Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation

Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015. 168 pp. Paperback, $14.27. ISBN 9780801049798.

A manifesto is a declaration of intentions, opinions, and objectives made by a person or group. Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation is one such manifesto, calling the church to “reform by return to primitivism, peeling back layers of ecclesial development and getting to the canonical core” (p. 3). Michael Allen is associate professor of systematic and historical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. Coauthor Scott R. Swain is associate professor of systematic theology and academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary.

The authors draw from the theology of William Perkins, lobbying for a more careful definition of the term reformed. “[T]o be Reformed,” they argue, “means to go deeper into true catholicity, not to move away from catholicity” (p. 4). Accordingly, they offer a quick survey of twentieth-century theologians who have given primacy to the notion of retrieval. Names like Karl Barth, Thomas Oden, John Millbank, and Reinhard Hütter make the list of theologians who attempt to revive retrieval.

Allen and Swain promote programmatic retrieval as a means to renew and invigorate the church. “Our thesis is that there are Reformed theological and ecclesiological warrants for pursuing a program of retrieval, that we can and should pursue catholicity on Protestant principles, and that pursuing this path holds promise for theological and spiritual renewal” (p. 13). They are careful not to delve too deeply into promoting a particular methodology for retrieval. Rather, they offer their manifesto as advertisement for the rich and hopeful future Reformed Protestants might have, should they harness the power of retrieval generally and drop unreasoned animus toward catholic heritage.

The Promise of Retrieval

The centerpiece of Reformed catholicity, the authors suggest, is retrieval. Retrieval can take many forms and can be applied to doctrine, liturgy, theological formulation, ecclesial order, and other practices of the church. Retrieval is the process of going back—in this case further back than just the Reformation—to exhume possible treasures the church catholic once held but left behind. Retrieval is central to Reformed catholicity and tradition plays the role of guide in the retrieval process. Allen and Swain argue that tradition holds the “normative texts, perennial puzzles, and ultimate aims” of any discipline of knowledge and practice; therefore, tradition cannot be overemphasized in the retrieval process as a “divine institution” (p. 20).

As retrieval takes place, traveling down the well-worn roads of tradition, Allen and Swain remind us of the role of the Spirit of God in the thought life of the church. Simply put, they remind us that the unsearchable riches of Christ are made known from within the church: ‘with all the saints’ (Ephesians 3:18). They emphasize the Spirit as a guide to discerning truth (1 John 4:6) and testing and rejecting false prophecy and doctrine (1 John 4:1). They rightfully claim that the Spirit is the “abiding” teacher in the church and if that is true today, it was also true in the first three centuries of the church—where, by obvious logic, we can find Spirit-guided tradition and thought useful for application today.

The Catholic Context of Sola Scriptura

Allen and Swain urge their readers not to passively accept contemporary notions of sola Scriptura, warning: “So often this slogan has represented, in the minds of its purported allies as well as its critics, a diatribe against tradition and a rebuke to the very idea of catholicity” (p. 49). They explain how this notion violates its Reformed heritage and how this faulty notion has damaged an otherwise vibrant Reformed ecclesiology. “[S]ola Scriptura,” they plead, “was not intended by its original advocates in the time of the Reformation as an absolute rebuke to tradition or a denial of genuine ecclesial authority” (p. 49).

Leaning heavily upon the work of Brad S. Gregory and A. N. Williams, Allen and Swain aver that “we can begin to see a common assessment of sola Scriptura as ecclesiologically ruinous and epistemologically fatal” (p. 53). They rightly shed light on the fact that Scripture has never been interpreted and applied in a vacuum, isolated from the historical processes that brought about the very canon of Scripture itself.

As part of their defense, Allen and Swain survey the confessions of several sixteenth-century Reformed churches demonstrating the wide appeal to tradition as a means of authority in the ecclesial order. They cite specific passages of the 1559 French Confession of Faith, the Ten Theses of Berne, Zwingli’s Sixty-Seven Articles of 1523, and the First Helvetic Confession of 1523—all in defense of Reformed thought on tradition and how it compliments sola Scriptura. While Scripture remained the arbiter of tradition, it is clear that the reformers had no intention of eradicating tradition as a means of excavating deep truths from the text.

Retrieving Sola Scriptura and Biblical Traditioning

The authors raise the important question, “Can a biblical case be made for locating the Bible alone as a final authority amid a catholic context of other, subordinate authorities in the church’s life?” (p. 72). In other words, how does sola Scriptura cash out, in light of established authorities in offices of the church and tradition itself? The authors look to Psalm 145 for wisdom on the task of testimony, theology, and tradition in ecclesiology. They also draw upon the recent scholarship of Luke Timothy Johnson, Stephen Fowl, and Sylvia Keesmaat to identify the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 as a paradigm for ecclesial adjudication. Allen and Swain argue that the Jerusalem Council at least demonstrates that “Scripture is not the only authority, to be sure, inasmuch as an ecumenical council here renders an authoritative judgment” (p. 78). They also include Luther’s thought on church councils and other apostolic teachings on tradition to justify their conclusions about the place and authority of tradition.

Among the best features of the book are the three “Dogmatic tools for thinking Scripture and tradition together” (p. 84). These are: the Church as the Creature of the Word, the Church as the Hearing Church, and the Church’s Ministerial Authority. The first tool emphasizes the life of the church brought about by the creative Word of God. The Word gives life and light to the church, and by it the church has its being. The second tool emphasizes the hearing of the Word and the responsibility of the Church to make the Word heard. The church is maintained and sustained by the power and proliferation of the Word by clergy. The last tool focuses on ministerial authority, emphasizing the importance of authority in the offices of the church. Allen and Swain remind us, “The offices of the church are gifts of God, and their very nature points to the fact that their ongoing exercise must be sustained by God’s continued speech in and through his Word” (p. 91). These three dogmatic tools provide a framework for understanding how the authority of Scripture and the authority of tradition are complementary in Reformed catholicity.

The Role of the Church’s Confession in Biblical Interpretation

Advocating ressourcement for theological renewal, Allen and Swain argue for the practice of a “ruled” interpretation of Scripture, that is, a hermeneutic informed by tradition that draws upon the exegetical insights of saints past and present. By recovering “the habits of theological thought” belonging to older confessional dogmatics, they suggest that a ruled reading of Scripture can produce theological renewal for today.

Making a case for a Reformed reading of the Scriptures, Allen and Swain argue that the reformers extended the authoritative application of the text by marshaling the thought of the Patristics and other figures in the church’s past. Their case for a Reformed approach to ruled exegesis is convincing, citing the practice of careful doctrinal formulation and auditing in the Reformed tradition. The Reformed churches of today still take great pains to measure orthopraxy against orthodoxy, being deliberate to subdue confessions to the authority of Scripture.

Logically following a ruled reading of Scripture is the idea of an “authorized reading community” (p. 99). Allen and Swain appeal to the ideas of sixteenth-century Protestant William Whitaker on how the church utilizes its ruled reading for the benefit of the public. They conclude, “The power of public interpretation is a ministerial authority” (p. 103). The church is charged to “guard, discern, proclaim, and interpret” the Word of God for the benefit of the world. This charge, given to us by God, should not be taken lightly or in isolation from community or from the wealth of guidance available in the history of the church.

In Defense of Proof Texting

In perhaps the most interesting section of the book, Allen and Swain argue convincingly for the benefits of proof texting as a “sign of disciplinary symbiosis among theology and exegesis” (p. 117). Due to the cavalier use of the phrase in modern culture, they offer the following definition for the particular brand of proof texting they endorse: “Traditionally, ‘proof texts’ (dicta probanta) were parenthetical references or footnote/endnote references to biblical passages that undergirded some doctrinal claim made, whether in a dogmatics textbook, a catechism, or a confession of faith” (p. 118).

The authors give thorough treatment to possible and actual objections that have been made against the exercise of proof texting. They summarize the following three errors often levied against proof texting:

  1. Proof texting fails to honor the specific contexts of biblical texts (p. 119).
  2. Proof texting suggests that doctrinal language is biblical language with no sensitivity for the horizon of the interpreter or the hermeneutical task involved in working with biblical language (p. 120).
  3. Proof texting interacts with ecclesiastical history rather than biblical history (p. 122).

Each claim is addressed carefully and the authors guide the reader to a powerful conclusion—Scripture uses Scripture in a way that can be categorized as proof texting. They supply several case studies to support the point, such as 2 Corinthians 6:16–18 and Galatians 3:14, each passage referring to Old Testament texts that support a theological argument. Such precedent, they argue, is compelling evidence that the careful citation of passages to support a given point has significant precedent. They close by advocating for a “biblically saturated culture among fellow evangelical systematic theologians” and encourage “rigorous exegesis” to justify proof texts.

In the afterword, J. Todd Billings discusses the negative impact of Moral Therapeutic Deism and how a catholic-Reformed approach to church life can be the antidote to such a worldview. Overall, the book will be helpful to those in positions of influence in the local church. Lay leaders and congregants might benefit from it in that it surveys and diagnoses the many ailments of Western Protestant traditions. But it will be pastors, elders, and other leaders who gain the most from chewing on Allen and Swain’s arguments and, thereafter, evaluating their own models of orthopraxy to spot areas where retrieval and ressourcement could bring strength and renewal to the local church body.

About the Author

Chad is the host of Thinker Sensitive and the Lead Pastor of University Assembly in Colorado Springs. He is part of the adjunct faculty at Southwestern Assemblies of God University, teaching courses in logic, theology, and apologetics.

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