Two Types of Reformed?


It is a wonderful privilege, by God’s grace, to be reformed. But can there be two types of reformed people, the one faithful to the confession, the other unfaithful? Would we not say the second type is not reformed?

In the late 1960s a group of ministers and their followers left our Dutch RCN (GKv) sister churches because they wanted room to tolerate those whose teachings deviated from the Three Forms of Unity. They became known as the Buitenverbanders (outside the bond of GKv). At that time GKv members considered them unreformed but the Buitenverbanders, despite their tolerance of errors, held onto the term ‘reformed’ and formed the Netherlands Reformed Churches. Now the remarkable thing is that although there could be no unity between the GKv and these ‘Buitenverbanders’ in the 1960s, today the GKv in various places have combined church services with them.

We shake our heads in disbelief and ask: How is that possible? Well, it is not because the ‘Buitenverbanders’ have repented, returned to the truth of the confessions, and now reflect the marks of the true church. No, it is our Dutch sister churches, the RCN (GKv) who have changed. They have adopted the more tolerant views the Buitenverbanders (Netherlands Reformed Churches). This is now openly acknowledged, with approval, by one of the GKv professors, Dr Ad de Bruijne, of the Theological University at Kampen.

In an article recently published in Nederlands Dagblad,[i] Dr de Bruijne writes that he’s just been to America and what he experienced confirmed his belief that there are two types of reformed people: on the one hand those who stick to the reformed confessions and on the other hand those who have a “looser” view about what is confessed therein.

The first type, he says, sees being ‘reformed’ as a fixed identity, largely defined as maintaining the confessional standards of the 16th and 17th centuries. For example, he adds, they believe that what is summarised in the Belgic Confession or the Westminster Standards is authoritative. Hence the views of other people are tested on the basis of whether they conform to these confessions. This is the type of reformed people Dr de Bruijne recognises as having characterised his churches (GKv) of yesteryear.

However, he also experienced a second type of ‘reformed’ people. Oddly enough, says Dr de Bruijne, he feels a greater affinity with this second group. They belong to churches which place less stress on the confessions and are often vaguely referred to as “evangelical-reformed” or “open-orthodox”.

Why does de Bruijne feel more at home with this second type of ‘reformed’ people? Because they understand ‘reformed’ not as adhering to an established confession which is true for all times but as something that undergoes a process of change, “a story that has not ended”. He evidently does not see the confessions as upholding for all times the unchanging truth of God’s Word, but sees the confessions as a product of the Reformation reflecting the “limitations of that time”. If we acknowledge this, he says, it creates space to be critical of the confessions and to hold alternative views. It makes it easier, he claims, to recognise what he calls a “one-sidedness” in the reformed faith and allows one to see and respect worthwhile elements in “other traditions”.

Dr de Bruijne says that he noticed that reformed Americans of the first type of reformed [i.e. those who adhered faithfully to the confessions] were often critical of the second type of reformed [the more tolerant type]. Such criticism was to him “sadly familiar”. De Bruijne is happy to note that reformed people from “reformed and less-reformed” church federations in the Netherlands are increasingly open to one another. This has become possible, he says, by lowering church walls and stressing Christian love.

However, what’s really behind it, he adds, is a different way of being reformed. He says that this different way of being reformed, this greater openness to other views, was what characterised the Buitenverbanders (Netherlands Reformed Churches) already in the 1960s and continues to characterise them. In the late 1960s it led to a fierce conflict because the GKv were still of the first type of reformed. That is, they stuck to the confessions from which the second type of reformed people (the ‘buitenverbanders’, later Netherlands Reformed) deviated on certain points. Indeed, the ‘buitenverbanders’, in an Open Letter, suggested that the Reformed confessions did not “coincide” with the foundation of the universal Christian church. This lack of a unity in the true faith led to them leaving the RCN (GKv) bond in the 1960s.

But now there is again unity between the two religious bodies and, observes Dr de Bruijne, it’s not the Buitenverbanders’ (Netherlands Reformed) who have changed. No, this new openness to one another is because the GKv changed. They changed from being the first type of reformed [those adhering strictly to the confessions] to becoming the second type of ‘reformed’ [those with a looser view of the confessions]. For example, he says, today’s GKv tolerates views that are not fully in accordance with the confession about such things as justification and sanctification, the place of the law, or the character of God.

He adds that since GKv have become ‘contextually and culturally’ sensitive, many GKv people find the concerns the GKv used to have about the views expressed in the 1960s’ Open Letter of the ‘Buitenverbanders’ as now being fairly irrelevant. Moreover, GKv members often no longer use the confessions as their starting point in approaching matters, he says. Solid confessional certainties regarding the faith are now regarded as having only temporary and limited value. Views from ‘other traditions’ are more than welcome. And though there are still those in the GKv who express concerns, they tolerate the changes.

All this proves to Dr de Bruijne that the GKv are now well on the way to being the second type of ‘reformed’. He doesn’t believe that’s a bad thing but thinks GKv members should be more aware that they have shifted position from the first type of being reformed [adhering faithfully to the confession] to the second type of being reformed.

Whilst Dr de Bruijne’s observations about the changed GKv views of the GKv in relation to the confessions are no doubt true, his use of the term ‘reformed’ to categorise the second group cannot be correct. The term ‘reformed’ means to be obedient to Scripture. And just as “they are not all Israel that are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6) so they are not all reformed who call themselves reformed. Reformed people are those who defend the truth as confessed in the reformed confession and abide by it. As soon as churches deviate from the confessions in walk or talk, and refuse to repent, they are no longer reformed.

Therefore one cannot speak of two types of being reformed, those who adhere faithfully to the confessions and those who permit deviations from it. The latter, including sadly the once-faithful GKv, are no longer reformed. And we are called to beware lest we follow their example.

J Numan
[i] Ad de Bruijne, “Willen wij op weg naar ‘gereformeerd 2.0’?” in Nederlands Dagblad, 9th April, 2016. Ad de Bruijne is professor of Ethics and Spirituality at the Theological University in Kampen of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (liberated).