Note: I cannot resist making a quick post on this issue, as this was mentioned in the comments of my previous post.
In response to the aforementioned question, Professor Byron Curtis, Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Geneva College, wrote:
“To be Reformed means:
To confess with the orthodox churches the consensus of the first five centuries of Christianity, including:
a) Classic theism: One omnipotent, benevolent God, distinct from creation.
b) Nicene and Chalcedonian Trinitarianism: one God in three eternally existent persons, equal in power and glory.
c) Christ, the God-Man, the one mediator between God & the human race, incarnate, crucified, resurrected, ascended, & coming again.
d) Humanity created in the image of God, yet tragically fallen & profoundly in need of restoration to God through Christ.
e) The Visible Church: the community of the redeemed, indwelt by the Holy Spirit; the mystical body of Christ on earth.
f) The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
g) The Sacraments: visible signs and seals of the grace of God, ministering Christ's love to us in our deep need.
h) The Christian life: characterized by the prime theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.”
Although Reformed theologians generally adhere to the “consensus of the first five centuries of Christianity”, this consensus is not exclusive to Reformed theology. Classic Theism and Nicene Christology, for example, are generally confessed by various theologians from different end of the spectrum, including Classical, Revised and Progressive Dispensationalists. From the aforementioned listing of the consensus of historic Christianity, probably only the view that “the Sacraments as visible signs and seals” is considered exclusively Presbyterian (which in turn is distinguished from the Lutheran, Zwinglian, and Romish views). But again, the above listing cannot be conclusively made the sine qua non of Reformed Theology.
Professor Curtis continues:
“To be Reformed means:
To confess with the Reformation churches the four great "Solas:"
a) RE the source of authority: Sola Scriptura.
b) RE the basis of salvation: Sola Gratia.
c) RE the means of salvation: Sola Fide
d) Re the merit of salvation: Solus Christus"
It is widely known that Historic Protestantism confesses the four Solas; this includes our Lutheran and Anglican brethren. Salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone, plus the doctrines of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture are not exclusively Reformed teachings, but are also traditionally confessed by the Protestant churches. In addition to Protestantism, historic eighteenth century Evangelicalism (as distinguished from New Evangelicalism and Neo-Orthodoxy) likewise confesses essentially the principles of the four Solas. Twentieth century Pentecostalism and the Fundamentalist movement can also be safely included into this category. Once again, the four Solas cannot be the sine qua non of Reformed Theology.
In addition to the above characteristics, Professor Curtis points out that the Reformed Christian ought to “confess with the Reformed churches the distinctives of the Reformed faith:
a) In salvation: monergism, not synergism. God alone saves. Such monergism implies T.U.L.I.P., the Five Points of Calvinism from the Synod of Dordt:
T = Total Depravity
U = Unconditional Election
L = Limited Atonement, or, better, Particular Redemption
I = Irresistible Grace
P = Perseverence and Preservation of the Saints
b) In worship: the Regulative Principle of Worship. “Whatever is not commanded in public worship is forbidden.” God alone directs how He is to be worshiped in the assembly of the visible church.
c) In the Visible Church: Covenant Theology & Covenant Community. The Church is the New Israel, incorporating believers among Jews and Gentiles alike. Infant Baptism ordinarily follows from this understanding. Sacraments are not merely human observances, but acts of Jesus Christ, marking out the visible church.
d) In life: Life is religion: there is no sacred/secular destinction. As such Christians have neither jobs nor careers; they have vocations (callings). Every calling is "full time Christian service," because every Christian is a full-time Christian.”
Most would agree that the five points of Calvinism form the basis of Reformed Theology. At the same time, it is important to realize that these five points are not sufficient to define Reformed Theology itself. Although the five points of Calvinism were born out of the Reformation, these five points can theologically be compartmentalized within the confines of soteriology and anthropology. In other words, it is possible to adhere to these five points, and not be Reformed in one’s overall theology. Before anyone vehemently disagrees, please allow me to elaborate upon this.
One problem with restricting the definition of Reformed Theology with merely the “five points of Calvinism” is this: there are avowedly dispensational theologians who adhere to these points as well. John F. MacArthur, Jr. of The Master's Seminary, for example, has consistently claimed an allegiance to the five points. But it is clear to all that his theological-hermeneutical grid is that of Dispensationalism. No Dispensational or Non-Dispensational theologian would ever say that MacArthur is Reformed. MacArthur himself proclaims that he is a Dispensationalist! Therefore, it is evident that these five points are not sufficient to define what Reformed Theology is.
So what does it mean to be Reformed? It cannot be simply an adherence to the five Solas or the five points of Calvinism.
Reformed theologians have consistently used Covenant theology as a unifying theological-hermeneutical grid to understand Scripture. Covenant theology sees an overarching unity within the Old and New Testaments, specifically, the Covenant of Grace. There is continuity instead of discontinuity.
There is continuity between Israel and the Church, not a distinction. Likewise, there is continuity between the various administrations of the Covenant of Grace, not discontinuity between diverse dispensations. It must be added that Reformed Theologians similarly see at least two different economies or “dispensations,” especially if one prefers that terminology: the Old Covenant and the New Covenant economy (Jer. 31:31-34). Therefore, seeing distinctive dispensations within the Bible is not a sine qua non of either Dispensationalism or Reformed Theology per se. It is how the Covenant theologian relates and ties the various economies, which distinguishes him from a Dispensationalist.
Reformed ecclesiology likewise arises from a “covenant” theological-hermeneutical grid. The Church age is not seen as a parenthesis within the 69th and 70th weeks of Daniel’s prophecy. The Church is the true, spiritual Israel. God does not have two “divine purposes,” one for Israel, and one for the Church.
Covenant theology sees the Church present in the Old Testament. Furthermore, many prophecies directed to national Israel are fulfilled in Christ and His bride, the Church (contra the literalistic hermeneutics of Dispensationalism). Consequently, a more precise definition for Reformed theology would be found within the theological-hermeneutical grid that undergirds the theological system itself.
Professor Curtis concludes, “Finally, in everything, as Christians everywhere joyfully affirm: Soli Deo Gloria. ‘To God alone be the glory.’”
According to Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism is “a view which sees the glory of God as the underlying purpose of God in the world.” In this sense, the fifth Sola cannot be used as a distinguishing feature of Reformed Theology.
So what are we left with? What would be the sine qua non of Reformed Theology?
The two diametrically opposed systems of theology – Reformed and Dispensational Theology – are derived from their hermeneutical presuppositions. It is ultimately the theologian’s hermeneutics, and his peculiar theological grid, which give rise to a resultant theological system.
Essential to a Reformed theologian’s theological-hermeneutical grid is Covenant theology, which includes the unifying covenant of grace, and the consistent continuity between Israel and the Church. This, I would say, is the fundamental difference between Reformed and Dispensational theology.
PS: This post is deliberately brief. I will explore this topic further in my future writings, and especially in the project I’m working on now.