Thursday, September 4, 2014

Studies in the Development of Reformed Theology

Jordan J. Ballor, David S. Sytsma, and Jason Zuidema, eds., Church and School in Early Modern Protestantism: Studies in Honor of Richard A. Muller on the Maturation of a Theological Tradition, 2013. 800pp. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Historical theology cannot tell churches what they ought to believe. However, historical theology is useful in providing models of theology that make us re-evaluate ourselves and ask questions that we may be unaccustomed to.

Richard A. Muller
Richard Muller is an important and well-known name in Reformed historical theology. He is one of a handful of scholars who has created seismic shifts in how researchers understand the rise and development of what is known as Reformed orthodoxy. Though his numerous writings are often complex, yet their premise is profoundly simple. Muller drives people back to the primary sources of Reformed theology and sets these sources in the context of Medieval and early Reformed developments in theology. He leads us to ask what Reformed thinkers said and why they said it. While his contributions have primarily been scholarly, the benefits of his research have trickled down to the church by helping pastors better understand the nature and development of Reformed theology. This feschrift written in his honor promotes his goals by promoting the study of the primary sources of Reformed theology, particularly as they relate to the question of the relationship between the church and the academy. It will be useful primarily to scholars and to serious-minded pastors.

This volume includes essays by fifty-two scholars, most of whom are Muller’s former students. They honor Muller’s groundbreaking research by treating aspects of the relationship between the church and the university in early modern Protestantism. This reflects the relationship between scholastic and popular theology as much as it illustrates how Reformed theology matured and developed. The work treats first generation Reformers (mostly Lutheran or Lutheran influences), second generation Reformers, Early Orthodoxy, High Orthodoxy, and Late Orthodoxy. It concludes with a comprehensive up-to-date bibliography of Muller’s extensive publications.

A work of this nature has advantages and disadvantages. The primary advantage is that it summarizes a large body of research from a wide array of people. Even the most diligent scholarly readers will not likely read all of the books written by its fifty-two authors. A single volume multi-author work can make extensive research more accessible. The theme of the book is intriguing as well. The relationship between the church and her seminaries has always been and continues to be a pressing question. Readers find here historical models for this relationship and the theological reflection that helped shape these models. As someone who labors both in the church and in the academy, this reviewer is continually occupied by this question. It will be of similar interest to all who share a concern for the theological education of ministers.

Many of the chapters include original research based upon other works without merely summarizing them. These include the influential conversion story of Galeazzo Caracciolo (by Emidio Campi). References to this work abound in popular Puritan literature and may have even provided the basis for the conversion of Bunyan’s pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. Sebastian Rehnman develops the largely unexplored relationship between moral philosophy and moral theology in Peter Martyr Vermigli. Dariuz Bryko shows the development of Reformed theological education in seventeenth-century Poland.

Out of this small sampling of original research, three others stood out to this reviewer. Donald Sinnema and Aza Goudriaan examine (respectively) the attempt in the Netherlands to establish a chair of practical theology and to define it as a discipline. This research is useful in that it shows how the major theologians of this era self-consciously enveloped the idea of practical theology into their definitions of theology and theological method. At a time when departments of practical theology are taken for granted at theological seminaries, this material is thought provoking and fruitful. The other outstanding contribution is Henry Knapp’s essay on seventeenth-century exegetical method. Knapp’s doctoral work treated this subject in relation to John Owen, but it has never been published. His is one of the few substantial pieces of research that demonstrates the rules governing Reformed orthodox exegesis and how their exegetical labors fed into their systematic formulations of doctrine. While Muller has revived a more accurate understanding of the nature and content of Reformed orthodox theology, he has noted occasionally that the primary areas requiring further development relate to exegesis and piety. These three chapters make substantial progress in this direction.

This book has some disadvantages as well. Strengths and weaknesses often coincide. While the essays included in it usefully summarize larger works and include some substantial original research, most of them are merely condensed versions of other books. In the case of Brian Lee’s essay on Johannes Cocceius, the author does not even acknowledge the existence of his previously published material, from which this essay is clearly derived. This is unfortunate, since Lee’s work on Cocceius is outstanding and readers should be made aware of it.

Other scholars summarize previous research, but they do so less effectively than they have elsewhere. For example, Martin Klauber has written profoundly on the shift from the detailed scholastic theology of Francis Turretin at Geneva to the attempt by his son, Jean-Alphonse Turretin, to reduce theology to its fundamental articles. In his previous writings on this subject, Klauber illustrates that father and son had similar definitions of fundamental articles, but that they differed in that the son wanted to reduce theology to the fundamentals of the faith. In the essay in this volume, however, Klauber implies that Jean-Alphonse differed from his father by removing Reformed distinctives from fundamental articles, such as the order of the divine decrees and the doctrine of the sacraments (707). This reflects inaccurately Francis Turretin’s treatment of fundamental articles, since importing such things into this concept would distort the very distinction that he sought to maintain. The primary difference between father and son was that the father cautioned against reducing Christianity to its fundamental articles while the son advocated this practice. Klauber’s earlier treatments of this subject are much clearer and more accurate than his contribution here.

Another disadvantage is inherent to this field of study. Reformed orthodox theology can be complex and difficult to evaluate at times. The chapter on Cornelis Elleboogius illustrates this in that some readers will be unfamiliar with terms such as synchronic and diachronic contingency (and will be even more perplexed over how this distinction could have caused Elleboogius distress in his love life. (662). While the author explains the Scotist and Thomistic background of the debate surrounding these terms, he does not provide basic definitions of them. Even among scholars, some explanation of terms is always helpful, though it is seldom forthcoming.

Jordan Ballor’s chapter on the debate between Richard Baxter and George Kendall over justification reveals the complexity of Reformed orthodoxy in a different way. Though noting at the close of the chapter (677) that Baxter’s view of justification was neither Reformed nor Arminian, he does not reflect the extent to which Baxter diverted from the Reformed position, or that Kendall’s view has some nuances that did not line up with many Reformed authors either. For example, Kendall denied that that the covenant of grace was conditional. Other scholars (such as Mark Jones) have shown that most Reformed thinkers believed that the covenant was conditional, though Christ supplied the conditions of faith and repentance through the Spirit. Ballor also does not reflect the fact that Baxter taught the conditionality of the covenant in a unique way (as Tim Cooper demonstrates elsewhere). Baxter diverted from the Reformed by teaching that God accepts the relative obedience of believers through faith for justification and that justification is never a completed state prior to death. This shows the complexity of the seventeenth-century theological context. It is easy for historians to present a misleading view of the theological landscape of the time by under-nuancing complex theological distinctions.

This field of study requires clear and fine distinctions that even experts in the field struggle with at times. Studying Reformed orthodoxy is rewarding, but this volume illustrates that it is can be complicated as well.

This book will leave many readers with a long “to read” list. This is true especially in relation to primary source materials. It is hard to envision a more fitting tribute to Richard Muller for his vital research in historic Reformed theology. The contributors are like miners digging up precious metals from the earth and refining them for others to use. However, do not be surprised if, when we look at historical models in order to use them, we discover that we do not see our own reflection. This is the true value of historical theology. If you are interested in the relationship between church and school in early modern Protestantism, than borrow this (expensive) book from a local library, prayerfully digest it, and use it well.

This review was previously published in the Puritan Reformed Journal.