A Tale of Two Theologies: The Dutch and Scottish Reformed Traditions

Too often, Reformed theology is defined merely by the so-called five points of Calvinism: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. While this emphasis on how God saves sinners has value, it fails to capture the full breadth of the heritage of Reformed thought.

Emphasis on the five points of Calvinism fails to capture the full breadth of the heritage of Reformed thought.

There are two major streams of Reformed theology that developed out of the work of John Calvin: the Scottish Calvinist stream, and the Dutch Reformed stream. The Scottish tradition has a strong focus on doctrines of salvation and the ordo salutis (order of salvation). But another dimension is found in the Dutch Reformed tradition, which celebrates Reformed doctrines of salvation but also emphasizes worldviews, cultural engagement, and the lordship of Jesus over all aspects of life. Surprisingly, the two streams have interacted relatively rarely. Let’s take a short tour of the Scottish and Dutch Reformed theological traditions.

The Scottish Reformed Tradition

The Scottish branch of the Reformed tradition was immediately born out of the Reformation. In the early days of the Reformation, pastor-theologian John Knox (1514–1572) was a part of a group trying to reform the Scottish church; however, his involvement led to his imprisonment and eventual exile. While in exile, he traveled to John Calvin’s base of operations in Geneva, Switzerland. There, Knox became enamored with the doctrine of predestination and, some argue, more “Calvinist” than Calvin himself. Knox eventually returned and became the leading figure in the founding of the Church of Scotland, which is the origin of Presbyterianism.

Subsequent generations within the Scottish Reformed theological tradition (including English Puritans such as Richard Baxter and John Owen) gained a reputation for being pervasively gloomy preachers of hell, for exercising harsh church discipline while delving into the private lives of church members (i.e., of “moral tyranny”), and for suppressing the arts.American theologians such as the great Jonathan Edwards were also influenced by Scottish Reformed theology and philosophy and inherited some of these same critiques. While there is likely a bit of truth in each of the common criticisms, such practices arose out of unique cultural situations and should not be the only measures by which Scottish Reformed theology is judged.

The Reformed doctrine of the Scots was never separated from practical living.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the topics of predestination, election, reprobation, the extent of the atonement, and the perseverance of the saints gained the attention of the Scottish peasants. While the peasants’ concerns for these doctrines arose because of their leaders’ focus on them, the doctrines of Calvinist soteriology addressed practical and existential needs that church members faced.

While it is true that Scottish Reformed theology drifted into some heavier-handed forms of Calvinism, its original confession (the Scots Confession of 1560) upheld the missional nature of the church and the evangelistic focus of theology. The Reformed doctrine of the Scots was never separated from practical living. The Scots looked to the Westminster Confession of Faith as their doctrinal standard (underneath Scripture) and sought to implement those great theological truths into their everyday lives.

The Dutch Reformed Tradition

Calvinism arrived in the Netherlands in the third wave of the Reformation in the 1560s. Dutch Calvinism contributed some of the most important early Reformed creeds and confessions: the Belgic Confession of 1561 gave original definition to the Dutch Reformed Church, the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 served as a bridge fostering unity between the Dutch and German Reformed, and the Canons of Dort in 1619 served as a Reformed ecumenical council.

Kuyper urged Christians not to dismiss certain fields of culture and society as ‘worldly.’

Over time the Dutch Reformed Church drifted into theological liberalism. Then, in the late 19th century, the work of neo-Calvinists such as Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Louis Berkhof awoke the Dutch church from slumber and shaped what is now known as the Dutch Reformed school of theology (stay tuned for more posts on each of these figures).

While Dutch Reformed thought has much in common with the broader Reformed tradition, several features set it apart. One of the best summaries of Dutch Reformed thought is in the famous words of Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”

Christians are to experience the grace of God in all aspects of life.

Kuyper argued for the lordship of Christ over all of life and urged Christians not to dismiss certain fields of culture and society as “worldly.” He believed that God had established structures of authority in different spheres of creation, and recognizing the boundaries between these spheres helped maintain and balance justice and order in society.

According to Kuyper, God’s rule on earth is brought about through the faithful cultural presence of his church. This belief led the Dutch theologians to emphasize cultural action on the part of Christians. Kuyper wanted Christians to understand that each worldview has its own unique philosophical assumptions, and that the Christian faith has assumptions that shape the way believers should act in every area of life. As a result of God’s absolute sovereignty, Christians are to experience the grace of God in all aspects of life, not just in church activities and worship services.

The high point of Dutch Reformed theology is arguably Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology.

Dutch Reformed theology shared important essentials with the Old Princeton school of theology (from the Scottish Calvinist tradition) in the United States, but they differed significantly in some areas. The Dutch held to the belief that people have no religiously neutral, “objective” rational faculty. This meant there was no common ground, necessarily, shared between believers and nonbelievers. The world could contain numerous coherent worldviews, and this made apologetics more a clash of worldviews than a debate over evidence.

While the (Scottish stream) Princetonians emphasized a doctrine of Scripture that focused on inerrancy and propositional truth, the Dutch Reformed stressed the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit’s witness to validate Scripture’s trustworthiness.

Complementary, Not Contradictory

It may seem like the Scottish and Dutch streams of the Reformed church are miles apart in their emphases, but it is important to see that the cultural situations in which each of the traditions developed were significantly different. The Dutch theologians were facing a church giving in to modernist theological liberalism in the 19th century and trying to find a cultural home for themselves in their new settlements in the United States. As such, their emphases on the supreme reign of Christ over the ideologies of the day and their careful conception of culture are to be expected. In a way, Dutch Reformed theology was a specific application of the broad principles of the Reformation.

The Scottish and the Dutch Reformed theologians were focused on making disciples.

The focus of the Scots was more on the primary doctrines of the Reformation than on their specific application to new cultural situations. Moreover, the Scottish Reformed focused on taking the initial Reformation to the surrounding regions, which explains their emphasis on missions.

The Scottish and Dutch Reformed churches are not as far apart as it may first appear. They shared the same basic Reformed doctrines, though they emphasized different aspects. Nevertheless, even in these different points of focus, both the Scottish and the Dutch Reformed theologians were focused on making disciples and bringing the gospel to bear on the world around them. Both traditions are examples for the Reformed movement today.