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Book Review | Reformed Catholicity

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Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation
By Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015
176 pp.  | $19.99.

Is Reformed Christianity compatible with catholicity (orthodoxy, as broadly and historically embraced)? This, in short, is the question that this monograph addresses. Penned by two professors of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, this self-proclaimed “manifesto” enters an ongoing conversation regarding the potential for and practice of doctrinal and hermeneutical retrieval. Herein, the authors gesture towards the need for heirs of the Reformation to approach Scripture within its proper context (the church), and embrace those divine instruments of the Spirit’s illumination that God has gifted to the church (the processes and products of traditioning).

Summary

The book is organized as an introduction followed by five chapters, plus an afterword by J. Todd Billings. The chapters offered here are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather provide “exploratory excursions into some of the major theological places where” the authors “have found examples and principles of Reformed theology that might commend an embrace of Christian tradition (both catholic and Protestant).” (13)

In the introduction, the authors aptly bring the reader up to speed concerning the present interest in “renewal through retrieval.” (1) This practice, the authors claim, offers promise to the end of achieving the following synthesis: a commitment to “the ultimate authority of apostolic Scripture but also to receiving this Bible within the context of the apostolic church.” (1) They then offer a sampling of different ways in which such renewal through retrieval has been or currently is taking place within the broader sweep of Christendom (e.g., Nouvelle Theologie, Karl Barth, Reception History, Consensual Christianity, TIS, Radical Orthodoxy, and so on). Having demonstrated that “retrieval seems to be afoot in various ways,” the authors proceed to the meat of the book. (12)

Chapter 1, “Learning Theology in the School of Christ: The Principles of Theology and the Promise of Renewal,” explores the proper context for the doing of theology, querying the place and role of the church and tradition, in relationship to Holy Scripture. In sum, the authors argue here that, “acquisition of theological understanding involves being socialized within a specific theological culture.” (21) This culture is the school of Christ, that is, the church. And within this culture, there is a tradition that, without which, a person “cannot make real progress in the quest for understanding.” (20) Such tradition is not opposed to biblical authority. Instead, it is “the temporally extended, socially mediated activity of renewed reason,” developing as saints, by the illumination of the Spirit, come to rightly understand authoritative Scripture. The authors do not intend this to be a two-source notion of the relationship between Scripture and tradition. Rather, they sanction an approach that recognizes the Bible as being situated within a divinely instituted context. Scripture must not be carelessly removed from this habitat if it is to function per its design.

Along with this, the authors assert that a proper distinction between “source” and “goal” must be maintained. While the Bible is the source of theology, tradition is the goal. (36) In other words, the intent is not for God’s truth to simply remain deposited in Scripture. Rather, this truth flows out, and does so in a particular direction: toward reception and transmission that leads to “the maturity of the saints and their obtaining the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (43)

Chapters 2 and 3 take on the task of “Retrieving Sola Scriptura.” Chapter 2 focuses on “The Catholic Context” of the doctrine. (49) The authors start out here by stating that “sola Scriptura was not intended by its original advocates . . . as an absolute rebuke to tradition or a denial of genuine ecclesial authority.” (49) Rather, the Reformers assumed the churchly context of Scripture. Indeed, rightly construed, a commitment to sola Scriptura ought to promote “our reception of the catholic fullness of the church’s past,” rather than discourage it. (51) In order to support these assertions, chapter 2 takes place in dialogue with Martin Bucer, a reformer, and friend of Calvin. Chapter 3 deals with “Biblical Traditioning,” and argues that, “biblical authority is located amid the triune economy of grace as it inaugurates a communion of saints” (71). Here, the authors appeal to Scripture itself in order to undergird their claim that “the Bible cannot be read by itself, for it warrants or mandates the functioning of other ecclesial authorities.” (84)

Chapter 4, “A Ruled Reading Reformed: The Role of the Church’s Confession in Biblical Interpretation,” seeks to retrieve the notion of the regula fidei, or “rule of faith.” (95). Here, the authors cede the importance of “the church’s teaching authority” in the practice of “biblical interpretation,” seeing that “God has appointed this authority as an aid to reading Holy Scripture.” (107) The authors go on to distinguish between dogmas and other doctrines, specifying that “dogmas” that cannot be changed, because these are the “ancient landmarks” of the faith. (112) Such dogmas are important for all Christians to accept. Further, they contribute to a right “pre-understanding” that then “enables reading” of the Bible. (114)

Chapter 5, “In Defense of Proof Texting,” argues that proof texting is a valid citation technique. As the authors put it, proof texting “has biblical [as well as historical] precedent and therefore should not be too hastily dismissed.” (130) For example, along with the numerous instances of the Bible itself internally employing a sort of proof texting to refer to inter-textual links, for theologians such as Thomas and Calvin, “proof texts did not subvert exegetical care – they symbolized and represented its necessity.” (136)

Evaluation

All in all, Reformed Catholicity is a concise and stimulating foray into the realm of doctrinal and interpretive retrieval. This is a timely book, and a necessary one, considering the degree to which, in the modern and post-modern eras (and perhaps particularly among North American evangelical Protestants), Scripture has all-too-often been removed from its proper ecclesial environment. So then, the authors are to be commended for their role in an ongoing conversation about the current place and future trajectory of Protestantism.

With the above praises having been sung, I do have a quibble or two. For starters, key terms in this book remain largely undefined. What is the “church”? It seems as though some sort of definition must be had, if one is to read Scripture within its context. Or, it may also be queried, how do we truly differentiate between dogmas and other doctrines? If dogmas, as the authors suggest, are not negotiable, then it seems important to identify which beliefs must be dogmatically accepted, and which allow for some modicum of diversity. This problem extends to the whole notion of a “rule of faith.” If we must read and interpret Scripture in line with this rule, then the need to define this rule would seem rather critical.

But perhaps the authors have eschewed such definitions for the sake of letting such matters get settled at a later point in the conversation. Maybe their aim is more structural, sketching the right relationships between certain key terms, rather than precisely defining them. If so, then there is certainly value in such architectural work, even if there are yet hurdles to implementing the sort of catholicity that the authors desire to work toward. In the final analysis, if this monograph contributes constructively to the overcoming of such obstacles (even if by simply identifying the existence and location of such impediments, and providing a few tools with which to commence further work), then it has succeeded in its task.

About Tim Harmon

Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.