Thoughts on “Reformed Systematic Theology” by Beeke/Smalley

  I’ve always enjoyed reading various Systematic Theologies (STs). Whether in the Reformed tradition (e.g. Berkhof or Bavinck) or in the evangelical tradition (e.g. Grudem or Bird), I like to see how various theologians summarize the Bible’s various doctrines.

I recently took time to read various parts of Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley’s new Reformed Systematic Theology (volume one).  To be sure, it is solid, biblical, and well-written in a clear manner.  It is a bit wordy in places, however; this is not a concise or short ST written for average laypeople.  Reformed Systematic Theology is structured and edited to be exactly like Grudem’s systematics: a point by point outline followed by a hymn/psalm and some questions for reflection (as a side, I admit I never read the questions!).

Reformed Systematic Theology is built upon solid theologians in the past, from Augustine to Luther to Calvin to Ames to Owen to Boston to Bavinck. It’s Reformed and confessional, not calvinistic and baptistic like various evangelical STs.  There are also points of application after different doctrines. For example, one section says that since God has spoken, we must hear him, obey him, teach others about him, and glorify him. To be honest,  sometimes the application seemed a little dry and tacked on in my opinion: “Because of this truth, you must do this or be like that.”

One reason I’m not overly excited about this ST is that it’s not really a needed contribution in the area of Reformed systematics.  There are so many Reformed STs: Berkhof, Bavinck, Vos, Hodge, Turretin, Van Mastricht, Heppe, Brakel, Watson, Shedd, Boston, and newer ones like Horton, Frame, Boice, Reymond, Kelly, and so on.  Beeke and Smalley’s contribution overlaps with those by around 85%.  Granted, Beeke and Smalley do interact with some issues of the day (like Pentecostalism and open theism), but the substance of the theology is nearly the same as the prior Reformed systematics before. Again, this is a solid ST, but as I was reading parts of it I thought: I’ve read this material before. In fact, several times I found myself skimming for this reason.

It’s also worth mentioning that Reformed Systematic Theology has little to no interaction with Biblical Theology (BT) and it doesn’t have a BT or redemptive-historical perspective. I always like it when newer STs overlap and interact with BT (e.g. like Horton).  One other thing: I was surprised that the KJV was used as the primary Bible translation in this book. To me, it doesn’t make sense to use an archaic Bible translation in a modern ST.

Anyway, again, much of the content of Reformed Systematic Theology is five bright stars. It’s solid and in the line of other solid Reformed STs. But many other STs on my shelves contain the same information so I don’t necessarily need this one.  In my opinion, it doesn’t fill a gap in the area of systematic theologies.  However, if you are in need of a new, longer, and more detailed Reformed ST, this is one to check out for sure.

Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology (Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2019).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Theology Derived from Scripture (Berkhof)

Systematic Theology (Berkhof) One chief characteristic of Christian doctrines or “dogmas” is that they originate in Scripture.  I appreciate how Louis Berkhof explained this near the opening of his introduction to systematic theology (prolegomena):

Their Subject-Matter is derived from Scripture. The Bible is God’s Word, the book which is His continuous revelation of redemption for all successive generations. It acquaints us with the mighty redemptive acts of God, and also furnishes mankind with a reliable interpretation of these acts. It may therefore be said to be both a word—and a fact—revelation; and both these words and facts have doctrinal significance. Naturally, the meaning of the facts can only be expressed in words. Both the facts and the words have doctrinal significance, and therefore furnish the subject-matter of dogmas.

 L. Berkhof, Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1932), 21.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Relationship between Systematic Theology and Practical Theology (Murray)

John Murray explained the relationship between systematic theology and practical theology so well in his charge to Edmund Clowney when Clowney was installed as professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (1963). Here’s what Murray said:

Practical theology is principally systematic theology brought to practical expression and application. And this means the whole counsel of God brought to bear upon every sphere of life, particularly upon every phase of the life and witness of the church. He would be a poor theologian indeed who would be unaware of, or indifferent to, the practical application of God’s revealed counsel. But likewise, and perhaps more tragically, he would be a poor exponent of practical theology who did not know the theology of which practice is the application. I charge you to make it your concern to be the instrument of inflaming men with zeal for the proclamation of the whole counsel of God and of doing so with that passion and power without which preaching fails to do honor to the magnitude of its task and the glory of its message.

John Murray, Collected Writings, vol. 1, p. 108.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics Volume One – A Brief Review

Vos As some of our readers know, Geerhardus Vos was an excellent Dutch Reformed theologian and professor around the turn of the 20th century.  At one point, he wrote out his notes from his systematic theology class and kept them in five volumes, which were transcribed and printed in 1910 (in Dutch).  Lexham Press has done the good work of translating and publishing these volumes for the public – both in hard cover and in e-format (on Logos Bible Software).  I have the first three volumes in my Logos Reformed library, but since I don’t like reading lengthy and detailed books in e-format, I decided to get the print version.  I’m glad I did!  Below are my thoughts on volume one, Theology Proper.

First of all, I should mention that Vos’ treatment of systematic theology is presented in a series of questions and answers.  In this first volume Vos covers 1) the knowability of God, 2) the names, being, and attributes of God, 3) the Trinity, 4) God’s decrees in general, 5) the doctrine of predestination, 6) creation, and 7) providence.  There are a total of around 400 questions and answers in these seven sections.  For example, here are a few random questions: a) “How do theologians divide the external works of God?”, b) “What are the main divergent theories regarding the origin of the universe?”, and c) “What must be maintained regarding concursus?”.  Some of Vos’ answers are just a few sentences, others are several paragraphs broken into outlines with subpoints.

In this volume, Vos shows to be a thoughtful Reformed theologian who interacts with philosophy, alternative views, and the exegesis of Scripture’s words and texts.  For instance, Vos goes into depth about the decrees and will of God and also spends much time on exegeting Romans 9 in his lengthy discussion of predestination and election.  There aren’t many footnotes and Vos doesn’t refer to other theologians extensively, but it is clear that he understands the issues and topics of theology.

Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics is not for beginners; it’s not even what one might call an intermediate systematic theology resource.  It’s advanced and detailed – some places require a few reads to get the gist of Vos’ argument and meaning.  The theology is deep: he covers classic Reformed doctrines like God’s free and necessary knowledge, the economy of God, the concepts of God’s freedom, the external works of God, concursus, and so forth.

Interestingly, I found that sometimes Vos seems to be too brief; it seems like he doesn’t complete his thoughts from time to time and sometimes the reading is a bit choppy.  Why is this?  Well, readers should be aware that Vos didn’t write and edit this theology work for mass publication – as the introduction says, it was meant for the classroom (these are something like Vos’ lectures in detailed outline).  Also the translation is formal rather than dynamic, so it’s not overly polished using modern grammar and syntax.  These aren’t critiques, but things the reader should know before he or she begins to read.  I’d hate for someone to dig in and be confused or upset that this isn’t exactly like Berkhof or Bavinck in style (though it is in content)!

The binding, editing, and layout are done well.  There’s a Scripture index, a topical index, and a list of all the questions (without the answers) in the back of the book, which makes for easy referencing.  Everyone who worked on these volumes (and is still working on them!) deserves a hearty “thanks” from those of us who will benefit from them for years to come.  Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics is an excellent addition to my theological library.  I’m certainly looking forward to having them all on my shelves!

Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics. trans. and ed. by Richard Gaffin, Jr. (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2012-2014).

shane lems
hammond, wi

A Review of Bird’s “Evangelical Theology”

Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction Since I enjoy reading systematic theologies, I picked up Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013).  It is roughly the same size, shape, and format as other systematic theologies that Zondervan has recently published, such as Michael Horton’s Christian Faith and Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.  Bird’s systematic theology (ST) is 800+ pages and includes a Scripture index, a subject index, and an author index (all of which are quite comprehensive).

I appreciated this book because it was well written.  Bird writes clearly and concisely – in a detailed yet understandable manner.  There are a few charts and visible helps throughout the book, along with study questions and summary sentences at the end of each section.  The book is edited in a way that makes reading and reference easy.

I was also happy to see Bird interact with the church fathers and ancient creeds from time to time, along with some Jewish sources and some current theologians.  Bird didn’t attempt to proof-text every doctrine he explained, but he did constantly refer to Scripture and show biblical reasons and explanations for each point of theology.  Specifically, I appreciated Bird’s discussion of the Holy Trinity, his emphasis on the gospel, his explanation of infant baptism, and his emphasis on ecclesiology.  I also enjoyed his critique of biblicism.  These are a few strong points of the book.

One interesting aspect of this ST is that Bird organized it according to the gospel rather than according to the standard ST outline.  He says that since the gospel is at the center of Christianity and the Bible, it should be at the center of theology as well, so that’s where he starts.  Here’s the outline: 1) Prolegomena, 2) the Triune God, 3) The Kingdom, 4) Christology, 5) Soteriology, 6) Pneumatology, 7) Anthropology, 8) Ecclesiology.  It would take too much time to interact with this outline here, but I will say that though I’m not convinced this is the ideal outline, his emphasis on the gospel was laudable.

I do have notable concerns about several theological positions Bird advocates.  First, and most importantly, Bird departs from historic Reformed theology in the areas of covenant and justification.  Major red flags here: he rejects the covenant of works and disagrees with imputation in justification (he likes the term “incorporation” – i.e. union with Christ).  Second, Bird’s view of the atonement is Amyraldian rather than Calvinistic (Bird calls it a “lite” Calvinism).  Third, I disagree with Bird’s eschatology – he defends a preterist view of Matthew 24 and a historic pre-millennial view of eschatology.   There are a few other positions Bird takes that I disagree with, but these are the main ones.

In summary, although Evangelical Theology is not a historic/confessional Reformed ST , I do appreciate it – especially since Bird doesn’t claim that all his positions are Reformed.  I wouldn’t recommend this book for those who want a confessional Reformed theology reference, but I would recommend it if you are looking for a “conversation partner” in theology.  I’m glad I own Bird’s ST, and think it is a helpful contribution to theology, even though it has some serious weaknesses of which our readers should be aware.

shane lems
hammond, wi

On Reading Michael Horton’s ST

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way Since I just finished Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith, I thought I’d give some feedback which I hope will be helpful to those of you who own or plan to own this great new theology book.  Before I set this book aside and get to my other reading ‘work,’ I wanted to give a brief review that doubles as a reading aid.

First, I loved this book because of the multitude of scriptural citations and quotes.  Horton does a good job of weaving the scriptures into his explanations of certain doctrines.  He’s not just prooftexting, he’s following the warp and woof of the Bible in every chapter of this ST.  In The Christian Faith, you’ll notice that Christ is truly central not just to scripture, but also to solid theology and the doctrines of the faith.  Just like the gospel is all over the Bible, so it is all over Horton’s theological explanations.

Second, he interacts well with other traditions as well as church history.  Horton converses with the church fathers, the medieval scholastics, Roman Catholic theology, Eastern Orthodox theology, Reformation theology, and many contemporary theologies (i.e. Barth, Jenson, Zizioulas, etc).  This isn’t just some sort of sectarian systematic theology that appeals to one single tradition.  Granted, Horton is writing from a Presbyterian/Reformed angle, but he’s writing about the Christian Faith (since strictly speaking there is no such thing as “The Reformed Faith” or “The Lutheran Faith,” etc.).  He’s also not afraid to critique his own tradition and point out the strengths of other traditions where applicable.

Third, I appreciated the trinitarian and covenantal emphases.  He really shows that the doctrine of the Trinity makes up the fabric of the Christian faith by continually explaining doctrines in a trinitarian fashion.  The same can be said of covenant(s); rather than deistic or pantheistic, the Christian faith is covenantal (God is transcendent and immanent covenantally).

Fourth, this book is not an easy read.  The Christian Faith is not really for laypeople; it’s not something you could read in a Church Bible study or with your elders/deacons for training.  It is for seminary students, pastors, teachers, professors, and other Christians who are well-read in philosophy, theology, church history, and the confessions but not for regular laypeople.  Take heart, however: I heard there is a briefer and easier version of Horton’s ST coming out in the next couple of years (DV).

Fifth, as I mentioned before, the formatting isn’t so great.  The glossary is not overly helpful because of its brevity, and there is no extended outline to use if you need to go back and revisit a topic (we made one here).  Also, though there is an extensive topical index, it too is incomplete.  For example, if you simply wanted to grab this book and find Horton’s discussion of the regulative principle of worship, it would take you a long time since it’s not in the index nor is there a clear section where you’d turn to find it (FYI it’s on p. 878).  I suggest having a sheet of paper handy when you read this so you can make your own index for future referencing.  One weakness of this ST, in my opinion, is the difficulty of finding topics that are not in the index or table of contents.

Sixth (related to #4 above): this book does not read like a “normal” systematic theology text.  The overall structure is that of systematic theology (i.e. theology proper, anthropology, soteriology, etc.), but it doesn’t really flow like a classic systematic text and there are few definitions and detailed subpoints.  This is not a critique, just an observation to help you read it more productively.   The Christian Faith is sort of like a biblical theology book (i.e. Meredith Kline) grouped in the traditional systematic way (i.e. the Belgic Confession) that contains some of the regular ST-type alternate views and philosophical aspects of theology (i.e. Herman Bavinck).  I admit I was somewhat perplexed by the layout of this book until I realized it isn’t exactly like the STs I’ve read.  Once I realized that, it was easier for me to read.

In summary, though it is a deep read – around 1000 pages of detailed philosophical, historical, theological, and biblical discussions –  it definitely is worth the effort.  The content is solid, thought-provoking, and faith-strengthening.  It maybe won’t replace the traditional ST on your shelves because it is (sort of) a different genre, but it does belong there to round out your ST section.  I highly recommend it. Get it, and be patient with it, and don’t approach it like you do a traditional ST, and I’m quite sure you’ll benefit greatly.  I’m excited to see what this theology text does for Christ’s church in the years ahead.

shane lems

Complete Outline of Horton’s ST

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way Here’s the promised outline of Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith (and stay tuned for a brief review of the same).  Since there isn’t a detailed outline in the book itself, I created one so I can more easily find topics for future studies and reference.  Click the link below for this outline in PDF format.  Feel free to do what you want with this outline, though it is subject to change if errors are found.

Michael Horton’s ST Outline[1]

Brought to you by the Reformed Reader.