Reformed Catholicity (Book Review)

For anyone who desires to grow in their understanding of the rich moorings of Protestant identity — Reformed Catholicity is a helpful resource

“Scott Swain and Michael Allen’s Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation argues, however, that it isn’t necessary to choose between a Reformation identity and a catholic heritage. Indeed, in their account, “to be reformed means to go deeper into true catholicity, not to move away from catholicity.”

 

Is it possible to be both Reformed and catholic? Can one stand squarely within Protestantism and yet be vitally engaged with, say, the early church? Can one be uncompromisingly committed to the Reformation solas while also visibly rooted in the patristic and medieval heritage that preceded the Reformation?

For many evangelicals, the answer to these questions is vaguely negative; for a few, the words evangelical and ancient are nearly antonyms. A number have even left evangelicalism altogether in search of a greater sense of catholicity and historical rootedness, looking to Rome or Constantinople for what they felt was lacking in Wheaton College or Rick Warren.

Scott Swain and Michael Allen’s Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation argues, however, that it isn’t necessary to choose between a Reformation identity and a catholic heritage. Indeed, in their account, “to be reformed means to go deeper into true catholicity, not to move away from catholicity” (4). Moreover, although their work is conversant with a broad array of Protestant and Roman Catholic voices, Swain and Allen ground their case specifically in Protestant and evangelical principles regarding Scripture, the church, and the gospel. Their call for a retrieval of the entire Christian church is therefore not structured as a movement away from the particulars of Reformation theology, but rather as a healthy outgrowth from a mature Reformation theology.

For anyone desiring to grow in understanding of the rich moorings of Protestant identity—or for anyone who simply wants to read a model of neat, crunchy theological writing—Reformed Catholicity is a helpful resource.

Manifesto of a Movement

Swain (associate professor of systematic theology and academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando) and Allen (associate professor of systematic and historical theology at RTS) cast their book as a “volley in an ongoing discussion” (12). Observing a number of other signs of progress in the project of Reformed catholicity, they reflect, “[It] was time to step back and speak programmatically about what such projects assume” (vii). They offer their book as a “manifesto” (12) of these various movements, centered on the conviction that “we can and should pursue catholicity on Protestant principles, and that pursuing this path holds promise for theological and spiritual renewal” (13).

What specifically is included within the compass of Swain and Allen’s manifesto? In the introduction they isolate 13 examples of similar “renewal through retrieval” projects, ranging in diversity from Karl Barth’s revival of dogmatic theology to the modern hymns movement, from Thomas Oden’s “paleo-orthodoxy” to Radical Orthodoxy. But as the book develops, their most significant conversation partners tend to be people like Kevin Vanhoozer, John Webster, and Herman Bavinck; and the “theological interpretation of Scripture” movement is of particular interest. At the same time, Swain and Allen will occasionally differ from others in the theological interpretation movement; for example, see their balanced engagement with Luke Timothy Johnson, Stephen Fowl, and Sylvia Keesmaat on the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 (74–78). On the whole, while Reformed Catholicity brings under its banner a number of diverse trends, it also carves out its own space and deserves to be taken on its own terms.

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