Reformed Catholicity

Article by   February 2015
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Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015

A few words of introduction and clarification are requisite on the front end of this review. First, given the medium of its distribution, I'll avoid an overly formal/academic approach. Instead, a more conversational tone is my aim. If such an approach annoys your intellectual sensibility, do forgive. Second, I know both of these authors and consider them friends in the theological discipline. I've eaten meals with them--good ones, well, the last one wasn't so good--and have them high on my list of "folks to see" at various and sundry professional conferences. Now, this doesn't mean I can't or won't raise critical points of inquiry. I believe Proverbs has something to say about the wounds of a friend and kisses of an enemy. Nevertheless, the reader should know of our friendship. Wittingly or unwittingly, our critical engagement with friends tends to resist drawn swords for the sake of maintaining relationships. And rightly so. Perhaps our critical engagement with strangers should be similar given the Scripture's high regard for hospitality to strangers, but I'll save that rant for another day. Thirdly, I'm largely in agreement with the aims and outcome of this book. In the hands of a confessional Lutheran, Roman Catholic, or biblical scholar of the deist type (more of this below), this review would differ in character. Truth be told, I'd like to read those reviews myself. But today, such a review is not on offer. I'm one of them. I identify myself as Reformed and Catholic. With that business sorted out, I turn to the book itself.  

Reformed Catholicity is a canard hunt. Misunderstandings and ill-conceived criticisms of the Reformed tradition and its relation to catholic modes of confession and reasoning need sorting out. Or to extend the hunting metaphor, they need shooting down. Of particular concern for Allen and Swain is a conceptual clearing of the air regarding the Reformation's slogan sola Scriptura. What does the appeal to sola Scriptura entail and can one be "catholic" in theological sensibility while at the same time affirming sola Scriptura?

According to certain detractors, sola Scriptura sits comfortably with the "no creed but Jesus" crowd and severs the Scripture from its proper social location in the church militant and triumphant. Allen and Swain are quick to respond that sola Scriptura was never conceived as solo Scriptura, or in Timothy George's terms, nuda Scriptura. The magisterial Reformers and the confessions of faith spawned by their theological outlook did not treat the church's tradition as easily dispensable material. Nor were they progenitors of the Cartesian dismissal of the presumptive authority of the past. Rather, an ordered theological account regarding Scripture's proper dogmatic location vis-à-vis the church's interpretive tradition was of particular import to Reformation thought. Swain and Allen's driving concern throughout the volume resides in this theological locale. 

The first chapter directs the reader towards a Trinitarian ecclesiology. The church is the social and historical location of Christ's teaching by the Spirit. This theological account of the church's social and creaturely grounding places tradition and the task of theological retrieval in an undeniably pneumatic context. We engage the church's tradition of biblical and dogmatic reasoning because our grandmothers were not the first to experience the Spirit's presence and work. But Allen and Swain are careful here. While the social-historical character of the church and the continued teaching life of the Spirit (principium congoscendi internum) are inseparable from each other, they are still distinct entities resisting easy fusion. On this score, their critical engagement with Reinhard Hütter's notion of the enhypostatic character of the Spirit and the church is instructive. A catholic and Reformed sensibility shines through at this point in the argument. The church's tradition cannot be easily jettisoned because the church is the social location of the Spirit's teaching activities. While at the same time, the church remains creaturely and her teaching ministry cannot be equated with the Spirit's voice simpliciter. The church can be corrected and at various times stands in need of correction/reform. Luther's simul iustus et peccator makes for good ecclesiology as well: see Ephraim Radner's A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church.

The second and third chapters clarify the material claims of sola Scriptura. Brad Gregory and Ana Williams are the respective interlocutors of chapter 2. Gregory and Williams disagree on the motivations behind sola Scriptura among the magisterial reformers, but both are agreed on the negative outcome of the doctrine, namely, sola Scriptura becomes the property of the isolated individual and their rational faculties. Allen and Swain draw together a myriad of Reformation voices to counter such an account of sola Scriptura. But Allen and Swain agree, on my reading, that either a Donatist approach--only the pure teaching of Scripture has ecclesial authority--or a Deistic approach--where exegetical method remains supreme elevating the scholar or pious person--runs the real risk of severing the written word from the present activity of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Williams and Gregory are on to something regarding the deployment of this doctrine in certain Protestant contexts. Yet, Swain and Allen deftly show how the Donatist or Deistic accounts of sola Scriptura are non sequiturs whose basic theological instincts are at odds with the catholic outlook of Reformation thought in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 

"Show don't tell," is classic advice given to creative writers. Allen and Swain show the biblical roots for relating Scripture and tradition, while at the same time demonstrating the potential for theological interpretation. Psalm 145 and Acts 15 provide the material for this biblical interaction. Both texts reveal the importance of God's past revelation for ordering believing worship and thought in the current moment. The result of these investigations is an exegetically based rationale for the following claim: Scripture itself generates tradition. The chapter to follow parses out the hermeneutical implications for the relationship of Scripture and tradition by appealing to a reformed account of the regula fidei (Rule of Faith). 

The final chapter is the most fun. Who is going to defend proof-texting today? Well, Allen and Swain do. Problems with proof-texting of various sorts abound--decontextualizing, a Grudem-like approach to theology where every text gets a vote in the attendance to what the Bible has to say about x, etc. But for Allen and Swain, proof-texting of the sort practiced by Calvin and Aquinas demonstrates the organic relationship between speculative theology and biblical commentary. Doctrine flows from engagement with the Biblical material and speculative theology plays an important hermeneutical role in the attendance to Scripture's voice. The final chapter is a clarion call for theologians to be more biblical and for biblical scholars to be more theological. If the proof is in the pudding, then it is yet to be seen how successful theologians and biblical scholars might be when answering this call. 

Reformed Catholicity makes for a good read with some nice turns of phrase peppering the volume--"Too many top-notch programs will require more reading on Zižek than Zechariah or Zephaniah..." I have some lingering questions, fodder for our next bad meal together. One, does the denial of the historic episcopate run the danger of a Donatist ecclesiology? Richard Hooker thinks so. Two, the identification of Biblical Theology as a discipline that orders itself historically may reveal the provincial character of this book as in in-house Presbyterian discussion. Geerhardus Vos was certainly right to claim that Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology both arrange the biblical material in ways that differ from its canonical form. But there are other modes of biblical theology that take into account the ontological dimension of Scripture's witnessing capacity without allowing historical developmentalism (Heilsgeschichte) the privileged lens by which to order a biblical theological account. I'm thinking here particularly of the canonical approach. Three, I almost raised a criticism about the plethora of John Webster quotations only to look at my own work and recognize the same tendency. Maybe guilt recognizes guilt. Questions aside, Reformed Catholicity makes for a fine primer on the insoluble relationship between and proper ordering of Scripture and tradition.

Mark Gignilliat is Associate Professor of Divinity, Beeson Divinity School and Canon Theologian at The Cathedral Church of the Advent, Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism: From Spinoza to Childs (Zondervan, 2012).


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