Book ReviewsReformed

What is Reformed Theology? A Review of the OUP Handbook of Reformed Theology

The year 2017 saw a flurry of publications on Protestantism, the Reformation, and its various theological traditions. Some were good. Many were merely opportunistic. The recent publication of The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology, edited by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, is not merely opportunistic. This volume is rather clearer-headed regarding its aims, organization, and content than many of those that made an appearance in the publishing frenzy of 2017.

Though not opportunistic, I would describe this volume as timely. Brad Vermuelen has recently analyzed what he calls a “Reformed Resurgence,” at least in pockets of American evangelicalism. Accompanying this movement has been, over the past decade or so, a growing (renewed) interest in dogmatics. And so, this volume represents timely to attempt take stock of what Reformed theology is, and whither it may be headed.

There are a number of angles from which to approach and answer the question, “what is Reformed theology?” One could focus primarily on what it holds in unison with other iterations of the Christian tradition. That is, one could exposit Reformed theology’s catholicity, or its ‘mere-ness.’ Another approach would be to draw attention to what distinguishes it. What sets Reformed theology apart from Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Methodism, etc. Still a third way would be to trace the negotiations of Reformed theology in its self-conscious catholicity and polemics. That is, to account for what Reformed theology is by means of a theory of development, sketched along historical or conceptual-theological lines.

In each of these approaches, complexity abounds. Questions compound: who counts as “Reformed”? At least some Anglican bishops of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? What about some Methodist preachers in the early eighteenth? Does Jonathan Edwards count? Schleiermacher? Barth? Piper? What about the time and place? What was considered “Reformed” in the 1530s in the border areas between the French speaking Cantons of the Swiss lands and the Dutchy of Savoy is not insignificantly different from what counted in 1640s in the Jerusalem Chamber, from what counted in the 2010 WCRC meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology is sensitive to these varying approaches and complexities.

Its organization is meant to point at least to some of them. It consists of three main sections. The first section is entitled “Contexts,” wherein the various historical settings in which Reformed theology has developed are examined and the relation of Reformed theology to its patristic and medieval forerunners is explored. The second main section, “Texts,” features a dozen influential texts of the Reformed tradition. I have to say that a few of the selections in this section remain puzzling to me. Surely, measured by both contemporaneous influence and reception history, Junius’ De Vera Theologia wins out over Bucer’s De Regno Christi, the Leiden Synopsis over Owen’s Pneumatologia. Shouts might also be made for William Perkins and Petrus van Mastricht. But then, narrowing it down to a dozen is no small feat.

The final main section treats of the traditional loci of systematic theology. Somewhat striking in this section is the appearance of a few contributing authors who would not self-describe as “Reformed.” Perhaps this speaks to the convergence of an increasing awareness of the catholicity of Reformed theology, especially with respect to several doctrinal loci, and an increasing interest in dogmatics.

In all, this volume does a nice job exploring the complexities inherent in the question, what is Reformed theology. For all the complexities, however, is there a ‘heart of the matter’? To answer the question fully a book of this length must be produced, to be sure. But can one answer the question truthfully and yet succinctly? Scott Swain, in his “Introduction” and Michael Allen, in his “Future Prospects for Reformed Theology” attempt to do just that. On the one hand, Allen acknowledges, “The Reformed tradition does not suffer blasé homo­geneity” (623). As a tradition, it is constituted by organization, liturgical, and devotional developments which have contributed to a richly complex culture. Thus, ‘Reformed’ “is admittedly complex to classify” (624).

“But,” he qualifies, “the word ‘Reformed’ is not a wax nose” (624). Both Swain and Allen contend that the understanding what Reformed theology is, at its core, so to speak, requires understanding the two terms: Reformed, in its passivity, and theology in its traditional catholic sense. “It is worth observing that the Reformed tradition—with a unique verve, though not alone, amongst Christian traditions—has emphasized that each of these other facets of its reality [institutions, liturgies, practices, etc.] derives from theological judgements” (624).

According to Swain, “Reformed theology may be identified as a catholic, Protestant tradition of inquiry concerning God and all things in relation to God that takes Holy Scripture as its principal source and norm and that orders itself to the glory of God as its chief end” (2). This is a good starting place. It is to say that ‘Reformed theology,’ whatever else it is—and it is a lot besides—is at its heart theology.

To say it is ‘Reformed,’ then, is to say that “Deus dixit is the supreme cognitive principle of [its]theology” (1). That is, as Allen later puts it,

Amidst any other significant elements of Re­formed identity, this notion that Reformed theology is that being reformed by the Word of God remains a central thread… Whatever reform might mean and what could possibly be intended by the moniker ‘Reformed,’ then, must be thought amidst a distinctly Christian and overtly theological portrayal of the theological act, indeed, of the theologian as a person… a claim about ‘Reformed theology’ offers not first and foremost a sociological or historical attestation but one of a distinctly theological calbre.  (627).

This raises a host of questions—mostly old questions, it has to be said. For the purposes of this review, we need not be detained by them. Indeed, I think it important for the moment to go ‘below’ the questions, or ‘prior’ to their being raised. Allen’s point is worth pondering.

“Reformed” theology, in Swain’s and Allen’s account, is at its heart the process of sanctification in the intellectual pursuit of God. ‘Reformed theology’ picks out that theological act which in each practicing theologian and each new generation is being re-formed by the Word of God. This word of God comes to people and generations languishing in their deformation; it quickens them and summons them to a pilgrimage that requires mortification and vivification. I say ‘each person’ and ‘each generation’ to include both the members of the body of Christ, the church, and its perpetual handing on, its guarding of the tradition. The Word of God comes to reform the church:

Theology is possible because the Word of God comes to the church, creates the church, and directs the church. Though this work of the Word occurs within the sphere of the church’s social and historical reality, it is not merely the product of that social and historical reality…Theology is reasoned discourse that seeks to follow divine discourse in Holy Scripture. (1-2)

This reformation, this sanctification, is not a one-off event. It is a tradition: semper reformanda.

And so, according to Swain and Allen, Reformed theology does not call attention primarily to a specific reform, say, of the sixteenth century or the twentieth, or primarily to a specific doctrine or set of doctrines. Those may be secondary markers. Primarily, it calls attention to the sanctification of each theologian and each new generation. It calls attention to the sanctification of the church under the Deus dixit—or perhaps better, the Deus dicit.


The above image “Lectern and Door” by HelenBushe is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is professor of theology at Yellowstone Theological Institute in Bozeman, MT, where he lives with his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids.

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