Review: Brill’s Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy

Reformed Orthodoxy Cover

A good “Companion” introduces one to classic texts in a field and to areas of current debate in scholarly literature. Apart from Richard Muller’s monumental Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, there is no such volume for Reformed history and theology from the death of the second generation Reformers (1560s) to the mid-eighteenth century. Despite the heavy Brill price tag and a readability issue mentioned below, this Companion offers an excellent introduction to the study of Reformed Orthodoxy. It will help the reader assimilate the present state of research and offers a coherent picture of developments during this era.

The Companion makes no claim to a supposed scientific objectivity. The editor, Herman Seldheruis, acknowledges that all the authors agree that Reformed orthodoxy was a “natural development” from the need to “systematize and teach” (pg. 2) the theology of the Reformers. This general “continuity thesis” marks the following essays. Selderhuis assembles an international group of scholars (6 US-based scholars, 6 Netherlands-based, and 8 from other European countries) into eighteen chapters covering three meta-topics: Reformed theology in relation to other disciplines, Reformed theological history in various countries, and specific treatments of Reformed theological themes.

Calvin and/or/against the Calvinists

Willem van Asselt’s state of the field essay divides all scholarship of Reformed orthodoxy into three parts based on the supposed relationship between the Reformers and their successors (similar to Muller’s “Calvin and the Calvinists” essays).  A “negative continuity” thesis, advocated by 19th century scholarship, proposed that the continuity between the Reformers and their heirs was based on an all-encompassing adherence to a doctrine of predestination. The “discontinuity” theory (or “Calvin against the Calvinists”) posits a significant disjunction between the Reformers and their theological heirs, and rejects the latter for a variety of reasons. The “positive continuity theory” (26) treats Reformed Orthodoxy as an organic development from the Reformers.

Van Asselt attempts to show how historical research has questioned the supposed “discontinuities” between these generations, including a distinction between “humanist” and “scholastic” methods, and has paid more attention to the medieval context of Reformation theology. Thus, van Asselt and the contributors to this Companion offer the “positive continuity theory” as best respecting the historical development of Reformed orthodoxy.

Relations: Orthodoxy and ?

Three essays discuss Reformed theology and other sources. Aza Goudriaan narrates the ways in which Reformed theologians and philosophers responded to the philosophical work of Descartes and Spinoza in the 17th century. He argues that the Reformed tradition used a form of “Aristotelian eclecticism” and affirmed the role of natural theology.

Irena Backus outlines how Reformed Orthodoxy appropriated the Patristic tradition. While these authors often used Patristic material selectively and with polemic purpose, she offers a proposal for how Francis Turretin cited Patristic sources as a via media between “pure biblicism, which was inadequate, and philosophizing, which was undesirable” (101).

J. Mark Beach presents how catechisms embodied Reformed theology in accessible form. His conclusion that the “theological content of high orthodox Reformed theology was not compromised” (88) was a touch underwhelming. One might have expected some discussion of how catechisms shaped church life and culture.

Places: Orthodoxy in the World

Synod of Dort

Synod of Dort was an international affair for Reformed Orthodoxy

Seven chapters detail the progress of Reformed Orthodoxy in places from North America to East-central Europe. Graeme Murdock’s introduction to the Hungarian and Transylvanian Reformed church provided a surprising perspective on the interaction of a minority church in politically difficult circumstances. Articles on orthodoxy in France, Switzerland, North America, and Britain narrate fairly well-known histories. The article on German “High Schools” (roughly “colleges” in USA), despite intriguing historical details, felt a bit out of place (why not “Reformed Orthodoxy in Germany”?). Each region, especially represented in Carl Trueman’s essay on Britain, shows the impact of the Latin-based trans-national culture of Reformed Orthodoxy. This era allowed ample opportunity for literature and students to flow across borders.

Antoine Vos’s essay on the Netherlands presents the focal point of this section and the longest essay in the book, in much the same way as the Netherlands functioned as the meeting-point of Reformed theology during this era (e.g., the international Synod of Dort). Vos has long-defended a thesis that the Reformed Orthodox sharply distinguished between necessity and contingency in the doctrine of God, the economy of salvation, and the doctrine of human free will.

He argues that this distinction allows for an unalloyed affirmation of certain kinds of free will in humans and is the only guard against determinism and a form of monism. Earlier interpretations of the Reformed doctrine of predestination failed to distinguish necessity and contingency and thus assumed God’s work in creation falls in the “necessary” sphere, as in Schleiermacher. His thesis is controversial (see Paul Helm’s most recent critique), but gives a satisfying account of how the Reformed themselves conceived the question of free will (see also van Asselt (ed), Reformed Thought on Freedom). Building a case on a distinction, especially a fine one, still leaves open whether such a distinction can be adequately translated into church practice and whether it succeeds in its apparent goal of presenting a kinder and gentler view of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.

Topics: Reformed Loci

Roughly 40% of the book is given to major topics in Reformed Theology. These chapters cover the doctrine of God, Christ and the Covenant, the doctrine of Scripture, Pneumatology, Ethics, Predestination, and Political Theology.

Sebastian Rehnman shows how Reformed orthodox authors arranged a doctrine of God according to the three ways of doing theology: tracing causality, negation, and finally analogy. R. Scott Clark argues that the Reformed orthodox “covenant” theology was an attempt to articulate the theology of the Reformers in a redemptive-historical frame. John Fesko offers a defense of a consistent doctrine of Scripture from the earliest Reformers through the era of High Orthodoxy. Luca Baschera identifies a gap in scholarship on the ethics of the Reformed Orthodox era. He surveys discussions of ethics in three sources: dogmatic works, textbooks on ethics, and works of Reformed casuistry. Although the treatment was brief, I found fascinating the differences in content and churchly utility between Reformed and contemporary Catholic works of casuistry. Pieter Rouwendal provides a solid survey of Reformed positions on predestination that serves as a suitable introduction to the era. John Witte’s essay on Law and Liberty in Early Calvinism is a succinct presentation of his thesis that the Calvinist tradition forged early modern notions of the rule of law and the relative freedom of individuals. While this article presents an impassioned and compelling thesis, it lacks engagement with other potential narratives (e.g., William Cavanaugh).

In their article on Pneumatology, Maarten Wisse and Hugo Meijer argue that John Owen’s Pneumatologia is the first “comprehensive pneumatology” in the Protestant tradition (481). For Owen, the Spirit completes or finishes all of God’s works ad extra (516). They note that Owen’s use of the Spirit has moved fully beyond a notion of sacramental efficacy as in the Thomistic tradition. Perhaps because of the “communicative” emphasis of a Reformed theology of the Word, the Spirit’s work is seen as his personal presence within a person rather than as a “metaphor for the moral transformation of the believer” (they argue for this eliding of the personal Spirit in Aquinas). In a sense, “regeneration” as the direct internal work of the Spirit in conversion has replaced “sacramental reality, be it the preaching of the word of God or the administration of the sacraments.” (510) This interaction with Owen provides a useful foundation for a Reformed trinitarian pneumatology. Their essay shows that although Reformed orthodoxy was primarily a period of systemization, theologians like Owen sought to develop and expand the broadly Western catholic theological tradition.

Concluding Thoughts

One challenge for reading this work is its nationally-diverse authorship. The readability of essays from non-native English speakers varied widely. Where the author acknowledges an editor (as the Pneumatology essay does), I appreciated the work done to smooth out sentence diction. It takes only minimal editing to improve sentences like this from Vos’s otherwise engaging and challenging article: “Knowledge of this land [the Netherlands] flowing of excellent theology and philosophy is indispensable for being able to be familiar with what is Reformed.” (158)

Second, van Asselt prioritizes questions of continuity and discontinuity with the Reformers in his programmatic survey of the field. Numerous authors continue the argument with the “Calvin against the Calvinists” thesis. In some senses, however, it seems that the radical discontinuity theory has been laid to rest. I did not find a post-2000 source arguing this view as an historical interpretation, although some contemporary theologians choose to appropriate Calvin in ways that the later Reformed Orthodox did not. What seems more pressing now is an account of the end of Reformed Orthodoxy. For Reformed theologians today, it is a sobering experience to read the history chapters of this Companion and recognize that by 1750, Reformed orthodoxy had been left behind as a dominant tradition. I missed reading a thesis regarding what internally could help account for that defeat.

With a few exceptions, these articles provide essential reading for anyone interested in the field of Reformed orthodox theology. Since many of the confessions written during this era still shape Reformed denominations and large swaths of generic Protestant evangelicalism, it is perennially helpful to situate these figures in their own historical context.

Thank you to Brill for the review copy. “A Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy” is published by Brill at Leiden, 2013.
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This entry was posted in Book reviews, Doctrine of Scripture, Historical Theology, Sacraments, Systematic Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Review: Brill’s Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy

  1. Pingback: Companion To Reformed Theology Reviewed | The Heidelblog

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