When I teach about Reformed theology, I often start by showing a pyramid of three layers. Like that one on the far end of the row of Queens Pyramids at Giza. Just picture the bottom layer a lot thicker.
The big foundation layer is core Christian teachings —
- Things like our understanding of God — the One God is eternally three Persons, Father Son and Holy Spirit.
- Things like our understanding of Jesus as one person with two natures — truly human and truly God.
These are things that Reformed Christians teach, and hopefully believe. They are also taught and believed by the Orthodox, the Catholic, and any other ordinary flavor of Christian.
That is, these things are genuinely Reformed theology, but there is nothing uniquely Reformed about them.
The slightly smaller layer in the middle is the key emphases that emerged in the 16th century Reformation.
- Things like our understanding that salvation, our justification before God, comes in Christ alone, by God’s grace alone, and is received by faith alone.
- Things like our emphasis on grounding doctrinal teaching in Scripture alone.
These too are things that Reformed Christians teach, and hopefully believe. They are also taught by Lutherans and by many other traditions that trace their roots to the Reformation. But in these issues both Reformed and Lutheran Protestants found themselves set apart from the teachings of Roman Catholicism.
These teachings were the markers of the birth of Protestant faith — or of the greatest schism in the Western Church, depending on how you want to think about it.
Anyway, these too, then, are genuinely Reformed theology, but not quite uniquely Reformed. These are specifically Protestant emphases.
Then comes the tippy-top point of the pyramid. These are the issues on which Reformed Christians tend to have really distinct emphases.
- Things like our belief that God chooses us, rather than the other way around — the doctrine of election.
- Things like our understanding of God’s sovereign reign and its influence on everything that happens — the doctrine of providence.
- Things like our understanding of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism — more on these in future posts.
We don’t claim that we are the only ones to teach about these things. But we tend to have views on these things that set us apart from even other Protestants. Our views about these things have actually been quite important to the way we live the faith on a daily basis.
This provides a little context to make sense of the fact that the Heidelberg Catechism, that venerable 1563 summary of Biblical Christianity from a Reformed perspective on which I post so irrepressibly, includes another theological summary that shaped Catholic faith throughout the Middle Ages: The Apostles’ Creed.
23 Q. What are these articles?
A. I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
The Catechism affirms this text, which has roots all the way back to the early 3rd century, and was used to teach the faith to every Catholic kid coming up for Confirmation for a thousand years, give or take.
It is Catholic theology. It is also Reformed theology. We think of it as an excellent summary of what Scripture teaches about God and how salvation comes to us.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments. What topics or themes do you think best characterize Reformed theology? And how do those topics or themes influence your Christian faith and life?