Reformed “Orthodoxy”: Toward Definition

Richard Muller describes a two-phased process: first, the early reformers sought to correct “a host of abuses and nonscriptural doctrinal accretions” that they tried to correct. And second, the later writers, and indeed the process of “confessionalization” (the writing of and attempts to organize their lives by confessions), sought to “provide definitions of all doctrines belonging to the faith of the confessing church”:

The development of Protestant thought in the two centuries following the Reformation is a highly complex phenomenon that defies facile classification. The two terms, orthodoxy and scholasticism, however, do provide a convenient point of departure for classification and description. “Orthodoxy,” of course, simply means “right teaching.” In one sense, this right teaching was the goal of the Reformation from its moment of inception.

Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, and the other early Reformers saw a host of abuses and nonscriptural doctrinal accretions in the practices and teachings of the church. Their goal in attacking these abuses and accretions was to reform both Christian life and teaching. The earliest confessions of the Protestant churches are quite specific in this goal. They do not present entire bodies of doctrine but only those particular points of doctrine—such as grace, faith, justification, and the sacraments—where a return to right teaching was needed.

The division of Christendom and the establishment of Lutheran and Reformed churches independent from Rome led, in the fourth and fifth decades of the sixteenth century, to the rise of another form of Protestant confession and to a somewhat different pressure toward orthodoxy. Whereas the earliest confessions—like the Augsburg or Tetrapolitan—state only disputed points, the later documents—the First and Second Helvetic, the Gallican and Belgic Confessions—provide definitions of all doctrines belonging to the faith of the confessing church.

Right statement of a whole body of doctrine, of all the basic articles of faith, is characteristic of institutionally established Protestantism. Orthodoxy and institutionalization are but two aspects of one development—indeed, they are corollaries of one another. Scholastic orthodoxy was a product both of the confessional solidification and of the institutionalized academic culture of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd Ed., P. 33). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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