A Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy

Written by Herman J. Selderhuis, ed. Reviewed By Paul Helm

Here’s another hefty Companion from Brill’s reference series on the medieval and early modern Christian life, thought, and practice. This series joins other similar series from Oxford, Cambridge, Blackwell, and Routledge, which are popular with students, but usually purchased by college libraries.

Professor Selderhuis has edited the book with a light touch. Usually the authors to Companions provide a survey of current research and thinking on the topic, person, or period. This is central to the genre, and what students rummage for. But entries to this volume vary significantly in scope, length, and quality. Some contributors provide the sort of survey readers expect, others offer a representation of their topic for a modern readership who don’t fancy themselves as Reformed scholastics, others offer new research, others propose new areas of research, and still others summarize their own research area. So, for example, Carl Trueman on Reformed Orthodoxy (RO) in Britain gives his readers an account of some of the main events, people and publications from the onset of the Reformation to post-Restoration Dissent, the materials for research. On the other hand, Christian Moser on RO in Switzerland provides us with a slice of the state of research. Some contributions are twenty-odd pages, some forty or fifty pages. There are eighteen chapters. Brill has the policy of not calling them chapters, and not numbering them, but the editor has gathered them into three Parts: ‘Relations’, ‘Places’ and ’Topics’.

In Professor Selderhuis’s short Introduction, he reflects on the difficulty of defining ‘Reformed Orthodoxy’. In the first instance ‘Reformed’ refers to a familiar list of Reformers which is broader than ‘Calvinistic’, and it may include those against whom Reformed confessions and theological tomes were written, and they may have thought of themselves as ‘Reformed’. Selderhuis says, ‘“Reformed” therefore stands for each and every movement, standpoint or theologian that considers itself Reformed’ (p. 2). So if a theologian to be studied thinks himself Reformed then he is Reformed. And what if he doesn’t think himself Reformed, may he nevertheless be? Presumably so, for the one doing the research may think that he is. And ‘Orthodoxy’ is used neutrally, a term with neither negative or positive connotations (p. 2). In this area I think there is no alternative but to stipulate and then to be ostensive, showing more determination than does Professor Selderhuis.

However, whatever their provenance, the assembled papers are full of interest. It is not possible to review each of the eighteen contributions here, so I have picked a third of them to describe and comment on. The equally worthy remainder are listed at the end.

(1) Aza Goudriaan teaches church history at the VU Amsterdam and is the author of Reformed Orthodoxy and Philosophy, 1625–1750 (Leiden: Brill, 2006), for which this piece in the Companion should whet appetites. Here he discusses the relations between philosophy and theology in RO, looking to the responses of the movement to philosophical developments. The figures treated are largely Dutch, or those who worked in Holland. The chief of these movements is of course Aristotelianism. In addition Goudriaan has things to say on Ramism, Cartesianism, the philosophies of Hobbes, Ludwijk Meijer, and Spinoza. He sees philosophical reflection as an adaptation of the general knowledge of God, which the RO were educated in and inherited from late medievalism. This Aristotelianism operated as a conservative force in Dutch universities, since it became embedded in the teaching not only of philosophy and theology, but of law and of medicine as well. It was adapted for theological purposes, and used eclectically (e.g., for use in elucidation of creation, or the immortality of the soul, or the human person). Goudriaan says that it was ‘strongly adapted’ in such ways (p. 35). It seems to me that such a force came through much more strongly in Holland than in England, where it seems to have been less developed in fact and with less pronounced literary vehicles.

(2) Irena Backus of the Institute d’histoire de la Réformation, Geneva, discusses the relationship between RO and the patristic tradition. RO was interested in the synthesising of the Reformed faith to aid the education of ministerial candidates, using aristotelian and Ramist tools. What, in this process, of the relation between Reformed theology and the patristic tradition? Her paper endeavours to begin to answer that question, noting ‘some of the specific features of the reception of patristic tradition’ (p. 91) by early RO theologians. She offers a learned account of the state of research, which has identified summaries of patristic thought for RO consumption by authors such as Jean Daillé and André Rivet. The purpose of such writing was partly to warn the Reformed against aberrant catholicity, while at the same time introducing reliable patristic guides. Backus is not shy in critiquing the RO, a welcome note modulating the generally laudatory tone of the Companion. On the relation between systematic theology and the patristic tradition she notes the work of E. P. Meijering on Turretin, Polanus and Wollebius. The Reformed had to draw a fine line by dissenting from the Roman teaching on consensus patrum while at the same time employing them as witnesses to the Trinity and to the person of Christ. She opines that by Turretin’s time there was a weaving between some of the dogmatic deliverances of the fathers and RO theology beyond these obvious themes (e.g., on the sense or senses in which the atonement was necessary). Backus also investigates parallels between Beza on Jerome and Daneau’s work on Augustine’s Enchiridion, but she curiously overlooks Calvin’s use of the Fathers—not only Augustine of course, but of Bernard of Clairvaux, Hilary of Poitiers, and the like.

(3) Antonie Vos, Professor of Historical Theology, Evangelical Theology Faculty, Leuven, writes on RO in the Netherlands, providing the reader with a fairly celebratory whistle stop tour of Dutch university towns and their universities in this Golden Age. This is followed by a section on systematic theology in the Netherlands of this time. The key to RO distinctiveness and the root of its glory lies in part in the distinction between necessity and contingency in God, owed to Duns Scotus and realized in the Reformed community in Holland in the seventeenth century, ‘classic Reformed theology, in the Golden Age of the northern Netherlands . . . this land flowing of excellent theology’ (p. 158).

According to Vos, there is a fundamental ontological difference between Calvin and the Calvinists. But it is hard to make this out. Such theology as he ascribes to the Dutch Calvinists can be found earlier in Geneva with or without the help of Duns Scotus (p. 158). Vos’s contribution to the study of RO is noteworthy, but not representative of the wider field.

(4) Sebastian Rehnman, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Stavanger, has provided a fifty-page paper on the doctrine of God. It is the best in the Companion for its accuracy, care, and freshness (I declare a modest interest: I had the privilege of reading a draft). It is a considerable achievement. The RO elucidate the concept of God in terms of the scholastic notions of act and potency: God is pure act, he is omnipotent and so on. Rehnman transposes such expressions into non-scholastic prose. He seeks to convey understanding of RO by a synoptic approach to the various parts of the RO understanding while at the same time closely following the contours of their thought and noting the primary sources at each step, usually in footnotes. His synopsis has three stages: God’s existence, his perfections, and his tri-personhood. Each of these stages presupposes the earlier one. Talk of God may seem in peril for the RO with their stress on negative theology, for God is incomprehensible. Yet we can talk of God since God has talked of himself in Holy Scripture in a way that is accommodated to our capacity. He is preeminently the cause of all that exists besides himself, and he is our Creator. So the Creator-creature distinction is fundamental. And the doctrine of God is the result of disciplined thought on this accommodation.

Rehnman takes the reader through this sequence in some detail, offering generous citations especially from Francis Turretin and (in respect of the divine persons) the Independent divines John Owen and Thomas Ridgley. This choice is a bit curious, in that Ridgley was skeptical of the Nicene formula of the eternal begottenness of the Son and the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son (filioque). Not for rationalist reasons, but because of what he regarded as its lack of solid scriptural grounding. Such scepticism was a minority view among the orthodox but taken up by several Reformed theologians in RO and subsequently. Rehnman does not touch on this fact.

The second phase is concerned with the nature of God’s attributes or perfections, drawn from his revelation which bears evidence of God’s nature, though not comprehensively so. First in this, what are called God’s incommunicable attributes, his metaphysical ‘structure’ and the theologian works forward via the disciplines of causality, negation and eminence. And then deals with the communicable properties.

The third phase is God’s Trinitarian personhood. The persons have attributes which are communicable but they differ from each other by each possessing distinct incommunicable properties. He avoids the idea of the godhead as being a common nature, but it is hard to make out the difference. For the external actions of the three persons (about which Rehnman says little here) are indivisible, and so are actions of the one God. As he puts it, the persons are distinguished by a case of God begetting, another by being God begotten, and the third by God eternally proceeding (p. 397). The God begotten is the Son, and the God proceeding is from Father and the Son and is the Spirit. None of this looks abstract, as Rehnman maintains. In any case, for the RO is not God pure act? All this is very difficult, very mysterious, as Rehnman freely reckons (p. 398). We are always teetering on the brink of incomprehensibility, despite the author’s admirable skill in teaching us to think and speak consistently, and by his excellent reworking of the RO on this matter.

(5) Maarten Wisse and Hugo Meijer of the VU University, Amsterdam, write on pneumatology. This ambitious essay stresses the full personhood of the Spirit, whose work is not confined to a restricted number of topics. They hold that pneumatology in RO is rarely undertaken currently (p. 466) then discuss the position Augustine, Peter Lombard and Aquinas, and arising from this identify two areas of pneumatology that deserve specific attention, the relationship of the Spirit to love and the role of the Holy Spirit in Christology. They discuss Calvin, the relation between the Spirit and the authentication of Scripture, and other new loci introduced in his work, and suggest that the work of the Holy Spirit in creation is ‘passed over in silence’ (p. 481). They continue their survey by considering the Helvetic and Westminster Confessions and they discuss John Owen (and Thomas Goodwin and Wollebius) in reference to the Holy Spirit, in connection with the doctrine of Scripture, the Trinity, Creation, Christology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology and Sacramentology. They find most interest in Christology. In my judgment, the authors are a little unfair to Calvin’s work on the Spirit in creation, if one includes what is created, as well as the act of creating (cf. Inst. II.2.15).

(6) While most of the entries in Part III are on dogmatic loci (though nothing on the person of Christ, which given its significance in debates and wrangles about the Supper, is surprising), Luca Baschera redresses the imbalance somewhat by considering ‘Ethics in Reformed Orthodoxy’. She notes how under-researched this area is (to which may be added political theology, the two kingdoms etc., though note Professor Witte’s contribution to the Companion), but leads the reader through the various genres of ethical writings. It should be remembered that Aristotelian practical reason already features in areas of dogmatics, in discussions of the nature of divine and human action, and so on.

What Baschera refers to as ‘ethics-related literature’ represents diverse genres. These include the presentation of ethics within a dogmatic framework; not only in the treatment of the locus de lege, but in the work of those like Polanus and Ames who regard ethics as the practical outworking of dogmatics, in what might be called the Pilgrim’s Progress strain in RO. Baschera notes that there is also the difference between those whose first concern in ethics is with the promotion of civic virtue, and those who understand it as an aspect of spirituality, and hence with motivation and intention.

This difference may be evident in the tradition of Puritanism. For there is a striking mis-match between what seems to be the almost exclusively deontic approach to ethics in the Westminster catechisms and Westminster theology stressing the third ‘use’ of the law. This is in contrast with next to nothing on the moral virtues in the treatment of the Moral Law. Maybe this reflects the Divines’ responsibility for preparing documents for a projected Presbyterian/Independent state Church of England, and with the close working between the church and the magistrate that was envisaged as a part of this. There was also the then-current fear of the rise of antinomianism. Interestingly there is less emphasis on deontology in the Confession. By contrast there is a rather meager attention paid to the law as such, much more on the virtues, in such a seminal Puritan document as William Ames’s Medulla. Baschera shows that there is a tradition of writing manuals of ethics, beginning with Lambert Daneau, and including Antonius Walaeus and, in later RO, Johann Heidegger. Finally, there are works on Reformed casuistry. Baschera thinks that such works were particularly developed in England. Of such the best known is perhaps Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory. So, here is the prospect of opening up research on the ethical side of RO.

All in all, despite being something of a catch-all, the Companion will, I hope, be consulted and dipped into, and thereby act as a stimulus to new areas of work in the field, if Reformed Orthodoxy is a field.

Paul Helm

Paul Helm
University of London
London, UK

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