Monday, November 12, 2007

Always Reforming by A.T.B. McGowan (ed)

Always Reforming, Explorations in Systematic Theology,
Edited by A.T.B. McGowan, IVP Apollos, 2006
Reformed theology should be reforming theology, but this has not always been the case. The Reformed tradition has sometimes been guilty of defensive traditionalism. This results in a failure to respond to new challenges to the faith. Tired old nostrums are repeated, but there is little evidence of fresh, biblical thinking. This book attempts to reassert the principle of semper reformanda - always reforming. Ten leading Reformed Theologians were given the task of reflecting on key areas of systematic theology. Some devote attention to matters of methodology, others discuss important biblical doctrines. Andrew McGowan's introduction sets the scene for the book with a passionate argument for semper reformanda.
The whole discipline of systematic theology has been called into question of late. So, it is good that several chapters are devoted to methodological issues. On this front, Stephen Williams has piece on Observations on the Future of System. He draws on Charles Simeon's proposals in an attempt to argue for a broad-based approach to theology that may help to break down the old Arminian/Calvinist divide. Kevin Vanhoozer's On the Very Idea of a Theological System offers a much more radical and innovative approach to doing systematics. After surveying several different options, he argues that theodramatic triangulation is the way forward. As in his The Drama of Doctrine, the writer proposes that doctrine should enable the people of God to perform their roles in the drama of redemption. To do this, theology must triangulate the authoritative Scriptures, the church and the world. All this is very good, but I am still not clear what a Vanhoozer authored systematics would look like. Would he work his way through the classic loci of systematics from the Doctrine of God to Eschatology theodramatically or what? I don't know (neither does he - yet. See this interview). Richard Gamble's chapter is on The Relationship Between Biblical and Systematic Theology. He seems to think that systematic theology should transmute into biblical theology, leaving little room for the systematics as traditionally conceived. But this would be a serious loss to theological reflection. Systematic theology views Scriptural revelation as a finished product, which may be studied logically and comprehensively. Biblical theology concentrates on the unfolding process of biblical revelation. We need both perspectives if we are to develop a rigorous and coherent understanding of the "whole counsel of God". John Murray's proposals on the interrelationship of the two disciplines are much more helpful (here).
The essays on key doctrines showcase Reformed systematics at its best. Doctrines are explored with biblical insight and a fine grasp of the current state of scholarship. The writers make suggestions for future reflection and study. Gerald Bray helpfully charts the way ahead for the doctrine of the Trinity. Robert Reymond devotes attention to Person of Christ. He argues convincingly for Christ's eternal sonship. The theologian sets forth a Calvinistic understanding of the Son as autotheos. Andrew McGowan brings biblical light to bear on the the controversy surrounding penal substitution in his chapter on the atonement. Henri Blocher's essay on the relationship between the old and new covenants is full of fresh insights. The book is worth buying for this contribution alone. As a Baptist I found his proposals on the continuity and discontinuity of the covenants especially enlightening. Richard Gaffin draws upon the teaching of Calvin and John Murray in his chapter union with Christ. He argues that union with Christ rather than the ordo salutis should take centre stage in Reformed soteriology. Very true. Cornelis Venema gives attention to justification by faith in relation to ecumenism and the new perspective. Those not familiar with his The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ, will find a useful summary of his arguments here. Finally, Derek Thomas concludes with a chapter on the doctrine of the church. We should give more attention to ecclesiology and seek to work out a biblical doctrine of the church and her worship. Notwithstanding his Presbyterianism and some cheeky remarks on theology blogging, this was a helpful reminder that if God is our Father, the church is our mother. She exists to nurture us in the faith and hold us in Christ. Reformed systematic theology would do well to take account of the proposals mapped out in these essays. One lacunae was the failure to include some dogmatic reflection on the resurrection of Christ.
As one who has sometimes expressed concerns about the failure of Reformed theology to engage with contemporary issues (here), I found this book most refreshing and helpful. It was good to see several writers make use of John Murray's far reaching proposals for systematics. One enjoyable feature of the book is the interaction between some of the authors. Gamble has a little dig at John Frame, who responds in his Preface. Also in the preface, Frame seems to accuse fellow triangulator Kevin Vanhoozer of having an overcomplicated hermeneutic. I recommend this lively book at all who are interested in the future of Reformed systematic theology. What we need now is a full-length systematic theology that is both Reformed and reforming. Semper reformanda!

1 comment:

Reformed Renegade said...

I agree. This was a great book and very much needed today. Great review!