Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain
(Baker Academic, 2015, 176 pages)
I’m not sure if my slight disappointment with this book is due to unrealistic expectations, a misunderstanding of Allen and Swain’s intentions, or a failure on the authors’ part to deliver on the promise of the book. It’s probably a combination of these things. I’m extremely sympathetic to, even excited about, the thesis of the book. Too much Reformed theology lacks an orientation to the catholicity of the faith and ignores the fact that the tradition is and should be shaped by encounters with other traditions. This is confident Reformed theology – confident of the contribution the Reformed tradition has to make toward the Church catholic and confident that the tradition needs the insights of those outside its fold. These are attractive features, and yet I’m not sure that these excellent guiding principles are fleshed out in a satisfying way.
The book’s thesis contends “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” (13). Allen and Swain helpfully survey various modern retrieval movements. These are movements which perceive major failings in modern theology and attempt to correct them through reappropriation of, usually, premodern elements of the Christian tradition. The authors see the Reformed tradition as one which can actively participate in this task of retrieval, offering distinctive and helpful parameters for pursuing catholicity within the broader Christian tradition. They examine at length a classically Reformed understanding of the relationship between the Church, Scripture, and tradition, arguing for the properly catholic context of the interpretation of Scripture.
In so far as it goes, the book is a very helpful model for confessionally Reformed theologians who want to constructively engage with other Christian traditions in the process of biblical interpretation. However, the authors critique theologians who “focus on discussion of methodology,” and lament that “one still looks in vain for books on various doctrinal topics that really tackle the task of theological exegesis at length” (125). The critique is valid, and it applies to this book. Allen and Swain essentially offer a discussion of methodology with few examples of how such an approach shapes the reading of actual passages from the Bible and even fewer examples of how such readings shape doctrine in a way that promotes visible catholicity. This was my major disappointment with the book. It is an example of methodological catholicity with little to say about what visible catholicity should look like. Perhaps my expectations weren’t in line with the goals of the authors, but it seems that they were aiming at something they didn’t quite achieve. Criticism aside, it is a very helpful book, and will hopefully inspire more studies of the catholic nature of Reformed theology and practice.