Reformed theology is the term used to refer to the belief system(s) of those Protestant churches which trace their origins to the work of Reformers such as Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin.


Reformed theology, originating in the Swiss Reformation, developed in response both to late medieval Catholicism and Lutheranism, breaking with the latter on the issue of the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper.  Defined confessionally by the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards, it maintains the generic Protestant emphases on the sufficiency of scripture and on justification by grace through faith, being distinctive in its approach to Christology, sacraments, certain approaches to politic and culture, and worship.

The term “Reformed Theology” has a range of meanings in contemporary church life and theology. It can be used to refer to the beliefs of any Protestant movement that adheres to a broadly anti-Pelagian understanding of salvation, as, for example, in the Young, Restless, and Reformed phenomenon. At a more technical level it refers specifically to Protestant churches that hold as confessional norms the Three Forms of Unity, the Westminster Standards, or (in the case of Reformed Baptists) the Second London Confession.


The Reformed churches trace their origins to the Reformation in Switzerland, specifically to that which originated in Zurich in the 1520s under the leadership of Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531). Zwingli’s reformation was distinguished from that of Luther theologically in its emphasis upon Scripture as the normative rule of liturgical practice (hence, for example, Zurich churches removed stained glass windows and developed a very simple, Word-centered form of worship) and in its denial of the Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper. This latter point led to a formal break between Luther and Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, an event which divided Reformed and Lutheran churches in perpetuity.

While Zwingli provided the initial formative impulse for Reformed theology, others soon came to play prominent roles. Heinrich Bullinger continued the Zurich reformation after Zwingli’s death; Martin Bucer implemented similar reforms in Starsbourg; John Calvin, Pierre Viret, Guillaume Farel, and Pierre Viret, among others, implemented reform in Geneva and its environs. Then, in the later sixteenth century, Reformed churches spread across Europe. To France, the Low Countries, England, and Scotland. By the end of the seventeenth century, churches adhering to Reformed theology were found.

During this period, Reformed theology also planted itself within the university system and this led to a flowering of Reformed thought in the late sixteenth and throughout the seventeenth centuries, of which John Owen in England and Gisbertus Voetius in the Low Countries are perhaps the two greatest examples. Such a fertile period was not to last, however, and the impact of Enlightenment patterns of thought on universities by the end of the seventeenth century meant that Reformed theology, rooted as it was in traditional metaphysics, was soon either modified beyond recognition or displaced within the curriculum.

In more recent centuries, Reformed theology played a significant role in the political and cultural life of the Netherlands, particularly through the figure of Abraham Kuyper who founded a denomination, a newspaper, a university, and a political party. He also served as Prime Minister. In Kuyper, Reformed theology came to take on a cultural ambition not seen since the Reformation of the sixteenth century and, through Kuyper’s friend and colleague, Herman Bavinck, found one of its most articulate and talented theologians. The latter’s four volume Reformed Dogmatics represents the last great attempt to offer a comprehensive account of Reformed theology in dialogue with modernity. One unfortunate dimension to Dutch Reformed theology was the role it played in South Africa where it was used as partial justification for apartheid, although, in a more liberal form, it also proved a resource for those who opposed the regime such as Alan Boesak.

In Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland and its educational institution, New College, provided some theological leadership particularly through its preeminent theologians, William Cunningham and James Bannerman. In America, Princeton Theological Seminary was the center of Reformed theology in the nineteenth century, and its two most famous faculty, Charles Hodge and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, also made significant contributions to Reformed thought, particularly on the issues of evolution and scriptural authority. Further, thanks to American missionary endeavors, Korea, and then after partition, South Korea, became a center for Reformed theology in the non-Western world.

In the mid-twentieth century, the most significant Reformed theologian was Karl Barth, although his own theology, particularly on the issues of election and scripture, represented a significant departure from the Reformed confessional tradition on these points. The more orthodox and confessional streams of Reformed theology after the era of Bavinck tended to be represented outside of the mainstream denominations and academy by theologians who essentially repristinated the earlier traditions. The later work of John Webster, the Anglican theologian, who taught at the Universities of Oxford, Aberdeen, and latterly St. Andrews, marked something of an exception to this pattern.

Reformed Theological Distinctives

Reformed theology shared with Lutheranism and Anglicanism a commitment to the generic doctrines of the Protestant Reformation: justification by grace through faith; the sufficiency and normative authority of Scripture alone; and a basic opposition to the sacramental system and the magisterial authority of the church.


As with Luther, the Reformed followed Augustine and the medieval anti-Pelagian tradition in stressing the sovereignty of God in salvation in eternity via predestination and election. This was the corollary of a belief in the significance of original sin and human depravity as rendering human being impotent to initiate their own salvation. Reformed theologians nevertheless exhibit some variation on whether the decree to predestine was single (involving election to life and a “passing over” over others) or double (involving both a positive will to elect some and to reprobate others) and also on the question of supra- or infra-lapsarian (the issue of whether God, in his eternal election, conceived of human beings as hypothetically unfallen or fallen).

On the issue of the atonement, there is again diversity among the Reformed regarding its so-called extent. While all orthodox variations of Reformed theology reject the concept of universal salvation, debates about the hypothetical sufficiency and intention of the atonement have marked the history of the Reformed tradition since the Reformation, most famously in the rise of Amyraldianism, associated with the Academy at Saumur in France, members of whose faculty advocated a hypothetically universal atonement whole rejecting the notion of universal salvation.

Sacraments and Christology

At the heart of that which distinguishes the Reformed from the Lutherans as the two primary representatives of Protestant theological traditions, lie the sacraments. The Reformed understand baptism in covenantal terms, as replacing circumcision and as pointing back to God’s unilateral commitment to his people in the covenant of grace. As such (like the Lutherans) the Reformed hold to infant baptism but (unlike the Lutherans) do not see baptism as the moment of regeneration so much as the sign of entry into the visible church. Reformed Baptists reject infant baptism but retain a covenantal understanding, seeing God as the agent rather than reducing baptism simply to an outward means of profession of faith.

On the Lord’s Supper, there is some diversity within the Reformed tradition, with both Zwinglian memorialism and Calvin’s position being found within the confessional tradition. The counterpoint to both is primarily that of Luther and Lutheranism. Luther famously asserted the real presence of the whole Christ, divine and human, in the elements of bread and wine. In later Lutheran theology, this was expressed as the whole Christ being present in, with, and under the elements.  Key to this was the idea that, in the Incarnation, the attributes of deity were communicated directly to the humanity (and therefore the humanity of Jesus could, for example, partake of the omnipresence of his divinity and being present in the elements). Further, the Lutherans were adamant that this meant that unbelievers receiving the sacrament really did receive Christ, albeit to their damnation.

The Reformed position rejects the idea of direct communication, asserting instead that the properties of Christ’s divinity are communicated to the person of the mediator, and only therefore indirectly to the human nature. This position became known as the extra Calvinisticum: the idea that though the divinity of Christ is truly united to the humanity, it is not circumscribed by the humanity. Thus, the humanity of Christ remains finite and cannot be present in the bread and wine because it is currently seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven.

While Zwinglians and Calvinists agree on this Christological point and also in their rejection of the Lutheran claim that unbelievers truly eat the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Yet there are key differences. Zwinglians tend to view the Lord’s Supper as then being a mere memorial whose significance lies in reminding Christians of Christ’s death and of binding them together in the present. Calvin and those who follow him regard the Lord’s Supper not simply as a memorial but also as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. In the act of eating, the Holy Spirit enables the believer truly to feed upon Christ by faith and thereby makes Christ more real to the one partaking. It is the same Christ but received in a different way. Like the Lutherans, however, the Reformed all regarded the proclamation of the Word as the only context in which the sacraments could be properly administered and received. Only when understood relative to God’s promise in Christ could the sacramental action avoid become an idol.

Politics and Culture

Reformed theology in the last hundred years has offered various models for understanding the relationship of the church to broader social concerns. On the left, the work of Jurgen Moltmann provided inspiration for Liberation Theology. On the right, theonomy or Christian reconstructionism, a movement associated with Rousas J. Rushdoony and his followers, argued for the need to apply Old Testament law to contemporary society. More recently, the work of David VanDrunen has rehabilitated the natural law tradition in Reformed theology which played a signal role in both the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Combined with his emphasis on Two Kingdoms, this represents a fruitful new development in Reformed ethics at a point in time when Protestantism is having to reassess its social thought in relation to new political and ethical challenges in a post-Christian context.


While there is no single liturgical form demanded by Reformed theology, Reformed churches typically regarded Scripture as regulating worship in a manner which presses towards an aesthetic and formal simplicity focused on prayer, the reading and preaching of the Bible, the sacraments, and singing, the latter of which was historically psalmody but now generally includes hymns as well. Such worship is seen as a practical manifestation of the Reformed commitment to the sufficiency of scripture, not simply for doctrine and ethics but also for church practice.

Further Reading

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