There are a number of different ways by which Protestants speak of themselves, of their origins and development, and of the great Reformation of the sixteenth century. I think it is more important than ever that we understand ourselves correctly. We are not simply a "protest" movement, or a prickly splinter group. We are "the Church of Jesus Christ reformed according to the Word of God," to quote one modern writer. This self-understanding means several things.
1. We did not begin in the sixteenth century. Our churches are not the creation of human reformers. The Reformers didn’t believe this and we shouldn’t believe it either.
2. Our churches are the work of Christ, thus they are an expression of his one body in the world.
3. The goal of the Protestant Reformers was to purify the one church by the Word of God. They desired to give back things that had been lost and to remove things that went contrary to the witness of Scripture and the faith of the earliest Christians.
4. The patristic heritage of the church was not rejected by the earliest Reformers. They argued, faithfully and cogently, that the church fathers were, in the big picture, sympathetic to their reform movement. This means the Reformers were not "reinventing" the church as they went along. For that matter they were not tearing down every liturgical, doctrinal, or moral development that had occured over the previous sixteen centuries.
The word "Reformed" is not the same as "restored." The name "Reformed," as Howard G. Hageman has written correctly, "implies continuity." He adds, "A tree which is reformed is not cut down; it is pruned. Just so with our church; one with the historic church of Jesus Christ, it has been purified and restored by that keenest of all instruments, the living Word of God" (Our Reformed Church, Reformed Church Press, 1995, 1).
I am a Reformed Christian in my ecclessial relationship to church history. But I am a Christian first. This understanding includes the great tradition, the continuity of the creeds, and the faith of Catholics in the West, and Orthdoox in the East. We who are children of the Reformation did not arrive de nouveau. We are part of a historic family, albeit a part that longs to see even further reforming of the older church bodies, as well as the ongoing reforming of our own church bodies. What are not "cut off" from the historic tree of the church. Such an argument is one made by many modern separatists but not one made by the earliest evangelical Reformers. Most conservative Reformed and evangelical churches in America do not understand this important point of self-identity and the results are catastrophic for faith and practice.