The Reformed Tradition

John Calvin
The Reformed Tradition is a branch of the Christian Church that emerged out of the 16th century Protestant Reformation in Europe. It is most closely associated with John Calvin, a French reformer who took refuge in Geneva in Switzerland and was influential in transforming it into a Protestant city and a major centre of the Reformation. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion provided the central teaching for Reformed Christians.

John Calvin

The Geneva Bible

Teaching of the Reformed Tradition
Together with other leaders in the Protestant Reformation such as Martin Luther, William Farel and Martin Bucer, Calvin critiqued the abuses and corruption of the medieval Roman Catholic Church and the role of the papacy and priesthood. They asserted that salvation was dependent only on God’s grace through the faith of the believer and was not dependent on the mediation of the church.
As with other strains of the Protestant Reformation, the Reformed tradition emphasized the importance of the authority of scripture and hence the need for Christians to be able to read scripture in their own language. Calvin emphasized the sovereignty of God in all of life including civil society. This often led him into conflict with the city councilors in Geneva as he sought to integrate Reformed teaching into all aspects of the life of the city.
The Reformation Spreads
From Geneva, the Reformed tradition spread to a number of countries in Europe. France ( the Huguenots), the Netherlands, Hungary, and a number of German principalities all developed strong Reformed churches. John Knox was a refugee in Geneva for a time, and took the Reformed tradition from there to his native Scotland. The Puritans in England also grew out of this tradition. All of these churches have given a strong emphasis to education for all and particularly to the need for an educated clergy.

John Knox preaching to Mary Queen of Scots

The Confessional Tradition
Reformed Churches are usually confessional, that is they subscribe to one of the Confessions that emerged during the Reformation as standards subordinate only to scripture as the basis of their beliefs and doctrines. These include the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort and the Westminster Confession of Faith as well as other confessional statements that have been produced over time, often in response to significant challenges to the life of the church.

The Westminster Assembly of Divine

The emphasis in worship in most Reformed churches has been on scripture and preaching.  Much of the medieval mass was seen as superfluous to true worship and church buildings were stripped of their statuary and other forms of art. 

Musical instruments were not allowed and only the Psalms were sung in metrical form.  Although it was recommended that communion should be celebrated frequently, the Roman belief in transubstantiation and the sacrificial nature of the mass were negated.  Although the extremes of the early Reformation were modified as time went on, Reformed worship remained simple and focused on scripture.

Churches in the Reformed tradition developed two different forms of structure, Presbyterian and Congregational. Presbyterian churches emphasized the rule of elders (presbyters) and a hierarchy of courts (Session, Presbytery, Synod, General Assembly in the Scottish tradition) while Congregational churches vested authority in the local church.

Ordination of Elders in a Scottish Reformed Church

AGlobal Tradition
In addition to the historic European churches, there is now a significant Reformed presence in countries such as the United States, Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Malawi, Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. Reformed churches have also become part of United Churches in Canada, the United States, India, Australia and elsewhere. Globally, there are now more than 80 million Reformed Christians represented in the World Communion of Reformed Churches formed in 2010 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.