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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

“Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology,” edited by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain

Published Saturday, May 1, 2021 By Ryan M. Hurd

Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology
Edited by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020
688 pages (hardcover), $145.00

Reformed theology is catholic Protestantism, and catholic Protestantism is Reformed theology. The volume before me serves as a summarized introduction to the question, what is Reformed theology? It provides something of its genesis in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as well as the deeper roots prior to that time, which have been intentionally mined to develop Reformed theology: its diverse permutations, whether historical/temporal, social/cultural, geographical/political; some analysis of sample texts that have been in one way or another significant at various points of the maturation of a tradition; and some theological themes or heads of doctrine that have been and remain in focus in the Reformed line of sight (these last essays are intentionally written by contemporaries who themselves have labored in these arenas).

As a broad overview, the handbook serves its purpose and will be a welcome resource. Thanks are due to the contributors, and particularly the two editors, who continue to provide leadership in this part of the theological field. Within the volume itself, to limit down to three essays here, I note the following: Trueman’s on the Reformation context, Sytsma’s on the Enlightenment context, and Davidson’s on Christ.

Because of the limited space in this review, I will refrain from commenting on almost forty essays and tease out instead one important thread worth noting: What is this beast, “Reformed theology”? While it’s fair to expect that most or all of the authors feel this is a question, it’s clear the editors intended it to be not merely a historical question—that is, what Reformed theology has been, except insofar as this informs their principal intention—but what it is now, what it could be, and what it should become. This is the problem lurking in the volume. I say it’s a problem, but not because Reformed theology suffers from an identity crisis or needs to take up its contemporary and self-assigned task. The authors in this volume allude to how difficult it is to pin down such a thing as “Reformed theology”; indeed, the diversity is startling.

Attempts have been made here and elsewhere to give important features, thematic foci, discernable streams connected to place or perhaps university setting, and so on. But in many ways, efforts remain frustrated, unless what is Reformed is artificially limited to a confession or series of confessions—where even then the diversity is, once more, startling. Defining Reformed theology is a problem, then, only as a roving commission for a campaign forward—victorious not for Reformed theology, which may come and go as you please, but for Christ and the church that is being saved. It is a commission for theologians today who decide to be and are accepted as theologians of the church in whatever stripe designates it as “Reformed.”

But what is it, then, that makes Reformed theology “Reformed”? I suppose that approaches that attempt to provide a definition by assembling a series of properties have their place, squishy as they may be and too often are, veering even more frequently into annoyingly vapid tropes that, for the record, are identically shared with Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox (among others): for instance, emphasizing Scripture, championing grace, focusing on the greatness or sovereignty of God, and so on. The platitude that Scripture is the principium cognoscendi is not original to Protestants, nor is it their sole property. This and others aside, in my opinion, the best way is to return to the older procedure, not least for purposes of clarity. Asking what makes theology “Reformed” and probing what constitutes it as such help us look for the difference that contracts the proximate wider genus into something specific.

I believe that Reformed theology is catholic Protestantism and catholic Protestantism is Reformed theology, and the editors point us in this direction (not to mention having written a book called Reformed Catholicity). Scott Swain, co-editor with Michael Allen, says that Reformed theology is a “catholic, Protestant tradition” (2), and various authors throughout the volume play to the same tune: e.g., Cleveland points out that the Reformed “pursuit of catholicity” led them in detailed engagements with their medieval forebears. “The Reformed use of medieval thought in the end represents Reformed catholicity at its finest and most profound” (37). The same goes for Goudriaan’s preceding chapter on the Reformed reception of the fathers. Anchoring themselves in the fathers was one way the Reformed exemplified how they were “a part of the one catholic church in terms of a succession of doctrine” (my italics), if they no longer could point to the “succession of bishops.” “Numerous works were published with the purpose of demonstrating the genuine catholicity of the Reformed faith” (14). “This catholic symphony”—immediately referencing Polanus’s famous Symphonia catholica (1607), among other works making use of that name—“or catholic and orthodox consensus between the Reformed and the early churches was meant to refute the Roman Catholic charge of Protestant innovation” (15).

I should point out that this specifically shows the legitimacy of the Protestants to the rest of the catholic church and anyone else who cared to listen, not necessarily to excise the Roman Catholics. While both sides tried to show concrete ways in which the other side had departed from this catholic tradition, in point of fact, these did not pertain to the heart of the catholic faith under the “articles of majesty,” as Luther would call them, but to more peripheral issues—issues more peripheral to the center, which is the catholic faith.

Some of these incidentals were clear and dogmatic; some were differences in understanding what was as far as truth agreed upon; and some, to be frank, were casualties of a shift in philosophical tools used to explicate what the doctrine was at hand. Although this last is often overlooked, in an environment not only of philosophical change but of instability, the sixteenth (and then later seventeenth) century was when the same thing was said in different ways. It was those ways that were disagreed upon or, more often, misunderstood.

The explosion in the seventeenth century of Protestant universities and the very forging therein of the Reformed tradition itself as a theological tradition bears this point out well. Scores of theologians across the Continent and on the Isles were produced, and they underwent in many ways a compressed catch-up on Scholasticism (cf., e.g., Wisse’s chapter on Reformed orthodoxy). What is seen as a consequence? It is precisely this flowering of catholicism, not only in the areas of agreement about God, Christ, and other such, but also disagreement in the very theological places signaled as a reason for leaving (or being cast out). It was these and the same that were carved out more precisely, when before they were wooden blocks chopped out by busy Reformers concerned to make the church holy once again, who were at pains and required to say what was wrong in doctrinal words. It is in these areas where we observe, to put it broadly, understanding and formulations arising far closer to those now on the other side of the freshly blazed (and still lamentable) aisle.

Here is a question of first magnitude I would like to press upon this present volume. It is a question that varies throughout and needs to be resolved for reasons much larger than those pertaining to this book. We say Reformed theology is catholic Protestantism. Fair enough. But what is the specific difference here? Is it “Protestant” under the genus “catholic,” or is it “catholic” under the genus “Protestant”?

It’s clear that some authors in the volume float back and forth between these two options. At points, this is because sometimes “Reformed” is in reference to Roman Catholicism or sometimes to Lutheranism on a point of disagreement. This isn’t inappropriate, and it doesn’t bode well for understanding things clearly. If “Protestant” is the specific difference, then “Reformed” is indexed over against Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy under the head of lively and thrilling catholicism. If “catholic,” then it would seem “Reformed” is meted out over against Lutheran or (Ana)Baptist communions under the banner of this fresh-faced Protestantism. Either of these two makes a different beast entirely.

It’s possible to consider the historical development of the Reformed and decidedly conclude that what Reformed theology is receives its specification under the genus of Protestant, facing the other species of the Protestant tradition: chiefly, the Lutheran. Upon the many and diverse movements initially impelled by a handful of significant individuals (e.g., Luther, Calvin, and so on), the reformation(s) across Europe became unified against the common foe of Rome in protest. So they became, and so they were, Protestants. Later and in increasingly pronounced ways, as Protestantism found its legs, distinct groups further consolidated under a larger communion; these were especially the Lutheran and what became known as the Reformed orthodox (cf. for some of this, see Carl Trueman’s chapter).

But there is something potentially deceitful here: history tells us how it passed, not of what it was made. The historical point of the Reformed genesis should hardly define what Reformed theology is in its maturity. The fact that the Reformed distinguished themselves from Lutherans doesn’t mean they’re made of that distinction. The development of a body of doctrine powerful enough to become a body of people is eked out along the lines of a history, yes, but the development of an idea that grips not an individual but a movement, not a movement but a sacred portion of the holy church, is not along the strait of a historical onward march. If the earlier Reformers were carved out—together with the Lutherans—against the Jesuit Bellarmine, then the later Reformed orthodox were cut out of the catholicism of the fathers, largely immediately, and that of the medievals, largely mediated by the Roman Catholics. This period of Reformed orthodoxy was not a regression of Protestantism or a calcification around lamentable central dogmas, but precisely its maturation as a theological tradition, an infant in the early sixteenth century.

Whatever can be seen to define Reformed theology in its infancy is ordered to what defines it in its maturity. Surely, the mature Reformed orthodox (in many ways, still the high watermark for what it is to be Reformed), whatever their parentage and whatever their proximate interlocutors, were concerned not to be “Reformed,” so as not to be Lutheran on the main; and they were not concerned to be “Reformed,” as anything of substance at all, except insofar as this meant being a catholic in the present condition of some protest. Reformed theology falls on one side of a dividing line (the other being Roman Catholic), but it is still intently aimed and driving toward the very center. Its wheels are bent into the line, even if its forward track persists only in parallel and as a step off. What I want for today is for Reformed theology to be this: the thing under the genus of “catholic,” contracted by the specific difference “Protestant.” We must resist the temptation to make Reformed theology as a thing over against Lutheran, or Anglican, or Baptist, and instead fold it out of something much more beautiful.

In other, less principal declarations, Reformed theology will carry its own tune in conversation with its interlocutors, all under the banner of the catholic church. With Roman Catholics, Reformed theology will remain distinct in how it understands what is (for the most part) identical in dogmatic position. There will be fewer central (and so more uncertain because derivative) dogmatic claims disagreed upon as a result of this difference in systematic understanding. There are of course elements in “Reformed” theology that are distinct or proper to it, but not of its essence; they are distinct, more as a consequence of a discernibly unique space for development, that serve as an “echo chamber” and the opportunity for intensifying certain ideas. These become “markers” of Reformed theology rather than its constituting features, and some will be warts rather than features of a face. Likewise, Reformed theology will remain distinct from, for instance, Lutherans, on issues of sacraments or polity. But these and others are incidental to itself and of its outer garb, not the stuff of its heart and love of its soul. Reformed theology has as its chief joy the privilege of joining the chorus of the church’s praise to God, who is declared to all as with one voice. 

R. M. Hurd is a systematic theologian and teaching fellow with The Davenant Institute.

  • Ryan M. Hurd

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