Increasingly, Christians are using “Reformed” to describe what they believe concerning the teachings of the Bible and the practices of the church. On one level, I think this is encouraging. More and more folk are being exposed to the doctrines of grace, which means there is a deepening understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation and the unconditional nature of forgiveness through the blood of Christ (i.e. justification).
However, as one becomes more acquainted with the historic Reformed tradition, which stretches back to the 16th century, it quickly becomes apparent that any definition of being Reformed today which has substantive continuity with the past must include much more than believing in predestination or election.
Is there not perhaps a distinctly historic Reformed way of understanding the life of the church, from the authority of the Bible to corporate worship on Sunday? Can we learn from our past as we seeking ongoing reformation and renewal of our churches in the present?
Robert Godfrey observes that John Calvin, the second generation Reformer from Switzerland, helped recover five important doctrinal disctinctives during the Protestant Reformation, which had been almost lost during the medieval Roman Catholic Church.
The first was that the Bible alone is the authority in the church for religious matters. The second was that the church must worship God purely, according to the Bible. The third was that justification is by grace alone through faith alone in the righteousness of Christ alone. The fourth was that the church must have a proper understanding of the two (and only two) sacraments instituted by Christ, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The fifth was that the true pastoral, teaching office must be restored in the church.
Regarding the Bible:
The authority of the Bible as an utterly reliable and accessible source of all religious truth is foundational to Protestantism. The Reformation took its stand against the pretensions of Rome to make tradition an authority in addition to the Bible and to make the pope the only ultimate arbiter of the meaning of the Bible and tradition. Calvin wrote, “Ours [is] the obedience which, while it disposes us to listen to our elders and superiors, tests all obedience by the Word of God; in fine, ours [is] the Church whose supreme care it is humbly and religiously to venerate the Word of God, and submit to its authority.” The Bible was not only a formal authority for Calvin. It was the vital and necessary authority in the life of God’s people. In his Genevan Catechism, Calvin taught the way in which the Bible should be used: If we lay hold on it with complete heartfelt conviction as nothing less than certain truth come down from heaven; if we show ourselves docile to it; if we subdue our wills and minds to his obedience; if we love it heartily; if having it once engraved on our hearts and its roots fixed there, so that it bring forth fruit in our life; if finally we be formed to its rule—then it will turn to our salvation as intended.
Today the Reformation doctrine of Scripture is being undermined in some quarters by college and seminary professors and in other quarters by uneducated demagogues. Some professors contend that unless one possesses arcane knowledge of antiquity, one cannot understand the basic message of the Bible. At the other extreme, some arrogant demagogues contend that they alone, without education, really understand the Bible. Whether these claims rest on appeals to scholarship or appeals to the Spirit, they deny the authority of the Bible. The church still needs to study and believe the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, understandable to careful, grammatical-historical interpretation. The church needs to love and study that Word, confident that it directs us in the truth that we must believe and live.
Calvin believed that one of the most serious deformations of the church in the medieval period was the corruption of worship. Worship had become idolatrous, with human inventions and creations replacing divine institutions. Worship had become man-centered, focusing on human actions and reactions. Against this corruption, Calvin insisted that worship must be directed by the Word of God alone:
“I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, seated as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honour of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course?”
Protestant worship in our day has become a factory of musical, dramatic, and artistic invention. Singing the Word, praying the Word, and reading and preaching the Word are often viewed as inadequate to produce the experience of God that so many are seeking. Serious worship as the meeting of the covenant people with their God through his Word seems in retreat far and wide. Human wisdom in worship is replacing divine truth, just as it did in the Middle Ages. Those who love the Word need to restore worship according to the Word.
You can read the rest of this article here. And you can read what the historic Reformed and Presbyterian traditions have believed regarding what the Bible teaches as summed up in their confessional (creedal) standards here.