Book Review—Always Reforming

Reviewed by Douglas Brown

Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology. Edited by A. T. B. McGowan. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007. Paperback, 368 pages. $26.00

(review copy courtesy of InterVarsity Press)
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Contributors: Gerald bray, Stephen Williams, Robert L. Reymond, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, A. T. B. McGowan, Richard C. Gamble, Henri Blocher, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Cornelis P. Venema, and Derek W. H. Thomas.

Special Features: Index of Names, Index of Biblical References

ISBNs: 083082829X / 9780830828296

LCCN: BR118 .A44 2007

DCN: 230/.42 22

Subject: Systematic Theology

Andrew McGowan is principal of Highland Theological College, adjunct professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, and a visiting professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He also serves as vice president of World Reformed Fellowship.

After reading the title of this book review, you might be asking yourself, “Why should I even consider reading another book on systematic theology?” Admittedly, when I first saw the subtitle, Explorations in Systematic Theology, I thought the same thing. Most of us probably have Charles Hodge’s three-volume Systematic Theology on our bookshelves. I do. I’ve had it for years. Most of us are probably familiar with Henry Thiessen’s work titled Lectures in Systematic Theology. I look to my right as I’m typing this and see Robert L. Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith as well as James M. Boice’s Foundations of the Christian Faith. I look further and see Norman Geisler’s magnum opus, his four-volume Systematic Theology. And the list goes on and on. Why do we need another book about systematic theology? Aren’t there enough in print already? Well, this reviewer hopes to answer those questions and also to pique your interest enough to invest the money and time in this book.

Always Reforming is a compilation of 10 essays on various areas of systematic theology. The thrust of the work is “to make a positive contribution to evangelical scholarship, by helping to identify problems, dangers and exciting new possibilities” (p. 18) to the field of study known as systematic theology. The editor, Andrew T.B. McGowan, introduces the book by explaining to the reader that the Reformers continually expressed the need for Christ’s church to be semper reformanda (always reforming). This book is an attempt to show a new generation of Reformed evangelicals the need for further work in the field of systematic theology. And who did McGowan gather together to do this work? The existing, older generation who recognize that they are soon going to be “passing the baton” to their successors. This is one of the major strengths of this work. Though these men are from various institutions and denominations and though they do not agree on every area pertaining to systematic theology (e.g., the writer of the preface, John Frame, takes issue with one of the contributors in a lengthy footnote), they all “want to help set an agenda for future work and scholarship” (p. 18).

I did not recognize all of the names of the contributors involved in this work, but they are an impressive group for their many published works and academic credentials. In other words, McGowan did his homework on who should write for this book. (NOTE: I do not agree with some of the ecumenical leanings that some of these contributors avow.) Their names and essay titles are as follows:

  1. The Trinity: Where Do We Go from Here? - Gerald Bray
  2. Observations on the Future of System - Stephen Williams
  3. Classical Christology’s Future in Systematic Theology - Robert L. Reymond
  4. On the Very Idea of a Theological System: An Essay in Aid of Triangulating Scripture, Church and World - Kevin J. Vanhoozer
  5. The Atonement as Penal Substitution - A.T.B. McGowan
  6. The Relationship Between Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology - Richard C. Gamble
  7. Old Covenant, New Covenant - Henri Blocher
  8. Union with Christ: Some Biblical and Theological Reflections - Richard B. Gaffin, Jr
  9. Justification: The Ecumenical, Biblical and Theological Dimensions of Current Debate - Cornelis P. Venema
  10. The Doctrine of the Church in the Twenty-First Century - Derek W. H. Thomas

My interest was caught right away by the introduction written by A.T.B. McGowan. He points out the strengths and weaknesses of the evangelical church today and gives solutions to the existing problems. McGowan, as well as all of the contributors, are avowed covenant theologians. They do not hesitate to share this fact with the reader. But McGowan is quick to point out that the Reformed community is not perfect. One of the problems he recognizes in Reformed churches and academic institutions is the “tendency to put tradition (in the form of Confessions) on a par with Scripture” (p. 15). He goes so far as to admit that in “certain circles, to suggest that the Westminster Divines made mistakes is almost tantamount to heresy!” (p. 15). He stresses the absolute need to be Bible-centered, not confessional-centered. And just like McGowan, the other contributors were willing to confess that there are existing imperfections in Reformed theology, including previous labors in systematic theology. Derek W.H. Thomas states, “At the risk of sounding naive, future Reformed ecclesiology must return to the Bible” (p. 346). I found this to be one of the strengths of this work, not because I have a “beef” with Reformation theology but because these men came to this work with a spirit of humility, realizing that the Reformed community has not arrived at perfection. This attitude goes a long way in shoring up the foundations where there are weaknesses.

Each essay is well structured. Headings and sub-headings are distinguished with differing fonts for ease in searching topics. There are extensive footnotes on almost every page, which is a big plus to me. I simply loathe endnotes. Footnotes are more user-friendly since they are on the same page of text rather than in the back of the book. There is an index of names at the end of the book as well as an index of biblical references. I would liked to have seen an index of topics as well to aid in easy comparison between the essays.

By far, my favorite essay was Dr. Raymond’s on Christology. He introduces the modern-day liberals and their arguments against classical Christology. Next, he presents “the New Testament evidence for Jesus’ deity” (p. 71), and then he moves on to “enumerate some of the problems that yet remain to be resolved by the systematic theologian” (p. 71) pertaining to classical Christology. He does a highly effective job in dismantling the proposed arguments of the theological liberals and offers solutions to the present problems of Christology in systematic theology.

The inclusion of one essay in Always Reforming gave me a pleasant surprise. Richard Gamble’s essay on biblical theology and its relation to systematic theology was a blessing to read. As a biblical theologian, he deals with the tension between biblical theologians and systematic theologians as to which theological model is better. But regardless of where the reader may fall within these two camps, Gamble makes a statement that is like a breath of fresh air: “The first and most important duty of every theologian is to let the image of God’s self-revelation in the Scriptures reflect itself as fully and as clearly as possible in his or her own mind and life” (p. 223). His is a call for a “burning heart” theology (Luke 24:32), which I think we can all admit that we need more of in theological works.

The money invested ($17-$20, depending on where you buy it) is money well-spent for this book. It will make a welcome addition to any pastor’s or professor’s library. You’ll be mentally stretched and spiritually warmed by each of the essays presented. So tolle lege (take up and read)! You’ll be glad you did. I am.

dbrown.jpgDouglas Brown has served as pastor of Madawaska Gospel Church (Madawaska, ME) since October 2001. He served in the United States Air Force (1990-1992) in southern California at George AFB as an aircraft armament systems specialist. Doug graduated with a BA in Pastoral Studies from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) in May 2000. He is a Boston Red Sox fan, a member of the National Rifle Association, and an avid birdwatcher. Doug and his wife, Sherry, have two daughters, Rebecca (7) and Sarah (5), and a miniature German schnauzer named Buster.
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