A Short History of the Reformed Churches

The Reformed Protestant Reformation began in Switzerland. In 1522 during Lent a big sausage-eating event was organized. The people's priest from Zurich Ulrich Zwingli defended the sausage-meal thus: The law of fasting is a human law and therefore not necessarily valid. Only divine laws are to be obeyed unconditionally by man, but Zwingli finds the divine laws in the Bible. This shows a characteristic feature of Reformed theology which has been maintained to this day: the emphasis on the Bible's witness as important for faith and life. Sola scriptura, solely the Bible, this rates very highly with Reformed Protestants.

During the twenties of the 16th. century other Swiss and South German towns also become Protestant. However, these Protestants are not invited to the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Not until 1648 are the Reformed Protestants also officially recognized as being a denomination.
In yet another area of Reformed theology Zwingli left his mark: in the theology of the Lord's Supper. In a controversy with Martin Luther lasting several years Zwingli worked out his symbolical concept of the Lord's Supper. He was of the opinion that the words "This is my body" meant "This is a sign of my body" and that the Lord's Supper was celebrated essentially as a memorial supper. The difference in interpretations of the Lord's Supper was one of the most important points of dispute between Lutheran and Reformed Protestants, and led to a separation of their denominations lasting to this day. Not until 1973 did European Reformed and Lutheran churches mutually accept each other's concepts of the Lord's Supper (Leuenberg Concord).

Probably the most important figure in Reformed Protestantism of the 16th. century was the Reformer from Geneva John Calvin. He left his mark upon Reformed churches for centuries with his presentation of Reformed faith in the Institutio Christianae Religionis. Calvin consistently derives his theology from the Bible, from both the Old and the New Testaments. He understands the Bible to be the testimony of the Holy Spirit himself. This qualifies it to be the foundation of Reformed faith. Because the Spirit reveals himself throughout the whole Bible the Old and the New Testaments are of equal importance.

The starting point for giving theological thought to God is God's honour, power and sovereignty. They are mirrored in God's behaviour towards man, in election and in salvation, and are implemented in the world by man, for instance by good deeds. When Calvin draws up his theology it is with a strong ethical orientation.

The doctrine of double predestination, which is often held to be characteristic of Calvinism, while associated already with Calvin, was first upgraded within the context of Reformed Orthodoxy and became a distinguishing feature of this denomination. The syllogism practicus, that is the opinion that one can recognize the man elect by his well-being and prosperity, developed in the 17th. century.

Calvin's doctrine of the Lord's Supper was also a milestone for Reformed theology: in the Lord's Supper Christ is really present in the involvement of the Spirit. He is not to be found in the bread and wine directly, but is nevertheless really present, irrespective of human rites or faith.

Calvin also introduced (subsequent to Martin Bucer) the doctrine of the four ministries (pastors, presbyters, teachers and deacons) into the church. The structure typical of Reformed parishes was created, if not immediately in Geneva, in which presbyters and pastors jointly supervised the parishes, and thus the life of the parish was influenced strongly by the parish itself.

Along with Calvinism another Reformed path was taken which was developed in Zurich under Zwingli's successor Heinrich Bullinger. Bullinger had a great influence as a church politician; he was in correspondence with scholars and statesmen from all over Europe.

Bullinger gave the Zurich Church its form as a state church. In 1549 he agreed with Calvin in the Consensus Tigurinus (Consensus of Zurich) on a common doctrine regarding the Lord's Supper thus preventing a division within the Reformed churches over this question. In 1562 he wrote the Confessio Helvetica Posterior (The Second Helvetic Confession) which today is still the confession of many Reformed churches.

Though it was not only in the fields of politics and church organization that Bullinger worked pioneeringly, he also tried out new theological avenues. Most of all, his federal theology had a formative influence and was further developed into a doctrine in Reformed Orthodoxy as an alternative to double predestination and was also used as a political theology of federalism. God's history with man is seen here as a history of salvation: God has 'bound' himself to man in his Covenant, and the covenant of grace has become reality in the work of redemption of Jesus Christ.

The Scottish Reformed churches, and in their wake also the churches founded in the USA by Scottish immigrants, can be traced back to John Knox. He was the symbolic figure and driving force of Presbyterianism in the 16th. century. The churches he formed were the first to introduce on a large scale the presbyterian system (in some autonomous refugee parishes it had already been achieved) and thus founded their own type of Reformed Protestantism.
A specific feature of the church influenced by Knox is its becoming more political. In the course of his struggle with the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots Knox developed his theory of the right to oppose authorities when they refuse freedom of religion. To this day many Reformed churches are known for political involvement.

The history of the Reformed churches developed very differently down the centuries in different countries. On the one hand it was influenced by theological beginnings (Calvin, Bullinger or Knox), on the other hand by the political situation in the different countries (religious freedom in the USA, the establishment of regional churches in Germany). Common to the churches is a crude development of orthodoxy, pietism and revival. In orthodoxy the Reformed doctrinal systems were developed and laid down dogmatically. The Synod of Dordrecht in 1618/19 can be considered to be exemplary during which the doctrine of predestination was codified.

As a counter-reaction to orthodoxy Reformed pietism developed, a pious movement having begun mainly in the Netherlands and which caught on in many European countries. The pietists formed ( within the church or outside it) conventicles, small groups of pious people who lived their faith in introspection, usually in abandonment of the world.During the Enlightenment the ecclesiastical dogmas were questioned by reason. Even though the Enlightenment was not in itself an anti-religious movement, but was supported among others by theologians and religious philosophers, it still led to a reassessment and, in a way, to a devaluation of the truths of Christian religion. Parallel to it and as its counterpart the revivalist movement emerged. It aimed at inner religious conviction and piety. In many places parish members took over the leadership of the revivalist communities which led to splinter groups in the local parishes, but they also had an effect on them and reacted with them.

In the course of the revivalist movement two areas of activity for the church were rediscovered and further developed: church social service and missionary work. In the first half of the 19th. century missionary societies were founded all over Europe, which carried the Reformed faith to African and Asian countries according to plan.

In the second half of the century the first big Christian inter-denominational alliances emerged. Right from the beginning the Reformed churches were intensively involved in this. Ecumenical cooperation was an important concern to the Reformed Protestants. At the same time a Christian fundamentalism materialized resulting in various Reformed churches taking different paths on which they still tread today.

The World Alliance of Reformed Churches, founded in 1875, tends more strongly to a politico-ecumenical involvement, while the Reformed Ecumenical Council , founded in 1946, rather puts special emphasis on faith and piety.

After 1945 it was above all Karl Barth's theology that had a formative influence on many churches, also those outside Europe. The Barmen Theological Declaration, basis of the Confessing Church in Germany and today valid confession in most German Reformed churches, and in some outside Europe, was written mainly by him. However, not only in the politico-ethical sphere did Barth become the leading theologian of the 20th. century, but also, and above all, with his biblically-founded dogmatics. Jesus Christ, the one Word of God (Barmen I) is for Barth the focal point and point of reference for Christian dogmatics. By becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ, God degrades himself, bows down towards man and raises him to be his associate, lifts him up next to himself. Then, at the same time, Jesus Christ is God's witness; the congregation that follows him is sent out into the world.For further reading:

reformed online - Weiterbildung (further education)
introductory text Bauswein/Vischer


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Last changes: 2003-05-15 /fas
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