Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic
edited by michael allen and scott r. swain
baker, 416 pages, $36.99

Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation
by michael allen and scott r. swain
baker, 176 pages, $21

In his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Henry Newman famously claimed that “to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” Since the kind of Christianity that we encounter in the first millennium of church history is certainly not Protestantism, according to Newman (“if ever there were a safe truth, it is this”), Protestants have no choice but to dispense with history and try to form “a Christianity from the Bible alone.”

The contributors to the anthology Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic beg to differ. They argue that being “deep in history,” far from presenting an obstacle, is a precondition for a fully Reformed Christianity. The way to a renewal of Reformed theology goes through a retrieval of “the catholic and Reformational heritage of the church,” which includes the ecumenical creeds, the confessions of the Protestant Reformation, and the writings of the Fathers and the medievals.

The methodological foundation for this ambitious project was laid in another recent book written by the anthology’s editors. In Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (2015), Allen and Swain presented “a programmatic assessment of what it means to retrieve the catholic tradition on the basis of Protestant theological and ecclesiological principles.” The volume Christian Dogmatics can be seen as an answer to their call for a Reformed ressourcement.

The term ressourcement is often associated with a Catholic renewal movement led by theologians such as Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar, who sought to return “to the sources” of the Christian tradition. Animated by an ambition to re-center theology in the person of Christ and his paschal mystery, they translated and interpreted the treasures of the tradition. The theologians behind this “nouvelle théologie” greatly enriched Catholic thought, not least through the role they played in shaping the documents of Vatican II, but their lack of philosophical rigor contributed to an “anti-propositional turn” in Catholic theology after the council. One reflection of the movement’s philosophical weakness was its prejudice against the scholastic tradition, at least in its contemporary guises. The neo-Thomistic revival of the early twentieth century was painted in dark colors by the nouvelles théologiens, and their criticism of “arid” scholastic approaches in theology contributed to the steep decline of Thomism after Vatican II. Aquinas himself was defended, though usually in isolation from the living tradition of Thomistic commentary. “Thomas against the Thomists” was their line.

The advocates of a Reformed ressourcement represented in the present volume decline to apply such a hermeneutic of discontinuity to their own tradition. There are no traces of a “Calvin against the Calvinists” paradigm. Instead, several of the authors take up the heritage of Reformed scholasticism (figures such as Francis Turretin, Girolamo Zanchi, Amandus Polanus, and Johannes Wollebius) as well as that of Aquinas. This largely positive attitude to the scholastic tradition makes perfect sense given the aims of “Reformed catholicity.” Many of the Protestant scholastics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were animated by similar concerns as the authors of Christian Dogmatics were: to defend a distinctly Reformed confessional identity, and at the same time claim continuity with the age-old tradition of the Church. This is why post-Reformation Protestant scholasticism, according to Willem van Asselt, was “much broader and more diverse in its use of materials of the Christian tradition, particularly the medieval scholastic doctors,” than were the Reformers themselves.

In its avoidance of narratives of sharp discontinuity, the Reformed catholic program is similar to a movement in recent Catholic theology that goes by the name of “Ressourcement Thomism,” whose most prominent exponents are Reinhard Hütter, Matthew Levering, and Thomas Joseph White. These thinkers, associated with the journal Nova et Vetera, are more appreciative of neo-Thomism than most Catholic theologians today. They combine the study of the perennial philosophy with a deep historical consciousness and an interest in exegesis and patristics. Classical theism, understood from within a Trinitarian framework, is fundamental to their theology. Several of the authors in the present volume are on the same page. They argue that a truly biblical and Trinitarian understanding of God is compatible with, and calls for, a metaphysical approach that makes use of philosophical concepts. “Interpreting God’s triune name . . . involves metaphysical reflection.” There are things in the volume that point in a different direction, such as occasional criticisms of divine simplicity and impassibility, but they seem to be minority reports.

Compared to some other recent projects of Protestant ressourcement—such as the “Lutheran Catholicism” of Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, Hans Boersma’s Reformed reception of the nouvelle théologie, and Sarah Coakley’s Anglican, feminist retrieval of the Church Fathers—this is a project with a conservative profile (although the essays are diverse in this respect, too). As an orthodox Catholic, I appreciate any thoughtful act of resistance to what Newman called “the Spirit of liberalism in religion.” Today it is commonplace to point out that the major fault line within academic theology goes between conservatives and liberals rather than between different confessional traditions. I would go so far as to say, with sociologist Christian Smith, that “theological liberalism is not one particular branch of Christianity; it is rather actually a very different religion from Christianity.”

In a Reformed context, however, theological conservatism involves doctrinal views and accents that are difficult to reconcile with the patristic heritage. In the two chapters on soteriology we find a number of them, for example, a denial of the redemptive dimension of the Incarnation, a purely forensic understanding of the doctrine of justification, and a narrow focus on penal substitution in the doctrine of atonement. This raises questions about the internal coherence of the Reformed catholic program, and it also raises questions concerning ecumenical fruitfulness. Perhaps some contemporary approaches within the Lutheran tradition—for example, the Finnish interpretation of Luther, which highlights the role that deification plays in Luther’s doctrine of justification, or David Yeago’s “Catholic Luther”—have more currency in the ecumenical market.

The only confessionally polemical essay in Christian Dogmatics is Michael Horton’s chapter on the Church, in which Reformed ecclesiology is portrayed as a via media between Catholicism and the Radical Reformation. The chapter is stimulating, especially in its presentation of a covenantal conception of the Church, but unfortunately it is marred by a misrepresentation of Catholic ecclesiology. “The Roman Catholic Church simply is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” (emphasis in the original). A footnote mentioning Lumen Gentium and the debate about “subsistit in” would have looked good after that sentence.

As a whole, however, this volume is welcome from an ecumenical perspective. It will vitalize the ongoing Protestant rapprochement with the catholic tradition. The anthology is also a hopeful sign of the current trend towards a retrieval of metaphysics and speculative, philosophically informed thought within theology in general. From a “big C” Catholic perspective, however, some questions unavoidably present themselves. Let me therefore, in a spirit of interconfessional dialogue, try to put some pressure on the Reformed catholic project.

The South African Reformed theologian Dirkie Smit has pointed out what to many seems like a “deep contradiction” in the Reformed tradition. This tradition takes the visible unity of the Church very seriously, but at the same time it refuses to make use of the strategies that other Christian traditions rely on in order to achieve unity. The Reformed tradition, accordingly, has

no central authority, no hierarchical structure, no teaching magisterium, no corpus of infallible doctrine, no common canon of Biblical interpretation, no continuous and unchanging liturgical tradition. . . . Instead, it is a tradition that claims in radical fashion that it strives to live by “the Bible alone”—and then admits that it has no final interpretation of that Bible and no final authority that can guarantee any interpretation, only a plural, ambiguous and dynamic confessional tradition.

The Reformed catholic project attempts to lessen the ambiguity of the Reformed tradition by emphasizing the ecclesial context of theology, and the importance of “subordinate authorities”—such as pastoral ministry, councils, creeds, and interpretative traditions—that mediate the Bible’s authority. In the words of Allen and Swain, “Scripture is the ultimate authority amid a number of lesser yet no less divinely intended authorities.” These lesser authorities, however, are only authoritative to the extent that their teaching can be corroborated by Scripture. As Kevin Vanhoozer puts it: “Tradition, the moon to Scripture’s sun, has a derivative authority insofar as creeds and confessions rightly reflect the light the Spirit shines/speaks from the biblical text.” This means, according to Allen and Swain, that “pastors may only bind the conscience of the Christian when Holy Scripture so binds, through its clear warrant or by good and necessary inference.” They approvingly quote the Ten Theses of Berne: “The Church of Christ makes no laws or commandments without God’s Word [i.e., Scripture]. Hence all human traditions, which are called ecclesiastical commandments, are binding upon us only in so far as they are based on and commanded by God’s Word.”

This view entails that there can be no formal criteria or external signs—such as a historical succession of office-bearers, or some other kind of institutional continuity—for distinguishing true “subordinate authorities” from false ones. The only criterion that is able to do this job is a material one: faithfulness to the content of Scripture. “Find the true gospel and you will find the true church.” But this means that the subordinate authorities that are supposed to assist in the interpretation of Scripture cannot be identified unless one has first decided on a correct interpretation of Scripture. This makes it difficult to see how tradition, councils, creeds, pastoral ministry, and so on could have any real authority for those who strive to be faithful to Scripture. Why believe that a certain creed or synod represents the true Church unless what it says agrees with (what I take to be) the true Gospel?

This problem seems to be an inescapable consequence of the principle of sola Scriptura, which the Reformed catholic theologians staunchly defend, albeit in sophisticated form. Allen and Swain want to retrieve this principle from various misuses and locate it “within the catholic context of God’s formation of his people.” For them, the “sola Scriptura principle is meant to shape engagement of the catholic tradition rather than to exclude it.” Tradition is subordinate to Scripture, and should be shaped by Scripture, but Scripture, on the other hand, must be read in the context of “a vibrant and ongoing interpretative tradition that serves to provide authoritative parameters for expositing [the] sacred Scriptures.” It is very hard to see, however, how an ecclesial tradition could provide “authoritative parameters” for Scripture exposition, if the Church’s interpretative authority has no other basis than the actual correctness of its interpretative decisions.

According to the Catholic tradition, the institutional Church’s authority is not merely a function of its success in interpreting Scripture. Its authority derives directly from Christ, and the Church would have authority in the area of faith even if the New Testament had never been written. Furthermore, the Church of Jesus Christ can be recognized by external signs—historical, institutional continuity—so you need not have found the true Gospel before you can find the true Church. This does not mean that the Church is “above” Scripture in any sense, and can contradict it. It only means that the Church’s authority is not derived from Scripture. This is precisely what makes it possible for the Church and ecclesial tradition to provide an authoritative framework for the faithful reading of Scripture.

Proponents of Reformed catholicity might respond that I criticize a straw man. They do not claim that the Church’s authority is exclusively a product of its ability to get Scripture right. They acknowledge that the Church is established by Christ, and that the Holy Spirit is active within her and enables her faithful reception and proclamation of the divine Word. “Through Holy Scripture, the church’s foundational authority, the Lord who possesses all authority authorizes the church to build on that foundation.” But does this authorization of the Church by Christ really mean anything if the teaching of the Church has authority only in so far as it is corroborated by Scripture, and if the Church does not have the final say about whether a certain teaching is corroborated by Scripture or not?

I suppose these critical remarks boil down to the following questions: Can the sola Scriptura principle coexist with a view of the Church that is truly anchored “deep in history”? Or does this principle—even in its most sophisticated versions—inevitably undermine the authority of the Church and tradition? Perhaps the greatest merit of the Reformed catholic project is that by making a strong case for the compatibility of a Reformed identity with the catholic tradition, it has highlighted questions like these and provided excellent materials for reflecting on them.

Mats Wahlberg is associate professor of systematic theology at Umeå University in Sweden.