Evangelical, Catholic, and Reformed Redux

When I first started this blog, I wrote a post entitled ‘Evangelical, Catholic, and Reformed‘ (borrowed from George Hunsinger’s book of the same name) in which I set out these three adjectives as descriptive of the general themes and topics that I intended to address. While most, if not all of what I have written certainly falls under these categories, I have been9780802865502 more focused specifically on promoting Evangelical Calvinism. However, as I mentioned in a previous post, I have promised to make some changes, and I intend to keep that promise. For this reason, my intention from this point on (at least for the foreseeable future) is not to write about EC so much as the evangelical, catholic, and reformed sources that led me to EC in the first place. While still remaining, as it were, a card-carrying EC, my focus will be less specifically on EC as such and will stick closer to EC’s primary informing influences. Moving forward, I also to intend to write, in keeping with some suggestions I’ve received, more articles that are more accessible to a wider audience. Much of what I have written so far has tended to be, on the whole, somewhat more technical or academic(ish), and while I will continue to post articles such as these, I aim to do much more to make these ideas better comprehensible to more people. In doing so, I hope, in particular, to make more accessible the work of Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance, both of whom are noted for the complexity of their thought.

So by way of returning to the themes ‘evangelical, catholic, and reformed’ in a more explicit way, I would like to offer to two quotes from none other than Barth and Torrance who helpfully capture the spirit with which I aim to approach these topics myself in the days to come. In what follows, it is important to notice how Barth and Torrance not only define these three terms but also how they understand the proper order in which these terms should describe the theological task. First, Barth opens his book Evangelical Theology by writing:

[T]he theology to be introduced here is evangelical theology. The qualifying attribute “evangelical” recalls both the New Testament and at the same time the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Therefore, it may be taken as a dual affirmation: the theology to be considered here is the one which, nourished by the hidden sources of the documents of Israel’s history, first achieved unambiguous expression in the writings of the New Testament evangelists, apostles, and prophets; it is also, moreover, the theology newly discovered and accepted by the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The expression “evangelical,” however, cannot and should not be intended tended and understood in a confessional, that is, in a denominational and exclusive, sense. This is forbidden first of all by the elementary fact that “evangelical” refers primarily and decisively to the Bible, which is in some way respected by all confessions. Not all so-called called “Protestant” theology is evangelical theology; moreover, there is also evangelical theology in the Roman Catholic and Eastern orthodox worlds, as well as in the many later variations, including deteriorations, of the Reformation departure. What the word “evangelical” will objectively designate is that theology which treats of the God of the Gospel. “Evangelical” signifies the “catholic,” ecumenical (not to say “conciliar”) continuity and unity of this theology. Such theology intends tends to apprehend, to understand, and to speak of the God of the Gospel, in the midst of the variety of all other theologies and (without any value-judgment being ing implied) in distinction from them. This is the God who reveals himself in the Gospel, who himself speaks to men and acts among and upon them. Wherever he becomes comes the object of human science, both its source and its norm, there is evangelical theology.[1]

For his part, Torrance is even more specific in how he identifies the interrelation between these themes:

Since the Reformed Churches believe that Apostolicity constitutes the criterion for its understanding of the Oneness, Holiness and Catholicity of the Church, they are committed to the Apostolic Canon of Holy Scripture and to the rule of faith and life which it provides for the Church in all ages. They acknowledge the creeds of the ancient Church, received and formulated by the Nicene Fathers, and accept the doctrinal ‘limits’ of the great Conciliar statements after Nicaea and Constantinople, especially of Ephesus and Chalcedon. While the Reformed Churches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries produced catechetical and confessional formulations for the guidance of their life, teaching and proclamation of the Gospel, these were and are held only as ‘secondary standards’ subordinate to the Apostolic Faith as mediated through the New Testament, and to the Catholic doctrine as defined by the Apostles’ and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds.[2]

What Barth and Torrance provide here is a clear explanation of what it means to be, simply stated, a theologian of and for the church of Jesus Christ. As explicitly articulated by Barth, the unquestioned priority is given to ‘evangelical’ insofar as this term refers primarily to “the God who reveals himself in the Gospel”, the One we come to know in “the documents of Israel’s history” and “in the writings of the New Testament evangelists, apostles, and prophets”. In Torrance’s words, this “Apostolic Canon of Holy Scripture” is the highest “rule of faith and life” under which the church lives and moves and has its being.

Secondly, this emphasis on sola Scriptura does not translate into nuda Scriptura. While being truly ‘evangelical’ means that we must ultimately listen and respond to submissively to Scripture, we must, in order to do this rightly, listen and respond to Scripture with the communion of saints or, in John Webster’s words, together with the “church’s exegetical fellowship”. As exemplified by the Reformers themselves, Reformed theology has always sought to submit its confessional expressions to the universal consensus of the fathers as an authoritative guide to rightly understanding biblical revelation. Thus, to be truly Reformed does mean looking first and foremost to the Reformed confessions but to the ‘catholic’ faith bequeathed to us in the form of the great ecumenical creeds.

What this all means is ultimate this: we must be first ‘evangelical’, then ‘catholic’, then ‘reformed’. Only in this order will we, in my view, be able to fruitfully engage in the task of theology in and for the church that must never cease to witness in the world to the God revealed in the gospel and that must therefore always be reforming to ensure that its witness is indeed faithful to that gospel. This, in a nutshell, is how I hope to proceed from here.


[1] Karl Barth, 1979. Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. pp.5-6.

[2] T.F. Torrance, 1985. Theological Dialogue Between Orthodox & Reformed Churches, vol. 1. Edinburgh/London: Scottish Academic Press, p.6.