In the lobby of a church we were visiting hung a poster on the bulletin board advertising R.C. Sproul’s series, What Is Reformed Theology? Under the question, the poster listed the “TULIP” acronym and the “5 Solas” of the Reformation—that was all. As I looked at that poster, I thought that I’d better break the news to my very dispensationalist pastor friends and professors in whose theology classes Loraine Boettner’s Reformed Doctrine of Predestination was required reading. I was taught each point of the TULIP acronym without hesitation, save a little extra discussion on “Limited Atonement.” Even though I don’t remember the 5 Solas being a major center piece of my college and seminary days, the sufficiency of Scripture certainly was. I was also taught that salvation was by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and God’s purpose for ordaining all things was for His own glory. So somewhere along the line, my dispensationalist pastors, professors, and I had all made a transition to Reformed theology, without even knowing it!
Now I don’t think that many very devout classical dispensationalists or reformed theologians would take too kindly to a bunch of dispensationalists being called “reformed.” So is there really more to being reformed than affirming the Doctrines of Grace (a.k.a. TULIP or “Calvinism”) and the 5 Solas? Providentially, R.C. Sproul’s book, What is Reformed Theology? is published electronically for an easy download and a quick read. Looking at the table of contents, it was pretty clear that Sproul’s synopsis of Reformed theology was indeed simply the 5 Solas and TULIP. . .with one little chapter sandwiched in between.
Chapter five is innocently titled, “Nicknamed Covenant Theology.” This chapter, summarized very quickly, was a looooong description of the structure of the ancient “Suzerain-Vassal Treaty” (which I also learned from dispensationalists) and a very short section on how the covenants of Redemption, Works, and Grace (somewhat) fit the same structure. Of course, the latter section was very short on Scripture and very long on quotes from the Westminster Confession. By the way, in the treaty structure, Sproul gave an excellent analysis of the Abrahamic Covenant and its similar structure. I was reminded of a discussion I had with someone about Covenant Theology. I made the statement that I just don’t see the covenants of Covenant Theology clearly articulated in Scripture. He then started naming the Mosaic covenant, Abrahamic covenant, Davidic covenant, and the New Covenant. My apologies to the Covenant Theologians, but you don’t get to claim exclusive rights to those covenants. I was taught those by dispensationalists as well! No, the “covenants” of Covenant Theology are Redemption, Works, and Grace (alone).
I ask again, “Is there really more to being reformed than affirming the Doctrines of Grace and the 5 Solas?” Are these the only two legs of the chair upon which Reformed theologians rest? This is a particularly important question in light of the recent swell in the ranks of “reformed” pastors and churches. As I have testified, the Doctrines of Grace and the Solas are being taught in dispensational schools and churches. There must be something else that makes one truly Reformed.
Sproul in the fifth chapter reveals the other two legs of the Reformed chair which are the true difference between Dispensationalism and Reformed Theology: Covenant Theology and Confessionalism. These also happen to be the major weaknesses of Reformed Theology—Covenant Theology because it is not clearly articulated in Scripture, and Confessionalism because it (unintentionally) overshadows Scripture. Sproul highlights these weaknesses when he fails to articulate Covenant Theology from Scripture but rather turns to the Westminster Confession. As well crafted as the confessions are, they are not Scripture. Some of us can sit solidly on the Doctrines of Grace and the 5 Solas but feel the shakiness of Covenant Theology and Confessionalism and jump off the chair completely.
Let me clarify my own position because I know this may be sounding like a defense of Dispensationalism; it is not! Systems of theology are man’s attempt to define and categorize the purposes and actions of an infinite, eternal God and, as such, are subject to error. Turning any system of theology into a system of interpretation exacerbates the error and causes extra-biblical doctrines and practices. Both Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology contain examples of these kinds of errors, particularly in the areas of ecclesiology and eschatology. Systematic Theology should be built upon solid Biblical theology and an understanding of progressive revelation and never allowed to become a system of interpretation.
Am I Reformed? I am thrilled that I am finding more and more Christians who will openly embrace the sovereignty of God in election, but I am not ready to wear the Reformed label just because I believe in the sovereignty of God and the sufficiency of Scripture. Nor do I wear the Dispensationalist label, even though I went to dispensational schools. When I buy a pair of jeans, I wear them because they fit well and perform the function that I need. I don’t go out and buy the matching T-shirt to provide advertising for the jeans company. In the same way, as Scripture dictates, I will be known to wear the reformed jeans or the dispensationalist jeans. . .and a T-shirt with a cross on it because Christ is the one I want to advertise!