Book Review: Institutes of Elenctic Theology by Francis Turretin
About fifteen years ago at one of the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society, Allan Fisher gave me, a poor doctoral student at the time, one of the best gifts that an aspiring student of theology could ever receive: a copy of Francis Turretin’s three-volume Institutes of Elenctic Theology.
Though Turretin’s name is well-known in Reformed theology, Turretin having earned a reputation for his many years of faithful service as professor of theology at the Academy of Geneva, his Institutes of Elenctic Theology is not well-read today. This is partly due to the fact that, upon its publication, Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology replaced Turretin’s Institutes as the theological textbook of choice at Princeton Seminary, thus narrowing Turretin’s history of reception in North America.
Perhaps more significantly, lack of readerly attention to Turretin’s Institutes is also due to the fact that this massive work represents a theological genre and sensibility (i.e., Reformed “scholasticism”) that has become increasingly foreign to us over the past century or so. This neglect of Turretin’s Institutes is, in my judgment, to our theological impoverishment.
Turretin’s Institutes is an interesting work. By Turretin’s own admission, it does not intend to offer “a full and accurate system of theology.” As the title indicates, the Institutes is an exercise in “elenctics.” As such, it engages some of the principal heads of controversy that lie between Reformed theology and its rivals (both ancient and modern) in order to refute error and bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. The design of the Institutes explains the polemical edge that characterizes its (quite thorough) treatment of various disputed questions in theology. For all its polemical intent, Turretin’s work is nevertheless an example of Reformed theology at its finest: rooted in sound exegesis, a model of conceptual clarity, and rich in pastoral wisdom. For those willing to familiarize themselves with the canons and genres of scholastic debate, and willing to spend some time learning the history of theology that Turretin often presupposes, the Institutes of Elenctic Theology repays careful study.
Turretin’s discussion of the covenant of grace, a topic which he expounds over the course of twelve questions (roughly twelve chapters), provides a particularly good example of what readers may expect to find in his Institutes. Therein, the professor of Geneva discusses the various biblical terms for covenant, both Hebrew and Greek, along with their Latin equivalents. He also addresses knotty issues such as whether or not the covenant of grace is a “conditional” covenant (and, by the way, his treatment of this issue is much more sophisticated than many contemporary discussions), whether and how the old and new covenants differ, the difference between “accepting” and “keeping” the covenant, and how Christ mediated grace to the patriarchs under the Old Testament.
In addressing these and other issues of great systematic theological importance, Turretin does not neglect to comment upon their spiritual import. In what is perhaps my favorite section of the Institutes, Turretin discusses the various blessings that God grants us in the covenant of grace. Principal among these blessings, according to Turretin, God “gives himself to us that ever after he may be ours as much essentially . . . (as to his nature and attributes) as hypostatically . . . (as to the persons and personal operations).”
What does it mean for God to give himself to us “essentially”? According to Turretin:
God so gives himself to us as to be ours as to all the attributes (conducing to our advantage and salvation). They are well said to be ours by fruition and use because their salutary effects flow unto us. Ours is the wisdom of God for direction; the power of God for protection; the mercy of God for the remission of sins; the grace of God for sanctification and consolation; the justice of God for the punishment of enemies; the faithfulness of God for the execution of promises; the sufficiency of God for the communication of all manner of happiness. And as sin brought innumerable evils upon us, we find a remedy for all in the divine properties: wisdom heals our ignorance and blindness, grace our guilt, power our weakness, mercy our misery, goodness our wickedness, justice our iniquity, the sufficiency and fulness of God our poverty and indigence, fidelity our inconstancy and fickleness, holiness our impurity and life our death.
And how does God give himself to us “hypostatically” or “personally”? Turretin explains:
God is ours personally, inasmuch as the individual persons are ours and give themselves to us for accomplishing the work of redemption: the Father electing, the Son redeeming, the Holy Spirit sanctifying. He becomes our Father by adoption when he receives us into his own family and regards, cherishes and loves us as sons (1 Jn. 3:1). The Son becomes ours by suretyship when he offers himself as the surety to make satisfaction for us and as the head, to rule over and quicken us. He becomes ours as a Prophet, revealing salvation by the light of his doctrine; our Priest, who purchases it by his merit; and our King, who applies it (when acquired) by the efficacy of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit becomes ours when he is sent to us and gives himself to us as sanctifier and consoler that he may dwell in us as his temples and enrich us with his blessings, light, strength, joy, liberty, holiness and happiness. Thus our communion is with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (1 Jn. 1:3; 2 Cor. 13:14). Hence, baptism, which is a seal of the covenant, is administered in their name so that we may be consecrated as sons of God, the Father, as members of the Son and as temples of the Holy Spirit and enjoy the blessings flowing from each person–the mercy of the Father, the grace of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit.
As these passages indicate, in spite of Turretin’s polemical design, the Institutes of Elenctic Theology cannot avoid being a work of penetrating theological insight and profound pastoral comfort, drawing as deeply as it does from the wells of Holy Scripture. As we approach the anniversary of Turretin’s death (September 28, 1687), it might be worth foregoing a couple of months of cable to obtain this treasure trove of Reformed theology. If that is not possible, then perhaps you will stumble upon an exceptionally generous Christian book editor.
Postscript: For those interested in exploring Turretin’s covenant theology, I recommend Professor Mark Beach’s excellent book, Christ and the Covenant: Francis Turretin’s Federal Theology as a Defense of the Doctrine of Grace.
This review first appeared on Reformation 21