The publication of The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology in November 2020 marks the culmination of seven years of hard but joyful work.
Friends warned Michael Allen and me that editing a volume of 39 chapters written by over 40 different authors would demand more of us than we could anticipate; and they were right! However, as is often the case, the challenging nature of the work has made the end result all the more satisfying. We hope that our readers will find the end result satisfying as well and that The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology will serve as a reliable guide to the discipline of Reformed theology for teachers and students for years to come.
In anticipation of the Handbook‘s publication in November, I will be posting excerpts from various chapters over the next two months. The first post is an excerpt from the introduction I wrote for the volume as a whole.
Theology is reasoned discourse concerning God. Theos—God the holy Trinity—is that with which the logos of theology is primarily concerned, that from which theological understanding derives, and that to which theological discourse tends. God is theology’s supreme subject matter, source, and end (Turretin 1992: 2).
God is the supreme subject matter of theology, its ‘foremost, primary locus’ (te Velde 2014: 151). According to Herman Bavinck, theology ‘describes for us God, always God, from beginning to end—God in his being, God in his creation, God against sin, God in Christ, God breaking down all resistance through the Holy Spirit and guiding the whole of creation back to the objective he decreed for it: the glory of his name’ (Bavinck 2003: 112). Because theology attends to God not only in his being but also in his works, God’s status as the primary locus of theology does not make him the exclusive locus of theology. Theology devotes its attention to a wide range of topics common to ‘natural scientists, doctors, and philosophers’ (Junius 2014: 179). In each instance, theology is disciplined by a concern to relate the diverse objects of its attention to the primary object of its attention. Theology considers all things other than God ‘only according to that aspect by which they have their own relationship and reference toward God by the necessity of their nature, and God’s relation to them by the freedom of His own will’ (Junius 2014: 179–80). God is thus the generative and organizing subject matter of theology, the ‘starting point’ from which all other topics ‘flow forth, by which they are held together, and to which they should be directed’ (te Velde 2014: 151). Theology is reasoned discourse concerning God and all things in relation to God.
Theology dares to speak about God and all things in relation to God only because God himself has spoken. Deus dixit is the supreme cognitive principle of theology (Bavinck 2003: 30; Barth 1991: 45–68). God is the supreme teacher in the economy of theological understanding, who addresses us in his Word, primarily by means of his prophetic and apostolic embassy in Holy Scripture, and secondarily by means of those agencies of divine instruction that follow from the productive and regulative authority of the divine Word in the church (Allen and Swain 2015). Theology is possible because the Word of God comes to the church, creates the church, and directs the church. Though this work of the Word occurs within the sphere of the church’s social and historical reality, it is not merely the product of that social and historical reality (Barth 1986: 49). Theology is reasoned discourse that seeks to follow divine discourse in Holy Scripture.
In seeking to follow Holy Scripture, theology is ordered to a number of ends. Theology serves a hermeneutical end insofar as ‘the doctrine . . . taken out of the Scriptures . . . leads us, as it were, by the hand to the Scriptures’, making us more fluent in ‘the reading, understanding, and exposition of the holy Scriptures’ (Ursinus 1852: 10). Theology also serves a formational end. In scriptural idiom, theology concerns ‘the truth, which accords with godliness’ (Titus 1:1; van Mastricht 2018: 72–3). Theology ‘articulates a vision of God, the world and ourselves in the service of piety, a settled disposition, and a way of living’ (Ottati 2013: 25). Theology ultimately serves a doxological end. As theology is ordered to piety, so piety is ordered to human beatitude in the vision of God (Titus 2:11–14; te Velde 2014: 43). ‘God is wisdom’s goal, and that glimpse of God himself is saving and filled with glory, toward which we strive with this wisdom as our guide’ (Junius 2014: 102). Theology is reasoned discourse concerning God and all things in relation to God that follows divine discourse in Holy Scripture and serves a number of ends, supremely, the knowledge, love, and service of God (van Mastricht 2018: 104).
Taught by God and directed to God, theological understanding does not partake of God’s immediate, timeless grasp of all things. The pathos of theology is social and historical (Hütter 2000). For this reason, theological understanding is acquired and cultivated over a long period of time and with much difficulty (Ursinus 1852: 10). In the broadest sense, theology is conditioned by its participation in the various states of human beings as created, fallen, redeemed, and glorified, along with the various possibilities and pathologies endemic to those various states (Junius 2014). In a narrower sense, theology is conditioned by participation in a tradition of inquiry with its own distinctive culture, texts, and conversations (Lacoste 2014; Griffiths 2016; Webster 2019). In theology there is a process of transmission, traditio, and there are things transmitted, tradita (Webster 2019: 91). There are also disagreements and debates within theology as a tradition of inquiry and between theology and rival traditions of inquiry. These disagreements and debates are integral to the discourse of theology and the cultivation of theological understanding (Ford 2007).
How does the adjective ‘Reformed’ specify the genus of theology described above? Viewed from the perspective of its historic confessions, Reformed theology may be identified as a catholic, Protestant tradition of inquiry concerning God and all things in relation to God that takes Holy Scripture as its principal source and norm and that orders itself to the glory of God as its chief end. Reformed theology, thus understood, makes specific claims regarding the catholic substance of the faith as summarized in the Ecumenical Creeds, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. Reformed theology exhibits fundamental agreement with Roman Catholicism and other confessional Protestant traditions on what Martin Luther called ‘articles of majesty’: the being and attributes of the triune God and the person of Jesus Christ. Over against Rome, Reformed theology aligns itself with Lutheran theology on matters such as the authority of scripture and the nature of justification, while distinguishing itself from both Lutheran and Baptist traditions on matters related to biblical interpretation, the sacraments, and church polity (Perkins 1626; Kolb and Trueman 2017; Linebaugh 2018; Bingham et al. 2018). Though Reformed theological systems exhibit a significant degree of diversity, common architectonic patterns and emphases are observable (Allen 2010; Haykin and Jones 2011).
Modern tendencies toward deconfessionalization have transformed both the setting and substance of Reformed theology. Nevertheless, contemporary theologians continue to draw upon resources from the Reformed tradition, offering constructive formulations of Christian doctrine and wrestling with challenges generated inside and outside the Reformed tradition (Pauw and Jones 2006; Boesak 2015). Reformed theology in its various forms continues to exert influence in global, ecumenical, and populist contexts, provoking further conversations about its identity (Stroup 2003; Hansen 2008; Hart 2013). The retrieval of traditional expressions of Reformed theology continues to open up promising possibilities for biblical interpretation and dogmatics (Allen and Swain 2015).
Making sense of Reformed theology as described above requires consideration of various material claims, texts, and contexts. Though we do not claim to have arrived at the most ‘apt arrangement of the different topics’ (van Mastricht 2018: 69) of Reformed theology in this Handbook, we trust that the following chapters provide an up to date overview of some of the major settings, theologians, texts, and doctrines of the Reformed theological tradition that is responsible to the broader field and useful to the reader. The Handbook is divided into three parts.
From The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology edited by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain. Copyright © 2020 by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.