Book Reviews

THE SPIRIT OF THE REFORMED TRADITION, by M. Eugene Osterhaven; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971; 190 pp., $3.45 (paper)

The author, for almost twenty years professor of Systematic Theology at Western Theological Seminary, discusses the question of what in his opinion constitutes the unique character of the Reformed faith. Probably the two most important chapters in the book are two short chapters at the end. In one the author treats what has been meant historically by the word “Reformed”; in the other the author sums up what, in his opinion, is meant by the essence of the Reformed faith. In discussing the meaning of the term, he points out that shortly after the Reformation all who belonged to Protestantism, including Lutherans, were called Reformed. But near the end of the 16th century, this term came to be reserved especially for those who adhered more closely to the tradition of Calvin in distinction from that of Luther. It would have been well for the author to develop this a bit further and point out that, over the years, the term Reformed has become more narrow yet. It has been used, especially in the last two centuries, to distinguish between Reformed and Presbyterian not only, but also to identify that branch of Calvinism which lays particular stress upon federal theology. Whether the author agrees with this use or not, it would have been helpful for him to make some remarks concerning this fact. 

But when he discusses what, in his opinion, is the heart of the Reformed tradition, he writes:

The Reformed tradition then is not first of all a system of theology or of doctrine. Nor is it a particular type of church government, or belief in “the five points of Calvinism.” As important as these are, they do not constitute that tradition, nor do they reveal its heart. The spirit of the Reformed tradition is more subtle, more profound than any of these. . . . 

. . . Reduced to a minimum, it is a consciousness of being in God’s presence with a call, to live unto him. The consecration of life, personally and in its social relationships, is the Christian’s mandate and privilege. It also becomes the dynamic by which he lives, for it brings him into fellowship with God whose resources are infinite.

We find it hard to imagine how anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the Reformed faith can write in this way. If there is one thing which all the history of the Reformed faith shouts out loudly (no matter in what sense the term “Reformed” is taken) it is that the Reformed faith is above all else a system of doctrine. All of history from Luther’s Reformation through the work of Calvin in Geneva as this work was continued throughout Europe, and down through the ages whether in the line of the Synod of Dordt, theAfscheiding and Doleantie, and on into this country, or through the Westminster divines, makes it clear beyond contradiction that the Reformed tradition is eminently a system of doctrine. It is difficult to imagine anyone denying this. 

But the book as a whole reflects this emphasis of the author. It is true that he speaks of the Reformed tradition as being a tradition always reforming itself; and that this continuous reformation is always according to Scripture. But in dealing with this, he gives doctrine second place. The emphasis falls upon the Reformed tradition as a particular kind of life. One example is outstanding. If all serious church historians are agreed on one point it is that at the very heart of the Reformed faith and tradition lies the truth of sovereign predestination. Yet Osterhaven treats this heart of the Reformed tradition in one very short paragraph. But several chapters are devoted to the whole subject of the Reformed tradition as a particular way of life. While Calvin especially is quoted at length throughout the book, it is very striking that not one quote of Calvin appears in connection with his strong emphasis on the truth of predestination. Calvin is not treated honestly. 

We do not deny, of course, that the Reformed tradition certainly is a unique and Scripturally-directed manner of life. It is that, to be sure. But the genius of the Reformed tradition and its faithfulness to the Scriptures is its emphasis on the truth of Scripture and its development of this truth into a systematic body of doctrine. The life of the Reformed man is a life which is basically a commitment to the truth. His walk not only flows out of his confession of the truth; it is manifestation of that truth. This key point is ignored in this book.

We recommend the book however, for its lucid writing and interesting treatment of this question. But we have the strong impression that the author is more interested in following the trends of the times to make Scripture “relevant” to our modem age than in being faithful to the “spirit of the Reformed tradition.” 

SPRINGBOARDS FOR DISCUSSION, by John H. Bratt; Baker Book House, 1970; 143 pp., $1.25 (paper)

Although intended to be a book which will give societies and discussion groups material to treat, this book is an edited reprint of many articles written by the author in his column “The Reader Asks” which appears weekly in The Banner. Those who are acquainted with this column will know what material to expect from this book. Those who are not acquainted with this column should know that the author treats subjects of a doctrinal and practical nature in it by answering questions sent in by the reader. The book is enriched by a series of questions appended to each short article which are intended to stimulate discussion on related issues.