Book Review: Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology

Paul T. Nimmo and David A. F. Fergusson, The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016). 345pp. Paperback.
What is Reformed Theology? This is a valid and important question. Answering it may be more difficult than appears at first. Unlike Lutheran churches, which maintain confessional unity around the Book of Concord, and the Roman Catholic Church, which rests on its tradition and magisterium, Reformed churches have neither a single unifying set of confessional documents, nor an infallible authority structure furnishing them with a universal definition. The contributors to the Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology reflect the ambiguity noted in defining Reformed theology in the introduction (2-4). This means that its authors present both historical and contemporary Reformed theology with varying degrees of clarity, which makes some chapters of this book more useful than others for understanding its topic. This review seeks to clarify the nature of Reformed theology through interacting with representatives of the varied perspectives presented in these essays. My primary contention is that some of the authors of this book help us better understand Reformed theology in light of Reformed prolegomena while others take us too far afield.
The essays in this volume present a wide range of theological and historical perspectives. The Cambridge Companion outlines both historical and contemporary Reformed theology in light of key topics, historical figures, and diverse contexts. The editors set the tone for the struggle to define Reformed theology by arguing that the five Reformation solas are too broad for this purpose and that the Canons of Dort are too narrow (4). In doing so, they depict Reformed theology as more nebulous in nature than many of their fellow contributors. The topics treated take readers from Scripture (Todd Billings), through Confessions (Michael Allen), Election (Rinse Brouwer), Christology (Bruce McCormack), Sacraments (Paul Nimmo), and finally to the Christian Life (Cynthia Rigby). All of these chapters are interesting and useful, though the first two represent the most standard expressions of Reformed theology among them, while Rigby’s essay on the Christian life moves from traditional Reformed views of personal godliness to a seemingly this-world oriented eschatology with an overriding concern for social justice.
The historical figures included are limited to Zwingli, Calvin, Edwards, Schleiermacher, and Barth. While Barth is a controversial theologian and his relation to the Reformed tradition continues to be debated, including Schleiermacher, who is often regarded as the father of liberal theology, in a list of significant Reformed authors presses a finger on the problems of definition that pervade this volume. However, each section admirably justifies how each figure in question developed his thought from distinctively Reformed origins. This sketches a picture, albeit limited, of persistence and change in Reformed theology.
The eight essays in the section treating contexts comprise the bulk of the work and contain, in this reviewer’s opinion, some of its most valuable contributions. The chapters on Puritanism (Hardman Moore), Scholasticism (te Velde), continental Europe (Busch), the British Isles (D. Fergusson), and North America (James Bratt) exemplify the clarity characteristic of most contemporary historical studies of Reformed orthodoxy. The chapters on Africa, Asia, and ecumenism, however, do more than chronicle the development of Reformed churches in these countries. They all run the risk of transforming Reformed theology, though in varying degrees, into descriptions of what churches with Reformed origins in each of these regions believe currently rather than explaining how they relate to the historic Reformed confessional tradition. While this is truer for some of these chapters than for others, it marks all of them. This illustrates the ways in which the authors in this volume attempt either to define Reformed theology subjectively in terms of what churches currently believe and practice, or objectively in relation to the historic Reformed tradition. The remainder of this review uses examples from each of these perspectives and adopts the second one in order to define Reformed theology more clearly.
Some of the essays in the Cambridge Companion raise the question of whether any Reformed identity remains. The most striking example of this is Isabel Apawo Phiri’s chapter on “Reformed theology in Africa” (285-295), which represents a subjective approach at definition. She treats the nature of Reformed churches in Africa in light of their history and what she calls “sexism” and “homophobia.” She observes that Africans tend to respond to issues from an ecumenical rather than a confessional perspective (286). She notes appreciatively that African “Reformed” churches, through Pentecostal influences, incorporate witchcraft and beliefs concerning the spirits of ancestors into healing services (289). She also insinuates that Reformed theology may have been a primary cause of apartheid. Her pejorative uses of “sexism” and “homophobia” place anyone who in any way limits the participation of women and homosexuals in church offices based on their reading of Scripture and the Reformed tradition in error and immorality. While her criticisms of many Reformed missionaries to South Africa during the colonial period are valid, readers may wonder whether she has adopted opposite extremes. The implications throughout her chapter are that African Christians adopt the Reformed label without any historic Reformed content and that they are better off redefining Reformed theology in terms of their own traditions and cultures. The result is a “Reformed” community that is detached from historic confessional doctrine, is Pentecostal and syncretistic in practice, and exercises intolerance towards anyone who interprets Scripture as excluding women from office and as viewing homosexuality as sinful. Regardless of the merits of any of these positions, this approach to Reformed theology tends to isolate African “Reformed” churches from any historic uses of the term “Reformed.” This undercuts the catholic unity on which Reformed theology was built and which its creeds defined and delineated. Phiri’s version of “Reformed” theology leaves readers with the question whether that term remains a useful description of her ecclesiastical tradition.
Some chapters of the Cambridge Companion, however, provide enough material to resolve the problems it raises over defining Reformed theology. Eberard Busch’s chapter on Reformed theology in continental Europe comes closest to defining Reformed theology adequately. He provides five characteristics the Reformed confession, all of which stem from the doctrine of God and of Scripture. These are the “fundamental directing power” of Scripture, the “seminal importance” of the covenant, a “unique interpretation” of the law and the gospel, predestination, and “appreciation of church order” (240-244). These characteristics all stem from the doctrine of God and of Scripture as the two principia of historic Reformed theology, which entail the absolute supremacy of the Triune God and the absolute authority and sufficiency of Scripture for doctrine and life.
Some Christians might ask how these emphases actually distinguish Reformed theology from other branches of the Christian tradition. Seeking to answer this question reveals the character of the Reformed system by contrasting it with other theological traditions. God is transcendent in glory (contra the Socinians). He is Lord of all, determining the end from the beginning, including all of his creatures and all of their actions (contra Arminians). He is sovereign in salvation, including the Spirit’s work of enabling us to receive and embrace Jesus Christ through faith (contra Arminianism, Roman Catholicism, and most Lutheranism). The Father elects his people unconditionally in his eternal love, the Son purchases the elect in his glorious grace alone, and the Spirit powerfully applies the redemption purchased by Christ by changing the hearts of unwilling subjects and working faith in them in their effectual calling (Eph. 1:3-12; contra most other theological traditions). As for Scripture, while Socinians, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans affirm Scripture authority, all differ from the Reformed by degrees with reference to its sufficiency. Reformed theology teaches that the Bible is the only rule of faith and practice, whether by way of express statement, approved, example, or good and necessary consequence. We can neither add to it nor take away from it in doctrine, worship, or in church government (Deut. 4; 12; Matt. 15; Col. 2). Socinians take away biblical doctrine by denying the application of the text through inferences. Roman Catholics add to Scripture by way of the magisterium and church extra-biblical church traditions. Lutherans and other evangelicals neglect Scripture sufficiency in relation to applying the doctrine to the principles of worship and church government. The Church of England has always been an anomaly in relation to this last point, though holding all other points mentioned above in common with other Reformed churches.
These doctrinal commonplaces of Reformed theology drive readers back towards historic Reformed confessions to move toward definition. Like “Puritanism,” Reformed theology can be harder to define than many assume. Yet unlike “Puritanism,” Reformed theology has well-defined confessional documents with well-identified areas of confessional commonality. All of the above noted areas point us to summaries of the Reformed system that look at lot like the three forms of unity, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Westminster Standards, the London Baptist confession, with other like confessions. With some denominational differences, Reformed churches share common goals with regard to the absolute supremacy of God and the absolute authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Every Reformed system rests on these first principles, which determine largely what it means to be Reformed. Thus, Reformed theology is characterized by unity without uniformity and by diversity without disintegration. Any meaningful definition of Reformed theology cannot be reduced merely to a set of doctrines or to churches who call themselves Reformed. Matching the character of Reformed theology itself, we must define Reformed theology both biblically and historically. Anything less evacuates the term of value. For better or worse, this drives us, with Busch and others, to Reformed confessions as representing distinctively Reformed interpretations of Scripture.
In conclusion, asking what it means to be Reformed admits diverse answers. If one asks what characterized the historic Reformed confession, then the answer must have historical content. However, if one asks for characteristics of who take the name “Reformed,” then he or she can define Reformed theology however he or she wants to. Yet if the term “Reformed” is to retain any value, then history must take precedence. Though Reformed theology is rooted in Scripture, churches claiming to interpret Scripture without any clear connection to historic Reformed confessions virtually evacuate the term of meaning. Before asking whether Reformed theology is true, one must know what Reformed theology is. This means that historical descriptions of Reformed theology are clearer than self-designations. Developing a Reformed theology that is rooted in Scripture and connected to the historic Reformed tradition is necessary to maintain the catholic character of Reformed theology, which is one of its greatest strengths. While the editors assert that in Reformed theology “the idea of confessional uniformity is unpersuasive” (3), this does not negate the reality of confessional unity. The primary value of the Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology is that its chapters represent the consequences of two opposing ways of defining what it means to be Reformed. In doing so, this book makes us ask difficult questions as it displays usefully the prospects and challenges facing Reformed churches today.
Ryan McGraw