Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology

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Paul T. Nimmo, David A. S. Fergusson
Cambridge Companions to Religion
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , April
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


According to editors Paul Nimmo and David Fergusson, tThe Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology is intended to provide “a broad orientation to the theology of the Reformed tradition—to its core doctrines and its significant figures, and to its historical development in diverse contexts” (1). This is a rather large task for a lean volume, an assignment made more challenging by use of a fairly fluid definition of “Reformed.” The editors are reticent to connect Reformed theology with one specific doctrine or even set of doctrines, instead opting to describe being “Reformed” as a “set of intellectual habits—these might be described as respectful but critical of tradition, open to fresh insight, and both practical and evangelical in orientation” (4). The volume tries to identify the contours of key doctrines that shape the Reformed tradition at its inception, during its development historically, and in its manifestation socially, thereby granting the reader a holistic vision of the Reformed worldview.

The book is divided into three sections: topics, figures, and contexts. The first section contains essays on scripture, confessions, the doctrine of election, Christology, sacramental theology, and the Christian life. Several of the essays develop their topic chronologically. For instance, J. Todd Billings’s chapter on scripture begins by articulating early modern views on scripture and moves through the challenges posed by the Enlightenment, before concluding with a consideration of Reformed beliefs about scripture in late modernity. Although the editors explicitly state that Calvin is not the only father of the Reformed tradition, a few of the essays use Calvin as the sole or primary figure from the early modern period. This is not always the case. In fact, Nimmo’s essay on sacramental theology underscores the difficulty of this kind of approach by noting that early modern confessions tended to resemble Bullinger’s view rather than that of Calvin.

The reader does not always get a sense of what is distinctive about Reformed theology. For example, the chapter on the Christian life contains a number of statements identified as Reformed, often without citation, that seem broad enough to encompass a number of different Christian traditions. On page 101, we read that “Reformed traditions, remembering God’s steadfast claim on each of God’s children, emphasize that each one should appreciate and nurture a direct relationship with God.” In these essays, Mmore could be said to indicate in what manner the Reformed tradition is unique in this. Since the topic of ecclesiology appears in several chapters, and the Reformed tradition is responsible for some developments in this doctrine, it may have also been shrewd to address it directly in this section.

The second section consists of brief sketches of some of the better-known figures within the Reformed tradition—Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Karl Barth—and the essays cover the kind of terrain one might expect. Each offers a brief overview of the subject’s life and/or theology. Specialists will likely debate how each of these figures ought to be presented; that is to be expected. So, too, should the question of inclusion and exclusion be raised. Schleiermacher is the most likely figure included in the volume to be questioned. Kevin Hector recognizes this, and offers an apology early in the essay. Others might advocate for the inclusion of a representative figure from Puritanism or Reformed Scholasticism to fill in the gap between Calvin and Edwards. There are chapters in the last section that address these domains topically, but it would have been helpful to include biographical sketches to make these areas less abstract.

The final section contains essays describing the chronological and geographical contexts of the Reformed tradition. The first two chapters examine the relationship between Reformed theology, Puritanism and scholasticism, respectively. Both provide helpful summaries of the scholarly status quo regarding these fields of inquiry. Most of the essays in this section examine Reformed theology within a specific locale. Fergusson’s essay on the British Isles strikes as a particularly sharp and focused essay, as it traces distinctive waves over the last four centuries that influenced the development of Reformed theology on the Isles. The authors are often tasked with doing too much in too little space. For instance, the chapter devoted to continental Europe is good for what it is, but it offers a brief history of the Reformed tradition in every nation in which it has found a home, followed by an attempt to identify five common traits or themes: all of this in seventeen pages. The editors are to be commended for including very fascinating chapters looking at the Reformed tradition outside of the Western hemisphere. The book concludes with Darrell Guder’s inquiry into mission and ecumenism. Guder’s essay looks forward a bit, as it pertains to these themes, but it may have been more satisfying to conclude by considering the questions that preoccupy Reformed theologians currently, or with a sustained reflection upon the future of Reformed theology.

One minor problem hinders the utility of the volume. Individual essays seem to be somewhat erratic with regard to citation. Some are well documented, while others are missing citations where they seem necessary. One essay does not contain a single footnote! Each chapter has a helpful bibliography, but if the volume is intended to help orient students, it makes sense to give them every tool possible.

If the main flaw of the volume is that it whets the appetite to read more about this robust and variegated tradition, then it can be deemed a success. Readers will learn a lot about the various permutations of Reformed theology over the centuries and around the globe. This will prove to be a useful introduction to a rich theological tradition for students and even more advanced scholars unfamiliar with the various contexts of Reformed theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David M. Barbee is Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity and Religious Studies at Winebrenner Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul T. Nimmo holds the Chair in Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen. He received a Templeton Award for Theological Promise for his book Being in Action in 2009, and is an Editor of the International Journal of Systematic Theology. He has been a Fellow of the Center for Barth Studies since 2009, and has served on the AAR Reformed Theology and History Group Steering Committee since 2012 and as Treasurer of the Society of the Study of Theology since 2013. He delivered the Kerr Lectures in Glasgow in 2008.

David A. S. Fergusson is Professor of Divinity and Principal of New College at the University of Edinburgh. He has delivered the Bampton Lectures at the University of Oxford (2001), the Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow (2008), and the Warfield Lectures at Princeton University, New Jersey (2009). He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2004, and a Fellow of the British Academy in 2013. His publications include several monographs and edited collections, including Faith and its Critics (2009) and Creation (2014).



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