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A Review Series of “Reformed Systematic Theology” by Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley: God

This series continues to work through Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley’s recent, mammoth undertaking to produce a four-volume presentation of the system of Reformed theology. As before, each post looks at a particular section (or sections) within this project, rather than attempting to review a whole volume at a time, which would inevitably result in superficial engagement with such large volumes. This post then looks at the treatment of the person and work of Christ.

A Note on Quotations

Before diving into the material about Christology, I want to think about the use of historical sources throughout these works. As I’ve noted in nearly each review, Beeke and Smalley engage an incredible number of sources, ranging from ancient to modern. One correlated feature is that they include a high number of quotations, which might be short phrases or at times longer block quotes. This frequency of quotation is a debated practice, as some view it as disruptive to good writing. Yet, authors can have good reasons for doing this, even if they know that not every reader will read every quote in its entirety. For my own part, I’ve just finished a typescript of a book whose final version has far fewer long quotes than the first draft but still probably far more than everyone would find conducive to discursive argumentation. Why the divide on this issue and what should we make of it in Beeke and Smalley?

This issue largely hinges upon what purpose we hope a book will serve. If a book is meant to provide a direct argument for a specific view, then lots of quotes can bog down the progress of that presentation. If it is meant to address scholars who should largely either know the sources discussed or have easy access to them, then frequent and extensive quotes can become superfluous and excessive. On the other hand, if a book also aims to serve an additional function as a reference tool, then lots of quotes can have a valid and useful role in a published work. First, when a book makes an historical argument, we have to keep in mind that the proliferation of “social media experts” has made commonplace the practice of empty assertion or dismissal. Even an accurate footnote does not place the evidence as directly in front of people as an actual quotation. Certainly, Beeke and Smalley at least partly have this in mind.

Second, a high number of quotations can make a book a useful resource for repeated use, even if they do add some tediousness to the first reading. Beeke and Smalley’s work is unlikely to be most effective when used as volumes to be read straight through once and then put away. Lay people will find them most helpful if read slowly over time in small portions. On the other hand, pastors, teachers, and scholars will find them most useful if considering each discussion as an entryway into a given topic. Regarding the use of quotes, pastors are often too busy to spend extra hours sifting through multiple books in search of the right quote or lack the funds to procure all these books. Beeke and Smalley’s inclusion of quotes will help pastors who are using these books to prepare for a topic sermon or Sunday school lecture to have access to a few rich historical quotes to include in their teaching without digging through lots of volumes or tracking down footnotes. Although teachers and scholars will need to look up these quotations in the cited sources and analyze them in context, nonetheless their inclusion in the main text provides good pointers to some of the best primary sources to pursue further. In these respects, the high frequency of quotes, albeit coming with limitations, increases these volumes’ value as a reference tool and resource for ongoing use.

Christology    

The first strength specifically of Beeke and Smalley’s treatment of Christology is their discussion of the distinction between Christology “from above” and “from below.” The former begins consideration from Christ’s deity, the latter from his humanity. Although recent conservative efforts have been made to draw some positive theological value from both lenses, typically Christology from below has not often maintained the traditional positions about Christ’s deity or even how the Scripture presents him in his role as mediator between God and man. Beeke and Smalley themselves acknowledge that those who use the distinction to undermine traditional Christological categories make the distinction into a false dichotomy but also defend the primary emphasis on Christology from above.

This discussion is worth noting because this issue is complicated and often only minimally considered in systematic theologies, but Beeke and Smalley have presented an excellent introductory survey of and engagement with this issue. This section will prove a highly useful contribution to this volume because it rigorously interacts with the issue, rather than treating it as too obscure for an introductory survey of doctrine. On the other hand, it does not assume lots of technical knowledge of the issue, which is often the case when the distinction is raised. This chapter will effectively equip readers to think more about this issue and pursue further study of it.

Another positive contribution in this volume concerns Christ’s work, namely recovering a more historical and traditional term for it. In modern parlance, we often speak of “the atonement,” which also focuses Christ’s work entirely on his death as a propitiation for our sin. This point is clearly true and worth emphasizing, and there is nothing inherently wrong with the language of atonement. Beeke and Smalley, however, helpfully cast this discussion of Christ’s work using terminology of his “satisfaction.” In one sense, this language is simply the older and traditional way of speaking, especially of Christ’s priestly work.[1] [1] It appears even in the historic Reformed confessions. Note, for example, the Belgic Confession 21 [2], drawing from Hebrews, states that Christ “is ordained with an oath to be an everlasting High-Priest” to appease God’s wrath “by his full satisfaction.Heidelberg Catechism 40 [3] also says, “by reason of the justice and truth of God, satisfaction for our sins could be made no otherwise than by the death of the Son of God.” The Westminster Standards likewise describe Christ’s work this way in Westminster Confession 8.5 [4] states that Christ “by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself…hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father.”[2] [5] In the Lutheran tradition, Augsburg Confession article 4 [6] tells how Christ “by his death hath satisfied for our sins.”[3] [7] Beeke and Smalley’s emphasis on Christ’s satisfaction, rather than the language of atonement, helps us to understand and speak more in terms of our Protestant confessional heritage.

Describing Christ’s priestly work in terms of satisfaction also helps emphasize both his active and passive obedience as the ground our justification, not just Christ’s death. As Beeke and Smalley well argue, Christ’s priestly work is situated within the wider context of our covenant theology—a point I have tried to make in a previous post [8] here on Modern Reformation. In the covenant of works, Adam by creation owed a principle debt to God of perfect obedience as the condition of the covenant. By his sin, Adam also accrued a penalty debt, namely death on account of his transgression. When we speak of Christ’s work in terms of atonement, the discussion ends up—almost always—focusing entirely on the latter debt and emphasizing Christ’s death with perhaps little attention to why his whole life tremendously matters to our salvation. The language of satisfaction helps us to recover the dual emphasis of Christ’s priestly work that he paid all our covenantal debts, satisfying every obligation we had towards God in order to be justified. Beeke and Smalley well present these features of Christ’s work, helpfully recovering a more holistic approach to the subject and framing it carefully in light of the full doctrinal system that they are outlining.

Each section in Beeke and Smalley’s project remains consistently irenic, historically informed, biblically attuned, and practically oriented. There is every reason that these volumes will serve the church well for some time. Reformed Systematic Theology represents a detailed but introductory account of Reformed theology, which I personally am finding useful in filling out, updating, and applying my own lectures in systematic theology as well as in preparation for thinking about how to teach doctrines in my church.

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 [9] (Oxford University Press, 2020).


[1] [10] Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation [11], 74–78.

[2] [12] See also Westminster Larger Catechism 71, in John R. Bower, The Larger Catechism: A Critical Text and Introduction [13], 79.

[3] [14] Emphasis added in all these quotations.