Thursday, March 08, 2007

Some issues in Reformed Dogmatics

I'm not a systematic theologian, you might have noticed. But I would hazard a guess that works of Systematic Theology are often bought by pastors. We need a deep grasp of the 'whole counsel of God' if we are to be effective ministers of the Word. We also need the stimulus of reading the big, wide-ranging Systematic Theologies. So, I am a stakeholder in the world of Reformed Dogmatics and I think that some issues need to be addresses by the theologians.
1) Reformed Dogmatics must be contemporary
Was Robert Reymond's New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nelson, 1998) really that 'New'? He spent pages refuting old-style dispensationalism, but said nothing at all about the New Perspective on Paul. Some of the leading lights in modern Systematic Theology like Robert Jensen, Colin Gunton and T. F. Torrance do not even merit a mention in the index. Pastors need to be kept up-to-date with what is going on in the field of systematic theology and we expect to some help in this area when we invest in a large and expensive volume of Reformed Theology. Robert Letham shows how this can be done in his The Holy Trinity (P&R, 2004), where he discusses the views of Barth, Moltmann and Pannenberg amongst others. Letham also takes on the challenges of postmodernism and Islam as they impact on the doctrine of the Trinity. IVP's multi-volume, multi-author Contours of Christian Theology series is also excellent in this respect, with outstanding contributions from Gerlad Bray on The Doctrine of God (1993), Robert Letham on The Work of Christ (1993), Paul Helm's The Providence of God (1994), Edmund Clowney on The Church (1995), Sinclar Ferguson on The Holy Spirit (1996), Charles Sherlock on The Doctrine of Humanity (1996), Donald Macleod The Person of Christ (1988) and Peter Jensen on The Revelation of God (2002).
Reymond cannot be blamed for not interacting with Vanhoozer as his book was published before the latter published some of his major work. But Reformed Dogmatics must take account of Vanhoozer's critique of some of the traditional methods of doing Systematic Theology. Reformed Theology cannot be reduced to a set of "dedramatised propositions" that do not help the people of God to participate fittingly in the drama of redemption. In his The Drama of Doctrine, (WJK, 2005) Vanhoozer argues that the theologian is to act as a 'dramaturge', whose task is to assist pastor-directors understand the Biblical script. With this deepened understanding pastors can help the people of God to play their roles in a way that is faithful both to the ancient Scriptures and the contemporary setting.
There is no point in Reformed Dogmatics just regurgitating the same old themes in the same old way. Systematic theologians must help pastors to grapple with the challenges of the contemporary world. Reformed theologians have eminently fulfilled this mandate in some of their single-subject works. But its seems to me that we still await a full Systematic Theology that is truly contemporary.
2) Reformed Dogmatics must give due place to the resurrection of Christ
In the traditional schema, attention moves from the cross of Christ straight to the application of redemption as if we could be saved by a dead Jesus. Christ's resurrection hardly gets a mention, let alone the prolonged theological reflection it deserves. Yet it has been exactly 30 years since Richard Gaffin challenged the status quo in his Resurrection and Redemption (P&R, 1977, second edition 1987). Gaffin builds on the insights of Vos and Ridderbos to argue that the resurrection of Christ takes centre stage in Paul's theology. Reformed theology claims to be Pauline theology. This claim cannot be substantiated unless the dogmatic signifigance of Christ's resurrection is given due recognition. Reymond has certainly failed us in this regard.
3) A truly contemporary Systematic Theology please!
Who will rise the to daunting task of producing such a work? Gaffin, Ferguson, Letham, Macleod and Vanhoozer amongst others have the requisite gifts and erudition. Be bold, you men and publish!
Unless a new Reformed Systematic Theology takes the above considerations into account, I'm going on strike. I won't buy it, no way. Do you agree with my strictures, dear reader? And who would you like to see writing a full, up-to-date Reformed Dogmatics?


michael jensen said...

You are wonderfully RIGHT here Guy. Exactly so. We can't have a Reformed Dogmatics that is not Re-formed... If we want Louis Berkhof, we can read Louis Berkhof.

Three cheers for you.

Guy Davies said...

Thanks Michael. Who would you like to see writing a truly contemporary Reformed Theology?

michael jensen said...

Vanhoozer's the dude.

Guy Davies said...

Yeah, bring on Van the man!

Anonymous said...

What about John Frame's project? That's about as good as Reformed (Evangelical) Dogmatics can get at the moment. I think Vanhoozer is too far fetched for ordinary evangelicals. And those theologians inspired by Barth (John Webster, Bruce McCormack, etc)would also fail to offer 'pleasing' theology for most Reformed Evangelicals. If Packer couldn't or wouldn't produce a Reformed Dogmatic, I'm not sure those in your post will try, perhaps Letham is the exception?

Guy Davies said...


I'm not that familiar with Frame's work. I'll have to give him a try.

John said...

Guy, as you know I've got an objection to introductions to Systematic Theology being paraded as Systematic Theologies. I hope that the translation of Bavinck will put a stop to this category error because everyone should by now know how it used to be done.
However I need to say a word in defence of Reymond which is, by Bavinck standards far too short, I agree, but to say that a Reformed Systematic Theology has to deal with Barth … ! Reymond is probably right in his implication that real Systematic Theology is dead.
How come? The child psychologist, Piaget apparently joked that no-one in the field would ever catch up with him because, unlike them, he didn't need to read Piaget. A real go get it Reformed Systematic Theology just isn't possible anymore because of Barth.
So on the principle that less is more, I propose that the trick that now awaits accomplishment is a Systematic Theology in the smallest possible scope with no references to anyone whatsoever. :-p

Guy Davies said...

Well John, if Reformed Theology is going to surrender any pretence of contemporary relevance, then we'd be much better off just sticking to the Institutes.

Anonymous said...

Barth — relevance — I'm not sure I see the connection. Barth was a great
man but if Theology has to deal with him as relevant then it is dead in
the water as a living discipline. Barth invented a great game which is
somewhat analogous to Theology but if Systematic Theologians play the
game they will surely loose contact with hoi polloi.
By all means let's have a theology from someone who's read Barth but if
such a theologian ventures to even mention Barth in his system then he
is bound to bring in the whole apparatus, deadly as that would be to his
being read. You might wonder why in the world anyone would want to study
a system to which Barth had contributed nothing but I would have to
counter that anyone who wants to know what Barth thought is surely going
to read the man himself. Like a sort of mussel-bed, any theology that
treats the Barth corpus like a real thing is buried under the inexorable
weight of his erudition.
If we are to have theology then let's have it live, please.


Guy Davies said...


I only mentioned Barth once in passing, so I don't know why you keep coming back to him. Barth's legacy is part of the contemporary scene and Reformed theologians will have to interact with his thinking. But I'm not suggesting that Church Dogmatics should set the agenda for Reformed Theology in the 21st century.

Interestingly, a book om Barth is soon to be published, Karl Barth’s Theology: Collected Critical Perspectives, edd. David Gibson and Daniel Strange, (Leicester, Apollos, 2007). For pastors too busy/indolent to read CD this may be a good primer.

David McKay said...

I'd like to see a full-blown New Covenant Theology, building on the work of Reisinger, Zaspel, Wells and Lehrer.

Ben Myers said...

Excellent post, Guy. Reading through the new translation of Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics, I've been struck by the fact that Bavinck is still (after 100 years) far more "contemporary" and "up-to-date" than most subsequent works of conservative dogmatics! In particular, many conservative writers simply carry on as though Kant and Schleiermacher had never existed. And any dogmatics with that attitude is already hundreds of years out-of-date.

To respond to your question, though, I agree that Vanhoozer could write an excellent dogmatics one day if he wants to. But the most promising new Reformed dogmatician is probably John Webster. And don't forget that (in spite of his Barthian roots) Webster is still a deeply "conservative" thinker.