Book Review: Reformed Theology by R. Michael Allen
R. Michael Allen, Reformed Theology (New York: T&T Clark, 2010).
In this brief but cogent work, R. Michael Allen provides an overview of the main themes of Reformed theology. Allen describes this book as a work of intellectual history rather than an apologetic for Reformed theology. While admitting that he is a member of a conservative, confessional Reformed denomination, Allen surveys both conservative and liberal strands of Reformed theology. Exploring both the past tradition and contemporary Reformed writers, Allen roots his study in a wide range of sources. Allen is especially well-versed in the Reformed symbols, John Calvin, Karl Barth, George Hunsinger, John Webster, and Shirley Guthrie.
Allen helpfully notes in his introductory chapter how the adjective “reformed” should be understood. Allen is hesitant to endorse the use of the term “Calvinism.” Allen avoids this term because the Reformed tradition is much broader and richer than the doctrine of predestination which is usually associated with the term “Calvinism.” Instead, Reformed theology is best understood by looking at the confessions of the Reformed churches.
In the first chapter, Allen notes the connection between idolatry and the Word of God. Allen argues that the Reformed have continued to emphasize the priority of the Word of God due to humanity’s proneness to sin and idolatry in fashioning its own god. Due to the propensity of humans to create idols, God declares in Scripture how He is to be worshipped. In other words, good intentions are not enough. Worship must be in accord with what God has commanded and not in any other way. Addressing the topic of revelation, Allen notes both the analogical character of all language applied to God and the traditional Reformed ectypal / archetypal distinction.
Next, Allen explores Reformed covenant theology. Allen follows Richard Muller in arguing that scholastic theology of the federal theologians was not a distortion of the allegedly more dynamic teaching of Calvin and the early Reformers. After the survey in the development of federal theology, Allen addresses Karl Barth’s antipathy toward the covenant of redemption and the covenant of works. Allen describes that for Barth, grace precedes law as Christ is before Adam. Even though Barth attacked the covenant of redemption, Allen argues that Barth’s doctrine of election is “eerily similar” to federal theology’s covenant of redemption (50).
In the third chapter on the doctrine of God and Christ, Allen focuses on five topics where the Reformed tradition has broken new ground: the nature of divine perfection, the tri-unity of God, the Divine Son as autotheos, the humanity of Jesus, and the threefold office of Christ. Commenting on the aseity of God, Allen highlights the work of John Webster. Webster argues that because God has life in himself he thus also has life for others.
Allen’s fourth chapter deals with faith and salvation. Faith, according to the Reformed tradition, looks outside itself to another. Faith is confident trust in Jesus Christ. On the relation of justification to sanctification, Allen points out that justification fuels sanctification due to the fact that one who is redeemed is free to meet the needs of others. Justification also grounds sanctification since the one who is justified is immune to the damaging accusations of sin in order to live righteously.
In chapter five, Allen discusses sin and grace. Reformed theology teaches that due to original sin, all of humanity is tainted with sin. Reformed theology has also affirmed that original sin entails both guilt and corruption. The debate over mediate or immediate imputation is addressed by Allen in this chapter as well as the Remonstrance controversy. Allen closes this chapter with a discussion of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility.
The sixth chapter addresses the Reformed teaching on worship. Allen also discusses Reformed sacramental theology briefly in this chapter. Rather than pietism’s focus on personal devotion and liberalism’s social concern, Reformed piety is marked by an emphasis on the means of grace. Allen also discusses the Reformed principle of worship that insists that only those things commanded by Scripture are to be part of the worship service.
In chapter seven, Allen addresses the question of confessions and authority. Regarding the value of tradition, Allen argues that Reformed theology sees tradition as necessary and impossible to avoid. However, tradition has a ministerial role rather than a magisterial role. Due to this view of tradition, Reformed churches produce confessions which are rules for theological beliefs.
In the final chapter, Allen deals with the dual themes of culture and eschatology. Creation, the Fall, common grace, and the relationship between church and culture are explored in this chapter. On the doctrine of creation, Allen states that Reformed theology has taught that creation is good because God made it. Further, Reformed theology has especially noted the goodness of physicality and sociality which are essential to being human. Yet the Fall has distorted created reality and sin has affected all of human culture. The Reformed doctrine of total depravity stands in stark contrast to the cultural optimism of modernity. On the issue of eschatology, Allen points out that Reformed theology’s traditional Amillennialism ought not be described as pessimism. Neither optimism or pessimism are helpful terms. This is so because all Christians should be optimistic in hoping for the new heavens and the new earth while also being realistically pessimistic due to the continuing presence of sin.
Of special note to readers of this blog is Allen’s continual reference to current faculty members of Westminster Seminary California. Michael Horton is consistently cited and Allen also makes reference to the work of Ryan Glomsrud, R. Scott Clark, and David VanDrunen.
Due to the brevity of this book, it is difficult to fault Allen for areas of Reformed theology that were not addressed. The only complaint I have in this work are Allen’s statements that Reformed doctrine teaches that grace perfects nature. Instead, the Reformed tradition has insisted that grace renews nature rather than perfects nature. Another criticism is that in his discussion on faith, Allen does not mention the traditional Reformed distinction of faith as knowledge, assent, and trust.
Overall, this book is a short yet still comprehensive introduction to the major themes of Reformed theology. Allen is a well-read and competent interpreter of Reformed theology. This book shows that Allen is both familiar with the Reformed tradition and also aware of the current issues in Reformed theology. If you are looking for a brief introduction to Reformed theology, look no further than this book.
Micah D. Throop