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Reformed Catholics

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This is a guest post by J. V. Fesko. He is the author of The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context & Theological Insights.

Heirs of the Reformation

In our present day, people within the church may recognize that they are the inheritors of the Protestant Reformation. When Martin Luther tacked his 95 Theses to the castle door at Wittenberg on October 31st in 1517, he started something that we here in the twenty-first century are the beneficiaries.

In fact, there are numerous denominations that lay claim to the title of Reformed. In our own day, Reformed defines a set of beliefs about doctrine, life, and worship, typically codified in a number of Protestant confessions and catechisms. Most Presbyterian denominations adhere to the Westminster Standards and those that descend from the Dutch Continental tradition adhere to the Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort).

But I suspect that if you approach the average Reformed church member and ask them what Reformed means, they might not be able to tell you. The term has taken on a life of its own, but read within the context of the sixteenth century it was part of a broader phrase.

Reform Rather Than Innovation

If you reform something, it means that you did not create de novo, or from scratch. But rather, you take something that has already existed and you improve, correct, or adjust it. You remove errors, incorrect ideas, or mistakes. You reform it.

In this case, sixteenth century Christians were reformed Catholics. When the Protestant reformers sought to reform the church, they didn’t wipe the slate clean and start over—they didn’t reinvent the wheel. Rather, they identified those problematic elements within the church’s theology and corrected them.

Case in point, many of the controversies between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation were over matters pertaining to salvation. Matters pertaining to predestination, the role of faith, justification, and sanctification, were front and center. There were not great conflicts, for example, over the doctrine of God or the doctrine of Christ.

You can see this pattern in the Westminster Confession. In the Confession’s chapter on Christ (WCF 8), for example, you largely find a series of affirmations that reach far behind the sixteenth century and extend back to the great creeds of the ancient church, the Councils of Nicea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon. These were ecumenical councils that anyone, Protestant or Roman Catholic, would and should affirm.

In fact, when you read the works of the theologians who wrote the Westminster Standards, they have numerous positive references to Roman Catholic theologians on many areas of agreement, such as Thomas Aquinas and elements of his doctrine of God. The theologians at Westminster recognized that he was a brilliant man, but they also had words of criticism for his doctrine of justification.

Reformed Catholics

The theologians of the assembly wanted the world to know that they weren’t schismatics seeking to build a church upon their own peculiar ideas, but that they were part of the one catholic and universal church. But within their own historical context, they were also keen on conveying the message that there was error within the church that required remedy—numerous doctrines required greater and faithful alignment with the teaching of Scripture. Hence, they believed that they were Reformed Catholics.

We must embrace the reality that as heirs of the Protestant Reformation, we are not schismatics but rather Reformed Catholics. We have embraced the corrective measures the sixteenth-century reformers offered, and we are continuing to seek greater fidelity to Scripture.

So if someone asks you, “Are you a Roman Catholic?” Feel confident that you can respond, “No, I’m a Reformed Catholic. There are many elements that I have in common with Roman Catholics, but there are key differences that separate my church’s beliefs from those of the Roman Catholic Church.” You then have likely created an opportunity to answer the likely ensuing question, “Oh? What are those differences,” at which point you can discuss the wonderful truths of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone!

Therefore, don’t cede the title of Catholic—embrace it but with the theologians of the Westminster assembly add the qualifier that you are a Reformed Catholic.

J. V. Fesko (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is academic dean and associate professor of systematic and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California. In addition to serving as an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, he is the author of a number of books related to the Reformation, including The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights (excerpt).


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June 26, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Church History,Life / Doctrine,Salvation,The Reformation,Theology | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:30 am | (3) Comments »


  1. I agree with almost all of this article, but we need to remember that when in the sixteen century the reformers wanted to reform church, the Roman church was opposed to that, even they launch the counter reformed movement, in that sense, we are not the schismatics, but they are; this is because Roman Church deny the Sola Scriptura and doing so they separeted from the body of Christ transforming the Roman Church in other gospel, other truth, as an ex roman catholic I can say that any body inside the Roman Church thinks about the truth of Bible, or the councils in the early church, but everybody is bussy in triying to be good to gain salvation by his good works, that is the gospel of Romei think this is a necessary aclaration

    Comment by Cristian G. — June 27, 2014 @ 7:27 am

  2. Too little too late.

    If you adopt this mindset today you will only be adding confusion rather than clarifying things. The word catholic, although technically meaning universal, has been hijacked by the RC church. The same has happened with the word eucharist, which is a perfectly fine word found many times transliterated in the greek NT. The problem is that that word has been hijacked by the RC church too. I understand the need to try to begin a conversation, but we are no longer in the historical position of trying to reform the RC church as Savanarola, or even Luther. The RC church made its stand in Trent and we live in its aftermath: a very confusing system of rituals and mystically pagan ideas. We do no Catholics any favors by granting them even partial legitimacy. Take it from a former RC, the differences are richer and more valuable than any spare change we may get from trying to identify ourselves as Catholics in order to win them over. Let’s not be ashamed of reformed theology.

    Comment by Tad — June 28, 2014 @ 10:08 am

  3. Before becoming a Christian, I was an atheist with no Catholic church background. I came to know Jesus through reading the Bible and starting attending an Evangelical church.

    I’m really surprised to hear a suggestion that we refer to ourselves as Reformed Catholics. As far as I know the Catholic church is NOT a Christian church and most Evangelicals have no desire to identify themselves with her. Though I’m sure this is not the intent, I think nevertheless that this position has the potential to bring confusion as to whether Crossway is part of the movement to try and reconcile the Evangelical church with the Catholic church.

    Comment by Pia — June 29, 2014 @ 12:26 am

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