A Review Series of “Reformed Systematic Theology” by Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley: Prolegomena
Recent years have seen a veritable explosion of publications in systematic theology with a renewed interest in historically grounded and hermeneutically attuned dogmatic exploration. One major contribution in that ongoing program is Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley’s projected four-volume Reformed Systematic Theology. Each volume aims to address two loci of systematic theology with the two published installments treating prolegomena and theology proper, then anthropology and Christology respectively. These books are lengthy, which makes a succinct review a difficult undertaking. This series, therefore, plans to engage with these volumes one topical locus per post to give readers more specific insight into these books than is possible in a general review.
Prolegomena refers to the things that need to be said before you properly get to the topic at hand. It usually addresses matters such as what theology is, theological method, and our doctrine of revelation. Beeke and Smalley’s treatment follows suit in all these respects.
Their first section situates their project within the spectrum of Christian theology. As is characteristic of the discussions throughout these books, this section contains good practical nuance. In an age when academic study of Scripture is often held suspect in churches, Beeke and Smalley highlight that, although systematic theology has academic aspects, it is a spiritual discipline as well that concerns every Christian to some degree as we reflect upon Scripture’s teaching about who God is and what he has done.
Further, Beeke and Smalley’s project sits specifically in the Reformed theological community. At times, some Reformed theologians have been very narrowly focused on only our own internal writers, but Beeke and Smalley clarify that their model is wider than that. They are aware that Reformed churches are part of the ecumenical tradition, and so converse with ancient, medieval, and Reformation sources as well as discussions in wider contemporary evangelical theology.
Perhaps a defining aspect their introduction to the theological enterprise is the emphasis on the personal character of a theologian. Despite the academic study involved in systematic theology, the successful theologian will be a true disciple of Christ, submitting to the Word of God, and striving to live it out in the community of the church. The personal dimension of systematic theology is that the theologian will understand God more as he walks with God more and grows in the Christian life. Theology should then further and fuel the life of praise.
After the introduction to the discipline of theology in general, Beeke and Smalley explore the major issue in prolegomena, which is the doctrine of revelation. Theology proceeds on the basis that God has made himself known by speaking into creation. The authors first work carefully through the topic of general revelation, explaining how nature itself makes some things known about God in a limited way.
The most interesting feature of their discussion, in light of recent debates, concerns their stance on natural theology. Essentially, they take the middle road between a full rejection or full endorsement of natural theology. They note that natural theology has roots in the ancient period, even amongst our respected ancient theologians. In the modern period, Karl Barth’s flat opposition to natural theology was pivotal for Protestant thought. It was seen as a stance against Vatican I’s division between pure natural reason and divine faith. Although Beeke and Smalley overlook that Vatican I’s stance intended to refute Kant’s phenomenal-noumenal divide that entailed humans cannot truly know supernatural things about God— the context of modern Neo-Thomism’s appropriation of Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs—they are nonetheless correct to moderate Rome’s claims about natural reason, especially for sinners.
Beeke and Smalley argue that natural theology offers some insights into God and creation but must be informed by special revelation. Specifically, the insights of especially non-Christian natural theology can be correct about only particular facts. These insights are, however, imbedded in deficient thought systems, which oppose the truth. Those insights must then be lifted from their intellectual apparatuses and appropriated within the Christian worldview. In categorical terms, Beeke and Smalley take a moderate Van Tilian approach to natural theology, although they have some sympathy for certain critiques of Cornelius Van Til’s positions.
Under special revelation, Beeke and Smalley affirm the necessity of God making himself known in greater detail than nature can do. God reveals through direct words, visions to the prophets, through providentially directed events that contribute to overall redemptive history, and through the Son’s Incarnation. They argue the traditional Protestant stance that we require God’s special revelation to know things about him, like that he is triune, and to understand his saving plan especially. Although there is always room for more nuance in complicated issues, the section that outlines the neo-orthodox view of special revelation, particularly as expressed by Karl Barth, is the best and most helpful short introduction to the issues involved that I have encountered.
I am not sure that Beeke and Smalley were entirely clear about the Incarnation’s contribution to special revelation. They appeal to the doctrine of inseparable operations—namely, the works of God in creation are executed simply by the triune God, and not individually or separately as divine persons—to argue that all special revelation has a “mediatorial character” grounded in the sending of the Son (pg. 265). Further, “The theological point of contact between God’s infinite mind and our finite and fallen minds is the incarnation of Jesus Christ…God’s special revelation to sinners could reach its intended fullness only through the incarnation of our Lord, who is ‘the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person’ (Heb. 1:3).” (pg. 270) The point that sinners can know God—relationally and in terms of acknowledging the truth about God—only because of Christ’s reconciling work is well taken. Still, this does not clarify the role of special revelation as such to the human mind as such rather than only as fallen and sinful. In my understanding, we needed God’s special revelation before the Fall too, which is why God explained the tree of knowledge of good and evil to Adam in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15–16). God had to reveal himself as triune and reveal his covenant to us regardless of sin. I believe that Beeke and Smalley would affirm this point. Still, their approach to connect God’s inseparable operations—a necessary fact about God’s relationship to creation by virtue of the Creator-creature distinction rather than a contingent aspect of that relationship due to sin—with the Son’s Incarnation as the mediatorial ground of special revelation does not appear entirely clear. It seems to imply either a supralapsarian Christology, wherein the Son always needed to become Incarnate in order to cement the point of contact between God and man, or that special revelation is needed only because of sin (the authors obviously affirm a historical Fall so there is no point in entertaining the premise of a collapse of the creation-fall-redemption paradigm). The former seems the more likely implication because they linked inseparable operations to the Incarnation as the ground of special revelation. I think that this is ultimately a point of clarity and cogency, however, and that the authors intended neither implication. Rather, their good pastoral focus on how we as sinners consider special revelation left a gap concerning how special revelation as such functions, particularly in respect to pre-redemptive history from creation to the Fall.
Given Beeke’s conservative reputation, the chapters on the Word of God contain no surprises. Beeke and Smalley defend the traditional Protestant view of an authoritative, inspired Bible, exploring the attributes of Scripture as delineated in the Reformed confessions. The outline Scripture’s authority, clarity, necessity, inerrancy, and sufficiency. The responses they outline to criticisms of inerrancy is a succinct, accessible guide to some of the major issues involved in defending the doctrine in today’s intellectual climate.
One of this volume’s best contributions is the chapters on cessation of special revelation through particular spiritual gifts. Beeke and Smalley deal patiently, winsomely, and methodically with objections from advocates for continuation. They provide a biblical and redemptive-historical rationale for the cessation of special gifts. The bulk of this discussion, however, focuses on ongoing prophecy. That is a crucial issue, deserving the attention it received in this book. On the other hand, one of the most heated and most common discussions between cessationists and continuationists concerns speaking in tongues. This volume’s contribution could have been improved by equal attention to the issue of tongues.
Beeke and Smalley draw on a vast array of sources and pull together a winsome presentation of Reformed prolegomena. Some will criticize that they gloss over issues and differences even between sources they approvingly cite. Perhaps there is a place to introduce the commonality of Reformed theology though, even as it converses with the earlier Christian tradition. The avoidance of niche and sharp disagreements in this work portrays and positive, welcoming picture of Reformed theology, centered in Scripture and aimed at helping God’s people know Christ. Other books can fill in the gaps about debate but it is good to have a work that builds a biblical and historically informed presentation of Reformed theology from the ground up, culminating in application and worship.
Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is a pastor at London City Presbyterian Church, a visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, an Online Instructor in Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, and the author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition.