A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Ryan M. McGraw
Works on systematic theology abound. Yet the need for teaching sound doctrine, for evangelizing the world, and for discipling the church, remains relevant in every age. Beeke and Smalley are producing a large-scale, yet accessible, theology through the church and for the church. This second, of four, anticipated volumes presents the Christian system of doctrine as the Lord designed it to be: biblical, personal, and doxological. Reinforcing the expectation that this set may prove to be one of the most sound and useful representations of systematic theology in our time, volume two presents the doctrines of creation, providence, humanity, and Christ with the same quality that marked the first volume.
The authors divide this volume into two major sections, the first treating creation and anthropology, and the second unfolding Christ’s person and work. Devoting nearly five-hundred pages to the first section, Christ rightly takes center stage in the remainder of the material. Like the first volume in this series, the book is large, covering a wide range of topics. Beeke and Smalley stand solidly and biblically in the Reformed tradition, without any strange and surprising twists, while including up-to-date interaction with contemporary questions facing the church. For example, they include historical and scientific issues with respect to creation (chapters 3 and 5), controversies over the historicity of Adam (chapter 7), gender and sexuality (chapter 11), the covenant of works (chapters 14-16), the Noahic and Mosaic covenants (chapter 31), the “descended into hell” clause of the Apostle’s Creed (912-925), and penal substitutionary atonement (chapter 49).
Extending beyond the practical character that permeates each chapter of the book, the authors highlight this feature further by incorporating distinct chapters on practical issues related to the image of God (chapter 10), the covenant of works (chapter 16), indwelling sin in believers (chapter 25), suffering and believers (chapter 26), the duty to obey God’s law (chapter 34), the church’s experience of union with Christ through faith (chapter 35), practical applications of the incarnation (chapter 42), and a final concluding chapter resolving the practical outcomes of Christology into “the centrality of Christ” (chapter 56). The material on the convent of works and grace in their respective places is also so full that it serves as a substantial introduction to and exposition of this theme in the Bible, theology, and Christian practice. Their treatment of the new covenant, in particular, has the advantage of drawing from the entire biblical witness to the new covenant, and not simply from Jeremiah 31:31-34, which is the only time that exact phrase appears in the Old Testament (642). This resists the tendency among some readers to expound this vital passage in isolation from the broader witness of the Scriptures, resulting in seeing greater discontinuity in the biblical narrative than is warranted. Such a wholistic view of Scripture marks the entire volume.
Several features of this volume make it simultaneously relevant and balanced. Including chapters on the historical Adam (ch. 6) and gender and sexuality (ch. 11) are particularly relevant to our contemporary cultural climate. The authors also rightly treat man as a unit of body and soul, while prioritizing the soul without neglecting the body (262-263). The use of primary sources throughout is superb as well. The authors rarely cite historical figures from secondary literature and appeal to original texts directly. There are also many references to Medieval and post-Reformation authors in Latin as well as in English. This is on top of a mountain of solid exegesis from the original languages of various texts of Scripture. The lengthy material on Christology as a whole is both breathtaking and soul-stirring.
The authors address several challenging theological issues as well, with appropriate nuance and clarity. For example, while one of the authors is Baptist, the book distinguishes its approach to the unity of the covenant of grace with various Baptist approaches, denying that God made two covenants with Abraham: one spiritual and one temporal (620). Additionally, the authors are sensitive to the distinctive features of the Mosaic covenant, while still treating it as an administration of the covenant of grace (623-632). Even though this can be called a “covenant of law,” it administered God’s promises to Abraham, with Moses as mediator and as typifying Christ’s offices as prophet, priest, and king (625). The law of Moses displayed the broken covenant of works and the penalties of lying under it, without being transformed into a covenant of works (627). True believers under this covenant received God’s merciful and gracious blessings through faith and repentance, with regard to the coming Christ. While the relation of the Mosaic covenant to the covenants of works and grace is “complex,” it was decidedly an administration of the covenant of grace and not a republished covenant of works (630). These examples show the bent of the volume towards historical confessional Reformed orthodoxy, with sensitivity to the nature of the unfolding biblical narrative.
There are only two minor points of doctrine with which this reviewer disagrees, both of which are acceptable disagreements in the scope of Reformed theology. The first is that the authors treat the covenants of redemption and grace as two aspects of a single covenant of grace, rather than an eternal intra-Trinitarian covenant and a historical Christocentric covenant with the elect (e.g., 530, 669). While this is a minor point of difference, the fact that Christ fulfilled conditions and received promises that the elect could not still appears to warrant distinguishing an eternal and a temporal covenant in this case. Distinguishing the covenants of redemption and grace also makes treating faith as the condition of entrance into the covenant of grace smoother, since the covenant of redemption provides the elect with an unconditional ground of salvation, with Christ purchasing and giving them the Spirit to secure conditional participation in salvation.
The second relates to the Noahic covenant. The authors assert that the Noahic covenant is “not a temporal administration of saving grace to God’s particular people,” but of “God’s common grace to all mankind” (e.g., 615, 655 fn. 1). Yet in explaining the nature of the Noahic covenant, the authors root this covenant solidly in Genesis 3:15 and connect it clearly to Christ’s work in salvation and judgment (616). It seems better in this light to treat the Noahic covenant as an administration of saving grace to Noah and his family as the “seed of the woman,” with common grace benefits of preservation to both the seeds of the woman and of the serpent. This appears to be how Peter appealed to the Noahic covenant in 2 Peter 3:9, where he notes that God currently delays final judgment in order to bring his people to repentance. This construction remains faithful to the Genesis narrative, while better harmonizing the Noahic covenant with the flow and progress of the covenant of grace.
I cannot recommend this volume highly enough. As far as contemporary Reformed dogmatic textbooks that are doctrinally reliable as well as useful to the church at large, this set is in a class by itself. I hope that it will become to the twenty-first century what Wilhelmus a Brakel’s Christian’s Reasonable Service was to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Few works on Systematic Theology are confessionally faithful, exegetically robust, historically informed, and practically oriented. These volumes actually do it all and do it all well. Reformed Systematic Theology Volume 2 will help readers new to Reformed theology, as well as pastors and teachers who want to understand the Bible better and grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ while doing so.
Ryan M. McGraw
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Buy the books
REFORMED SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY: VOLUME 2: MAN AND CHRIST, by Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley