Issues That Divide Reformed Christians
You can imagine in a theological tradition filled with constant theological reflection and inquisition that division will occur over certain doctrines. Not only does division happen between reformed Christians, but often the area of disagreement is a source of constant debate. Some reformed Christians spend more time polemicizing against one another then apologising for the Christian faith.
Let’s explore the issues in the reformed tradition. Most of these have even led to persecution of each other. An example would be John Calvin writing against the Anabaptists in his Institutes for not baptizing infants, and that is only one of a handful of hot issues.
The doctrines that divide reformed Christians are the strongest in the area of ecclessiology or doctrine of the Church (the “ekklessia”). There are two fundamental camps in this debate: Baptists and Presbyterians, and they argue over church polity (church government), baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.
Baptism is probably the most fiercely debated issue. Presbyterians, Lutherans, and reformed Episcopals believe that infants should be baptized. This convictions comes from an inferential theology from their covenant theology. In short, and I can’t possibly due justice to their opinion, they believe that infants should be given the “sign of the covenant” as male infants were circumcised in Israel’s history. These Christians are called Paedobaptists (“infant baptism”). Reformed Baptists, most of which hold to covenant theology, only think that the sign should be given to those professing faith, and they are called Credobaptists (“confession of faith baptism”).
The Lord’s Supper is something that also divides. The Reformers debated whether there was the actual presence of Christ in the elements (consubstantiation), and others thought that it was only memorial. Today, most reformed Christians believe that the Lord’s Supper is simply memorial. There is disagreement on whether the table should be open to any Christians professing faith (open communion), or if it should be restricted to members of local churches (closed communion).
Church government is the last major issue that separates reformed Christians. Baptist will tell you that their congregations are independent and congregational (usually ran by a plurality of elders) while Presbyterians often have a church government that is ruled by presbyteries and assemblies. The local church would not be viewed as “independent” like the Baptists would.
There are of course differentiations on how the regulative principle is to be interpreted. Some allow more contemporary forms of worship while most do not think this fits the regulative principle. It is also worth mentioning that Landmark Baptists disbelieve in the “Universal” Church as espoused by most reformed theologians, and they also believe their religion doesn’t have a basis in the Protestant Reformation.
This topic, while certainly able to fit under “The Church,” is a large enough debate to give it its own category. Most reformed Christians believe that with the completion of the Scriptures the Apostolic gifts ceased to be necessary. These Christians go by the term: “Cessationists.” There are reformed individuals who believe that they are still alive today and should be eagerly pursued after, and they go by the title: “Continuationists.” There are also reformed Christians who don’t see their abolition proscribed in the Scriptures, but they are leery about them; these believers go by the title: “open but cautious.”
While reformed Christians might agree on the basic tenants of covenant theology listed in the last post, there is disagreement about the nuances of covenant theology. The most striking is that of Law/Gospel; this doctrine strives to find out what of the Mosaic Law is binding on New Covenant believers today. There are some who believe that the “moral law” or Decalogue is still binding (traditional reformed), those who believe that the “civil” and “moral” law is binding today (Theonomists, Christian Reconstructionists), and there are those who believe that the Mosaic Law served a temporal purpose in Israel’s history (Modified Lutheran View).
While most covenant theologians use the redemption/works/grace theme as overarching covenants, some repudiate this distinction. These Christians, who are traditionally, reformed Baptists, are called New Covenant Theologians. They prefer to use the Old/New Covenant dichotomy as shown in the New Testament. They also traditionally don’t believe that Adam was under a covenant.
The end times is probably the doctrine that has the largest range of beliefs. Just because someone is Presbyterian, Baptist, or other reformed denomination there is no guarantee that they’ll agree on eschatology. Most, I feel I can safely say, believe that Christ’s return will be a one-time event culminating in the final judgement and glorification/reprobation. These Christians would not believe that the millennium described in Rev 20 is a literal event; these Christians go by either the Amillennialist or Postmillennialist tag. There are some Christians who are premillennial, but they are not Dispensational Premillennial. They believe there will be a 1,000 year reign, but it won’t be a re institution of ethnic Israel as espoused by Dispensationalists.
All reformed Christians believe in the inaugurated eschatology (“now/not yet”) scheme concerning the Kingdom of God. That is, Christ ushered in (“inaugurate”) the end, but it won’t find fulfillment until His return. That is why reformed Christians say that we live in the resurrection, but we have yet to be resurrected.
It seems ludicrous to think that Christians would argue over which method to defend the faith, but the debate does exist! Most reformed theologians hold to presuppositional apologetics most clearly articulated by Cornelius Van Til, but not everyone fits in here. Some hold to classical apologetics which is the belief that we must first establish the truthfulness of theism. This isn’t nearly as hotly debated as some of the above issues.
The Eternal Decrees
The last issue that stands out as a point of division concerns the eternal decrees of God. This admittely a rather hypothetical debate, but it is something that some reformed believers get caught up in. The question is: When did God do His election–before He decreed the fall or afterwards? Now this doesn’t mean that the debate is over a time and space sequence of events. All would agree that the decrees of God were complete before the creation of the world. The question is whether He saw us fallen or not fallen. Those who believe that He did His election before the fall are called Supralapsarians (“above the fall”), and those who believe that it happend after the decree of the fall are called Infralapsarians (“after the fall”).