Book Review: Reformation Theology

Matthew Barrett, ed., Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 784pp. Hardcover. $45.00.

Reformed theology aims to be biblical. Yet being Reformed also describes historic branches of confessional Christian churches. This means that Reformed theology must be both biblically faithful and historically informed in order to retain its name meaningfully. This impressive volume includes essays from authors who seek to achieve both of these aims. Reformation Theology presents the entire system of Christian theology in light of the writings of sixteenth-century authors with an aim towards ongoing reformation. The result is a highly readable and interesting introduction to Reformed thought that should appeal to believers at every level.

            Reformation Theology is an excellent introduction to early Reformation thought. Its authors represent some of the most well respected historians and systematic theologians in the Reformation traditions, both Reformed and Lutheran (Kolb). Michael Horton’s stirring and insightful prologue alerts readers to the need for recovering Reformation theology at the present day. This material shows readers what to do with what they learn from all subsequent chapters. The following three chapters represent the most heavyweight scholarship in the work, especially Gerald Bray’s superb treatment of late-medieval theology and its relevance to the Reformation. These chapters establish the broader historical context of the Protestant Reformation and its theological developments, helping readers grasp better what is unique to Reformed theology while disabusing the common notion that the middle ages were merely the “dark ages.” This is an important point for those of us who believe that Christ faithfully preserved the truth in his church in great measure in every age. The rest of the volume outlines Protestant theology from the doctrine of Scripture through eschatology, drawing from primary source writings of early Protestant authors, with heavy stress on Luther and Calvin throughout. In addition to the opening chapters, the material on the person of Christ (Letham), the Church (Kolb), the sacraments, (Denlinger and Mathison), and the relationship between church and state (Lillback) stand out for depth of research, setting broad historical contexts. All of the chapters are interesting and edifying and readers will gain a stronger grasp of the theology of several first and second generation Reformers.

            Reformation Theology, however, illustrates the difficulty of blending historical and systematic theology. The challenge of writing historical theology is asking historical questions of historical figures rather than looking into the proverbial well of history in order to see our own reflections. Understanding past authors on their own terms and in the contexts of their times provides us with perspectives that sometimes differ widely from our own. Believers rightly desire to evaluate what they find from Scripture and appropriate ideas in their present generation. Doing so, however, entails at least three questions: What did Reformation authors teach? Is their teaching biblical? and, What should we do with their teaching today? Theologians need to distinguish such questions initially in order to bring them together effectively and accurately later. This is not as easy as it sounds. For the most part, the authors of Reformation Theology lean in the direction of answering the first question rather than the last two. While this reviewer believes that this slants the volume in the right direction, it is not easy to see why the editor’s stress on the authors’ holding to Reformation theology matters much in most cases. People can write good history whether or not they sympathize with their historical subjects. However, the few authors of this volume who attempt to evaluate and apply Reformation thought often blur the distinction between historical and contemporary theology. For example, Douglas Kelly spends a large amount of time asking what the Reformers would have thought about theistic evolution (289-293), even though such views became prominent in the nineteenth-century. A better approach would have been to ask what issues faced the Reformers in their own times in relation to the doctrine of creation, to evaluate their conclusions, and then to apply their ideas to present controversies. This some judgment applies to importing anachronistic terms, such as “sphere sovereignty” (687), into sixteenth-century theology. The only chapter that clearly combines historical analysis with clear and distinct biblical evaluations and contemporary uses is Korey Maas’ chapter on Justification by faith alone (511-548). While criticism should not detract from the usefulness of this work it sheds light on the kind of discernment that readers need to digest some of its assertions.

Reformation Theology is an excellent introduction to the theological developments of the Protestant Reformation. The large size of the book should not hinder broad readership. This volume has the advantage of placing theology back at the heart and center of the Reformation without neglecting the broader historical context (45). This reviewer agrees with the editor and authors of this book that we need to recover the depth, beauty, and power of the historic Protestant proclamation of the Gospel. May the Lord use this work to push the church in the right direction.

Ryan McGraw