A good question: What does Reformed mean?
One question, four answers
‘It takes God with the utmost seriousness’
In daily speech, I use ‘reformed’ to mean something like ‘restructured’ or ‘improved’, in all sorts of ways from organisationally to morally. Goodness knows what people make of it as part of the title of our Church. We’ve put it up in bigger and brighter letters outside our church in Taunton, but I wonder, really, what it conveys to passersby.
For me, the word ‘Reformed’ evokes a time we call the Reformation, certainly. Even more, it suggests a way of reflecting on the mystery of God that I hear through the ages, and from which I draw the deepest inspiration. There are words that evoke this tradition more fully, I think: like ‘grace’ and the ‘sovereignty of God’.
There are times when we see clearly the danger of making God too small, or into something to be manipulated, when faith slips into superstition. We rediscover the truth that the great mystery of God cannot be captured in statues, pictures or words, and that we do not have to save ourselves, but that we are offered the unmerited gift of God’s gracious love…
Susan Durber is Minister of Taunton United Reformed Church, and Moderator of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches
‘Reformed means prophetic’
If I had to summarise all the history and writing that make up the Reformed tradition in a single word, I would argue that being Reformed means to be prophetic. In the Bible, there are two kinds of prophets. The first were the court prophets, who gave to royalty and those who held the reins of power what they wanted to hear. And then there were those prophets who were killed for what they said and believed. Jesus belonged to the latter school.
To me, to be prophetic means three things. Firstly, it involves a prophetic discernment, to be able to read the signs of the times. There are, of course, many ways in which we can exercise such discernment – there is an entire industry of hedge fund managers who are trained into discerning which way the market will move so as to make money for their clients. But we, as Reformed Christians, are called to discern from the underside of history. We are called into a discernment from the perspective of the poor, the dispossessed and the marginalised. To perceive the world from below, to see as Jesus does, and to understand the violence and the cruelty of times for all those who are the least…
Philip Peacock is a minister in the Church of North India, and is the World Communion of Reformed Churches’ Executive Secretary for Justice and Witness
‘Adjusting things received from missionaries’
To answer this question in light of what the Pacific churches are doing today, Reformed means readjusting many Christian practices and theologies received from missionaries since the inception of Christianity in this part of the world. The Pacific churches are not trying to nullify the teachings and practices that have become part of our Pacific lives, but they are realising certain gaps in what we have come to believe and, to a certain extent, defend. The word Reformed, for us, means re-storying our own narrative with our own words.
Theologically, the walls of Reformed tradition are beginning to crumble in the Pacific. A few bold Pacific academics are challenging biblical narratives that are oppressive, violent, and undermine the Pacific life. Texts like ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’ have led others to challenge Jesus’ missional and ministerial approach as a privileged patriarchal sin against women, children and humanity. The doctrine of divine providence is now being challenged in the wake of severe natural catastrophes resulting from climate change. The contemporary face of Pacific Christianity is marked by the questioning of the doctrine of God, questioning the scripture, questioning the Christian faith, and questioning the ecclesiastical mandate to evangelise the whole world…
Nikotemo Sopepa is Pacific Mission Secretary for the Council for World Mission
‘God is in charge’
Much ink has been spilled trying to answer this question! There are a number of different ways of approaching it and, therefore, a number of possible answers.
Historically, the Reformed developed as different groups who began to sense different theological emphases among those seeking reform in the Church during the 16th century. A particular cause of controversy concerned the presence or otherwise of Christ when the Church celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Led by the Swiss Reformers, the Reformed tended to argue for spiritual presence, though for them it was all the more real because it was spiritual. Names associated with this part of the Reformation include Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer and, perhaps supremely, John Calvin. The tradition which emerged from their efforts includes such diverse thinkers as Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth, Allan Boesak and Amy Plantinga Pauw….
Robert Pope is Director of Studies in Church History and Doctrine at Westminster College
This is an extract from an article published in the July/August 2021 edition of Reform