Lecture 2, Catholic, Evangelical, and Reformed:

How do you define sovereignty and how do you apply that to your theology? The answer to that question will determine all else about what you think of God and how He relates to His creatures. Considering this, and how it applies to biblical theology, Dr. Sproul continues this series as he looks at the views of “Catholic, Evangelical, and Reformed.”

Message Transcript

We continue now with our overview of the subject, “What is Reformed theology?” I recently published a book titled Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology (this book has since been re-released under the title, What Is Reformed Theology?). I’m basically trying to follow the outline of this book, which goes into much greater detail of these things than I’m able to give in this brief summary

In our first session, we saw that Reformed theology is a theology. Now I want to suggest to you that Reformed theology is a systematic theology.

All the Parts Fit Together

It’s been one of the privileges of my lifetime to be able to teach the discipline of systematic theology at the seminary level.

In this day and age, with the advent of existential philosophy, there’s been this growing antipathy toward the whole idea of systems. Sometimes there is good reason for that. Part of the concern people have is that we know what happens when people take a system of philosophy and bring it over to the pages of the Bible, and then try to force everything the Bible says into that system.

The idea of systematic thinking goes way back in church history. But even in the period of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, with the advent of the modern scientific method, philosophers advocated what they called the “analytical method” of study. In popular language, this was called the task of seeking to find the “logic of the facts.” That is, scientists would explore the details of the physical universe, point their telescopes into the heavens, and gather as much particular data as they possibly could. Then after they got this data, they tried to make sense out of it to see how all the particular parts fit together.

Historically, the task of systematic theology is something like that. It is not to come to the Bible with a preconceived system, but rather to come to the Bible, listen to the Word of God in all of its particular details, and then try to discern how all of these individual truths fit together. The assumption of systematic theology is that the Bible is coherent. Though God reveals many things to us, all of His truth is unified in His own person and His own character.

I find this in teaching. Sometimes we’ll have seminars where it will be a kind of open-ended discussion with my students, and we’ll start the seminar by looking at a particular doctrine in the panoply of systematic theology. If I allow the students to interact with their questions, then in a very short period of time we run far afield from the doctrine we first started to study.

At first glance, it may seem that we’re just running around chasing rabbits down extraneous rabbit trails. But then I remind them: “These questions you’re asking are questions that we should be asking because they flow out of the doctrine that we’re studying. Every doctrine of Christian theology touches every other doctrine of the faith in some way.”

The whole of the Christian faith is intimately and intricately related in all of its pieces. In fact, one of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the way the Bible speaks about so many things over so many years, with myriads of details, and yet the symmetry of Scripture is there. It fits together in such a coherent way.

When we say that Reformed theology is systematic, we’re saying at the outset that we are trying not to impose a system upon Scripture. Rather, we are trying to find the system of doctrine present in the Scriptures themselves to see how all of the parts fit together.

A Paradoxically Distinctive Aspect of Reformed Theology

There is an irony in Reformed theology. I’ll even use the word paradox. When we study systematic theology, we usually begin with the study of what is called “theology proper.” Now, that isn’t distinguished from “improper” theology. Rather, theology proper refers to a focus on the doctrine of God as distinguished from the doctrine of sin, or the doctrine of justification, or some other doctrine. Theology proper focuses on the understanding of the nature and character of God Himself.

Here’s where the paradox comes in. At the beginning of that study I will say to my students that, if we look at the Reformed creeds and confessions and read what they say about the nature of God, we’ll have to look very hard to find anything that would be distinctively Reformed. The confessions of Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and all other denominations have basically the same content and affirmations in their creeds. We all say that God is eternal. We all believe that God is invisible, that He is a Spirit, that He is immutable, omnipotent, omniscient, and all those other things that we speak of with respect to the attributes of God.

So, I say on the one hand that there’s nothing particularly distinctive about the doctrine of God in Reformed theology that is different from any other theology. Yet (here’s the paradox), if someone were to say to me, “R.C., what do you think is the most distinctive aspect of Reformed theology?” I won’t hesitate to answer that question by saying, “It’s our doctrine of God.”

You say: “Wait a minute. You’re giving me an Excedrin headache. You just said a minute ago that there’s nothing particularly distinctive about the doctrine of God in Reformed theology. Now you’re saying out of the other side of your mouth, paradoxically, that the most distinctive thing about Reformed theology is its doctrine of God. What are you trying to say?” I see puzzled looks from people even now as I make this seemingly contradictory statement. I accent the word seemingly. Let me unwrap it and tell you what I mean.

The Central Unique Factor of Reformed Theology

All Christians have a basically orthodox creedal affirmation about the character of God. But what I think happens frequently in other theologies is this: when the attention is diverted to another doctrine, there’s a tendency to forget your affirmation about the character of God, and the doctrine of God becomes just one of many doctrines in the faith rather than the controlling doctrine of the faith.

For example, I’ve never met a Christian in my life who looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t believe that God is sovereign.” Christians characteristically are quite willing to affirm the sovereignty of God. But if we push the discussion toward the relationship of God’s sovereignty to the doctrine of election or the doctrines of grace, for example, then in a very short period of time there will be a serious controversy about the nature of God: Does God ordain everything that comes to pass? Does He know everything that comes to pass before it happens?

Again, if we just backed up and said, “Do you believe that God is omniscient?” then most Christians would say, “Yes.” But when we explore what it means that God knows everything, are we saying the same thing? Are we saying that He knows it simply because He has some genius perception, or are we saying that He knows all things because He ordains all things? That is, what is the relationship of God’s sovereignty to His knowledge?

In Reformed theology, we constantly test our doctrine by going back to our fundamental understanding of the character of God. I think that is the central unique factor of Reformed theology—it is relentlessly committed to maintaining the purity of the doctrine of God through every other element of theology.

A Catholic Foundation

Now, there are some other things I want to say about Reformed theology, one of which is that Reformed theology is not only systematic, but catholic. What do I mean when I say that Reformed theology is catholic?

Usually we think of the Reformation as a protest against Catholicism. But remember, the theology that emerged and came to the front of the stage in the sixteenth century was not invented for the first time in the sixteenth century. It was a reformation, not a revolution. It was an attempt in the sixteenth century to recover the historic Christian apostolic faith.

At the time of the Reformation, virtually every church that arose out of it continued to embrace the catholic truths of the Christian faith—the truths that are embraced and confessed by Christians of all stripes, denominations, and traditions. Here the word catholic does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church or some particular group. Rather, the term is used in its original sense meaning “universal”—the whole church.

In the early centuries, the church assembled councils to deal with major theological issues because of the threat of major heresies, such as the Arian controversy in the fourth century, the Monophysite controversy in the fifth century, and so on. At these great councils such as the Council of Nicaea, the deity of Christ was firmly embraced and confessed. At the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon, the church confessed her faith that Christ is truly man and truly God.

The affirmations of historic Christianity about the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the atonement of Christ, and so on are shared by all orthodox Christian bodies historically. Those affirmations are found in the creeds of the various denominations so that the Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians historically have a large body of doctrine that they hold in common with each other. This common essence of Christian thought is the foundation upon which all theology rests.

So, when we talk about Reformed theology as distinctive to differentiate it from dispensational theology, Lutheran theology, or whatever other particular theology we’re talking about, we acknowledge that there is a common core of doctrine among all these different groups.

The reason I make this point is that there is a tendency to think about Reformed theology as if Reformed theology were simply the distinctives of Reformed theology. Some people say to me: “Tell me about Reformed theology. Isn’t that the five points of Calvinism?” And I will say that the five points of Calvinism have much to do with the Reformed faith, but it would be a very serious distortion of Reformed theology to think of it exclusively in terms of its distinctives. We must remember that those doctrines rest upon a common foundation that we share with a host of other Christian bodies. That is, we have a catholic faith.

An Evangelical Tradition

In addition to that, all Reformed theology is evangelical. That’s the second broad heading we’re using—the first was catholic, the second is evangelical.

All who are evangelical in the historic sense are also catholic. Not all who are catholic are evangelical, but all who are evangelical share the common doctrine of the church universal with everybody else.

Not everybody who is evangelical is Presbyterian or Lutheran or Methodist or any of these other distinctives, so not everyone who is evangelical is Reformed. But everyone who is Reformed in the historic sense of the term is also evangelical. We share not only a common heritage of catholic Christianity but also a common evangelical tradition with our Protestant brothers and sisters.

The term evangelical is under siege in our day and there is some confusion as to what it really refers to in our time. That confusion does not exist historically.

Justification by Faith Alone

At the time of the Reformation, the label evangelical was coined by the Reformers. They believed that, with the doctrine of justification by faith alone, they were recovering the evangel, or gospel, of the New Testament. Since the heart of the controversy in the sixteenth century focused on the doctrine of justification, the whole debate centered on the question, What is the gospel? So, Protestants called themselves evangelicals, meaning by that label that they were embracing Luther’s definition of the doctrine of justification—justification by faith.

Out of that tradition there were many in the sixteenth century who embraced Luther’s view of justification as the biblical view. And different traditions came from that, all of which shared the central core conviction that justification is by faith alone and that this is at the very heart of the gospel itself. They differed over questions concerning the sacraments, church government, and so on, but they kept this common commitment to justification by faith alone.

The Authority of Scripture

The other doctrine that was common to historic evangelicalism was the doctrine of the authority of Scripture, or sola Scriptura, which we’ll take up in a later session. Historians have said that the “material” cause of the Reformation was the doctrine of justification and the “formal” cause was the doctrine of the authority of Scripture.

Though the Reformation saw a fragmentation of numerous bodies of Protestants, there was a core unity among them. They agreed on two central theses: 1) the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and 2) the doctrine of the authority of Scripture.

A Reformed Heritage

Now we’ll look at the third label, which is the label Reformed. When we use that label, we’re making further distinctions in the taxonomy of theology.

Taxonomy is the science of classification. We do this in the biological world. We divide the kingdoms—the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom. All plants are in the plant kingdom, and all animals are in the animal kingdom. Then we divide up the kingdoms between the phyla, genus, species, order, and so on. As we begin to refine more and more between mammals, reptiles, vertebrates, invertebrates, and that sort of thing, we keep making finer and finer distinctions as we seek to understand the world around us. We do the same thing in theology and with theological traditions.

There are many evangelical bodies, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, and so on, and they differ from each other at certain points. For example, we would say that a Lutheran is a person who holds to the historic doctrines that are particularly characteristic of Lutheranism. They are also evangelical, and they are also catholic.

As the Reformed tradition is defined, we have doctrines that are specific to the Reformed faith that are not always shared by other Christian bodies. When we say that somebody is Reformed, we’re saying that person embraces the distinctively Reformed creeds of history such as the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and so on. In addition, they share a common evangelical heritage with other believers, as well as a catholic foundation.

More Than the Distinctives

This by way of preparation: we have to be careful not to think that the label Reformed and its distinctives alone are the Reformed faith. The Reformed faith, though it has its own distinctives, contains within itself unifying doctrines with other Christians—with all evangelicals and with those who hold the catholic truths of historic Christianity.

In the rest of this series, we will be paying close attention to those distinctives that mark off Reformed theology from other evangelical theologies, and from the broad heading of catholic theology. We’ll be examining the distinctives, but only with this caveat: when we look at the distinctives, the distinctives are not all that’s there. The distinctives set on the platform are established on the foundation of catholic and evangelical Christianity.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.