Friday, December 30, 2016

Review of Sproul's "What Is Reformed Theology?"

R.C. Sproul has attempted to write an introduction to reformed theology, a tradition that is most commonly identified as doing theology and reading scripture within the legacy of John Calvin. I do not think he has done a very good job. The following are the major reasons why.

First, Sproul does not give an introduction to reformed theology. Instead, he gives readers an introduction to his theology, or more broadly his own branch of Presbyterianism. I have little doubt that Sproul thinks this is the essence of reformed theology and that his own theology represents reformed theology well. The beginning chapters are certainly some of the best in the book, and in them Sproul identifies one of the pillars of reformed theology as rigorously dependent on the Bible. This is certainly true. The problem is Sproul does not then continue to describe the ways reformed theologians have used, interpreted, understood, etc. Scripture. Instead, he justifies the different points of what he calls “the pillars” reformed theology with scripture. This is not problematic in itself. In fact, I encourage theologians to justify their arguments with the basis that is scripture. However, if reformed theology is not simply the correct interpretation of scripture but is also a way of thinking about scripture, reading scripture, and doing theology that comes from Calvin’s (and other first generation reformers’) legacy, then Sproul has done a poor job of introducing readers to this larger tradition.

Second, Sproul defines reformed theology too narrowly. If Sproul is making an argument about what constitutes genuine reformed theology and what is outside the pale, he needs to make that clear. “This is what I think reformed theology is and should be…” would do just fine. But there is none of that. Sproul suggests that what he is doing is purely descriptive. It isn’t. How does Zwingli fit into the reformed tradition? How does Bullinger? How does Oecolampadius? How does Knox? How does Cranmer? How does Bavinck? Berkouwer? Especially, how does Barth? Perhaps these aren’t “the basics” that Sproul was talking about in the subtitle, but the fact that all of these theologians differ on one or more of “the basics” seems to suggest that the idea of the basics are somewhat misguided.

Third, Sproul attempts to introduce readers to reformed theology, but as any casual look over the endnotes indicates, Sproul does not seem all that familiar with reformed theologians. In fact, the most cited figure in the book is Luther, a theologian who isn’t even considered a reformed theologian! Luther was a great mind and an important figure that every protestant should read. Indeed, Luther was very important for the earliest reformed theologians (except perhaps Zwingli, with whom Luther had a number of harsh words). But why is he quoted, cited, and referenced in a book more often than even Calvin? Why is he cited almost as many times as all of the reformed theologians that are cited combined? Further, the only reformed theologians that Sproul ever cites (as an example of his descriptive purposes) are Calvin and Owen. He also occassionally mentions one theologian or another, but never regarding a serious doctrinal issue. What’s worse, Sproul never references the Canons of Dort, a tragedy in his exposition of the reformed doctrine of perseverance, which dissolves perseverance into the Baptist-bastardized form of “eternal security.” That is not what the reformers taught, and it is not what reformed theology has always taught.

I think the ultimate issue I have with this book is that it doesn’t give reformed theology enough credit. It presumes reformed theology is not a way of thinking, doing theology, and understanding scripture; rather it presumes that it is simply correct interpretation of scripture. By doing so he defines reformed theology too narrowly and excludes all of those who interpret the Bible differently than Sproul yet fall into the parameters of reformed theology. If someone were to ask me what R.C. Sproul believes, I would send them to this book. If, however, someone were to ask me what reformed theology is, I would not. Instead, I would send them to the canons of Dort and the Belgic confession. Then to Calvin’s Institutes. Then to Zwingli and Bullinger. Then to Bavinck. Then to Barth and Berkouwer. Sproul doesn’t even give you where to go afterwards. The idea for an introduction to reformed theology was a great idea, but Sproul did not come through.

{I give this book a 2 out of 5.}

DISCLAIMER: I received this book free from the publisher. I was under no compulsion to write a positive review. All thoughts expressed here are entirely my own.

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