What is Reformed Theology?
When people think of “Reformed theology” they often think of “T.U.L.I.P” (also known as, “the Doctrines of Grace“). While the Bible’s teaching on these things is certainly a part of Reformed theology it’s important to recognize that it isn’t the whole of Reformed theology. To understand the full depth and richness of the Reformed tradition we have to understand what it means to be a confessional church.
Kirk of the Plains is a confessional church. We have a confession of faith. This is terribly confusing for many otherwise orthodox Christians who are more than likely to say, “I believe in no creed but Christ.” But what about Christ do you believe exactly? The no creed but Christ slogan means well but it is naïve. The church has always needed to state definitively what it believes about Christ and so we have always used creeds and confessions.
In our case, because we are a Presbyterian church, we use the historic confession of Presbyterianism, The Westminster Confession of Faith. The Confession is subordinate to Scripture but drawn from Scripture. It does not have the same authority as the Bible, but it is biblical and therefore holds serious authority for Presbyterians. ‘Confessional’ means that we are not making things up as we go…we have been handed down a clearly articulated theology drawn from Scripture and applicable for Christian living.
A rundown of Confessions, Creeds and Catechisms
A Confession in its earliest use was a testimonial statement given by martyrs being ushered to their deaths. The most commonly used martyrs confession was 1 Timothy 3:16. By the time of the Reformation, Confessions were still used as testimonial statements of belief in the face of persecution, but they were expanded in form to be summations of what the church believed and taught. It is a short summary of what we believe the Bible teaches. The church historian Mark Noll says ‘Confessions are bridges between Scriptural revelation and cultures.’ Kirk of the Plains would understand the Westminster Confession of Faith in this way.
A Creed is a statement of universal orthodoxy, affirmed by Christians in all times and places.
A Catechism is a doctrinal summary structured in Question/Answer format for memorization. We could think of catechisms as Confessions committed to memory.
At Kirk of the Plains we use all three.
How to be Confessional:
Read the Confession. Read it regularly. The Confession was designed to be read not just once, but over and over again. Read slowly, a chapter a day. Read it to gain a sense of the big picture first, then read more closely to add fine detail. Reading exercise: See if you can summarize each chapter in a simple sentence.
Refer to the Confession. When a doctrinal question comes up, look to the Confession to see if an answer is offered.
Refer others to the Confession. In theological/biblical discussions open the Confession and see what guidance and explanation is offered. Beware of those quoting and misquoting the Confession. Always check to see that it was represented accurately.
Carry the Confession. You can’t refer to it, if it isn’t at hand.
Practice the Confession. Believe what it calls you to believe, do what it calls you to do.
Even disagree with it. A sure sign of maturity is the ability to hold and state a disagreement while maintaining deep loyalty. How do I know if my disagreement indicates I am not Confessional, or Reformed and Presbyterian at all? If our disagreement denies the “system of doctrine” set out in the Confession, then Confessional Christianity, or this stripe of it, isn’t for us. Let’s say it another way…if our disagreement leads us to reject a particular doctrine, we are in trouble. If our disagreement is with the explanation of the doctrine, in some phrase or sense, then there is no need to panic just yet. Find someone to discuss your disagreement with, and keep it friendly and sanctifying. Be ready to hold or to lose your disagreement. But remember, the Confession isn’t propaganda, it is a summary to instruct us in faith and practice.
You can pick up a copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms here.