As noted in part 1 of this series, recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in systematic theology. Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley’s projected four-volume Reformed Systematic Theology is a solid example of an expanding renewal of research and publication concerning properly categorical theology. This post explores Beeke and Smalley’s section on theology proper.
One noteworthy thing about this work’s treatment of the doctrine of God is how extensive it is. Biblical theology is the exegetical discipline that traces themes and progressive developments across the full scope and narrative of Scripture. As illuminating as that endeavor is, it often precludes lengthy discussions of metaphysics, especially affecting our explanations of the doctrine of God. These exegetical investigations bring richness to our understanding of Scripture, but we still need the additional systematic focus on God himself and what we can know about God. After all, God is not a theme in the Bible. He is its author and primary subject matter regardless how overt his presence may be in the details. Beeke and Smalley’s section on theology proper is commendable simply because it provides a needed and focused reflection upon God himself.
The facet of Beeke and Smalley’s discussion of the doctrine of God that struck me most is how plain it is. That plainness, however, is meant as a thorough compliment. The doctrine of God is one of the most quickly expanding fields in systematic theology, seeing an ever-increasing abundance of publications. This renewed interest has seen no shortage of debates, sometimes very heated. In commendable contrast, Beeke and Smalley present a calm and thoroughly traditional understanding of God, his attributes, and the Trinity. In an age that cherishes innovation and in a theological climate that fosters quick and bitter controversy, these authors provide a refreshing focus on classical theism (CT) that is not aimed at addressing current polemics around CT but at providing needed insight for pastoral care in pointing God’s people to their true Lord.
As with the first part, this section of Reformed Systematic Theology is also very well organized and easily accessible. The discussions of various topics are lengthy and thorough but clearly marked enough that readers can find what they need. This quality is not to be overlooked. Some of the best recent textbooks on systematic theology lack clear division of material, making them difficult to use for reference or easy review. This book is a much-needed contrast to that. Discursive and integrated explorations of doctrine are good for deepening our full-orbed understanding of how theology hangs together and forms a paradigm for ministry and discipleship. Pastors especially often need quick refreshers or reviews of how to express a truth or particularly other passages to confirm it or ways to illustrate it.
This treatment of theology proper is also grounded in a firm grasp of historical theology. Since so many are researching the doctrine of God now, of course this book is not exhaustive. Still, it takes account of major developments across the eras of church history. One of the more impressive instances of this feature is the discussion of predestination. Typically, historical surveys in a systematic overview highlight Augustine, then essentially jump to the Reformation’s emphasis on grace alone over and against Roman teaching. Beeke and Smalley start in the ancient church and highlight even first-century issues and patristic writings leading up to Augustine’s battle with Pelagius and his followers. They continue this exploration by looking at how predestination continued to be a theme highlighted by many Augustinians in the medieval period. In the Reformation, therefore, Protestants were simply maintaining the church’s traditional teaching on grace, even if they made clarifications in how to express it and relate it to other doctrines.
The discussion itself begins by exploring God’s revealed names, then looking at God’s attributes, which Beeke and Smalley categorize as his majestic and moral attributes. By these categories, they mean what has been traditionally designated as God’s incommunicable and God’s communicable attributes. The strength of this section is its thoroughly biblical investigation, planting each divine quality in extensive exegetical roots. Again, Beeke and Smalley do not avoid historical theology, but they do give a thorough overview of Scriptural passages related to the issues. The sections about application are immensely useful if this book is being used as a pastoral resource to help preachers take these doctrines to doxology and discipleship.
The treatment of the Trinity is equally biblical and traditional. The doctrine of God has been caught in such intense debate in recent years that it is refreshing to see a calm and traditional explanation of the divine persons. Although avoiding heated controversy, questions and issues are addressed, always landing with traditional orthodoxy.
Probably the one thing to note about the section on theology proper is that this truly irenic tone leaves a few issues arguably less-than-thoroughly explored. This volume is long, so there is no concern about space constraints in a project like this. It does stand out that some of the divine attributes that are not all that difficult to demonstrate—for example, God’s love or omniscience—seem equally emphasized with divine simplicity. Notably, Beeke and Smalley are thoroughly traditional on issues like simplicity, immutability, and impassibility. On the other hand, in particular regard to impassibility, I personally thought that the case could have been slightly tighter than as it stands. They rightly want to do justice to all the biblical data and so must deal with the anthropomorphic language about God changing his mind and God’s affections. I understand they chose the term “affection” rather than “emotion” to connote God’s outward influence rather than that God could be moved by a creature. Still, I am not sure that they tied their explanation thoroughly enough to how impassibility relates to God’s eternality. This connection is perhaps the key issue. If God is timeless, his affectional state does not change according to his essence. History changes, so creatures experience a moment. God, however, is timeless. This point could have used more unpacking.
The section on God’s sovereign purpose is a masterful display of traditional Reformed decretal theology. It is accessible, biblical, and practical. Even the discussion of infralapsarian and supralapsarian understandings of God’s decrees is not overwhelming or overly dense. That in itself is a commendable feat. The perhaps standout feature closing the topic of theology proper is the chapters on angels and demons. These topics have been left out of or underdiscussed in many more recent systematic theologies from a Reformed perspective. That lack on its own makes this contribution unique among the growing number of volumes providing a systematic overview. Further, the balance of these chapters is notable. Beeke and Smalley’s well-done development on this issue calls Reformed writers to consider these topics anew and advance them further. People do have questions about angels and demons. More importantly, the Bible speaks of angels and demons, as well as spiritual warfare. There are many, especially popular, Christian treatments of angels and demons that fall prey to speculative oddities and a kind of hyper spirituality that ignores the triune God as the Lord, who is providentially sovereign. Still, this does not mean that Reformed theologians should ignore the issue. Rather, we should do a good and balanced job with it. Beeke and Smalley have done that and hopefully reignited a trend of exploring these topics.
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.