Book Review: Reformed Catholicity

Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015). 168pp. Paperback. $21.00.

Catholicity is as important as it is often misunderstood. In search of a deeper connection to historic Christianity, some study Roman Catholicism only to become Roman Catholic. Others study Eastern Orthodoxy and adopt that system of thought, in whole or in part. The great strength of post-Reformation Reformed theology is that it provides an example of how to glean from the entire catholic tradition of the church without adopting alternate theological systems. In Reformed Catholicity, Allen and Swain make a persuasive case why we need to learn to do the same thing today. They argue for building a distinctively Reformed theology, in conversation with the entire Catholic tradition of the church, under the authority of Scripture, in the church, and for the church. This is precisely the kind of theological maturity that Reformed churches need so desperately today.

This book points the church in the right direction with regard to doing systematic theology. It stresses primarily the meaning and application of the Reformed principle of sola scriptura in conjunction with confessional theology in formulating Reformed theology. The authors rightly note the importance of texts, such as Eph. 4:11, for establishing the necessity of teaching as an instrument by which Christ through the Spirit teaches the church and builds believers up to maturity. They make a biblical case for the special role of historic creeds and confessions in this process followed by an outstanding concluding chapter “In Defense of Proof-Texting.” This section shows the nuanced exegesis that ought to stand behind proper proof-texting in theology. The only weakness to this treatment is the absence of discussing theological inferences and their proper use in light of Scriptural example.

One thing that should be added is that recovering Reformed Catholicity highlights the necessity of Latin for Reformed theologians. English-speaking theologians draw predominantly from British and American texts, effectively cutting themselves off from the continental Reformed tradition. This is unfortunate, since most Reformed systematic theology in the Reformed orthodox period was written in Latin on the continent. 

In spite of the many virtues of this work, the book highlights as well that Reformed Catholicity is easier to formulate than to practice. For example, appealing explicitly to the churchly context of theology would strengthen their treatment of “proof-texting.” They suggest that in order to keep theology biblically grounded, systematic theologians should engage in writing theological commentaries or articles on parts of Scripture. While this counsel is valid, if theology is truly a churchly activity, then what better place for systematicians to ground their theology in Scripture than ministering what they learn in the context of the church from the pulpit? Preaching naturally gravitates towards exegetical and biblical theology. However, systematic theology, if used properly, has the potential to make preaching more precise, edifying, personal, and practical. It is possible for professors to stress the churchly context of theology without giving a churchly solution to contemporary problems. In the past, the best ministers were the best professors. Laboring prayerfully in the study in the context of ministering to God’s people in the local church has greater potential to produce sound and useful systematic theology than writing theological commentaries, though both are important. It is telling that older forms of church order, such as the Scottish Second Book of Discipline, charged the doctors of the church with teaching in theological schools and with catechizing the youth. This is how it should be.

The generally excellent appendix by Todd Billings take a tragic turn when he appeals to City Church in San Francisco as example of what it means to be catholic-Reformed. He calls this congregation, “a distinctively Reformed church that seeks to draw upon the larger catholic tradition of theology and practice, for the sake of its mission and witness in the world. The felt needs of the culture do not drive its agenda” (157). Having recently moved from the San Francisco Bay area, this reviewer finds this assessment puzzling if not shocking, since City Church declared itself independent from an established Reformed denomination in order to ordain women elders, rejected ministerial vows to uphold historic Reformed creeds, and now accepts practicing homosexuals into their membership. It is hard to conceive how City Church embodies either catholic or Reformed theology and practice. 

Reformed churches today desperately need to recover the theological maturity exemplified by their forefathers. This entails critical and appreciative engagement with the entire catholic tradition of the church, with the conviction that Christ has spoken and continues to speak to and through his bride. However, there is a fine line across the spectrum trying to repristinate the seventeenth-century, appropriating and adapting historic Reformed theology to a new generation, and transforming the content of that theology into something entirely new. The authors of Reformed Catholicity aim at the second option, but the appendix by Billings appears to drift into the third one. Yet in an age in which there are almost as many methods as there are systematic theologians, Allen and Swain provide much sage wisdom for students, professors, and scholars. In particular, this review hopes and prays that Reformed pastors would develop a healthy Reformed catholicity that will prevent believers from being tossed about by every wind of doctrine and build them up into unity and maturity in the Lord and with his church in all ages.

[This review appeared in Puritan Reformed Journal]

Ryan McGraw