Why are Calvinist churches called Reformed churches?

As the title says but with the little correction that followers of Zwingli also are called Reformed Christian but I thought the title would have been too long if I mentioned them also. In a certain way it is obvious why they are called so since they were originally formed during the Reformation but the same could be said about Lutherans and Anglicans and to my knowledge they are never called ‘‘Reformed’’, that is something only Calvinists and Zwinglians are called. Swedish is my first language so I know thats what they are called in Swedish and English so it is obviously something they are called in several languages. But why are they called Reformed and are they calling themselves that? If not, is it possibly a name they were given by the Lutherans and the Anglicans to distinguish themselves from the Calvinist ‘‘heretics’’? Also if someone knows if they are called the same thing in other languages it would be interesting to know.

Good question.

First of all, sixteenth-century Anglicans definitely considered themselves Reformed. But by the early seventeenth century, “high-church” Anglicans were positioning themselves more between the Lutherans and the Reformed, and by the end of the century some Anglicans were positioning themselves between Catholicism and Protestantism (though it wasn’t common for Anglicans to deny being Protestant until the 19th century). However, there have always been “low-church” Anglicans who were happy describing themselves as Reformed, and that’s still the case today.

Originally, “Reformed” was a broad label describing Protestants who disagreed with Luther on certain points (most dramatically the Eucharist). The original term for Protestants as a whole was “evangelicals” (“Protestant” was a political label originally referring to certain evangelical princes and city-states who refused to accept the Holy Roman Empire’s ban on further religious change). “Evangelical” meant “someone who believes in the Gospel of justification by faith.” Some Catholics who remained loyal to the Church used the term, because they believed (rightly, I think–see Raniero Cantalamessa’s Lenten sermons from a few years ago) that the core affirmations of Luther and his friends about God’s free grace were compatible with Catholicism. But to Luther and his closest allies, you weren’t a “real” evangelical if you didn’t buy into very specific doctrinal positions. Hence, those Protestants who considered themselves “evangelicals” but were not entirely in agreement with Luther needed a new term to distinguish themselves from the “Lutheran” version of “evangelicalism.” (If you’re keeping track, what I’m arguing is that there were at least three versions of “evangelicals” in the sixteenth century: “Lutheran,” “Reformed,” and Catholic–and that’s before we talk about the Anabaptists and other “radicals.”)

“Reformed” was a good label because it referred to a broad program of reform based on Scripture (and secondarily the early Church), as interpreted by Protestant theologians using “humanist” scholarship and giving the Old Testament a very high level of authority. “Evangelical” referred specifically to your understanding of salvation. The Lutherans tended to think that this was the key point, and they were relatively more conservative (i.e., closer to Catholicism) on other points. The Reformed cared about more issues and used the authority of Scripture (as they understood it) in a more sweeping way to challenge tradition. (At the same time, they arguably cared more about the example of the early Church than Luther and some of his early allies did.)

Roughly, the early Reformed were divided into two groups: the south Germans, who were closer to Lutheranism both geographically and doctrinally, and the Swiss, or “Zwinglians,” based in Zurich, who took a more radical approach. Martin Bucer, one of the leading south German Reformed theologians, signed an agreement with Luther on the Eucharist in 1536. This drove a wedge between him and Zurich (by this time Zwingli was dead and the leader of the Zurich Reformed was Henry Bullinger).

This is why Calvin was so important. In terms of the substance of his beliefs, he was very similar to Bucer. But he was much less interested in dialogue with Catholics and Lutherans than Bucer, and he signed an agreement on the Eucharist not with Wittenberg but with Bullinger’s Zurich. As Calvin’s Geneva became a leading center of Reformed thought, Calvin’s version of Reformed Christianity appealed to many folks because of its systematic coherence and the way it pulled together ideas from a bunch of different early Reformers, while holding a very sharp line against Catholicism.

In Germany in the late sixteenth century, the “Second Reformation” took place, in which a lot of Lutherans became “Calvinists.” The “Calvinism” they adopted wasn’t so much influenced by Calvin himself as by the theologians of Heidelberg, but it brought them into the broader “Reformed” or “Calvinist” family. The term “Calvinist” was generally used in Germany to refer to Eucharistic theology–a “spiritual presence” view that took a middle ground between Luther and Zwingli.

In England, the equivalent of this was the Puritan movement. In this case, as I said, England was basically Reformed under Elizabeth. But like the German Lutherans, the Anglicans kept a lot of worship practices and forms of church government that looked “Papist” to the folks who had been trained at Geneva (or Zurich, or Heidelberg). So the Puritans tried to make England “more Reformed.” The term “Calvinist” was often used in this context for folks who wanted to follow Genevan models in terms of worship and church government.

In the seventeenth century, the Dutch Reformed church became divided over predestination. In this context, the term “Calvinist” took on the meaning it still primarily bears today–a certain view of predestination (a view that was shared by Luther and by a lot of sixteenth-century Catholics, at least in certain of its principal claims).

So bottom line: “Calvinist” and “Reformed” basically mean the same thing, but originally “Reformed” could be used somewhat more broadly and less controversially. “Calvinist” tended to mean following Genevan models in some specific point that was controversial in the broader Protestant community: Eucharistic doctrine against the Lutherans; church government and worship against the Anglican establishment; and eventually predestination against the “Arminians.”

Today, “Reformed” can be used in one of two rather different ways:

  1. As a very broad description of certain denominations with Calvinist roots, whether or not the members of these denominations hold to traditional Calvinist/Reformed doctrines or not;
  2. As a self-chosen label for conservative Protestants who are calling for a return to strict, classical Reformed doctrine.


I think this is a really interesting question: I think we are mostly aware of the liturgical differences, the organisation differences and the differences in the understanding of the Eucharist between the mainline denominations but I am not clear as to the why the word reformed was used specifically in relation to Calvinistic theology. I thought it might be linked with the Confessional but according to this article apparently not. I thought it might help if I post here:


Probably just the name that stuck.

Thank you for your answers. :slight_smile:

One of the Churches that merged to form the United Church of Christ (UCC ) was the Reformed Church.

According to David Engelsma, former pastor, professor, and author from from a reformed perspective, early Calvinists did not want to be called Calvinists, as if they followed a man or that their teachings were derived from a man rather than from scripture, but preferred to refer to themselves as Reformed (in Germany, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands) or Presbyterian (in England, Scotland and the north of Ireland), to distinguish themselves from the other major branch of Protestantism, which was Lutheran. cprf.co.uk/pamphlets/defenseofcalvinism.htm

The term “reformed” has also been adopted by other churches who may not follow Calvin’s teachings in every respect, but who do share significant agreement, particularly with respect to particular grace and limited atonement. One example is the Reformed Baptists.

Martin Luther preferred and used the term “evangelical” to refer to his reform movement. According to a Wikipedia article, Lutherans themselves started using the term Lutheran in the mid to late 16th century to help distiguish their beliefs from those of other Protestants.

If interested, there is a good summary of the primary differences between Lutheran and Reformed theology at the link below. It is written from a Lutheran perspective.

Actually the “Evangelical and Reformed Church,” itself a merger (in America) of the German Reformed and the Evangelical Synod of North America. The latter was the American expression of the unified Prussian “evangelical” church (i.e., a union of Lutherans and Reformed–I believe that it was this forced union that the fathers of the LCMS came to America to escape, but you can correct me if I’m wrong on this point).

The Congregational churches, which formed the other major part of the UCC, are also Reformed in heritage.

Another small group that formed part of the union derived from the ministry of Barton Stone, one of the founders of the “Restorationist” movement and certainly not Reformed theologically, except in the sense that pretty much all Protestants (except for Lutherans, of course) derive from the Reformed in one way or another.


My wife and I were in the ELCA until recently and lived in eastern Pennsylvannia. My church that formed the ELCA originally was the Pennsylvania Ministerium. The Lutherans that formed this group while they had some roots in the Prussian Union, never lost their Lutheran identity. Count Zinzendorf proposed a merger with Henry Muehlenberg of the Moravians, Lutherans, and the Reformed, Muehlenberg turned him down. But in my area there was a lot of Union Churches, where one Sunday there was a Lutheran service and the next Sunday, a Reform service, this was because the people felt that they couldn’t afford their own church or a pastor wasn’t available every Sunday. As a result there got to be a blended theology.

The Stone movement played a role in the history of the Disciples of Christ and today it and the United Church of Christ have a partnership with one another.


Just keep in mind that all Calvinists consider themselves Reformists, not all reformists are Calvinist. I know many Arminians who are Reformists as well.

I think you’re using “reformist” to mean “Protestant.”

“Reformed” is not simply the same thing as “Protestant,” though the Reformed tradition is the backbone of historic Protestantism and most Protestant traditions (the Lutherans being the one clear exception) derive from it.


No, I do mean reformist. There are so many liberal Protestant churches that do not fall into the reformist circle. In no way was I trying to used Reformed and Protestant synonymously. There are so many Protestant preachers who are so off base when it comes to Scripture and treat the phrase “Reformed Theology” as a dirty word.

Well, I don’t know what you mean by “reformist.” It isn’t a term generally used in scholarly circles–I’ve only encountered it (as a label for Protestants) on this forum, used by Catholics.

Do you mean what I’ve heard called “Reformational”? I.e., classical Protestantism in line with the teachings of the Reformers, whether Lutheran or Reformed?

Again, one can argue whether Arminianism qualifies. The denial of free will was a pretty basic teaching of the Reformers.

I’m just not sure what this “Reformist” Protestantism is.


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