Results tagged “Reformed Scholasticism” from Reformation21 Blog

Reformed Ethics Could Save Your Life

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I was preparing a student paper on Bavinck for ETS when the economy collapsed in 2009. Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics proved a tremendous source of encouragement during that time, amidst great uncertainty which touched the faith and vocation of myself and many friends. I'm now happy see the release of Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity, the first in a planned three volume set offering a comprehensive and systematic treatment of the Christian life.

Ron Gleason's biography (Herman Bavinck, 2010 P&R) traces Bavinck's career teaching theology and ethics between Kampen and Amsterdam, but no one knew that a manuscript on ethics was preserved in the Bavinck archive (cf. pp. 111-113). Bavinck had prepared the manuscript for publication, yet several formal issues may have held him back from publishing the work (RE, 2019; xxxv, xli-ii). Along with the manuscript's discovery by Dirk van Keulen, two additional manuscripts from Bavinck's students have been uncovered, providing invaluable insights into his classroom presentation and support for translation. The wealth of materials and the patience of the editors have resulted in a fine, user-friendly critical edition of Bavinck's Reformed Ethics.

The information surrounding the manuscript's translation and presentation may be technical, but it is not dry. Dr. Bolt has succeeded in presenting a critical edition of Reformed Ethics in a richly annotated, carefully supported format that aids the casual reader and researcher alike. While Craig S. Keener leads the league in footnotes overall, Dr. Bolt and his team are this season's surprise contenders in annotations. The result follows the Dogmatics in organization, updated references and citations which ultimately aid contemporary readers with context and insight into Bavinck's train of thought...

Read the full article here.

Turretin's Treasure

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Many 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-volumeInstitutes 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. 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 post is an adapted version of a post that first appeared at Ref21 in September of 2014.

How One Book Changed My Life (Part 2)

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In addition to modeling and teaching submission to the Word of God, Petrus van Mastricht--in the recently translated prolegomena of his Theoretical-Practical Theology--powerfully corrected my thinking on the relation of reason and theology.

Reason is incorporated into theology.

First and foremost, Mastricht taught me that reason is welcome in theology. He taught it by his example--his admirable order and logic, his careful distinctions, his steadfast refusal to reason in a circle (135, 160, 170, 173) or to presuppose anything not self-evident or proven elsewhere (81, 88, 99, 182), and his free use of arguments from nature and reason (68, 73-74, 117-119, etc.).

He taught it indirectly, in his explaining various points: for example, that the student of theology should master, in addition to biblical studies, the liberal arts, including languages, philosophy, and history (94). Or that natural theology, though limited, is real, that many true facts about the true God can be truly known by nature, the senses, and reason (77-78, 82-83). Or, moreover, that the truth and authority of Scripture can and should be confirmed by reason (131-137).

He also taught it directly, when he explained two proper uses of reason in theology. Reason, he said, may be an instrument, the use of which is "necessary in every inquiry of truth, even of that which is occupied with Scripture"; and it may be an argument, "so that the truth derived from Scripture, as from its own first and unique principle, we may also confirm with natural reasons" (155-156).

Mastricht's teaching on this point particularly changed my thinking. I had been laboring under the idea that no theology could be learned anywhere but the Bible. The heavens may declare God's glory (Ps. 19:1), and nature morality (Rom. 1:26), but, I thought, no one can hear the word of nature except through hearing the Word of Scripture. Indeed, in my mind nature was entirely mute without Scripture: the fundamental principle of all knowledge, all predication, all reasoning, was found only in the Word of God.

But Mastricht's vision of faith and reason, I discovered, was much more true and satisfying. In it the Bible is indeed the "perfect rule of living for God" (117), and absolutely necessary in order to know Christ for salvation (129-130), but even so, some truths taught supernaturally in Scripture are also taught naturally in nature (Rom. 1:19-20; 2:14-15). Moreover, God has mercifully preserved the mind of sinful man so that even pagans recognize certain facts about him (Acts 17:28). Thus while Christ is indeed the light of men (John 1:4), even if man's reason does not recognize him as such, it is still able to learn natural truths naturally. And this is especially true outside the domain of theology: as Mastricht argues, though theology is helped by nature, its foundation is Scripture; but the foundation of all other disciplines is "nature and human investigation" (100).

Furthermore, Mastricht instructed me in the way that these truths practically inform our teaching and defending of the faith. Consider, for example, how in his defense of Scripture he appeals to commonly accepted rules of verification to establish the truth and trustworthiness of Scripture (132-133, 148-149, 118-119), and cites objective evidence to prove that the Bible is indeed the Word of God (133-137, 149-151), explaining that the Spirit's internal testimony to the Word is not itself an evidence, but rather the gift of power to see and to believe the evidence (183). Similarly, in next year's forthcoming volume 2, Mastricht masterfully calls heaven and earth, reason and logic to witness against atheism to the existence of God, and in arguing for God's attributes, not only proves them all from Scripture, but confirms them all from nature.

Thus Mastricht not only changed my thinking on an important, even foundational matter in Christian theology, but also changed my practice. Now that my doubts concerning the natural knowledge of God are gone, I find great joy in making use of it. Among other things, in my ministry I am now free in teaching certain doctrines to use natural and rational arguments, both to confirm the godly in the biblical faith, and to leave the wicked without excuse. And in this way I have the privilege to follow not only Mastricht (78, 12), but the apostles (Acts 14:15-17; 17:24-29; Rom. 1:18-20, 26-27), and Christ himself (Matt. 5:45; 6:26-30).

Reason is subordinate in theology.

But in addition to the two proper uses of reason and theology, Mastricht presents a third use that he condemns, that is, reason "as a norm or principle of truth on account of which something is believed" (156). In that way, reason would no longer be the handmaiden of theology (78), but would either join or replace Scripture as its perfect principium. But this cannot be. As Mastricht explains, "Reason is blind (1 Cor. 2:14-15), darkened (John 1:5), deceptive and inconstant (Rom. 1:21ff.), and finally, imperfect (cf. Rom. 1:19 with 1 Cor. 2:12)," "The heads of religion transcend reason because they are mysteries (1 Tim. 3:15; Matt. 13:11; 1 Cor. 2:7; 4:1)," and "Christ, the prophets, and the apostles never refer us back to reason but always to Scripture (Isa. 8:20; 2 Peter 1:19; 2 Tim. 3:14)" (156). This is why Mastricht was a fierce opponent of Cartesianism (xxxv), but also why he at times used strong words against medieval scholastic theology (85), even though throughout his work he shows his debt to it. Though reason is necessary in theology, and there is true natural knowledge, neither can presume to replace Scripture as the perfect rule of living for God.1

So Mastricht taught me not only the goodness and necessity of reason in theology, but also its proper limits. I am hopeful that in the discussion of this important topic, Mastricht's balanced method will prove for many, as it did for me, a wholesome model.

1. On this topic see also the excellent digression in Pontanus's funeral oration for Mastricht, lxxxi-lxxxvii.

*This is the second post in a short series by Michael Spangler


Michael Spangler is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and assists with the editing of Mastricht's Theoretical-Practical Theology. He lives with his wife and children in Greensboro, NC.