A. T. B. MCGOWAN, ed., Always Reforming. Explorations in Systematic Theology. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006. pp. 365. $26.00 pb. ISBN 978-0-8308-2829-6.
Reviewed by Linda MALONEY, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Enosburg Falls, VT 05450.

This very academic book is most definitely an “inside job.” Its authors are all professors at Reformed theological seminaries, and their audience is Reformed as well. Persons outside the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition, unless they are students of the subject, will frequently find themselves reading closely-argued discussion of the views of theologians unknown to them, and will be unfamiliar with much of the subject matter.

The ten essays in the book, which seems most suitable as a textbook in a Reformed seminary or graduate school, cover the Trinity (Gerald Bray), the future of system (Stephen Williams), Christology (Robert L. Reymond), the Atonement as penal substitution (A. T. B. McGowan), the relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology (Richard C. Gamble), the Old and New Covenants (Henri Blocher), union with Christ (Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.), justification (Cornelis P. Venema), and the doctrine of the church (Derek W. H. Thomas). At the heart of the volume is an essay that illuminates the whole and would repay a trip to the library to borrow the book, even by those foreign to the Reformed tradition: Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s “On the Very Idea of a Theological System: An Essay in Aid of Triangulating Scripture, Church and World.” Vanhoozer does an excellent job of explaining who his dialogue partners are and what they have said, teasing out the elements of the questions, and then presenting his own position as provisional, not set in stone. My rootedness in the Anglican (and therefore Catholic) tradition made me resonate most cordially with such observations as: “We begin not with indubitable foundations but with load-bearing frameworks that from time to time may need adjusting and repair” (p. 153 n. 125). Is not such a position of the essence of semper reformanda?

Vanhoozer’s focus on “communicative action” as the means of discourse, in aid of what he calls “triangulation,” is congenial. He explains what he means by triangulation: “. . . the project of coordinating subjectivity, objectivity and intersubjectivity via communicative action” (pp. 161–62). Most teachers and pastors would applaud his conclusion: “If systematic theology is to prove itself useful to the church in the future, it must make good on the promise implied by its definition: it must help people of faith to get understanding. The way forward is clear: theology must focus not on producing theoretical systems of knowledge but on cultivating disciples who learn and embody practical wisdom. And the best way to do that is to approach the Bible not as a knowing subject, but as one who walks the way of Jesus Christ with others, triangulating our position by attending to the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures, to the church’s great performances of the past, and to the church’s situation today” (p. 182).

To which let all the churches, Catholic and Reformed, say “amen.”


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