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Christian Dogmatics edited by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain

John V. Fesko

Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, edited by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016, 408 pages, $36.99, paper.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, professors at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, have assembled an interesting book that reflects upon the key subjects of systematic theology with a view to renewal and retrieval. The editors highlight the fact that theology is ultimately a task that must derive its motivation and energy from the grace of God (3). They also argue that renewal must come through retrieval, that is, a theological engagement with our catholic heritage. In other words, as we study the Scriptures we do so in the classroom of the communion of the saints, where we learn from theologians throughout church history. The editors and authors press renewal and retrieval towards the goal of dogmatics, “the disciplined effort to have our eyes and mouths retrained by the gospel” (4). But they do this training with a healthy engagement of church tradition, which must “be shaped by the truth, goodness, and beauty of our heritage and not be drawn into a pathology of untruth, evil, and ugliness by our native resources” (5).

The editors have assembled a team of accomplished theologians who write sixteen chapters to cover key loci in systematic theology, including prolegomena (Allen), Scripture (Kevin Vanhoozer), the divine attributes (Allen), the trinity (Swain), covenant of redemption (Swain), creation ex nihilo (John Webster), providence (John Webster), anthropology (Kelly Kapic), sin (Oliver Crisp), incarnation (Daniel Treier), the work of Christ (Donald Macleod), redemption applied (Richard Gaffin), the law of God (Paul Nimmo), church (Michael Horton), sacraments (Todd Billings), and eschatology (Michael Horton). Most of the contributions share a number of positive common factors. The essays interact with key historic Reformed documents, which helps readers better understand the Reformed tradition. The essays engage a wide array of sources, patristic, medieval, Reformation, post-Reformation, and contemporary. The breadth of learning and knowledge in some of the contributions is impressive. The authors, however, do not merely flex their intellectual brawn but ultimately carry out the overall purpose of the book, which is to promote a Reformed catholicity. Third, the essays engage their subject in a thoughtful and learned manner. I personally benefited from many of the chapters and identified a number of sources for further reading.

More specifically, there are two noteworthy features that commend this book. Most of the essays offer a thoughtful engagement of patristic and medieval theology. Augustine, Boethius, John of Damascus, and Thomas Aquinas are a few of the names that appear throughout this book. For some, mention of the patristics is unproblematic, but the same might not be true of Aquinas. Many in Reformed churches assume that the Reformation was a clean break from all that went before and thus look upon medieval theologians with a degree of suspicion. Yet, open the pages of Calvin’s Institutes and one finds multiple positive references to medieval theologians such as Bernard of Clairvaux.[1] Or open the works of John Owen and explore the Thomistic elements of his theology.[2] This pattern was not lost on Reformed theologians like Herman Bavinck, who argued that the patristics, like Augustine, and medievals, like Aquinas, were a treasury of knowledge for Reformed Christians—they were not the exclusive property of Rome.[3] While many believe there is a unique Reformed take on all theological matters, the truth is that the Reformation touched upon key issues and left others unaltered. It may be a slight over-generalization, but in his famous letter to Cardinal Sadoleto, Calvin characterized the Reformed dispute with Rome as a conflict over justification and worship (ecclesiology, sacraments, and polity), not as a wholesale rejection of everything Rome had to say.[4] Strictly speaking, there is no unique Reformed doctrine of God, trinity, the person of Christ, or creation, for example. These catholic doctrines are common to Protestants and Roman Catholics alike. Hence, this book is an excellent entry-point to key medieval sources and doctrines that are a part of our biblical and catholic heritage.

Another benefit of this book is its engagement with contemporary theology. Readers will note the names of Barth, Bonhoeffer, Jenson, Torrance, and Rahner, among many others. Some readers might find this off-putting, as these names are often associated with something less than pristine orthodoxy. But the virtue of this book is that the authors mine these sources for insights and, when necessary, offer careful critique. Some theologians might be more practical or useful for the pastor or ruling elder—I can more easily and quickly benefit from Calvin’s Institutes than I can Barth’s Church Dogmatics just given the massive difference in the size of the two works—two volumes vs. thirteen! Nevertheless, this book culls some of the best insights from contemporary sources, which makes it a valuable resource for the busy pastor. He can benefit from the spadework that these authors have performed.

There are a few weaknesses to this book. As to be expected, with a collection of essays there are some essays that are weaker than the others. Another shortcoming is that in one or two places the exegesis is either non-existent or very thin. Oliver Crisp’s essay on sin, for example, has much to commend it. He thoughtfully engages the subject and challenges the common Reformed doctrine of immediate imputation for original sin. He promotes a Zwinglian realist view. At one level, this is fine. But when he rejects immediate imputation, he does so apart from any exegesis. To claim that immediate imputation promotes an arbitrary view of God or that no one ever authorized Adam to represent humanity are expected common objections, but to fail to provide substantive counter-exegesis to the exegetical support for immediate imputation renders the objections unconvincing. Another limitation of the book is that, given that each chapter covers an entire locus of theology, sometimes the essays feel a bit rushed.

These drawbacks aside, I encourage elders and pastors to buy a copy of this book, read, and study its contents. There is a wealth of information here that can enrich one’s understanding of the key subjects of systematic theology. Allen and Swain continue to produce excellent resources for learning more about biblical doctrine, and this book certainly is a wonderful contribution to this end.


[1] See, e.g., A. N. S. Lane, Calvin and Bernard of Clairvaux, Studies in Reformed Theology and History, New Series (Princeton: Princeton Theological Seminary, 1996).

[2] See, e.g., Christopher Cleveland, Thomism in John Owen (Surrey: Ashgate, 2013).

[3] Herman Bavinck, “Foreword to the First Edition (Volume 1) of the Gereformeerde Dogmatiek,” trans. John Bolt, Calvin Theological Journal 45 (2010): 9–10.

[4] John Calvin, “Reply by John Calvin to Letter by Cardinal Sadoleto to the Senate and People of Geneva,” in Tracts and Letters, ed. Henry Beveridge, 7 vols. (1844; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), 1:23–68.

John V. Fesko is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of systematic and historical theology and academic dean at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, October 2016.

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