What is Reformed Theology?

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century resulted in the creation of two main strands of Protestantism. First, there was the strand that followed Martin Luther. Second, there was the strand that followed Ulrich Zwingli.

Ulrich Zwingli
Ulrich Zwingli

The theological position adopted by this second strand has come to be known as ‘Reformed Theology’. It shares with all Protestant theology a strong commitment to the sovereignty of God in salvation and emphasises that we are saved by grace through faith.

Its theological position was best expressed in the writings of John Calvin, the great Reformed theologian and was presented in various catechisms and confessions, mostly written in western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

It is important to note, however, that Reformed theology is a ‘school’ of thought with many ‘strands’.

In the earliest days of the Reformation, scholars throughout Europe were developing Reformed ideas. For example, Martin Bucer in Strasburg, Ulrich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger in Zurich, John Calvin and Theodore Beza in Geneva, Caspar Oleveanus and Zacharias Ursinus in Heidelberg. This is to say nothing of Peter Martyr Vermigli who was everywhere!

Add to this the theologians in The Netherlands, England and Scotland and you have a fascinating ‘school’ of thought.

John Calvin
John Calvin

These various ‘strands’ in the ‘school’ of Reformed theology did not always agree and often came to contradictory conclusions. They also produced confessional statements, which were quite different from one another in structure and content (for example, compare the Second Helvetic Confession with the Heidelberg Catechism and then with the later Westminster Confession of Faith) yet all were recognised as ‘Reformed’. There was a healthy debate between the ‘strands’ and no one strand was regarded as having all the truth.

Some who stand within the Reformed tradition make the mistake of thinking that the particular tradition in which they themselves stand is the true (or only) representative of Reformed theology. This is unfortunate. In any attempt to craft a Reformed theology for the 21st Century, we must be sure that we understand the breadth and significance of our tradition as it has found expression in many nations and in many churches.

We must resist attempts to insist that only one ‘strand’ of Reformed theology is acceptable. Like the early Reformers, we must learn to show respect for Reformed brothers and sisters who choose to express their theology in different language and with different emphases.

RCRT stands in this tradition of Reformed theology and seeks to learn from the many others in many places who share our general concerns. We also want to bring our Reformed theology into engagement with other traditions, as we have done for almost 40 years through our biennial Dogmatics Conference.