This is a guest post by J. V. Fesko, 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.
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).