Friday, January 9, 2015

The Scope and Tone of Historic Reformed Orthodoxy

Herman J. Selderhuis, ed., A Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy, Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2013). 689pp. Hardcover. $277.00

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan McGraw

Reformed orthodoxy is a growing field of historical investigation. Though this epithet covers the “classic” period of Reformed theology following the end of the Reformation to the late eighteenth century, most scholarly interest has hovered around the late sixteenth to the late seventeenth century. These studies introduce modern readers to hosts of once influential Reformed theologians whose Latinized names are no longer familiar to most, but whose (predominantly) Latin theological works shaped Reformed thinking into the early twentieth century. With primary sources now readily available on the internet, this expanding field continues to produce scholarly work and can serve the church by introducing modern readers to who their forefathers in the faith were, what they said, and why they said it.

The Brill Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy is a scholarly introduction to its subject. It will not be easy reading for those without some familiarity with historic Reformed theology. The purpose of Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition is to give readers a semi-comprehensive introduction to the state of scholarship on each topic treated. In his introduction, Herman Selderhuis refers to this present volume as “a midway companion” that should pave the way for more comprehensive research (1). The book treats “relations” to other fields of study (philosophy, the church, and the patristic tradition), “places” (the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, France, Britain, East-Central Europe, and North America), and “topics” (doctrine of God, covenant theology, Scripture, Pneumatology, Ethics, Predestination, and civil law). A scholar with an international reputation for his or her topic writes each chapter. While many of the chapters summarize earlier studies, several of them provide original research and introduce provocative material for further study. The remainder of this review will give precedence to those essays that break new ground.

The first four chapters illustrate well the scope and tone of Reformed orthodox theology. All the authors in the book generally reject the Calvin versus the Calvinists construction that was popular in older scholarship. The first chapter, by Willem van Asselt, brings readers up to speed on the nature of this question. While he does not say anything groundbreaking here, this chapter is exceptionally clear and useful as an introduction to various approaches to studying historic Reformed theology. Aza Gourdian then aptly demonstrates the complex relationship between theology and philosophy in Reformed thought, including the extensive philosophical training that most Reformed ministers received during this period. Mark Beach demonstrates how the theology of the schools was translated into the service of the church, largely in light of Reformed catechisms and confessional documents. Irena Backus closes this section by showing the influences of patristic scholarship on Reformed thinking.

The section on “places” primarily includes standard introductions to Reformed thinking in various individual national contexts. While Reformed theology was largely international in character, the politics and culture of various regions sometimes resulted in distinct concerns and emphases. This is particularly evident in France (Tobias Sarx) and Britain (Carl Trueman). Two chapters in this section stand out. Antonie Vos treats Reformed theology in the Netherlands in light of the formation of universities, illustrious schools, and the most significant systematic theologians from this period. His work highlights how and why the Netherlands was highly influential in the realm of Reformed theological education. He shows as well how the theologians in these schools taught their theology in a way that was both scholastic and practical. Graeme Murdock introduces readers to Reformed thinking primarily in Hungary and Transylvania. This material draws largely on vernacular literature that few have access to. This is a valuable introduction to this oft neglected region of Reformed thinking. Reformed orthodoxy did not flourish in these regions due to the imposition of Catholicism by the Habsburg dynasty. Many clung to their Reformed heritage and resented Catholicism in light of this fact.

The last section (“topics”) examines various areas of development in the loci of Reformed theology, with the exception of the last chapter, which treats the influence of Reformed thought on law and politics. Sebastian Rehnman’s chapter on the doctrine of God draws from a wide range of Latin works and authors and shows how Reformed writers approached this subject in terms of God’s existence (an sit), his attributes (quails sit), and the Trinity (quis sit). This is a useful and compact survey of this subject and it shows why this order was natural and necessary in light of Reformed scholastic methodology.

Maarten Wisse and Hugo Meijer’s chapter on pneumatology is particularly noteworthy in terms of original research. They analyze the influences of Augustine, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas on Reformed thinking especially on the work of the Spirit in relation to Christ’s humanity. They examine the comprehensive treatment of pneumatology in the work of John Owen, with some attention to the Westminster Confession of Faith and other authors. While some have regarded Owen’s treatment of this subject as largely unique, Wisse and Meijer show the patristic and medieval roots of his teaching. In doing so, they simultaneously mitigate the notion of Owenian exceptionalism while recognizing that he wrote the first comprehensive pneumatology perhaps in the history of the western church.

While this chapter is highly valuable, it is marked by subtle inaccuracies in a few places. The most glaring example is that in treating the work of the Holy Spirit in relation to the sacraments, they question whether a theology of Christ’s “real presence” in the sacrament “makes any sense at all.” They do so on the grounds that the Holy Spirit alone makes the sacraments effective through regeneration and that in the Reformed view of the sacraments, “there is basically nothing more than the confirmation of a grace that is present” (511). However, the authors entirely omit the role of faith in coming to the sacraments, which was a vital component in Reformed thought. Moreover, they appear to relegate the Reformed view of grace to the believer’s righteous status in his justification. This point deserves fuller interaction than is possible in a review. The Westminster Larger Catechism definition of a sacrament illustrates some of the problems involved in these assertions: “A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ in his church, to signify, seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the covenant of grace, the benefits of his mediation; to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; to oblige them to obedience; to testify and cherish their love and communion with one another; and to distinguish them from those that are without” (Q. 162). This statement presupposes a dynamic communion with God in grace that grows and increases through exercising faith. This encompasses the entire order of salvation, which assumes justification and adoption as “grace that is present,” but proceeds through sanctification until it reaches its final stage in glorification. Questions 65-90 explain this dynamic relationship of grace in terms of union and communion with Christ in grace and in glory rather than merely a once for all action that requires confirmation only.

Luca Bashera’s chapter on “Ethics in Reformed Theology” is noteworthy as well. This chapter examines Reformed ethics in representative dogmatic works, treatises on ethics, and later books devoted to cases of conscience. In light of the Reformed emphasis on intertwining doctrine and practice in true theology, it is surprising that this topic has received so little attention in the secondary literature. Her essay shows the basic continuity in the content of Reformed ethical teaching while showing the wide diversity in organization and methodology.

This book will aid those looking to further their research by tracing the bibliographic details and arguments of its authors. Selderhuis rightly describes it as a “midway companion” to the subject. It provides a useful starting point for serious scholars in this field. The book is not accessible to a lay audience due to its complexity, size, and cost. However, this reviewer hopes that a new generation of Reformed ministers will use books such as this one to understand better what their forefathers taught and, in doing so, to reflect on the formation and meaning of their doctrine and practice. It is only when we know the past accurately that we can interact with it critically and build upon it fruitfully.



The preceding review first appeared in the 2014 issue of MidAmerica Journal of Theology.