Book Review

"Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Volume 1, 1523-1552" edited by James T. Dennison

R. Scott Clark
James T. Dennison
Friday, February 27th 2009
Mar/Apr 2009

Is there an objective definition of the adjective "Reformed"? Judging by current popular usage, there appear to be as many definitions as definers. What must one believe to be "Reformed"? Is the doctrine of predestination all there is? Arguably, the answer to these questions should be sought in some objective, ecclesiastical, public, authoritative summary of the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformed faith. Fortunately for us, there are such documents. They are the confessions and catechisms of the Reformed (including Presbyterian) churches of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A few of them-such as the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster Standards-are well known, but there were many other confessional documents written (and adopted) from the early sixteenth century to the end of the seventeenth century. Indeed, from 1523 to 1675 the Reformed churches produced a major confessional (or catechetical) document every six years.

Until now many of these documents, which testify to the development of the Reformed faith from infancy to maturity, have been available only in German, Dutch, or Latin collections. With the publication of this important volume and series, English readers will now have access to a rich treasure of ecclesiastical confession and instruction in the faith.

This is the first of a projected three-volume series that should become the finest, most comprehensive collection of Reformed confessions available in English. The first volume contains thirty-three documents from Zwingli's "Sixty-Seven Articles" (1523) to the Geneva Consensus of 1552. Each entry includes a brief introduction, including helpful references to original source documents. The work is generally well executed, bound solidly, and well presented. The translations seem to be reliable; some are original and others are revisions or republications of existing translations. The documents are generally well selected so that the expected documents from the period are included. The inclusion of the Genevan Consensus (1552) is interesting since, as the editor notes, it was not an ecclesiastical document. There are, however, some delightfully unexpected entries in the first volume (e.g., two witnesses to the Spanish Reformation, a Lasko's confession, and the Large Emden Catechism) and one unhappy entry projected for volume three. The latter is addressed below. The reader may be a little surprised to see five distinct Waldensian documents included in the collection. As the editor indicates, the relations between the Waldensian movement and the Reformed Reformation are disputed and thus it is hard to know whether these documents belong in such a volume.

Any collection of confessions undoubtedly involves a certain measure of editorial subjectivity. It is the nature of such a project that some documents will be included and others excluded. To be sure, a collection of confessions and catechisms witnesses not only to the unity of the Reformed faith, but also its diversity within boundaries. Nevertheless, in view of the unity of the Reformed churches on the question of infant baptism, from the beginning of the Reformed Reformation until today, the boundaries for that doctrine among the Reformed churches would seem to be settled firmly. Thus, it would seem difficult indeed to justify the announced intention to include in the final volume the 1689 Baptist catechism by James Keach. The seventeenth-century Baptist movement unequivocally rejected a cardinal Reformed doctrine: infant baptism. Certainly Keach's Catechism (like the Waldensian documents) should be published and studied, but the question is whether it should be published under the cover of a collection of Reformed confessions? It strikes this reader as more than odd to include in a series of Reformed confessions, which overwhelmingly confess and stoutly insist upon the doctrine and practice of infant baptism, a catechism that denies the same. To include a Baptist confession would seem to imply that the Reformed theology, piety, and practice of the sacrament of Holy Baptism is somehow not essential to being Reformed. One hopes that the editor will reconsider the inclusion of documents that are fundamentally at odds with the confessional consensus on essential points, so as to avoid the impression of sanctioning a "lowest common denominator" approach to defining the adjective "Reformed."

Despite this one concern, this varied collection is an invaluable witness to the development of the Reformed faith in the classical period. If we are to recover the Reformed confession in our time, every Reformed pastor, teacher, and seminary student should own and study this collection.

Friday, February 27th 2009

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

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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