REFORMED DOGMATICS, ed. and trans. by John W. Beardslee III. Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Mich. Paper, 471 pp. $6.95. Reviewed by the Rev. John M. Frame, associate professor, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pa.
After Calvin’s time, the mainstream of Reformed theology moved in various directions now described as “Protestant scholasticism” or”17th-century orthodoxy.” Evaluation of this tradition has been a source of controversy. Admirers have praised these theologians for their precision, clarity, and for their breadth and depth of learning.
More often today, however, the scholastics are criticized as defensive and intolerant, speculative and abstract, nit-picking and dull. Liberals have criticized especially their views of Scripture; modern Reformed thinkers have often found them too overcome by the spirit of secular philosophy.
The best way to decide the matter is to read these writings for yourself. Unfortunately, most of them were written in Latin and are yet untranslated into English. Beardslee’s volume, however, will give you a good taste of the period. It contains Wollebius’ Compendium Theologiae Christianae (1625), an influential summary of Reformed doctrine; selections from Voetius’ Selectae Disputationes Theologiae (1648-69) on moral theology; and a selection from Turretin’s Institutio Theologiae Electiae (1688) on predestination.
The three selections span the 17th century and focus on some of the most crucial issues. Does Voetius abandon the Christ-centered ethic of the Reformation for a legalistic casuistry? Does Turretin see predestination as a kind of universal mechanism in abstraction from the grace of God in Christ? I doubt if either question can be answered yes or no, but these writings will surely be a help to their resolution.
These thinkers have had a great influence upon American Presbyterianism: Charles Hodge studied Turretin in seminary and incorporated much of Turretin’s thought into his own Systematic Theology, for instance. Thus, for many of us, to explore the 17th century is to explore our own theological roots.
Beardslee is professor of Church history at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. His introduction is sympathetic and informative for the most part. It betrays some modern prejudice against Biblical infallibility and the doctrine of reprobation, and it speaks rather strangely of the Reformed “rejection of the mediation of grace through sacraments, music and liturgy.” It does give you a good sense of the wide variety of thought which, even in the 17th century, went under the “Reformed” label. This book is reprinted from the Oxford University Press edition of 1965. I left off my survey of this volume less impressed than before with the alleged “clarity” and “precision” of the scholastics, more impressed than before with the depth and power of their Christian vision. The conventional criticisms and commendations of these men have become, for me at least, less cogent. Challenge your own prejudices. There may not be another chance to purchase such a good quality sourcebook at such a reasonable price.