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What’s in a Name? Why Not Just “Reformed Catholic”?

Mark Jones wrote a fun essay last week explaining why he doesn’t like the name “Calvinism.” I agree with all of the substantive points and have made many of them myself. I also liked the playful jab at the name of this site. Good ol’ Mark.

Still, I want to give a word or two in defense of using the expression “Calvinism” and even wearing it proudly on your lapel.

Sure, the title was originally a slur. Sure, it fails to capture the breadth of the Reformed movement (Why not call it Bullingerism?). Sure, Baptists use the term today (Shudder!). I grant it all.

But.

Reformed Ain’t No Better

Words do obtain important meaning from their use over time. Context is key. And particular words have particular flavors, especially in combination with other words and when they appear in certain places.

For instance, “Reformed” carries many limitations of its own. Let’s don’t skip the obvious. Very few people actually know what “Reformed” means. The typical meaning for most people is that it implies some sort of rehabilitation. Someone who is “reformed,” is recovering from a previous lifestyle of degeneracy. This connotation also implies a mostly moral character. But the Protestant Reformation was different from many of its predecessors, like Erasmus, in precisely that fact that it was more than moral. It was doctrinal.

Additionally, within Calvinistic circles, “Reformed” has taken on a sort of micro-branding. For many, it means Dutch. I remember when I was working at the RTS bookstore, two ladies were visiting from Michigan. They weren’t actually in the area specifically for RTS, but the name caught their attention, so they came to take a look. “What connection does this school have with the Dutch Reformed churches?” she asked. “None, really,” I said. A few of the early faculty had Dutch backgrounds, but really there has never been much of a Dutch presence in Mississippi. The school is mostly made up of Presbyterians and Baptists. “Oh,” she said in a puzzled tone, “then why did they name it Reformed?”

And don’t forget the “Reformed Presbyterians.” They will quickly tell you that, to be Reformed, as opposed to some other sort of Calvinistic Protestant, is to hold to exclusive psalmody and a very distinctive version of the “regulative principle of worship.” So “Reformed” means whatever the group using it means by it.

Also, it’s just kind of boring on the internet. How many “Reformed” this or “Reformed” that blogs exist? And how many of them are the “good” kind that Mark’s looking for? Most of them are probably pretty lame.

Reformed Catholic?

I don’t actually mind “Reformed Catholic.” It’s a perfectly serviceable expression. But it too has a range of possible meanings, not all of them good. It’s also been the subject of a branding war of sorts. Few people today think about William Perkins or even Richard Baxter when they hear the expression. Instead, they probably think of a bunch of external negotiables and a set of social preferences. That’s why we decided to push the name “Irenicism” in place of catholicity, as I explained a few years ago.

And again, “Reformed Catholic” can send grammatical confusion. We are most certainly not reformed Roman Catholics. We do not even grant that the institution of the Roman Catholic Church is a true church, let alone the default ecclesiastical institution which we should be defined by. No, we believe the magisterial Reformers just were the catholics of their time. It’s rather naive to assume that the average audience would understand this meaning on the front end.

Happy to be a Calvinist

We actually decided to go with “The Calvinist International” because of its liabilities. After all, we want to be the folks who like catholicity but are still really Protestant in the process. We are magisterial Protestants who aren’t afraid to criticize a church father or two, proudly defend the historical-grammatical method of hermenuetics, plainly state that “the real presence of Christ” is not limited to a local presence in the eucharistic elements, and point out that most of what goes by the name “ancient liturgy” is demonstrably not apostolic in origin and therefore technically adiaphora and open to change based on the prudential and pastoral judgment of church bodies.

Finally, there was a fear of an “international Calvinist” movement throughout Europe during the Reformation. Everyone was terrified of it. Sacramentarians of all countries, unite!

If we can give a few people the willies today, then we’ll count that as a win.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

2 replies on “What’s in a Name? Why Not Just “Reformed Catholic”?”

“Sacramentarians of all countries, unite!” That is awesome. I’ve always loved the TCI title, just for this kind’ve reason.

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