A Really Good Reformed Systematic Theology
I’m sure many people will think it ironic that I, Roger Olson, an outspoken Arminian, recommend the same systematic theology/dogmatics as does Michael Horton! The relatively new, one volume systematic theology/dogmatics is Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction by two Dutch theologians: Cornelis van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink (Eerdmans, 2017). Thanks to the publisher who sent me the 806 page (including bibliographies) volume free!
At first I set it aside thinking: How can I use a systematic theology recommended by Richard Mouw, Michael Horton, Charles Van Engen, and John Bolt—all well-known Calvinist theologians? For some years I have been using Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics which Wipf & Stock graciously reprinted for my use (and for my students’ use). However, students really struggled with especially Volume 1: The Christian Doctrine of God. Unlike Volume 3: The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith and the Consummation, Volume 1 is quite academic. Not that Volume 3 is not scholarly, but it is much more pietistic in its approach.
So I have been looking for a good one volume, contemporary systematic theology that is both evangelical and at least somewhat academic (or at least scholarly) for my use in an upper level systematic theology seminary course. I finally, almost reluctantly, took this off the shelf and began to read it. I was immediately captivated, drawn in and by the end deeply impressed by it.
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First, then, “Reformed?” Yes, but not Calvinist. At least not Calvinist as that concept is generally understood in the U.S. Not a hint of TULIP—as a system. By the time I finished reading it (and I have now read it through three times!) I wondered if Michael Horton read it all! Well, I’m sure he did, but I’m not sure why he recommended it. But if he read it carefully, he was generous to recommend it. It would be like me recommending a volume of Reformed theology. Oh, but wait! That’s what I’m doing. Maybe….
Yes, the authors are “Dutch Reformed,” but not in the same sense as, say, Louis Berkhof. Rather, in the same sense as, say, Hendrikus Berkhof—who they quote and refer to many times. Years ago I read both the first and second editions of Hendrikus Berkhof’s Christian Faith and loved it—except for the Christology. These two authors also acknowledge (at least to me by emails) that they do not consider Berkhof’s Christology adequate.
(Sidebar: I happen to know that Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm used Berkhof’s The Christian Faith as his textbook for systematic theology students at the end of his teaching career.)
This is decidedly revisionist Reformed theology, ecumenical Reformed theology, non-Calvinist Reformed theology. The authors might not like that description, but I cannot find in it what most Americans mean by “Calvinism.” Reformed, yes—in terms of the theme of covenant tying it all together. Reformed, yes—in terms of standing in the Reformed tradition of theology laid out by great Dutch names such as Kuyper, Berkouwer, and Berkhof. Lots of mention of Reformed confessions—Heidelberg, Belgic, Westminster, but hardly any mention of the Canons of Dort!
I speak now as a classical Arminian and say that this system is not incompatible with my theological orientation even if, here and there, there are points of divergence. For example, in the chapter on “Justification and Transformation” (15) the authors lean toward monergism but not in a heavy-handed way. Throughout the volume they are extremely gentle and generous—even toward those with whom they disagree.
Second, contemporary? Absolutely. These authors interact with numerous twentieth and twenty-first century theologians including Catholics such as Karl Rahner. They discuss the theological theories of Karl Barth, Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Eberhard Jüngel and numerous others. I wish they interacted more with liberation theologians. And at least for many Americans their mentions of Dutch theologians such as Abraham van Beek can be a bit distracting (although I have read Beek and like his work!).
Third, evangelical? Definitely. These authors elevate scripture as the supreme source and norm for Christian belief, faith and practice but without promoting inerrancy. They explicate a high Christology, incarnational all the way, and they promote belief in the necessity of conversion without providing a template for how that must be experienced or witnessed.
Fourth, systematic? Somewhat. The Trinity comes into play in every chapter and the concept of “covenant” ties most of the chapters together. But there is no one forced theme artificially unifying the volume as a tight system in some architectonic way.
Fifth, readable? Well, that depends on who is reading! My students (mostly third year seminary students) have not complained about it. So far all of them who have expressed opinions have pronounced it very readable if not invigorating. It is somewhat academic and certainly scholarly, but it is not filled with jargon and mind-bending concepts such as evil as the absence of the good are explained very clearly. (Lots of references to Augustine and other church fathers.)
Sixth, firm but generous? Yes. That is one of the hallmarks of this systematic theology. The authors make their own orthodoxy visible while handling views with which they disagree irenically.
Finally, back to why I, a passionate Arminian, find this systematic theology congenial and useable—as a textbook for students. In the chapter on creation the authors also discuss providence and do not promote divine determinism or attribute evil to God’s plan, purpose or will. They affirm God’s all-comprehending governance such that nothing at all can happen that is not at least permitted by God, but they do not attribute evil to God’s plan or design or will. In several chapters they touch on free will and at least do not deny it—while in good Reformed fashion affirming God’s sovereign grace in salvation. Any good Arminian will do the same. Yes, the authors lean too close to monergism for this Arminian’s comfort, but I can easily work with and around that in class discussions. Their monergism, such as it is, is very light and not heavy.
Years ago I read G. C. Berkouwer’s and Hendrikus Berkhof’s systems and came away informed and inspired but not satisfied. Berkouwer was still too scholastic for my taste. And he seemed to me to revel in paradox too easily. Berkhof was much better, a kind of narrative approach to theology, but his Christology was totally unsatisfying. This volume—Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction does it for me. I am more than happy to finish my forty year career of teaching Christian theology to students using it as my primary textbook for upper level systematic theology students.
I still don’t know why or how Michael Horton could recommend it. (I just had to throw that in here but with a wink and a smile.)
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