the Old and New Testaments, we can find everything we need for salvation, obedience, and the glorifying of God every day.
Scripture is the standard by which we must measure everything. The Reformers came against a church that taught that the church itself was supreme, that it had ultimate authority over men, that it was the arbiter between right and wrong, and that it and only it could discern God’s will whether or not it matched up with the Scriptures. The Reformers put that church in its proper place and put the Bible back in the hands of the people. They said to people everywhere, “This is the Word of the Lord, live by it and nothing else.”
This is not to say that the Church as an institution is not important or that church traditions do not rightly shape and guide Christians. But the institutional Church and her traditions must come under the authority of the Scriptures.
The Scriptures are completely unique. Reformed Theology teaches that the scriptures were written by men through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures are God’s spoken word breathed out by Him to us. No church confession, creed, or teaching—no matter how good—can attain the status of the breathed-out word of God. In it we find God’s plan for redemption, we see the blueprints for God’s created order, we discover who Christ is, and we can finally begin to know truth. Because of its uniqueness, Reformed Theology teaches that we are to test everything—even its own teachings—by what God has said to us in His word.
In the Reformation period, there was a Latin phrase used that you ought to remember: Ad Fontes. This meant ‘back to the sources.’ The Reformers called for a renewed subscription to the Bible as the primary authority over a Christian. This means that the Hebrew and Greek scriptures, through a reliable translation, are to guide the Church and its members through all of life. It is the authority by which we are to judge all other authorities. We must always go back to it. This is at the heart of Reformed Theology—who has authority and by what standard is that authority tested?
So, to get a kick start on learning Reformed Theology, read your bible. Drink in the Word of God daily. Learn, understand, and apply His teachings to your life. Taste and see the richness of His love by resting in His providence.
In part two, we will provide a skeletal history of the Reformation, its key leaders, the major branches of Reformed thought, and some of its written confessions. We hope by reviewing the happenings of the 16th and 17th centuries, we can begin to see the tested truthfulness of the Reformed faith and discover why it matters for us today.
In parts three and four, we will dive into two big Reformed distinctives:
- Reformed soteriology – a theological term referring to the doctrine of how we are saved by God.
- The Reformed doctrine of worship – i.e., how we are to properly respond to God’s salvation.
The great reformed theologian John Calvin taught that on these two distinctives rest the whole of the Reformed faith. He writes:
“If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, consequently the whole substance of Christianity, viz., a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshiped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained. When these are kept out of view, though we may glory in the name of Christians, our profession is empty and vain” (Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church).
We pray that by examining these, you will have a closer allegiance to Christ, a greater love for God’s word, and an increasing desire to submit to Him and live for His glory.