Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley have undertaken to produce a four-volume (probably nearing ten thousand pages in all) systematic theology that introduces the major topics of Christian theology in a biblically grounded, historically informed, and practically oriented way. This review series looks at these volumes one section at a time, reflecting on how this project fits within a wider resurgence of research and publication in systematic theology. Volume two contains the doctrines of man and Christ in parts 3 and 4 respectively (parts 1 and 2 in volume 1 addressed the doctrines of revelation and theology proper respectively). This post reviews part 3 but also part 4A, looking at the doctrines of creation, man, sin, and covenant.
At the general level, this volume has several notable strengths. It sustains the same irenic tone of the first, never being overly cagey even when interacting with views with which the authors disagree. As with the first, this volume also interacts with an impressive amount of sources. Beeke and Smalley show themselves familiar with patristic and medieval literature, incredibly knowledgeable of the Reformation and post-Reformation sources, and conversant with modern theology both within and outside the Reformed tradition. Most importantly, their gathering of relevant biblical material is an obvious mark of theologians who have reflected long and hard about how the Reformed system of doctrine contained in our confessions truly does grow directly out of the text of Holy Scripture.
Concerning the doctrine of creation, this volume looks at the universe’s origins, mainly focusing on the early narratives of Genesis. Most of the discussion is fairly standard, arguing for literal-six-day creation. Still, Beeke and Smalley are characteristically generous with other views held by orthodox Christians. The features worthy of note in this section is the treatment of the relationship between Creator and creature, including the discussion of creation ex nihilo. Too many works about the doctrine of creation argue vigorously for their own position about the length of days yet neglect to explain why the doctrine of creation is at all significant. Beeke and Smalley expertly dodge this mistake, well outlining how this doctrine highlights God’s transcendent majesty and how the Creator ever remains distinct from creation.
Concerning the doctrine of man, this section focuses on the historical Adam as created in God’s image, including the ethical implications of our constitution. In keeping with their method, Beeke and Smalley work carefully through the various views about Adam’s historicity as well as what it means to be God’s image. Expectedly (and rightly in this reviewer’s opinion), they argue the traditional view that Adam was a historical person made by God’s special act of creation. The most insightful contribution of this section is its exploration of the ethical aspects of bearing God’s image. In particular, their discussion of gender and sexuality is especially timely, balanced, informed, and helpful.
Concerning the doctrine of sin, Beeke and Smalley outline the issues of the historical Fall, original sin, how sin is transmitted from Adam to his posterity, and the effects of sin. This section in particular deserves special mention. Works on systematic theology rightly focus most on theoretical explanation, and this book is no exception. This section on the doctrine of sin, however, also helpfully explores how our understanding of sin affects the Christian life. Indeed, the practical applications in these chapters, especially concerning sin and the believer and suffering and the believer, is some of the most helpful reflection upon how Christians can fight sin and understand our place in the fallen world that I have ever read. This section is one for careful and repeated consideration.
Beeke and Smalley address covenant theology both in part 3, under the doctrine of man concerning the covenant of works, and in part 4A where they deal with the covenant of grace. This discussion of the covenants is highly traditional, arguing a clear presentation of the basic features of confessional covenant theology. Recent works on the covenants have focused on the development of redemptive history, relying mainly on the methods of biblical theology. Beeke and Smalley offer a refreshing departure with their emphasis upon the categories of systematic theology. Whereas most treatments compress the covenant of works into one chapter, Beeke and Smalley give it three. When most biblical theologies of the covenants devote the most space to exegeting the passages where God initiated covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the new covenant, this discussion helpfully focuses on the unity of the gospel throughout redemptive history. This emphasis takes attention away from the question of the historical continuity of the covenants, which so often bogs down debates between Baptist and Reformed theologians, placing it on how Christ has always been the way of salvation.
The authors ground this unity in the eternal covenant among the Godhead, often called the covenant of redemption. Beeke and Smalley, however, argue that this covenant is not a distinct third covenant. Rather, the covenant of grace is between God and Christ, on the one hand, and the elect in Christ, on the other. So, some promises of the covenant of grace are made to Christ and others are made to those whom the Father gave to him in eternity. The Reformed tradition, as Beeke and Smalley cite, contains good pedigree for this formulation of the covenant of grace. This view’s difference from considering the covenant between the Father and Son as a distinct covenant, however, is easily overstated, since few who affirm a distinct covenant of redemption would disagree with their primary concerns. The authors are not overly insistent about their view over and against the contrasting position. The primary shortcoming of the way this position is described in this work, however, is that it omits the Holy Spirit from this covenant. This version of the covenant of grace is between the Father and Son rather than among the Father, Son, and Spirit. Recent works on the covenant of redemption, on the other hand, have argued helpfully for how the Spirit should be considered as a full party in this covenant for our salvation.
There are two features of these sections left worth considering. The first is the repeated pauses that ask the reader if they have come to place their trust in Christ. Although I certainly believe that deep theology contributes to people coming to faith, I find this feature odd for this particular volume. Notwithstanding that anything is possible, I would be surprised if an unbeliever picked up a book this large and detailed. Perhaps these interjections would seem more in their right place if it explained to the reader how the material considered should exhort someone to faith, helping pastors and church members think about how to connect doctrine to evangelism, rather than directly evangelizing the readers.
The second feature, notably useful for pastors and those who help prepare worship services, is the inclusion of hymns at the end of each chapter. While reading volume one, I had not really thought about this feature as more than an aid for personal devotion. This time, however, it struck me that this is a helpful inclusion for churches that sing hymns. Sometimes, we might fail to know what song best belongs in a service if we are trying to tie our sung praise to the topic of the sermon. These hymns can help pastors think about song selection in respect to particular doctrines on which they might be preaching. This feature could be even more helpful if Beeke and Smalley also included at the end of each chapter a Psalm, or section of a Psalm, that connects with the discussed doctrine to help this resource aid planning services in churches that sing Psalms exclusively or even inclusively.
Harrison Perkins is a pastor at London City Presbyterian Church, a visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, online faculty in church history for Westminster Theological Seminary, and author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2020).