A Reformed Protestant by Any Other Name Has to Be Shorter

From my trip to Geneva last summer for the festivities to celebrate John Calvin’s 500th birthday I still recall the indignation of a professor from the University of Zurich during his plenary presentation. He complained about Calvinism as the designation for Protestants who come from the Swiss Reformation. Obviously, he has a point since the Reformed churches started well before Calvin was a Protestant. What is more, Geneva was a bit of an outlier in the Swiss Confederation, not joining until the 19th century (though it was an ally of Bern which brought Geneva in closer relationship to Switzerland). And during the Reformation itself, Geneva and Zurich were not always on the best of terms. The Consensus Tigurinus (1549) is one indication of an effort by Calvin and Bullinger to bury the butter knife.

The primacy of Zurich to Geneva and of Zwingli to Calvin means that Calvinism is a misnomer. Should the better name be Zwinglian? Well, the Lutherans might find that agreeable – as in the Reformed finally own up to their real convictions on the Lord’s Supper. But Zwingli died in 1531 and hardly spoke for a body of churches that were just emerging (Geneva had yet to reform its church).

Another disadvantage of Calvinism is that it abstracts a doctrine of salvation from the church and sacraments – as in John Piper is a Calvinist. Piper may share Calvin’s view of the five points, but does he follow Calvin on church polity or the Lord’s Supper? And why would the doctrines of grace determine the nature of Calvinism more than worship or the church?

Of course the advantage of Calvinist is that it is shorter than Reformed Protestant. At three syllables, Calvinist weighs in right there with Lutheran and Anglican, meaning you don’t have to exert yourself to identify as a Calvinist. Reformed Protestant is a five-syllable mouthful; Reformed Protestantism is no quicker to say. RP might work but the Covenanters already have that moniker cornered.

So we may be stuck with Calvinism. But all Reformed Protestants, that is, those Protestants different from Lutherans and the Church of England, who identify with like-minded saints in places like Hungary, Poland, France, Scotland, the Netherlands, and the Palatinate, should feel a pang of remorse when identifying their ecclesial heritage as Calvinist – sort of the way readers of Wendell Berry feel guilty when turning the ignition of their car and burning more fossil fuel.

3 thoughts on “A Reformed Protestant by Any Other Name Has to Be Shorter

  1. Professor Hart,

    Thank you for your article! After reading it, though, I wondered when members of the Church of England could no longer identify themselves with Reformed Protestantism. It seems that this might describe the current situation pretty well, but it seems that “Anglicans” (at least some of them) were under that umbrella centuries ago. I welcome correction on this matter.

    Thanks again.


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