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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Reformed Churches

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Religious bodies that adhere to Calvinism are called Reformed Churches according to the proper present-day use of the term. By this usage they are distinguished from the Lutheran or Evangelical Churches that believe in justification by faith alone but that reject the Calvinist view of predestination.

During the period of the Reformation both Calvinists and Lutherans were called Reformed, but after the sixteenth century only Calvinists retained the title. Then, many of the Reformed groups began to modify their Calvinism and the distinction tended to blur. Today, only the more orthodox Reformed Churches hold to religious beliefs and practices that clearly distinguish them from Protestants in general and from the Lutherans in particular. See PROTESTANT REFORMATION.

World Membership

The Reformed Churches are established in Europe and America, with smaller communities in South Africa and Australia. In Europe the Reformed doctrines spread from Switzerland to other countries on the Continent, to the British Isles, and to North America.

Switzerland. John Calvin was a Frenchman, but the mother country of Calvinism is Switzerland, where, in Geneva, Calvin first established Reformed Protestantism. Currently, over half the population of Switzerland belong to the Reformed Church and about half of the 25 Swiss cantons (states) have Protestant majorities. Normally, each canton has an official church, of which every Protestant is considered a member unless he makes an express declaration to the contrary.

As might be expected, church and state in the Protestant sections of Switzerland are closely related. Salaries of ministers are subsidized by the state; property and real estate are controlled by both authorities; and in large measure, the church constitution becomes part of the law of the land. Nevertheless, as a result of several secession movements among the Swiss Protestants, the church has considerable freedom in managing its internal affairs. Free Reformed Churches that resisted political domination were organized at the beginning of the nineteenth century by Robert Haldane, a young Scottish evangelist. While never more than a fraction of the total, the Free Churches have been influential in separating church and state throughout Switzerland. See SWITZERLAND.

France. A majority of the million or so Protestants in France belong to the Reformed Church. Their church goes back more than four centuries. Its original inspiration was Calvin's Institutes of Christian Religion (1536), and it was formally organized at the Synod of Paris in 1559. Its members acquired the name Huguenots about l560.

Alternately tolerated and suppressed by the French monarchy, the Huguenots became a very large and powerful minority in the sixteenth century, and their activities touched off a series of civil wars in France that lasted throughout most of the latter half of that century (see Wars of Religion). They were granted freedom of worship by the Edict of Nantes in 1598, but under Louis XIV in 1685 the edict was revoked and some 300,000 Huguenots emigrated to England, Holland, and America. See Edict of Nantes.

The Huguenots were only a small minority in France when the legal standing of their church finally was recognized in 1802. After that time they expanded their membership and activities considerably, but dissension between liberal and conservative elements in the church led to a schism in 1872. At present there are both non-Calvinist and Reformed (Calvinist) bodies in France, but since 1907 these two groups have been loosely allied in the Protestant Federation of France. See Huguenots.

The Netherlands. When the Low Countries were struggling for independence from Spain in the sixteenth century, the Calvinists were uncompromising and fanatic in their measures to end Spanish rule. In 1622 Calvinism became the state religion of Holland and the other Protestant provinces of the Low Countries that had been joined with it since 1579 by the Union of Utrecht. At the present time there are several Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, the largest being the official Dutch Reformed Church. About 40 per cent of the population of the Netherlands belongs to one or the other of the Reformed bodies.

Scotland.Because of the crusading efforts of John Knox in the sixteenth century, a large majority of the people in Scotland are affiliated with Reformed Churches. Knox, a friend of Calvin, was primarily responsible for the establishment of Presbyterianism as the state religion of Scotland. There are several Reformed Churches in Scotland, of which the largest is the Church of Scotland. This is the state church, but it is relatively free from political controls. See Knox, John.

United States.Although American Presbyterianism originated in the Calvinist movements in England and Scotland, the Presbyterian churches of America generally are not classified with the Reformed Churches and are treated in a separate article (see Presbyterians). Of the six American denominations that are counted as Reformed Churches, two account for 90 per cent of Reformed membership. These are the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church.

Reformed Church in America. This church came into existence as a direct result of the migration of Calvinists from Holland under the sponsorship of the Dutch East India Company. The colonists settled along the Hudson River and in 1628 organized at New Amsterdam (now New York) what was to become the oldest church in America with an uninterrupted ministry. Several additional churches were in operation when the English took over the Dutch colony in 1664, and in 1792 they broke away from their parent body in Holland. Insistence on keeping the Dutch language in preaching and in worship retarded the church's growth and alienated many of its younger members. Efforts to unite with the German Reformed bodies failed because the Dutch objected to the Heidelberg Confession (composed in 1562) as being too Lutheran. They wanted to include the Dordrecht Articles of the Mennonites, with their emphasis on God s primacy in human life, and the Belgic Confession with its "mild and gentle spirit." See MENNONITES.

Members of the Reformed Church in America recognize a threefold ministry: bishops, elders, and deacons. Technically, all ministers of the gospel are bishops or overseers in the church; all are equal in rank and authority; and all are equal "stewards of the mysteries of God."

One of the most notable features of this church is its ecumenical spirit. It has long been a member of the Federal (now National) and World Council of Churches, and it has also made a practice of exchanging its ministers with other denominations. Membership in the Reformed Church in America is about 250,000 in about 1,000 churches. See WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES.

Christian Reformed Church. An offshoot of the Reformed Church in America, the Christian Reformed Church was organized in 1857 by members who objected to a trend in the older church toward doctrinal liberalism and the use of the English language in services. The schismatic group, then known as the Holland Reformed Church, almost died out in its early years, until immigrants from Europe and anti-Masonic critics from the Reformed Church in America gave it new recruits. In time the group changed its name to the present one and gradually accepted English as the language for preaching as well as for worship. However, in many matters the Christian Reformed Church has remained ultraconservative. For over a century there has been no marked relaxation in its rigid Calvinism, and its brief connection with the Federal Council of Churches was terminated on doctrinal grounds. Most of the church-affiliated elementary and secondary schools sponsored by the Reformed groups in America belong to this denomination.

Characteristic Features

According to their own writers, the Reformed Churches are more active than the rest of Protestantism. Members feel it is part of their duty to christianize all society. They stress temperance, moral reform, and a practical application of the Bible to every phase of social, economic, and political life.

Although the Lutheran and Reformed Churches have much in common, they differ on several essentials. For one thing, the Reformed Churches are less prone to allow the integration of church and state that is so characteristic of the Lutheran Churches. Even in Switzerland, where the Reformed Churches are closely associated with the government, the identification between church and state is not as complete as in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, where Lutheranism is the state religion.

Use of the Bible. Unlike evangelical Lutheranism, Reformed tradition has not been concerned about assessing the value and authority of each book in the Bible in terms of its treatment of justification by faith without good works. Like Calvin, the Reformed Churches do not look to the Bible to reinforce their own doctrines. Thus they are free to interpret Scripture in a literal way. This attitude has caused them to give greater practical weight to the Old Testament than do Lutherans, with the result that they are very legalistic in moral matters. For example, the Reformed Churches take quite literally the passages about Sabbath observance and forbid any kind of amusement on Sunday. The Lutherans (like the Catholics) are less rigid in such matters. Reformed groups also quote the New Testament literally, without comment, and regard it as a binding standard for faith and practice in their churches. In this they are different from the Lutherans, who rely less heavily on the direct words of the Bible and have catechisms or manuals of doctrine which parallel Scripture.

The Reformed bodies have always been uncompromising in their rejection of the so-called apocryphal, or not-inspired, books of the Bible which Catholics consider part of Scripture. For two generations after Luther, the Old Testament books that he and Calvin rejected (such as Wisdom, Judith, and Tobias) continued to be printed, although segregated from the main text under the title “Apocrypha.” By the end of the sixteenth century, however, the Calvinists rebelled against even this concession to Rome, and in 1599 copies of the Geneva Bible began to omit the Apocrypha altogether. The same omission was made in the King James version, published in 1611, so that these books now seldom appear in any English version of the Protestant Scripture. See APOCRYPHA

Views of God and Man. The dominant theme in the doctrine of the Reformed Churches is the affirmation of the sovereign majesty of God. This theme also runs through their preaching, teaching, and worship.

With some qualification, Lutheranism may be Lutheran described as anthropocentric (man-centered) because of its accent on atonement, justification, and the prospects of salvation through confidence in God. Calvinism, on the other hand, has a more Sweden, theocentric (God-centered) mentality. It is preoccupied with the divine majesty and with man's consequent duty to his Creator. Thus, the standard creeds of the Reformed Churches dwell on the glory of God for which man was brought into the world. The Geneva Catechism of 1542 opens with the statement that "God has created us, and put us into this world in order that He may be glorified in us," and the first answer of the Reformed Westminster Catechism reads: "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him for ever."

The doctrines of predestination and election are logically related to this heavy emphasis on the divine sovereignty. Man's salvation, the Reformed groups assert, serves to glorify God and is due wholly and entirely to God's choice and mercy, regardless of how people conduct themselves. The idea that the rejection of the damned serves to glorify God also appears in Reformed literature. More than in any other branch of Protestantism, their writings favor the Calvinist theory.

Attitude toward the Sacraments. Unlike the Lutherans, who often come close to the Catholic doctrine on the sacraments, the Reformed Churches do not accept the sacraments as channels through which God's grace flows to any and all individuals who do not put obstacles in the way. In any case, the sacraments cannot change the predestined election of any man for salvation or damnation.

The Reformed doctrine denies that the soul is regenerated through the sacrament of baptism. Therefore, it is not surprising that many churches based on Reformed theology, including among others Baptists and Adventists, reject infant baptism. The orthodox Reformed bodies allow children to be baptized, but they regard baptism only as a process for being "ingrafted in Christ" and received into the church. They do not believe that sin is actually removed or sanctifying grace infused into the soul by baptism.

In their interpretation of the Lord's Supper, the Reformed Churches take a middle course between the followers of Zwingli, who said the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is purely symbolic, and the Lutheran doctrine that the body of Christ is orally received in Holy Communion (see ZWINGLI, Huldreich). They believe that Christ is present in the sacrament spiritually but not bodily, and they receive it only as a commemoration and confession of faith in Christ.

Services.Simplicity is the keynote of the interior of a Reformed Church. Generally, there are no pictures or crucifixes, although in some congregations—notably in Scotland—a cross is coming into common use. A plain table takes the place of an altar. The minister wears a black gown, normally without surplice or other liturgical vestments, for religious services. Also, according to stricter principles of Reformed Churches, an organ should not be used and only psalms or passages from the Bible should be sung. However, some of the Reformed communities now have elaborate musical ceremonies.

Under the influence of such men as the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, churches in the Reformed tradition are reexamining their modes of worship and some favor more liturgical services. A Reformed Church report to the World Council of Churches recently suggested that "Fear of Roman superstition may have tended to emphasize the spiritual in a degree which brings a real danger of heresy." Thus, Reformed churchmen are becoming less concerned about possible abuses to which the liturgy may lead and applaud the fact that "the Reformed Churches are returning to sacramental realism," which means recognizing that visible rites are the external signs by which internal grace is received.


Catholic Encylopedia for School and Home
Vol. #9, pp. 200-203

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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