Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation

January 27, 2015 — 1 Comment


“Can Christians and churches be catholic and Reformed?”

That may well be your first question after reading the title of this book. Thankfully, it’s also the opening lines of the book.written by RTS Orlando theology profs Michael Allen and Scott Swain. Along with Puritan William Perkins, Allen and Swain suggest that “to be Reformed means to go deeper into true catholicity, not to move away from catholicity” (4). And to do this, one must engage in retrieval of “elements, practices, and texts from earlier Christian churches” (4).

Allen and Swain are not along in calling for this. In their introduction, they note several movements along the same lines:

  • Nouvelle Theologie
  • Karl Barth’s revival of dogmatic theology
  • The reception history of the Bible movement
  • Donald Bloesch and “Consensual Christianity”
  • Thomas Oden’s “Paleo-Orthodoxy”
  • Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Christianity
  • The Modern Hymns Movement
  • Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson’s Evangelical Catholicism
  • The Theological Interpretation of Scripture movement
  • Radical Orthodoxy
  • Evangelical Ressourcement
  • The Emerging or Emergent Church(es)
  • Ressourcement Thomism

And that’s probably not even a comprehensive list. As Allen and Swain go on to explain, “Reformed catholicity is a theological sensibility, not a system” (12). As such, the present book is a manifesto rather than a “full-blown theological methodology.” The ultimate thesis of the manifesto is that “there are Reformed theological and ecclesiological warrants for pursuing a program of retrieval” (13). Allen and Swain suggest that “we can and should pursue catholicity on Protestant principles, and that pursuing this path holds promise for theological and spiritual renewal” (13).

The chapters that follow present “exploratory excursions into some of the major theological places where we have found examples and principles of Reformed theology that might commend an embrace of Christian tradition (both catholic and Protestant)” (13). Chapter 1 explains how the church is the proper context for doing theology. The next two chapters explain what sola Scriptura really means. The former looks at classic formulations and the latter shows how sola Scriptura actually supports rather than excludes looking for wisdom in church tradition. Chapter 4 examines how authoritative texts (confessions, creeds, etc.) facilitate biblical interpretation by giving rise to “ruled readings” of Scripture. The final chapter, an earlier version of which was an article in JETS, offers a defense of the proper use of proof-texting. The afterword of the book, by J. Todd Billings, is also a revised version of a journal article (which is a revised version of a lecture) and is a fitting encapsulation of the book’s plea.

My favorite chapter was probably the last. I remember seeing the article in JETS, but didn’t take the time to read it when it first became available. Now I kind of wish I had. If you’re not familiar, “proof texting” is not exactly the cool thing to do when doing theology. Three charges are typically brought against the practice:

  • Proof texting fails to honor the specific contexts of biblical texts (119)
  • Proof texting too easily suggests that doctrinal language is the biblical language with no sensitivity for the horizon of the interpreter or the hermeneutical task involved in working with the biblical language (120)
  • Proof texting interacts with ecclesiastical history rather than biblical history (122)

Before offering a model to aid in recovering the practice of using “parenthetical references or footnotes/endnote references to biblical passages that undergirded some doctrinal claim made” (118, i.e. proof texting), Allen and Swain note that “all of the charges brought against proof texting in Christian theology could be lodged against the Bible’s own use of the Bible” (128, italics in original). This is simply to point out that “the use of Scripture by Scripture cannot be understood on the basis of citation techniques alone” (129). Allen and Swain then conclude, “we must not confuse citation techniques (e.g., proof texting) with hermeneutical method, whether we are considering Scripture’s use of Scripture or theology’s use of Scripture” (129-130). Ultimately, we should “extend to theology’s use of Scripture the same patient and charitable attempt to understand that we extend to Scripture’s use of Scripture’s proofs” (130).

In practice, this means that “systematic theologians must be aware of the burden of proof upon them to show that they are using the Bible well in their theological construction” (137). Allen and Swain suggest this could be done through the writing of more theological commentary as well as dogmatic arguments that are enriched with more exegetical excurses. Likewise, “biblical scholars should expect rigorous exegesis to lie behind such proof texting and should engage it conversationally and not cynically” (139). Further, “biblical scholars will do well to familiarize themselves with the history of biblical interpretation” (141). With systematic theologians and biblical scholars working along both of these fronts, “proof texts could be a literary signal of a disciplinary symbiosis and of Reformed catholicity” (141).

This book is a short read, but is worth taking some time with if you’re like me. That is to say, you are someone who considers yourself in the Reformed tradition doctrinally and want to retrieve insights from earlier theological eras to better face the theological challenges of the day. It is also to say you are someone interested in theological interpretation of Scripture and reading Scripture in the church for the church. Also, if you’re like me, you would read this in a weekend, and then wish there were either a) more footnotes for the movements listed in the introduction, or b) that there was a section for suggested further reading. But, that wouldn’t spoil the book for you and you’d still heartily recommend the book on your blog or something like that.


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

Buy itAmazon | Westminster

Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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