A Guide to Reformed Systematic Theology Texts

May 28, 2015

Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

Jordan Cooper posted a brief guide to Lutheran systematic theology texts, which gave me the bright idea of doing the same! Cooper’s list is limited to conservative Lutheran texts. I will do the same for Reformed, but with a slightly broader range of options in the (constantly-debated) Reformed identity.

Beginner

Reformed Theology, R. Michael Allen. This is the Reformed entry in T&T Clark’s “Doing Theology” series. I can do no better than quote John Webster’s blurb on the back cover: “Clear, calm and illuminating, this book offers a loving and generous commendation of the classical Reformed tradition of doctrine and spiritual practice.”

Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century, ed. Arthur Cochrane. The French Confession, the Scots Confession, the Belgic Confession, and many more. The appendix includes the Heidelberg Catechism and the Barmen Declaration.

Intermediate

Holiness and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, John Webster. Deceptively short, these two volumes will teach you how to think like a Reformed theologian, with all of the right instincts and necessary subtly.

On the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God, Ulrich Zwingli. This is one of my favorite Reformation treatises. The volume includes Bullinger’s Of The Holy Catholic Church.

Commentary on Hebrews, John Calvin. Because it’s Calvin and because it’s Hebrews — enough said.

An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, Auguste Lecerf. I recently revisited this volume, and I was thoroughly impressed once again. Lecerf was a French Reformed theologian, who followed closely to Calvin and Bavinck. In 2009, I did a blog series on Lecerf: “The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics.”

Christian Foundations, Donald Bloesch. This is Bloesch’s seven-volume systematic theology. Even though the number of volumes may be intimidating, this is a rather accessible ST. Bloesch’s heart was always for the church, strengthening her members with solid theology.

The Christian Doctrine of GodThe Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, and The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Emil Brunner. This is Brunner’s three-volume Dogmatics series. Brunner’s theology is guided by a personalist metaphysics, which he taught as uniquely derived from Scripture.

Advanced

The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin. There are a couple options for Calvin’s final Latin edition from 1559. The McNeil edition, with Ford Lewis Battles translating, is the most commonly cited among scholars. The older Beveridge translation is still a favorite among many, now in a nice one-volume edition from Hendrickson, with new typeset. I sometimes prefer the Beveridge translation (or even the older John Allen translation), though I typically use Battles.

The Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, John Calvin. Shorter and more accessible, this is worth considering. It is Robert White’s new translation of Calvin’s first French edition of his Institutes. I have read portions of it, and I am very impressed by the clarity of White’s translation. Of course, I have not compared it to the French, and there is also McKee’s translation to consider.

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Francis Turretin. The final master theologian at the Genevan academy, founded by Calvin. Turretin is the culmination of Reformed Orthodoxy, through all of its battles against Remonstrants and Catholics and Socinians and other rascals. “Elenctic” means “serving to refute.” This was the standard theology text at Old Princeton, used by Charles Hodge, before Princeton got lazy and dropped Latin.

Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck. Written in Dutch in the early years of the 20th century, it took long enough for this to get translated into English! Bavinck presents a masterful synthesis of the scholastic Reformed tradition. Throughout, he frequently makes contrasts with the mainline liberalism of the 19th century, especially Hegel. Compared to either Calvin or Barth, Bavinck’s exegesis can be rather thin — but that is my only complaint.

Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth. You can spend your whole life reading Barth, and you will still be repeatedly stunned at this achievement. Alongside the tireless devotion of his secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, Barth labored lovingly in this marvel of devotion to God and his church.

Studies in Dogmatics, G. C. Berkouwer. I love Berkouwer! In the English translation, this amounts to fourteen volumes. I own all of them in hardback, because a blessed soul was selling the set for a great price. Berkouwer is always a studious and fair student of theology.

Foundations of Dogmatics, Otto Weber. For reasons unknown to me, Weber’s Foundations is scarcely ever referenced in contemporary theological writing. It was translated by Darrell Guder (Fuller, PTS) and published by Eerdmans. The reason for its neglect is perhaps, in part, due to its incredible density and technical skill. Moreover, since Weber is usually lumped with Barth, people prefer to just read Barth, who wrote more than enough for the average student to consume. Nonetheless, Weber is impressive and worth consulting.

Incarnation and Atonement, T. F. Torrance. These are Torrance’s dogmatics lectures from Edinburgh. The latter volume is now only in paperback, as far as I can tell, unless you buy used. Torrance is, in many vital respects, a disciple of Barth, with whom he studied in Basel; but, he also has his own interests and expertise. Torrance’s range of competence is astonishing: from patristics to physics.

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Notable Mentions

Dogmatic Theology, William G. T. Shedd. This is my favorite ST from an American Calvinist in the 19th century. He reminds me of Bavinck — clear and precise prose — though it is not quite as wide-ranging as Bavinck’s ST or as engaged with liberal modernity.

The Christian Faith, Michael Horton. Alongside his four-volume Covenant series, beginning with Covenant and Eschatology, Horton has made some impressive contributions to Reformed theology in America. Among those who are revitalizing Reformed scholasticism of the 17th century, Horton is the best and most accessible. He treats his opponents fairly and charitably.

Remythologizing Theology, Kevin Vanhoozer. Vanhoozer is a Presbyterian theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. As I have told others, he is probably the best American theologian right now. This volume is his first foray into real dogmatics, after several years of impressive writing in hermeneutics and epistemology. Welcome to theology proper, Professor Vanhoozer!

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Image above: Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

12 Responses to “A Guide to Reformed Systematic Theology Texts”

  1. Mike Cheek said

    My printed catalog from Christianbook states that it is offering the Beveridge edition of the Institutes, newly re-typeset, for the *irresistible* price of $12.99

    I will add my amen to Torrance’s Incarnation and Atonement volumes. I am deeply impressed by them. Don’t buy a paperback version! The Atonement volume is too thick, I’m sure it would quickly fall apart.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Ohh, can’t resist the $13 price! Blame it on the Holy Spirit!

      Yes, I am disappointed that IVP Academic has switched to paperback for Torrance’s Atonement, and presumably we will see the same for Incarnation. However, the paperbacks from IVP Academic are constructed rather well, comparatively speaking — based on my own experience with their paperback volumes lately. In general, paperbacks today are considerably better than the “trade paperbacks” of yesteryear. This is also true for Zondervan, Baker, and Continuum. As a result, I am less hesitant to buy paperback from these publishers.

      Nonetheless, I far prefer that publishers promote hardbacks at a reasonable price. In this regard, independent publishers (like Reformation Heritage Books) are doing a far better job.

      You are right, anything over 400 pages should be published in hardback. IVP did a fantastic job with both of the hardback volumes from Torrance: the print size is easily comfortable, the margins are standard, the pages are thick without any bleeding, and the binding is solid while swiftly flexible. This is a rarity nowadays.

  2. […] love books and I love lists, you know you thing I love more, lists of books! Here is a list of ways to get involved in reading reformed systematics, in my imaginary world with more capacity, I’d love to work through something like […]

  3. Ivan said

    How accessible is Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics to a lay person knowledgeable in theology, especially one who doesn’t have the money for the study edition? After all, a lot of Barth’s quotations are in Greek and Latin.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Barth is long-winded and repetitive, but that’s a good thing. He always makes his way back again and again to the main points, reframing and rephrasing in his graceful prose, unearthing every aspect imaginable. Compared to other German-language theologians, Barth is actually among the clearest writers. It’s time-consuming, of course.

      Thanks to Google translate, it’s not too difficult to get a quick Latin translation. For the Greek, I recommend getting an interlinear NT, like this: http://www.amazon.com/Greek-English-Interlinear-Testament-Personal-Size/dp/0842345647/ — so you can look-up the passage easily and see the English for each Greek word. I have the Study Edition of the CD, but it’s far too expensive now.

      You might also want to consider getting Michael Allen’s introduction/reader of the CD. It will give you a good overview of key portions throughout the whole CD. For most laypeople, this is an ideal alternative to purchasing the CD set.

      • Ivan said

        Thanks. That was helpful. I’m not planning on reading the full Church Dogmatics for a while so Michael Allen’s reader should do for the time being. I’ve also managed to buy Webster’s introduction to Barth for very cheap.

        Just a question, are most of Barth’s Greek quotations from the Greek NT or something? I was under the impression that he would also quote the Greek Church Fathers.

      • Kevin Davis said

        They’re mostly from the NT, with citation, but you’re right, he also quotes the Greek fathers. Good choice with Webster’s introduction.

  4. On German Theology, not Reformed Systematics.

    The Google Books link to Volume 4 of Hengstenberg’s Christology of the OT is not broken, but has thrice transmitted a defective copy of the book. The Internet Archive link has twice transmitted a legible Volume 4 of the same.

    https://archive.org/details/christologyofold04heng

  5. camostar said

    I reasonably new to systematic theology but I see Richard Muller being cited a lot. Have you looked at him?

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yes, I’ve looked at his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics set. It’s good. But he is strictly doing historical theology, not constructive or systematic theology. There are some who think that his PRRD is the litmus test for what it means to be Reformed, and that is just lazy, regardless of how impressive your Latin is.

  6. […] it or not, other Christians have done it too, often with impressive results. Last week, I provided a guide to the Reformed dogmatic works that I admire the most. Now I will do the same for some other traditions. I will limit myself to […]

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