Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dutch Systematics for English Readers

Van Genderen and Velema. Concise Reformed Dogmatics. Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008. 944pp. $59.99
Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw
This single-volume work by two former professors at the University of Apeldoorn in Holland is a welcome addition to the field of Systematic Theology for English-speaking readers. The purpose of this work is to present Reformed Dogmatics with Scriptural simplicity. As the title suggests, the authors are loyal to the Reformed confessional tradition, particularly as embodied in the so-called “Three Forms of Unity.” To this reviewer’s knowledge, they have not written anything that is contrary to the doctrinal standards to which they adhere. However, this does not mean that they have twisted the Scriptures in order to justify doctrines that are a foregone conclusion. The authors have listened carefully to the voice of God in Scripture and the sufficiency, authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of the Bible is evident on every page. In addition, they have proceeded on the premise that the purpose of theology is to serve the Church and, in particular, to promote the practice of godliness (9-12).
The authors have accomplished much in the space of a single volume, and it is impossible to treat their work adequately in a single review (for an extensive review that highlights very different features of this work than this current review, see James E. Dolezal, The Confessional Presbyterian, vol. 5, 2009, 278-283). Van Genderen wrote most of the chapters, while Velema wrote the chapters on “Man as the Image of God,” “Sin,” and “The Doctrine of Salvation.” Their doctrine is grounded in careful expositions of various texts of Scripture, coupled with thorough interaction with recent literature, as well as in light of the historical theology of the Church. This is in line with their preliminary assertion that theology should be pursued while interacting critically with the previous findings of the Church (6-7, 14-18). As is common in Reformed Dogmatics, there is a paucity of interaction (though not entirely lacking) with the theologians of the Middle Ages. The authors have drawn much attention to twentieth-century Dutch theologians such as H. Berkhof (not to be confused with Louis Berkhof, who is more widely known to English readers), and they have presented a wide array of useful critical interactions with Karl Barth. For English readers, this volume may serve as a concise introduction to Dutch theology in the twentieth century. The work as a whole follows the standard loci of Reformed theology, progressing logically through fifteen chapters ranging from the doctrine of revelation to Eschatology. The text is simultaneously written on two different levels, with large print text marking off the primary portion of the narrative, and smaller font text addressing more detailed matters of investigation. The small font text is not essential to the general argument, but neither is it parenthetical to it, thus fitting naturally into the flow of the book. Finally, one endorsement on the dust jacket has correctly identified Calvin and Bavinck as primary influences upon the authors.
Several positive features of this volume are worth noting. The Scripture references are not relegated to proof texts or to footnotes. Each chapter begins by stating the nature and importance of the topic at hand, followed by a section examining the relevant Scriptural data. Only after hearing what the Scriptures have to say do the authors turn to the theology of the Church. They tend to proceed with a few carefully selected passages of Scripture that are exegeted thoroughly, followed by numerous other full citations of Scripture texts as corroborative evidence. Many of these sections will be useful to ministers in their systematic exposition of Scripture, enabling them to connect the preaching of the Word to the theology of the Scriptures as a whole. The chapters addressing matters related to Prolegomena, the Doctrine of God, Christology, and Eschatology are especially clear, simple, and useful. In this reviewer’s estimation, perhaps the most notable feature of this book is the distinctively Trinitarian emphasis that pervades the entire text. The doctrine of the Triune nature of God is treated prior to the attributes of God in order to give it a central place in theology. The doctrine of the Trinity is not proven only to be laid aside in the remainder of the work, but it is carried along throughout. One notable example is Van Genderen’s treatment of the Church as “the people of God,” “the body of Christ,” and “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (695-705).
Although this work is to be recommended highly for the features listed above, some very noticeable weakness should be stated as well. First, there is a paucity of common theological terminology in the text (Dolezal also addresses the author’s mild rejection of Protestant Scholasticism at length in his review mentioned above). The simplicity of this work, which is one of its highest virtues, has become one of its greatest weaknesses. Some important terms such as “supralapasarianism” and “infralapsarianism” have been retained, yet other terms such as “traducianism” and “creationism” (in reference to the origin of the soul) have largely been omitted. If students read this work as a beginning text in theology, then they will not be readily prepared to interact with terminology that has become common to theological literature in general and that has stood the test of time. This has resulted in great ambiguity in many areas, including what position the authors actually hold respecting the origin of the soul (356) and the nature of the original covenant between God and man (358). With respect to the former question, Velema appears to reject both of the traditional options presented in Reformed theology, only to conclude by attempting to incorporate both views (356). In this reviewer’s opinion, this results in an insurmountable obscurity by leaving the original question unanswered. An overuse of theological terminology has sometimes resulted in splitting hairs over non-essential matters, but too little theological terminology results in ambiguity at crucial points. In addition, this practice has a tendency to divorce present theological formulation from the history of theological reflection in the Church, which in contrary to the declared purpose of the authors (see above).
Second, the text includes various doctrinal problems. One notable difficulty is that Velema very clearly denies the imputation of the guilt of Adam’s sin. Citing Calvin for alleged support, he wrote, “[Man] does inherit depravity from Adam. However, he does not become guilty until he actually commits sin” (409). Earlier he stated, “One can only be guilty before God through personal sin” (404. Contra Westminster Shorter Catechism 18, etc.). He asserts that it is neither possible nor just for the sin of mankind’s first father to be imputed to his progeny. His position is that mankind actually participated in Adam’s first sin (“realistic federalism,” as opposed to the traditional choice between “realism” and “federalism”), yet neither by virtue of Adam being the federal head of all mankind nor by virtue of being “seminally” present in Adam (hence his related denial of both traducianism and creationism). His actual position regarding how all mankind participated in Adam’s sin is both complex and unclear, yet he argues that the parallel drawn between Adam and Christ in the fifth chapter of Romans was not designed to be an exact parallel involving the imputation of the guilt of the first Adam as well as the imputation of righteousness through the second Adam (556). From this reviewer’s perspective, Velema’s position is not so much a “realistic federalism” as it is a purported federalism that excludes the idea of imputation, replacing it with the idea of death in exchange for life. He asserts a “realistic” (not imputed) guilt via a vague participation in Adam’s fist sin that does not involve being seminally present in Adam (“realism”) coupled with an inadequately defined “federal” connection to Adam in terms of inherited depravity and death. Thus, he has sought to retain a form of “federalism” by excluding imputation, which has historically marked the most essential element of this viewpoint. This potentially breaks down the necessity of the imputed righteousness of Christ, which is the central argument of the parallel that Paul has drawn between Adam and Christ in Romans 5. While in chapter twelve, Velema affirms the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, his discussion of the imputation of Adam’s sin highlights that ambiguity that often results in this work through a refusal to treat questions in terms of historic theological categories.
Another controversial matter is whether or not gender distinctions should be included in the image of God; Velema affirms that they ought to be (following Barth?). His evidence from the narrative of Genesis two, however, is not decisive. The question is whether being male and female is part and parcel of the definition of man as the image of God, or whether after setting forth the fact that man is the image of God, the text simply affirms that this image is possessed by both males and females equally (see the various critiques of this view by Meredith Kline and John Frame). The natural reading of the text implies that God created mankind in His image, that both men and women possess this image, and that consequently the image bearers of God were given dominion over creation. However, it should be noted that Velema does not deny role distinctions between men and women and that he does not engage in speculations regarding potential gender distinctions within the Divine nature.
Van Genderen’s treatment of the proper mode of Baptism is weak as well. It appears to be a common feature of Dutch Reformed theology to uncritically adopt the assumption of the early Reformers that the primary mode of Baptism is immersion (790. An older example of this practice is Wilhelmus a Brakel, while Bavinck has propagated it in a more recent form). This overlooks the flood of literature that has appeared since the time of the Reformation, which has argued cogently and persuasively that the proper meaning of Baptism is identification with Christ in the washing of regeneration and that no particular mode is imported in the term. Many have argued that while immersion is an acceptable mode of Baptism, yet it is neither the ordinary nor even the most appropriate mode of Baptism. Moreover, while Van Genderen argues that immersion is “the most striking form of administering baptism,” the question must be asked why the pouring out of the Spirit, which is often closely associated with Baptism, is not a more striking form than immersion. A John Murray once noted, this reflects an arbitrary prioritizing of select Scriptural data above others.
Lastly, in the chapter that addresses Ecclesiology, the Presbyterian form of Church government (with which the present reviewer allies himself) is not depicted clearly. Van Genderen infers from the nature of offices in the New Testament that all officers, including deacons, “[work] together collegially” and that the distinction of offices have “nothing to do with ranking” (738-741). This potentially implies that the deacons make up part of the ruling body of the Church, which Scripture never assigns to them either by title or by example. In addition he argues that “this form of church governance has two focal points: the office of presbyter or elder and the ecclesiastical assembly” (743), including both local church assemblies as well as general synods. While a review is not the place to explore the features of Presbyterian polity in detail, yet this is where clear theological distinctions would be useful. Scottish and American Presbyterianism has traditionally argued that presbyters never hold the right to rule as individuals, but that the focal point of Church power is always the joint exercise of power in ecclesiastical assemblies consisting of a plurality of elders, whether in the local church or in the higher courts of the Church. Moreover, Van Genderen assigns authority to “broader assemblies” without limiting the authority of “local consistories” (744). Coupled with the ambiguous term “church federation,” which has admitted a wide variety of practices with respect to the authority of higher church courts, this raises the question as to whether or not the author assigns proper Presbyterian authority to the higher courts. With regard to Synods, the Westminster Confession of Faith (31.3) asserts that when the decisions of such Synods are “consonant to the Word of God,” then they are to be received “with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word.”  Again, the point is not necessarily that Van Genderen denies these two fundamental distinctives of Presbyterian polity, but that his treatment of Presbyterianism is potentially ambiguous and raises too many questions.
In spite of various (sometimes serious) shortcomings, Concise Reformed Dogmatics one of the more useful one-volume texts of Reformed Systematic Theology. It is rich with biblical exegesis, it is highly user-friendly, and it provides much helpful instruction for scholars, ministers, and interested lay-people. Due to the paucity of historic Reformed terminology and some theological peculiarities, this work is not as suitable as a beginning text in Reformed Dogmatics as other available volumes, yet a careful and prayerful reading of this text will enrich the reader’s knowledge of Scripture in general as well as serve as a useful introduction to recent Dutch theological literature that is otherwise unavailable to English speaking readers.
The review above appeared originally in Westminster Theological Journal, Spring 2011.