Ryan McGraw’s Review of REFORMED SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY: VOLUME 1: REVELATION AND GOD, by Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley

Published on November 4, 2019 by Benjamin J. Montoya

Crossway, 2019 | 1312 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

By Ryan McGraw


Systematic theology is a broad topic of study. Executed well, it should draw from biblical exegesis and biblical theology, in conversation with historical theology, in order to answer questions about the teaching of the Bible as a whole and the interrelationship between these questions. In classic Reformed thought, systematic theology aimed at the heart and at Christian living as well. Beeke and Smalley seek to bring all of these elements together in this first volume of four, introducing readers to systematic theology with a doxological bent that aims to edify their readers. Such features make this volume stand out, especially with regard to the stress on Reformed piety. Though this is a large book, it is accessible to non-specialists and it has the potential to teach all Christians to learn theology in order to live to God.

The primary feature that readers will likely expect from Beeke and Smalley is an emphasis on Reformed experimental piety. This is certainly the feature of this book highlighted in its many endorsements. The content of the book does not disappoint in this respect. Each chapter even closes with a Psalm of praise to God, or a hymn from the Baptist version of the Trinity hymnal. In addition, what other systematic theology in modern times includes an exhortation to family worship at the close of its doctrine of Scripture? (464-467). This first massive volume covers prolegomena and theology proper. The classic ordering of topics from Scripture, through God and the Trinity, and the decrees of God makes the volume easy to navigate. In fact, much of the material follows the order of Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology. The pervasive call to prayer throughout this book is refreshing and it reminds us to study God’s Word with humility on our knees. The book is non-technical and it is aimed at readers of every level of Christian maturity, even including study questions to aid group discussion (18). One outstanding feature of this book is that the authors almost always cite primary source material instead of other works about this material. If they appeal to Aquinas, then they actually cite Aquinas. The same is true with regard to church fathers and other medieval authors and not merely to post-Reformation theologians. The entire book is also explicitly and self-consciously Trinitarian. Doctrinal and practical appeals to the Trinity surface rhythmically in virtually every chapter, reminding us that theology is ultimately about knowing the right God in the right way. The Trinity serves in this volume as it should in theology, namely, to make biblical doctrine devotional, experimental, and practical.

This book is preeminently biblical as well. The authors’ treatment of God’s holiness even follows a threefold outline of Psalm 99, which celebrates divine holiness in song (570). Chapter 32 (“God’s Spirituality) is similarly based on a contextual study of Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in John 4. This pattern is present in many other chapters as well. The level of engagement with the biblical text is deep without becoming technical, and it makes readers engage biblical texts in their contexts. While the authors take conservative positions on virtually every doctrine they treat, they do not resort to proof-texting or twisting Scripture to fit their views. This makes their treatments of various topics solid and satisfying. Interestingly, the exegetical quality of this volume enhances its devotional thrust because the authors use biblical texts as the Lord designed them to be used: namely, to promote faith and worship. These features are a constant throughout the book, inviting readers to engage with Scripture deeply.

The authors note in one place, “once your theology is written and made public, you should be prepared for critique” (171). A volume of this scope and size will always have points that admit improvement. Some of the chapter headings in the book need some refinement. For example, chapters 23-24 bear the titles, “the cessation of supernatural revelation.” While the Triune God is not currently giving the church new supernatural revelation, supernatural revelation has not ceased, both because we have the inspired record of it in Scripture and because God will reveal himself gloriously at Christ’s return. The gifts by which we receive revelation have ceased for the present age, but the revelation itself has been committed to writing in Scripture. The authors provide a superb treatment of the cessation of these gifts, but the terminology could be a bit tighter. Also, while all topics in systematic theology interrelate, providence fits better with the execution of God’s decrees in history than it does with the doctrine of God proper, which is where the authors place it. The place of creation in the theological system is not readily apparent from the detailed plan of the set that appears later either (65). They note that this doctrine will appear under anthropology (502, 1059-1060). Yet while man is the high point of creation, creation predates man and creation seems to fit better with providence. In addition, while the authors include excellent treatments of the sufficiency of Scripture and the cessation of special revelation in the church today, they do not explicitly treat the closing of the canon of Scripture or the identity of the biblical books. While they make reference to the closing of the canon (443), they neither define its limits nor argue for it beyond the implications of the other subjects they treat. This is a standard topic in ST. Omitting it leaves the doctrine of Scripture incomplete to some extent. However, critiquing theology is like coaching sports. It is easier to tell others how they should have done things than it is to do so oneself. Other than the omission of the canon of Scripture, these are relatively minor points of refinement.

It is past time to have a theological system that aims at our hearts while it informs our minds. It is regrettable that this tone is absent from so much modern Reformed publishing. It is a cause of joy and thanksgiving that this set of books is finally trying to remedy the deficit. The authors claim boldly, “It is a truncated theology that makes no application, and as such, it is unworthy of both school and church” (170). While this reviewer believes that there is room for objective theological studies, especially in the realm of historical theology, the bent of modern theology has too long been in the direction of objective academic style alone. Beeke and Smalley remind us what we have been missing and lead us to long for more. Ultimately, theology is about knowing the right God in the right way, and making his glory known as widely as possible. The authors’ first line is, “Theology is conceived by hearing God’s Word, and it comes to birth by prayer” (17). Their last lines read, “Have you gained more experiential knowledge of God by reading this book? The proof will be in your prayers, for prayer reflects our faith in God’s greatness and goodness. Therefore, devote yourself to prayer. The Devil will fear you and God will hear you (115). This book represents the kind of theology that is only possible after years of research, teaching, pastoral ministry, and devotion to the Triune God. This is how things should be. I hope that this book will characterize a new era in the study of Reformed dogmatics, yet one that is new by primarily by recovering something that is old and valuable.


Ryan M. McGraw

Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

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Crossway, 2019 | 1312 pages

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