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The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology

Nimmo, Paul T., and David A. S. Fergusson, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology. Cambridge Companions to Religion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 360 pp. $34.99 (paperback).

Reviewed by See Yin C. Yeung (June 01, 2017)



In 2004, Cambridge University Press published The Companion to Reformation Theology, edited by David Bagchi and David C. Steinmetz. In 2016, CUP renewed and expanded the scope of the project in the new volume The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology, edited by Paul T. Nimmo and David A. S. Fergusson. Nimmo is the King’s Chair Professor in Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen. Fergusson is Professor of Divinity as well as Principal of New College at the University of Edinburgh. Both are eminent Scottish Reformed scholars in the field of systematic theology. The volume orientates the reader not only to Reformation theology but also to its developments today. At the dawn of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this volume is valuable and most timely.

The editors explain that this volume takes a different approach in characterizing Reformed theology. Instead of assuming that certain universal Reformed traits necessarily characterize the Reformed tradition - whether they be confessional documents, or the well-known five solas, or the commonly assumed identification with Calvinism - this volume emphasizes “theological variations on common themes” (5). Indeed, this volume emphasizes both commonality and diversity. Unlike the previous Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology, which is a series of chapters mostly on individual Reformed figures as well as the English and Scottish Reformations, this 2016 volume is divided into three main parts. Part I, “Theological Topics,” explains the “common themes” of reformed theology. Part II, “Theological Figures,” introduces several key Reformed figures, from the Reformation to their modern successors. Part III, “Theological Contexts,” portrays the “theological variations” in vastly different historical and geographical contexts.

There is much to appreciate in this layout. First, while acknowledging that learning about Reformed theology inevitably involves learning about the thoughts of certain key figures, the book does not start with them. Instead, the book starts with the common concerns of the Reformed tradition. Most importantly, it is most fitting that the volume on Reformed theology starts with nothing other than a chapter on Scripture - the Scriptural principle that not only sparked the Reformation but serves as the starting point of Reformed thinking. The second chapter, on confessions, in turn emphasizes that Reformed confessions (mostly local documents) must be assessed by Scripture. As such, they are fallible and reformable. The idea of a universal Reformed confession is therefore ungrounded. What this underscores is that the Reformed tradition is necessarily diverse and constantly reforming (semper reformanda). The remaining chapters of Part I discuss the doctrine of election, Christology, sacraments, and the Christian life. Certainly, the chapters are separated by distinct titles, but a reader will find that all the chapters are deeply intertwined with one another, despite being written by different authors. For instance, Reformed confessions must be rooted in Scripture, Christology goes hand in hand with the doctrine of election, the understanding of sacraments reflects Christology, and the Christian life in turn is a response to the work of Christ. The last chapter in Part I on the Christian Life is of vital importance as faith and merit is still very much what divides the Reformed churches from their Roman Catholic roots. Nevertheless, the content of the chapter seems to be more pastoral than doctrinal, concerning issues such as prayer, worship, and communal life. As such, the chapter applies equally well to other Christian traditions. The section on the controversy over divine vs. human agency is also rather brief (spanning only two pages). A reader interested in the problem of human agency may find this chapter wanting.

Due to space, it is understandable that the number of loci treated in this part is limited. A reader might be concerned that the book has not included a chapter on Reformed ecclesiology, or church authority, as papal authority was one of the dividing issues during the Reformation. It may also be one of the key factors perceived by many Reformed Christians today as distinguishing them from their Roman Catholic peers. However, I think it is precisely within the Reformed spirit to discuss ecclesiology only within the premises of Scripture, confessions, and mission, which is indeed the case with this volume. I think the editors are right therefore in not dedicating a separate chapter to ecclesiology. Another topic missing may be the Reformed understanding of church and state, especially vis-à-vis Luther. It could have been included in the chapter on Christian life. It is unfortunately not included, although understandably so due to limited space. Church and state is undeniably an important concern for many Reformed churches around the world today, including those discussed in Part III. Furthermore, as the editors remark, Reformed theology is distinguished not only from Roman Catholic thought but also from Lutheran thought and from the radical movements of the Reformation (2), a reader may notice that not all topical chapters are able to spell out this multifaceted distinction.

Part II is valuable in helping the reader understand not only the theological starting points and developments of key Reformed figures, but also their legacy in the Reformed tradition. Theologians covered include Zwingli (emphasized as the father of Reformed theology), Calvin, Edwards, Schleiermacher, and Barth. The contributors to this part of the volume helpfully portray the dynamics of political history and personal factors at play during the development of the thoughts of these figures. As the volume devotes a lot of space for theological contexts in Part III, the number of figures covered in Part II is considerably less than those covered in the 2004 Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology, which encompasses Luther, Erasmus, Melanchthon, Bucer, and even Thomas Cranmer. The 2004 volume also offers chapters on late medieval theology, Lollardy, Hussite theology, as well as the Council of Trent, the Catholic response to the Reformation.

The last part, Part III on theological contexts, is what makes this volume stand out. It reflects how Reformed theology encounters vastly different contexts today, whether historical or geographical. It shows how the Reformation has projected into a multi-centered tradition, and that reformed theology is never simply a Western movement, but a global one. In addition, the theological tradition is also not merely doctrinal in nature but very much practical. The question is therefore how Reformed theology in reality encounters different cultures and contexts. Contexts discussed include puritanism, scholasticism, Europe, the British Isles, North America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. The book closes with a chapter on mission and ecumenism, which signals a unity in spite of diversity. Part III is most interesting as its contributors are writing on the very contexts in which they live and teach (with the exception of Alexander Chow on China). However, an additional chapter or at least a section on the Reformed churches in the Middle East and their encounter with the Islamic world, not to mention Christians’ persecutions in such a context in recent decades, might make the volume even more relevant to different political contexts today.

Personally, as a Reformed Christian born and raised in a Chinese context, I find it difficult to relate to Alexander Chow’s section on China (311-14). He seems to be more interested in giving the Chinese authorities’ account of Christianity in China than in the Reformed community’s understanding of itself. To my dismay, he quoted from “internal government reports,” credited the Communist government’s economic policy for the growth of Reformed Christianity in China, and expressed suspicion of “intellectual” Christians (intellectuals are usually a concern of the authorities) being involved with the 1989 democratic movement (313). More troubling is that Chow did not mention the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which defines the state-approved, patriotic churches, and by which the government outlaws all other confessing churches. This would be of utter importance for this volume because, when it is the state that determines the proclamation of the church, the very Reformed scriptural principle is at stake. The Chinese context precisely poses the question as to how Reformed churches are to be loyal to the Word of God if they are claimed by other powers. As this volume was published in 2016, it is interesting to note that Chow did not mention at all the increasingly violent persecution of churches by the government in recent years. Inexplicably, instead of documenting how the Chinese Reformed community understands its own tradition, or mentioning the problem of state-sanctioned churches and persecutions, Chow chose to mention a cult called Eastern Lightning (313), which Christians would think is irrelevant to Christianity, let alone Reformed theology. Indeed Chow was writing, not from the Chinese church’s point of view, but from outside. The fact that he did not make any observation about actual church teachings and practices but focused mostly about literature in the market (which he described as “propagat[ing]” Christianity) and online discussions also confirms this.

On the whole, this volume on Reformed theology is an enjoyable and accessible read. Despite being a collection of essays written by different authors, it forms a coherent whole. It is successful in giving readers an overview of the common Reformed themes as well as key theologians. It is also successful in emphasizing their openness to correction in light of Scripture, and therefore their embodiment in diverse contexts. As noted by the editors, this volume “seeks to capture something of the vibrancy and excitement which are the hallmark of the best theological work in any tradition, to indicate and to evidence the generative and constructive contributions which Reformed theology, in all its rich history and proud diversity, continues to make to ecclesial and ecumenical dialogues today” (6-7). The vibrancy as well as the rich diversity are indeed evident. The readable essays are a valuable resource for scholars, students, and lay Christians alike. Students in particular will find the further readings at the end of each chapter a helpful resource.

See Yin C. Yeung, Ph.D. Student, Princeton Theological Seminary

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.