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Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain)

Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain. Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015. 176 pp. $19.99.

Reformed CatholicityTo many modern Christian ears, “Reformed catholicity” sounds like an oxymoron. Reformed theology is often perceived as anti-catholic and pursuing catholicity can be seen as abandoning the tenets of the Reformation and returning to Rome. Reformed Theological Seminary professors Michael Allen and Scott Swain have written Reformed Catholicity to argue that “to be Reformed means to go deeper into true catholicity, not to move away from catholicity” (4) and to provide a manifesto for a Reformed-catholic ressourcement for the sake of mission and renewal. Their 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” (13).

Allen and Swain begin in Chapter 1 by arguing that the church is the context for doing theology. “[Christian theology flourishes in the school of Christ, the social-historical reality to which the apostolic promise applies…Because the anointing of Christ dwells within the church, the church is the school of Christ” (p. 18 emphasis original). In conversation with the work of Reinhard Hütter, Allen and Swain note two desiderata for a Reformed program of retrieval.

The next two chapters address sola Scrptura, addressing common misconceptions and retrieving the Reformation understanding of this doctrine. Chapter 2 begins by looking at critiques of sola Scriptura by Brad Gregory, A. N. Williams, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Then Allen and Swain provide a survey of texts of the early Reformation movement such as Martin Bucer’s De Regno Christi and several confessions. They conclude with a brief look at three practices of the early Reformational movement – confessions, discipleship, liturgy. All of these demonstrate, contra the critiques of Gregory, Williams, and de Tocqueville, that for the early Reformational movement sola Scriptura was located within a wider catholic context. Next, in Chapter 3, Allen and Swain consider the biblical case for Scripture as ultimate authority within a catholic context of subordinate yet no less divinely inspired authorities. Attention is given to Psalm 145, the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, and 2 Timothy. Somewhat provocatively, they state that “churches and Christians have turned from sola Scriptura to solo Scriptura, a bastard child nursed a the breast of modern rationalism and individualism”(85). They go on to note that we must defend sola Scriptura from misunderstanding and reflect on the way in which we express the doctrine. Chapter 3 concludes with three dogmatic tools that link the Bible as ultimate authority and the church as the catholic context: the church as the creature of the Word, the church as the hearing church, and the church’s authority as ministerial.

Chapter 4 argues for a “ruled reading” of Scripture on the basis of Reformed theological and ecclesiological principles. In answering the question of what the role of the church’s confession is in biblical interpretation, Allen and Swain first look at the church as an authorized reading community and then the relationship between the rule of faith and biblical interpretation. They demonstrate that “[t]he rule of faith is an ecclesiastically authorized representation of scriptural teaching whose hermeneutical function is to provide not only a starting point for biblical exegesis but also to direct exegesis to its goal, which is the exposition of each particular text of Holy Scripture within the overarching context and purpose of the whole counsel of God” (99). In the last chapter of the book proper, Allen and Swain offer a defense of proof texting (which is usually only spoken of negatively). They argue that “proof texting is not necessarily problematic; furthermore, historically it has served a wonderful function as a sign of disciplinary symbiosis among theology and exegesis” (117). In addition,”proof texting demonstrates the Reformed catholic nature of sound theology” (118).

Finally, J. Todd Billings contributes an afterword that explores how to respond to the prevailing consumerist theology of Western Christianity with a theological vision that is both catholic and Reformed, and how this vision responds to the challenge in a way that rediscovers a biblical, Christ-centered path toward renewal. “[A]n approach that is both catholic and Reformed challenges the deep and often hidden assumptions that place the religious consumer in the center, and the drama of the Triune God on the sidelines…It gives a path toward church renewal in which our consumer priorities are gradually displaced by the Spirit as we are incorporated into Christ and his corporate body, fed at the Pulpit and the Table as adopted children of the Father” (144-145). Billings first compares the Heidelberg catechism with the “creed” of moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD); he then looks at several popular-level attempts to be biblical and Christ-centered that are actually counterproductive and actually even further feeds into MTD. Next he examines how a cathlic-Reformed tradition is the true alternative to MTD, and closes the chapter with a look at what it means to be catholic and Reformed today, examining the issue both at the practical (congregational) level and academic (further research) level. For congregational implications Billings compares Willow Creek Church (correlationist approach) and City Church of San Francisco (catholic-Reformed approach). For academic he notes especially Theological Interpretation of Scripture/History of Interpretation, movements to overcome false polarities in describing Patristic and Reformation-Era theology, and non-Reformed theologies of Premodern retrieval.

Reformed Catholicity is essential reading for budding theologians who identify broadly with the Reformed tradition. In fact, I fear some who would love and benefit from this book might not give it a chance because of the word “Reformed” in the title. In our day “Reformed” is often immediately associated with the doctrines of grace, but there’s not a tulip petal in sight on these pages. Perhaps a more accurate title would be “Protestant Catholicity.” I think many who do not hold to Reformed soteriology or ecclesiology would still enjoy this book and profit much from it. Reformed Catholicity is an important book for not just the Reformed, but for all Protestants who care about theology, the church, and renewal.

Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!

Purchase: Westminster | Amazon 

Leave a comment


  1. Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging and commented:
    Great review, thanks Jennifer!


  2. SeekTruthFromFacts

     /  April 24, 2015

    Shouldn’t the p.99 quotation end with “the whole counsel of God”?



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