Earlier this fall, a good friend of mine asked if I had reading list that provided a crash course in Reformed Theology. I instantly regretted that I did not, and purposed in my heart to write this very post you are reading right now. Other obligations did their usual thing, which is to say, crowded out good intentions, so here we are almost two months later.
Initially, I asked some follow up questions to clarify whether we’re talking about Reformed Theology as a kind of theological system and/or worldview in general or Calvinism in particular. The latter term, is unfortunately almost worthless since it doesn’t necessarily mean that your theology is derived directly from Calvin’s writings. In addition, you could subscribe to TULIP as a theological acronym for an explanation of your doctrine of salvation, but believe have fairly divergent views on other doctrines. People tend to mean TULIP when they say Calvinism, so if that’s what you’re interested in understanding better, I’d recommend John Piper’s Five Points, which uses the traditional terminology, or PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace for non-traditional terminology. You could also check out Michael Horton’s For Calvinism and Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism to see both sides (although the latter is better at explaining Arminian Theology than arguing against Calvinism). For some thoughts on why “Calvinism” is hard to use as a label, see Richard Muller’s Calvin and The Reformed Tradition.
That being said, I’m focusing on Reformed Theology as a theological system. And if that’s what you’re interested in exploring, there are a couple of options. One, you could read the Westminster Confession of Faith since is the typical summary statement most people who are Reformed would agree with. Better, you could read Chad Van Dixhoorn’s Confessing The Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith which provides not only the confession, but helpful explanatory commentary. It’s the same idea as a study Bible, just with the confession as the text instead of Scripture.
For another option, you could read a book like R. C. Sproul’s Everyone’s A Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology. Here you’re getting an accessible explanation of systematic theology from a Reformed point of view. Sproul is very readable and although Latin crops up frequently, he always explains what the terms mean. He can be somewhat combative toward Roman Catholic thought and Arminians, but that helps to distinguish points of difference. An interesting comparative study would be to read this followed by Roger Olson’s Arminian Theology.
Having done that, you could then move up to a bigger systematic. The standard is usually Berkhof, who is essentially a beginner’s version of Bavinck. A better bet might be either the abridged one-volume version of Bavinck, or Bavinck own’s single volume explanation of Reformed Theology. For a very readable, though at time idiosyncratic take on Reformed Theology, I’d highly recommend John Frame’s Systematic Theology. The publisher, P&R, kindly sent me a review copy a while back and I’ve posted on it here, here, and here. An advantage of Frame is his generally irenic tone. He is also particularly strong on, no pun intended, frameworks for understanding theology. Given his earlier volumes (DKG, DG, DCL, DWG), the strengths of this systematic lie in his explanation of Scripture, God, and the Christian life. He is not as strong on say, doctrine of Christ and salvation. For that, I’d recommend Michael Horton, who is weak where Frame is strong, and vice versa.
If I were to close by making a meta comment about the books I’ve mentioned, it typically comes down to selecting something that is time tested (The WCF, Bavinck) or a book from someone who has spent most of their lifetime teaching the subject (Sproul, Frame). If you were to try to come up with some reading on your own, I’d prioritize older works, and works from professors as Reformed seminaries who’ve been around a while. Not to say that the young guns can’t crank out good theology. Case in point, you could always check out Michael Allen’s Reformed Theology in the Doing Theology series for a concise intro. If you’re trying to evaluate things on your own though, you’re better off going with established track records (which isn’t to say Allen doesn’t have one) and/or doing what my friend did, and asking someone who reads a lot.
On that note, what you have recommended if you were in my shoes? And by shoes, I mean flip-flops.