The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

“Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology”

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Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology ed. A. T. B. McGowan

IVP, 2006 (365 pages, pbk)

Depending on the reader’s turn of mind, or even mood at time of reading, Always Reforming can be fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, both for perfectly valid reasons.

With eleven contributors (the editor doubling up as author, and an introduction by John Frame), the aim of this volume is to survey some of the primary elements of systematic theology with a view to their future development.  As the title of the collection indicates, these essays are an attempt to point toward the future development of particular doctrines.  The intention is not to predict what is coming down the line, but to suggest what ought to be considered – in some instances, a necessity born more of assault on truth than merely a desire to explore it further.

always-reforming-mcgowanThis is where the fascination and frustration begin to work.  There is no single approach to this single aim, and so some of the contributors are much more positive, giving quite a definite and determinative call to the next generation, in effect saying, “This is where we have got to, and this is where you should go.”  Others are less direct and more discursive, preferring to survey current issues and concerns, before suggesting some matters arising that need to be addressed.  If you prefer your essay with hard edges and definite lines, you might enjoy the former and find the latter less distinct; if you like things to be a little more open-ended, then you might appreciate the latter and feel hemmed in by the former.

The editor’s introduction (as opposed to Frame’s) gives the reasons for this compendium: God is speaking today; theologians make mistakes; new issues require new thinking; Scripture must have priority over confessions of faith (robustly stated); and, the right of private judgment.  He sets out the approach.  Then we enter the fray.

Gerald Bray takes the Trinity, raising issues of Eastern and Western synthesis, being grounded in Biblical theology, understanding the divine unity and attributes, and matters of ‘spiritual formation.’

Stephen Williams questions the future of system, prompted by Charles Simeon and G. C. Berkouwer, and challenges us not to stultify faith within dogma, but rather to employ theology to preserve dogma’s doxology.

Robert Reymond assesses the future of classical Christology, robustly presenting key Scriptural data before posing a series of questions (in which he carefully explains the problem) before providing a suggested answer for each one.

Kevin Vanhoozer triangulates Scripture, church and world to ask questions of the very idea of a theological system, demanding that we make systematic theology a means of obtaining understanding and not merely knowledge.

Andrew McGowan hits the issue of penal substitution head-on, surveying challenges before proposing that we assess traditional formulations without losing the truth, and that we address issues relating to the extent of the atonement, the Christus victor theme, and ecumenical dialogue.

Richard Gamble weighs up Biblical and systematic theology, calling for further efforts to allow the strengths of each discipline to inform the other, to develop a Biblical system of theology.

Henri Blocher asks some penetrating questions of the old and new covenants, acknowledging the complexity of the Scriptural data before offering some potentially uncomfortable theses in pursuit of a revised covenant theology that does justice to the complexity of Biblical information.

Richard Gaffin stirs the juices on union with Christ, concentrating on issues thrown up by the ordo salutis in Calvin and in post-Reformation thought, giving rich consideration to the controlling soteriological reality of union with the crucified and risen Jesus.

Cornelis Venema outlines the ecumenical, Biblical and theological dimensions of the debates on justification, giving attention to historical Protestant and Catholic convictions, current ecumenical discussions, and the New Perspective on Paul, closing with ten challenges and concluding with a call for a “contemporary restatement of the doctrine of justification” which will “steer a steady course between the Scylla of legalism and the Charybdis of antinomianism” (327).

Derek Thomas brings up the rear with some potent and pithy questions for ecclesiology, focusing on the marks of the church – clear lines in the blurred post-modern milieu – and providing eight guiding principles for future thought, opening with the obvious but necessary call for a return to Scripture as the foundation of our thinking.

Such an overview reveals an august body of scholars at work, men at the top of their game both drawing a line and pushing others onward and upward.  A potential disadvantage is that – by virtue of the topics and their level of treatment – it is a high and narrow track that readers must travel.  The book can give one the sense of academicians disputing with each other in the theological stratosphere.  For anyone but those working at the same level in the same disciplines, not every essay will pass the “So what?” test.  I do not mean to suggest that these issues are insignificant, and these discussions valueless.  Indeed, many of them strike at the very heart of true Christianity.  Rather, one should not imagine that this is an accessible debate at a popular level.  For many, there will be paragraphs and pages that demand reading and re-reading.  Indeed, occasionally certain authors disappear into a blizzard of polysyllables.  For example, Kevin Vanhoozer hits us with the following:

The Spirit’s speaking through the text (perlocutions) is intrinsically tied to the text’s meanings (its locutions and illocutions) – to what God has said in inspiring, authorizing, commissioning and appropriating the human authorial discourse.  The Spirit’s work is to render the illocutions efficacious and to bring about further perlocutionary effects that are commensurate with those illocutions.  In Calvin’s words: God ‘sent down the same Spirit by whose power he had dispensed the Word, to complete his work by the efficacious confirmation of the Word’ (Institutes, 1.9.3).  (171)

It is at this point that one wonders if semper reformanda genuinely means advance if Calvin could state the same thing so much more plainly five centuries ago!  It is not all like this, but one enters a fairly rarefied scholarly atmosphere: the thought and its accompanying vocabulary aim high, and hit the mark, but there remains much to be said for the pursuit of simplicity and clarity without sacrificing profundity.

While some of these essays are more specialized, others would be read with great profit by all pastor-theologians.  Helpful summaries and assessments abound, and the identification of points of contention is useful for those who are facing more popular forms of the errors that lie behind some of those issues.  It is worth noting that these writers are not putting the truth up for grabs: this is no theological free-for-all.  On several matters, the contributions are a call to faithfulness to the truth we know without shirking the hard questions or ignoring the fine-tuning that remains.  Several are not shy of pointing out the practical implications of the issues that face the church of Christ, for good or ill, and calling for a response.

Reading certain essays one might call into question the balance struck between reviewing current (or past) thought as compared with genuine pressing forward.  Furthermore, by its very nature, Always Reforming provides more questions than answers.  As one would expect, you do not walk away with a sense of finality, but rather of work still to be done.  If the reader is looking for genuine movement forward, this volume will only prompt him, not provide him with a string of easy answers.  Such a collection cannot make progress happen, it can only call for it, and suggest some wise direction.  In addition, it is by definition a snapshot: by the time this review appears, some three years after publication, doubtless most of the contributors would be fine-tuning their essays to take account of further challenges and changes.  Even so, the broad sweep of men and movements will remain valuable for some time.

Some readers will be frustrated that so much is left hanging, and that men so competent in their sphere discuss advance more than they make it.  But that is the purpose of this book, and their own contributions to the debate lie elsewhere.  At the same time, those very readers might be fascinated by the prospects and possibilities, not to mention the combats that remain to be fought – or continue to be fought – over vital issues.

Always Reforming is both a call to arms and a demand for prayerful consideration.  It reminds us that the principles of the Reformation cannot be allowed to float face-down in the stormy waters of the current moral and theological world, but must be kept active in their application.  We cannot afford to slumber and stagnate, for challenges novel in their form if not their substance continue to abound, and our statement of and application of Biblical truth in these areas must continue to be fresh, vital, pointed, profound, faithful and – above all – Scriptural if we are to be true to our inheritance.

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