Reformed Confessions: Theology from Zurich to Barmen, by Jan Rohls. Tr. John Hoffmeyer. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. xxiii + 311pp. $35 (cloth). [Reviewed by the editor]
To read Reformed Confessions is to receive a sound, thorough education in the theology of Reformed orthodoxy. Following the order of the six loci of dogmatics (although strangely there is no treatment of eschatology), Jan Rohls sets forth the teaching of the Reformed creeds on all the leading doctrines of Scripture. The book is a comparative study of the creeds. The purpose is not to comment on the creedal teaching, but simply to present it. Although the creeds are in basic agreement, the occasional difference is noted.
The author concentrates on the confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries, beginning with the creedal statements of Zwingli and concluding with the Helvetic Consensus Formula.
The last section of the book considers the history of confessions in the Reformed churches after 1675. This includes an analysis of the Barmen Declaration of 1934. In this section, Rohls notes that the authority of the confessions came under attack from two quarters, pietism and the Enlightenment.
Encrusted orthodoxy was opposed both by Pietism, influenced by Dutch precisianism and English Puritanism, and by the Enlightenment, which was making its way from Western Europe…. The Enlightenment and Pietism agreed in emphasizing the priority of scripture over the confessional writings and symbolic books. There was a corresponding opposition to the Orthodox “papacy of the confessions” . . . .In the new view, a confession could no longer be a rule of faith, but only the articulation of a specific type of doctrine (pp. 265, 266).
Rohls’ exposition is sound. With only the rare lapse, he does justice to the confessions and, thus, to Reformed orthodoxy. In addition, he unfailingly hones in on the exact issue. In treating of “reconciliation and substitution,” Rohls points out that Christ reconciled us to God, and not God to us (pp. 90, 91). In the section on “justification and faith,” he is at pains to demonstrate that the creeds condemn viewing faith as another work of the sinner: “It is impossible to regard faith as that on the basis of which we are justified” (p. 126). Faith is the gift of God to the elect sinner (pp. 128, 129).
Posing the problem that “the particularity of election seems to call into question the universality of grace,” Rohls observes, correctly, that
the universalistic statements of the Bible are understood (by the Reformed confessions—DJE) in such a way that the expressions “world,” “all,” and “many” apply exclusively to God’s church in the sense of the communion of those who have been elected from eternity (pp. 162, 163).
Not only does Rohls invariably strike to the heart of the creedal statements of Reformed doctrine, but he also has the gift of expressing that heart in a memorable way. Regarding the doctrine of the person and natures of Jesus Christ, “Christology is about the fact that God is human, and specifically that God is human without ceasing to be God” (p. 108).
A rare lapse is his treatment of reprobation. It is Rohls’ understanding of the creeds that unlike election (for which he reserves the term “predestination”) “reprobation can in no way be considered a positive act of God’s will, so that election and rejection also cannot be understood as two parallel acts of the divine will” (p. 153). Rohls supposes that reprobation in the creeds is “exclusively … a passing over or overlooking of some sinners in the act of election, which is the sole positive act of the divine will” (p. 154).
But the Canons of Dordt speak of one eternal decree of election and reprobation according to which God gives faith to some and withholds faith from others (I/6). Further, the Canons teach that God has “decreed to leave (others) in the common misery” (I/15). The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches one decree by which some “are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death” (3.3). In 3.7 Westminster views reprobation as the divine counsel that not only “passes by” but also “ordains” some humans to dishonor and wrath.
This reviewer protests vehemently against the profaning of language that results from politically correct deference to feminism. As theologians increasingly cower before the feminists, we will have to read books that defile the English language. But how can one not be disgusted with such a sentence as this? “In the words of the Westminster Confession, God has the divine life ‘in Godself’ … and ‘from Godself'” (p. 46). In fact, these are not the words of the Westminster Confession. The Holy Spirit, God Himself, who guided the divines at Westminster into the knowledge of the truth, also protected them from such barbarisms.
This aside, the book must be part of the library of all, whether friend or foe, who would know the Reformed faith from its creeds.