Book Review

Formed and Reformed

John J. Bombaro
Richard D. Phillips
Friday, December 17th 2010
Jan/Feb 2011

In Turning Back the Darkness, prolific author Richard Phillips sets forth a biblical theological proposal that emerges from a “formation-deformation-reformation” pattern characteristic of the Bible’s total narrative.

Though the content is articulated with an unapologetically Reformed slant (leaning as it does on the paradigms of cov-enant theology, as well as a select group of Calvinist thinkers), nonetheless the agenda here is a faithful witness to an established and undeniable biblical structure recapitulated at key junctions in redemptive history. As such, a broader spectrum of evangelical and confessional readers will profit from this method for biblical theology. Be-sides affirming exegesis (reading out of Scripture) instead of isogesis (reading into Scripture), it lends itself toward a careful distinction between law and gospel, as well as justification and sanctification.

Phillips lobbies for three important points throughout the book, and he does so effectively. First, he commends the aforementioned biblical pattern as a method for understanding the Bible’s many themes. Formation always initiates the model precisely because God is the creator, the sovereign active agent who forms a people for himself. God speaks and it is done’something new and wonderful is formed. But formation is followed by the human response’deformation: “An abandonment of those commands and principles established by God in the forming of His people” (19). Whereas formation unites and leads to blessedness by way of divine grace, deformation divides and leads to condemnation by way of sin. But then comes the divine mandate to reform. Reformation is God’s prophetic word to his people that elicits repentance and engenders faithfulness. Once formed, God’s people need his powerful Word and Holy Spirit to continually reform. Obviously, the call to reformation has implications for all the inhabitants of the earth, but God’s principal intention is for this pattern to be an in-house discussion. And so does Phillips. The Lord is addressing his people, the people of the covenant whom he formed and calls to reform, not just in biblical times but all times. Unfortunately, however, the Sacraments never once make it into the discussion. This gives the impression that, apparently for Phillips, the Sacraments have little to do with the formation (holy baptism) or the reformation (holy absolution and Holy Communion) of God’s people. This is either a theological omission on the part of the author (and his editors), or a conspicuous and unwelcome concession to broader evangelicalism that detracts from the value of the book as a whole. Word and Sacrament ministry is crucial for biblical reformation.

As his second point, Phillips wants his readers to see that the pattern of “formation-deformation-refor-mation” is not merely the fingerprint of God’s activity but also an expression of his character. To form and reform, create and recreate, make new and renew, and to generate and regenerate is revelatory of God himself. In this pattern God makes himself known. And if he is revealed through his Word and work in this way, then his people are to replicate his Word and work, since they themselves have been re-formed in the image of God through the work of Jesus Christ. In short, what is in God concerning these principles of formation and reformation is now in his people: hence, the author’s third point’the timeless divine mandate to reform not just among the Old Covenant people of God but also the New Covenant people of God.

The range of biblical evidence for the formation-deformation-reformation pattern exemplifies that it is not an isogetical imposition on a scant selection of texts, but sound exegesis spanning both testaments, with paradigmatic presence from the Exodus event to Christ’s seven letters to the churches within John’s Apocalypse.

Even though Turning Back the Darkness was originally released nearly a decade ago, it is to be recommended for its refreshing focus on Bible study. Phillips rarely strays from the task at hand by keeping the conversation within Scripture and exercising restraint from the temptation to over-apply the pattern to epochs in church history. Phillips has given us a reminder that God’s call to the church for reformation remains unabated until Christ himself actuates an irreversible state of affairs upon his Parousia. Until then, the pattern of formation-deformation-reformation holds true.

Friday, December 17th 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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