Turretin on Reformation Churches

This is a good summary by Francis Turretin (d. 1687) of why and how the Reformation was a good move away from Rome (note: this is just a few paragraphs of a longer discussion).  One thing (among many) about the Reformation that deeply resonates with me is how the Reformers were wrestling with the core truths of Christianity, not some side and more trivial matters.

“Our religion is that which is wholly occupied with knowing the one and triune God, the Creator, preserver and Redeemer, and rightly worshipping him according to his command.  It gives the entire glory of our salvation to God alone and writes against man alone the true cause of his sin and destruction.” 

“It is our religion which recognizes no other rule of faith and practice besides the sacred Scriptures; no other Mediator and head of the church than Christ; no other propitiatory sacrifice than his death, no other purgatory than his blood; no other merit than his obedience; no other intercession than his prayers.”

“It is our religion which depresses man as much as possible by taking away from him all presumption of his own strength and merits; and rises him to the highest point by preaching that the grace and mercy of God is the only cause of salvation, both as to acquisition and as to application.”

“It is our religion which brings solid peace and consolation to the soul of the believer in life and in death by the true confidence which it orders him to place, not in the uncertainty and vanity of his own righteousness or human satisfactions, but in the sole mercy of God and most perfect righteousness of Christ, which, applied to the heart by faith, takes away doubt and distrust and ingenerates a vivid persuasion of salvation after this life.”

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, volume 3, page 139 (XVIII.xv.v).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

11 thoughts on “Turretin on Reformation Churches”

  1. Hi Shane,

    Don’t you love the rhetorical figures of Turretini? It’s the Italian way.

    That said, I would be careful about returning to these formulations and building on them.

    They served a felt need at the time, one that was felt on both sides of the divide, that of demonstrating that pure doctrine and the true church existed on one side, and nothing but vestiges thereof, on the other.

    But what if we return to scripture first of all, and to a broad range of Christian tradition in subordinate fashion, and allow both to orient and even critique these formulations?

    Then we will notice how many of the formulations, however useful polemically against a competing tradition, are unsatisfactory summaries of scriptural and chalcedonian emphases. Then we will notice how much of doctrine currently preached, and the church as it exists before our eyes, on whatever side of whatever divide, falls short of the riches we find in the New Testament and beyond.

    Our religion should be occupied, not only with knowing God, but with truly knowing man in consequence. Our religion should ascribe the work of salvation, not to “God alone,” but to the one who was truly God and truly man.

    I could go on like this with almost every formulation. But I’m thinking you could do so better than I can, based on wide reading in the larger Reformed tradition and beyond, past and present, and current perceptions of the themes and concerns in OT and NT construals of the relevant theological loci.


    1. John:
      Always a pleasure to hear from you. Thanks for the notes. Let me respond briefly.

      First, I suppose these quotes of Turretin need to be read in light of the whole 3-vol. set (1800+ pages). He was very much interested in a return to Scripture and sought to be rooted, grounded, and led by the Word. When Turretin says salvation belongs to “God alone,” he means Father, Son, and Holy Spirit alone. Also, Turretin used the fathers and earlier teachers and traditions rigorously. His pattern was this: expound the scriptural doctrine with scripture, then back it up with what the “ancients” said.

      Second, Turretin started out his 3 volumes with the note that though theology discusses an infinite God, we only know him in an finite manner. He notes that we are really pilgrim theologians with created and ectypal knowledge of the triune God which is not comprehensive but is sufficient. Perhaps it is a valid critique that Reformed teachers can become overconfident and narrow minded in their knowledge/teaching, but written into our very tradition is the fact that we don’t have all the answers and we should always be reforming according to the Word. So I do appreciate your emphasis on letting scripture and Christian tradition(s) lead, critique, and re-form us. It is easy to get stuck in the rut of dry “traditionalism.”

      If I can add a bit here, I submit that it is part of the nature of the Christian faith to have certain propositions upon which we rest, believe, defend, explain, and love. The NT clearly has essential truths for faith – i.e. of “first importance” is Christ’s substitutionary death, his burial, and his resurrection which fulfills the OT prophecies/promises (1 Cor 15.3ff). Also, in the NT we have quite a few calls to stand firm in apostolic truth (i.e. 2 Thes 2.15 & Jude 3). The Philippian church was defending and contending the truths of the gospel (Phil 1.7). I’m not really an old-school foundationalist, but I do think it is part of the fabric of the faith to trust the testimony of the scriptures – which includes essential propositions. If you have time, I’d enjoy your feedback here.

      Thanks again for your comments, and I appreciate the kind tone.



  2. Hi Shane,

    I think this is an important conversation, and I will try to make it lively.

    I am all in favor of the church norming itself on the basis of a creed or creeds understood to be, not an exhaustive account of all biblical teaching, but a touchstone against which to relate all biblical teaching. In my view, an ecumenical creed, the Nicene Creed in particular, is helpful in this sense. Not so much the Westminster Standards, unless one remains convinced that the chief need of the church today is more intramural polarization. I would except the Augsburg Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism from this broad brush statement, since I think both documents can be proposed to the entire Christian family as faithful witnesses to the Gospel. To a large extent someone with Reformed loyalties (my case) should also be able to read something like the current Catholic Catechism with the expectation that a great deal of its content is a faithful witness of the Gospel. Of course I am pushing the envelope a bit here.

    It’s just that I still see a tendency among Christians who are passionate about doctrine to fight the old battles among themselves whereas, I would suggest, the greater need is to speak with one voice to the extent that we can, over against the prevailing headwinds of neopaganism and gnosticism (or whatever terms one wants to use) in the culture today.

    The greater need is to identify the principalities and powers which hold the culture in thrall, the false gods and false gospels that have taken us captive, and to present the gospel as an alternative to them. At the same time, alongside this Christ against culture approach, it is helpful to present a take on particular trends in culture that is positive and critical at the same time.

    If these are the greater needs, how will we resource the attempt to meet them? Among the creedal standards, I would think the catechisms offer more help than polemical confessions of faith and Turretin’s formulations which are exercises in self-definition over again post-Tridentine pre-Vatican II Catholicism, and over against kissing Protestant cousins. Signal help is available from a variety of contemporary theological sources. For the rest, I still think that expository preaching that takes the particular emphases of singular passages seriously (rather than making every passage say, once again, justification by grace through faith) is a great source of healing available so long as it takes place in a communal context that does not neutralize the transformative and even subversive nature of the gospel immediately.


    1. Thanks, John. That clarified things a bit. Correct me if I’m wrong here: You’re OK with holding to certain theological formulations based on Scripture and in dialogue with the church that has gone before us. What you were reacting against mostly is the polemics. I just read your two posts again, and want to be sure I read you rightly.

      I do agree that it is annoying (at best) when Christians keep on fighting old battles when there are more pressing troubles to deal with. Conservatives often have a tenacious hold on the past and will never let go. Our “battles” today are individualism, consumerism, neo-atheism, cults, and such – as you well hinted at. However, if we know the history we will realize that many of these “new” anti-Christian trends are not new at all. So while we don’t live in the era of Dort, we learn from it that biblicism and rationalism turns into deism and moralism (America’s religion!), just for one example. (BTW, I’m not opposed to new confessions or tweaking the older ones, but that’s a huge other discussion.)

      Concerning polemics, I also agree that they can be overdone. I know of churches that are pretty much defined by polemics, and I would rather be a hermit than join one of those communities. I do my human best not to be unnecessarily polemic in my pastoral ministry, and I don’t want the church I pastor to be full of cranks hating everyone who doesn’t cross their theological “t’s” like we do. And sometimes when I do “polemics,” I mean them to be against the church, lest we miss our own eye-planks!

      Surely, though, you realize that all solid theology will be polemic at times. You know Paul’s frequent rebukes, Jesus’ woes, and the prophets’ lawsuits, so I won’t quote them. Even the Nicene Creed, though written positively, was denouncing unbiblical formulations. Polycarp, Justin, Cyprian, Augustine – these guys too had sharp rebukes and polemics for anti-Christian thought. Don’t pastors have a duty to defend the truth by pointing out the lie? (Side note: do apologetics fall into this discussion?)

      I’ll have to save comments my on the Roman Catholic Catechism until later. I have read much of it, so someday maybe we can interact over it, along with the anathemas of Trent.

      One more quick one: hopefully you see from this blog that Andrew and I appreciate that “variety of contemporary theological sources,” even if we prefer the Reformation side of things based on our biblical convictions. Neither of us want to ingore good stuff when its out there, even if it is outside of our “tradition.”



  3. Thanks for the conversation, Shane. I agree with all of your points. That’s pretty boring, I confess. But it’s nice in its own way that we agree on so many things.

    I find polemics to be an important task. But I also think the rules have changed from bygone days. This is a question of spiritual discernment more than a question of specific content. For example, I consider shopworn doctrines like forensic justification and vicarious atonement to be badly in need of reappropriation in our day. But I’m not about to break fellowship with people who don’t see that yet, and perhaps never will.

    More generally, for the sake of fellow Christians of diverse traditions, and for the general public, I am interested in figuring out how to translate Reformation distinctives into language that grabs you and doesn’t let you go. With varying degrees of success – in some cases, I would speak of spectacular failures – a number of contemporary theologians set themselves this task. It is an urgent one. It is no less urgent, I think, for those with Reformation loyalties to learn from and appropriate insights that come from other sources, Catholic, Orthodox, and so on. And finally, once again, the Bible itself continues to offer far more teaching of extraordinary value than has heretofore been adequately metabolized by any of the extant Christian traditions.


    1. Ok, you’re right, it’s relatively boring. We won’t set records for hits with this discussion! Either way, it is a good discussion to have.

      And I do think our language, syntax, and grammar of the great theological truths needs to be up to date. If you mean by “reappropriation” new ways to say the old truths, I’m with you. However, if you mean new ways to speak about an old truth that should be discarded, I’m in disagreement. Make sense? I for one think the “freshness” of Tom Wright and company amounts to a kind of historical arrogance that sits in judgment of 500 years of theological discussions and advances. On a different note, I appreciate Willimon’s refusal to “translate” (i.e. in “The Intrusive Word” and “Peculiar Speech”).

      But now we’re getting away from the original conversation, so feel free to end it if you wish.



  4. I agree on Tom Wright. The challenge I face, since a doctrine like forensic justification is alive for me for the same reason it was alive to Luther – based first of all on a close reading of the Psalms and other OT texts – is to build into a larger theological edifice some of the things Wright and others have recovered, without disestablishing the classical distinctives. In short, I don’t want to make the same mistake I would accuse him of: that of thinking one can resolve issues by bypassing them and taking up different ones.

    I’m not familiar with the works by Willimon you mention. I wonder how that works out in terms of Bible translation. The push to read the Bible at 6th to 8th grade level, which explains a lot about some of the most popular evangelical translations, raises red flags for me.

    So it’s not about discarding old truths, but about retaining them and also translating them, with appropriation through translation, though not to the point of replacement of the original wording. One reason why we do well to read our Bible in the original languages. In that sense, too, it’s a both/and.


    1. John:
      I’m on the same page (in response to your first paragraph there on Luther/Justification).

      Concerning Willimon, his writing has an epistemological bent to it that is similar to Newbigin’s. So he’s not specifically talking about Bible translation, but more about Christian language that speaks to the world. For example, he wrote, “The gospel is not a set of interesting ideas about which we are supposed to make up our minds. The gospel is intrusive news that evokes a new set of practices, a complex of habits, a way of living in the world, discipleship. Because of its epistemological uniqueness, we cannot merely map the gospel onto our present experiences. The gospel is not an archaic, peculiar way of naming our typical human experiences through certain religious expressions.”

      I think you’d appreciate some of this stuff – if you have a few extra bucks laying around, you can get “The Intrusive Word” and “Peculiar Speech” for next to nothing, and they are easy, enjoyable reads.

      No need to respond if you’re finished commenting, just wanted to get that out there.



  5. FWIW, I have found Michael Horton’s take on creeds to be of help in that he acknowledges that we should move beyond the Reformed creeds and confessions but nonetheless we must move through them. In People and Place he writes, “While the creeds and confessions remain treasures to be defended, we easily forget that they serve rather than substitute for the living confession of Christ as we return in each generation to the original well from which they are drawn.”


    1. Thanks, Richard. I also appreciate Horton’s discussions about this very thing, and “People and Place” has been a great help to me as well.

      Thanks again,


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