What's in a name?

Posted by
Anthony Bradley has asked a thought-provoking question: why is 'Reformed' more often associated with Baptists than Presbyterians in popular parlance in the current climate?

A number of thoughts come to mind.

'Reformed' as a term has expanded its meaning over the years to the point where it is no longer a given.  In the context of the Gospel Coalition (perhaps a bellwether for the contemporary evangelical scene), it seems to mean something akin to 'broadly Calvinistic in soteriology'.  Thus, adherence to all or a subset of the Five Points of Calvinism qualifies one as Reformed.  Used in this way, it includes Baptists and Charismatics.Some object strongly to this. I cannot summon any emotional energy to combat it: it seems to me that as long as one knows the term is being used somewhat equivocally, no real harm is done.

More narrowly, it is sometimes used to refer to those who hold to more traditional forms of worship and polity.  Thus, one can have Reformed Baptists as well as Reformed Presbyterians. (I am guessing that groups such as Acts 29 would not typically call themselves 'Reformed Baptists' even though broadly Calvinistic in theology and baptistic in practice.)

More narrowly still, it is used to refer to those who hold either to the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity as their confessional documents.   Finally, for the real ecclesiology geeks out there, it is sometimes used to distinguish even within this group to refer to those who hold to the Three Forms and to continental polity, as opposed to Presbyterianism.

Bottom line: the term as used in Gospel Coalition/T4G circles is really used in a somewhat equivocal way, a manner disconnected from covenant baptism and Reformed polity.  This is of no real significance except when those using the term do not realise that it can be used in varying ways.  If one were to assume that the word can only be used univocally then one might be tempted to relativise, say, the differences between Mars Hill in Seattle and your typical OPC or PCA congregation, seeing them as of minimal significance or simply matters of taste.

'Reformed' in current popular parlance is somewhat like 'confessional.'  I keep meeting 'confessional evangelicals' who do not actually adhere, other than at a notional level, to any of the great historic ecclesiastical confessions.  They seem to be using the adjective as a substitute for 'conservative' or 'orthodox', which is fine -- as long as (once again) it does not then lead to blurring the significant difference between being orthodox in belief and being confessional in practice.  Being confessional in the traditional, ecclesiastical sense, has profound practical significance for how one operates at the level of the church; it does not simply express a set of ideas to which one is intellectually committed, with no direct implications for church governance etc.  Further, as I have said before, a true return to the confessions of the Protestant church will inevitably involve a return to the divisions which those confessions enshrined and which were in fact often the very reason for their production: fundamental disagreements among Protestants over sacraments and ecclesiology.  The current confessional evangelical movement seems to default, in practice, to baptist independency -- which brings us back to the point being made by Dr. Bradley.

So the eclipse of Presbyterians in the evangelical world's adoption of the term 'Reformed' is probably in large part a function of the transformation of the term's meaning by the contemporary evangelical scene.   This is not something I myself will lose any sleep over.
Posted June 25, 2012 @ 2:03 PM by Carl Trueman
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