I can remember hearing a colleague once boast, “I never read anyone except Reformed authors. I don’t want to waste my time with what other less-informed theologians think.” I didn’t have the time to inquire more about the statement but was nonetheless concerned with such a narrow view of theological reading. Don’t get me wrong—I love the Reformed faith and confessions, and I usually enjoy reading hearty Reformed theological literature. But if we only read Reformed books, I fear that we may unintentionally cut ourselves off from tremendous God-given resources, indeed, God-given gifts to the church. How so?
Pick up a classic Reformed author like John Owen—few, if any, would challenge his Reformed bona fides. While it’s not an airtight indicator, the fact that Banner of Truth has published his collected works in Smyth-sewn hardback books should alert us to the fact that they hope to have his books around for hundreds of years. Yet, as you peruse the pages of Owen’s voluminous writings, one of the things that you might quickly notice are the abundant references to patristic authors, such as St. Augustine, and medieval authors, such as Thomas Aquinas. From one standpoint, these two theologians certainly aren’t Reformed—it’s actually a historical impossibility given that the Reformation occurred hundreds of years after they lived. Nevertheless, we might identify both authors as Roman Catholics. Again, this too is a misnomer, as technically speaking, the Roman Catholic Church didn’t have officially established doctrines until the Council of Trent, which held its final sessions in 1565. Prior to the Reformation there was really only one church, at least in the West. Rather than identifying Augustine and Aquinas as Roman Catholic theologians, I think it’s fair to say they are catholic writers—they comprise the common catholic (or universal) heritage that belongs to both Protestants and Roman Catholics. In fact, Herman Bavinck, another Reformed giant, once wrote:
"Irenaeus, Augustine, and Thomas do not belong exclusively to Rome; they are Fathers and Doctors to whom the whole Christian church has obligations. Even the post-Reformation Roman Catholic theology is not overlooked. In general, Protestants know far too little about what we have in common with Rome and what divides us. Thanks to the revival of Roman Catholic theology under the auspices of Thomas, it is now doubly incumbent on Protestants to provide a conscious and clear account of their relationship to Rome."
Bavinck’s observation wasn’t new, but echoed a common Reformation sentiment that the Reformed were Reformed catholics. In fact, William Perkins wrote a work titled, Reformed Catholike, where he demonstrated the agreements and disagreements with the Roman Catholic Church.
Why all of this important? Well, simply for the fact that we should not needlessly cut ourselves off from our catholic heritage. One of the greatest theological biographies is Augustine’s Confessions. It’s an amazing biography about one man’s conversion from paganism to Christianity. It’s one of Western Christendom’s all-time classics and speaks to perennially relevant issues, such as sin and the grace of the gospel. And despite its antiquity, Augustine addresses many issues that are relevant for the contemporary Christian life. Aquinas, in my opinion, has some of the richest material on the doctrine of the trinity. I think what ails much of Evangelicalism, and to a certain extent even the Reformed churches, is that there is little understanding of classic categories regarding the doctrine of God and the trinity—doctrines like impassibility, simplicity, eternity, or the eternal sonship of the second person of the trinity are all topics that Aquinas addresses with amazing insight and precision. Granted, Augustine and Aquinas aren’t Reformed, but I’d be surprised to find a great Reformed author from the Reformation who didn’t use insights from Augustine and Aquinas in their theology. Did they embrace their theology wholesale and uncritically? No. But they benefited from these two giants nonetheless.
In our own day Reformed theology has almost become a brand unto itself—we have somehow convinced ourselves that there is a unique Reformed approach to all doctrine. Yet, our Reformed forefathers knew better—they benefited from the riches of their common patristic and medieval heritage. We should do likewise. We should get out of the Reformed echo chamber and read some of Western Christendom’s greatest theological classics, such as Augustine’s Confessions, On the Trinity, or The City of God, Aquinas’s Summa Theologica (or at least portions of it), and Anselm’s Why God Became Man. We not only stand to learn much, but we can also begin to identify where, precisely, the continuities and discontinuities lie between the Reformed faith and the Roman Catholic Church. We can see what things the Reformers left behind and what they retained. By learning from these theological giants, we can learn from the gifts that Christ has given the church in the wake of his ascension (Eph. 4:4ff).