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Reformed Catholicity: A Review

Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation,

by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain

Importance of the book

Michael Allen and Scott Swain have written (and Baker Academic has published) an important book. Let me highlight three reasons for its importance. First, they are seeking to recover and reappropriate what was an essential Protestant polemical claim early on, that Protestants are heirs of the catholic tradition. In a time when being Protestant in the West means being liturgically and theologically avant garde, and being evangelical means disavowing most anything that has the aroma of tradition, recovery of this basic Protestant claim is important. As they note in their introduction: “Many critiques of Protestantism suggest that if one desires a churchly, sacramental, ancient faith, then one must turn from the Reformation toward Rome or the East” (3). This critique, it must sadly be admitted, is often appropriate in our own time. There were times in the Protestant past, however, when it was not.

Second, this volume helpfully situates this recovery of historic Protestant thought within the wider moments of ‘theologies of retrieval’ that gained some prominence in the later twentieth century. Though brief, the authors introduce and variously interact with movements in historical scholarship (Nouvelle Theologie, Ressourcement Thomism, Radical Orthodoxy), Biblical interpretation (Reception History of the Bible, Theological interpretation movements), and individual ecumenical proposals (Donald Bloesch, Thomas Oden, Robert Webber, Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson).

Allen and Swain do not concur with all these movements. In fact, they claim that so many of the Protestant ‘retrieval’ and ‘appropriation’ movements are either piecemeal, and so “not Catholic enough,” or “they are unable to muster distinctly Protestant reasons for appropriating the catholic tradition of the church’ (12). Still, what these movements do show is that “retrieval seems to be afoot in various ways” among very different Protestant groups (12). What is needed, then, is a “manifesto” which functions as a “programmatic assessment of what it means to retrieve the catholic tradition of Christianity on the basis of Protestant theological and ecclesiological principles” (12). This book does just that.

And that brings me to the third reason for its importance. This book, only 161 pages in length, is not “a full blown methodology” or a “system” of either reformed catholic theology or of a retrieval of reformed catholic theology and practice (12). It is a manifesto which sets out, clearly and concisely, the way to move forward. This is, then, a book that will profit those in the academy and churchly offices who are seeking to be faithful to the tradition handed down to them from Christ and the apostles. But it is also a book which will profit the lay person, who is willing to put in a little effort to learn some theological jargon.

Content of the book

So, what is their program for Protestant —and specifically reformed—retrieval of its catholic heritage? Allen and Swain argue that the “deepest warrant” for reformed theological retrieval, is a trinitarian warrant. The Father, Son, and Spirit is the “ontological principle of theology,” and thus the “deep source of the church’s theology” (31-32). What exactly does this mean? Chapter one charts the relationship of the Spirit, who searches the mind of God, and the church, with whom he ‘abides…as teacher’ (32). It is the Spirit’s mission to gather together a community and to lead them into all truth. The Spirit, then, produces the church as the “school of Christ,” a “creaturely community” that receives what the Spirit teaches (34). What specifically does the Spirit teach?

Chapters three and four answer that question by retrieving the doctrine of sola Scriptura. This often misunderstood, and even more often maligned, Protestant doctrine was never intended, argue Allen and Swain, as “an absolute rebuke to tradition or a denial of genuine ecclesial authority.” They go so far as to say that those who espouse ‘no creed but the Bible’ are espousing a “bastardization” of original Protestant teaching (49, 85). Rather, placed in its proper theological context, sola Scriptura emphasized two points. First, it emphasizes that the Spirit teaches Christ, the incarnate Word through the “inscripturated Word.” For the reformers at least, Scripture is intimately connected to the “agency of the Risen One, who speaks through his inscripturated Word and illumines its reading, preaching, and enactment by his Holy Spirit’ (67).

Second, sola Scriptura emphasizes the authoritative role of Scripture within the church. Contrary to what its name seems to imply, sola Scriptura was never intended to mean that Scripture is the only authority in the church or the lives of believers (77). Sola Scriptura is not solo scriptura (85). Rather, it answers a “very specific question” about that authority structure within the church (84). Because the Word is so intimately connected with the agency of the Son, its authority in God’s economy of grace is intimately connected to the authority of the head of the church. It is in this way that the church, its members and offices, are under the Word. The church, to put it another way, is  a “creature of the word,” gathered as pupil by the Spirit who teaches Christ by the Word (86).

In order to demonstrate that the reformed doctrine of Scripture is not a capitulation to individualist, enlightenment rationalism, chapter four returns to the theme of biblical interpretation within the context of the church. Recall that chapter one began the discussion by affirming the Spirit’s mission to gather together a ‘school of Christ.’ Chapter four argues that “the church is that community created and authorized by the Word of God in order that it might obediently guard, discern, proclaim, and interpret the Word of God” (102). That is, “God has provided his church not only with a supreme standard for faith and life in Holy Scripture, he has also through Holy Scripture generated an authorized sphere of ecclesial reality that is charged to assist us in reading the Scriptures” (107).

Hence Allen and Swain argue that the reformed tradition is not opposed a ‘ruled reading’ of Scripture. In fact, an ecclesially ruled reading is necessary, whereby biblical interpretation and dogmatic formulation are guided by the rule of faith and the rule of love. In this way, the church reads, or hears, Scripture “from within the context of our trinitarian faith, aided by the church’s good confession, for the sake of the church’s continuing growth in this trinitarian faith. To read Scripture in any other way is to read against the grain of its authority” (116).

This, then, is the trinitarian shape of Allen and Swain’s rationale for Reformed Catholicity. In short, in the economy of God’s grace, by the missions of the Son and Spirit, God has created a community, furnished that community with all it needs, and delegated his authority in that community, properly ordering it to its end: communion with himself. According to classic Reformed Protestantism, the church is not a club or a mere voluntary gathering of like-minded individuals. The church has been created and summoned by God. Thus, it is no more free to come up with its own ‘readings’ of Scripture, to make up its own rules for belief and for living, or to set its own purposes, than it is able to give itself its own life.

Reformed Catholicity, then, is really an extension of that most central biblical claim concerning the Christian: the Christian is the one who confesses Christ by the Spirit (Matt. 16:16-17; 1 Cor. 12:3). As Todd Billings put it in the “Afterword”: “What is at stake in pursuing biblical, Christ-centered renewal along a catholic-Reformed path of retrieval? Nothing less than a reality at the heart of the Christian faith. In the words of the apostle Paul: ‘I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me…’ (Gal. 2:20)” (160).

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel grew up in Montana before going off to study classics, philosophy, and theology. He currently resides in St. Louis along with his wife, Bethanne, and three kids, where he is pursuing his PhD in theology.

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