Reformed Systematic Theology
Vol. 1: Revelation and God
Review by Chuck Ivey
Beeke, Joel R. and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology Vol. 1: Revelation and God. Wheaton: Crossway, 2019. 1309 pp. $60.00
Biographical Sketch of the Authors
Joel R. Beeke is the president and professor of systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. His other books include Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Heirs with Christ: The Puritans on Adoption, and Parenting by God’s Promises: How to Raise Children in the Covenant of Grace.
Paul M. Smalley serves as teaching assistant to Dr. Beeke and is pastor of Grace Immanuel Reformed Baptist Church. He co-authored Feasting with Christ: Meditations on the Lord’s Supper, John Bunyan and the Grace of Fearing God, and Prepared by Grace, for Grace: The Puritans on God’s Way of Leading Sinners to Christ.
Reformed Systematic Theology Vol. 1 is the first entry of an ambitious project by Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley. The authors plan to cover 8 major doctrinal themes across a total of 4 volumes (19). This first volume covers Theology/ Revelation (prolegomena) and God (theology proper). The book is broken up into 2 parts with detailed outlines introducing each part. A bibliography, general index, and scripture index are included. At just over 1300 pages, this book is too large to do justice to every topic covered. My hope in this review is to provide an accurate sampling of what it has to offer and why you should own it.
The authors state at the outset that this book is intended to engage the “head, heart, and hands.” (18). Theology should engage the intellect (head) but it cannot stop there. The affections (heart) and practical application (hands) will also be involved when theology is done rightly. Some have tried to compartmentalize these areas and as Beeke incisively puts it, “The result has been academics for the sake of academics, spiritual experience without roots deep in God’s Word, and superficial pragmatism that chases after the will-o’-the wisp of short-term results.” (18).
As a seminary student entering my third year, I caught myself smiling and nodding my head at Beeke’s discussion of how “seminary” and “cemetery” are sometimes mistaken for each other (145). There is real danger of simply checking off boxes with head knowledge while starving the soul of communion with God. Done biblically, “theology is a profoundly spiritual exercise.”
Part 1 Prolegomena: Intro to Theology & Revelation
In the first part of this systematic, Beeke and Smalley lay a solid foundation for what’s to come by carefully defining what theology actually is. Instead of pitting one theological discipline against another, the authors recognize the legitimacy of several branches of theology (42-52). They point out that exegetical, biblical, historical, philosophical, and systematic theology are each answering different questions and should be done in harmony with one another.
Citing Petrus van Mastricht, the authors define theology as “the doctrine of living to God by Christ.” (56). They drill down further by drawing on Augustine, Ames, Edwards, and Owen, concluding that theology is “the authoritative knowledge and wisdom revealed in God’s Word concerning God so that we may joyfully live unto him through Jesus Christ.” (57). To be clear, although the authors make a lot of use of our cherished old dead guys, this is not primarily a historical theology.
Yes, Beeke and Smalley wade into the tricky waters of the cessationism vs. continuationism debates (409-457). They cover the topic across 2 chapters and include arguments for and against each position. It should come as no surprise that they affirm the historic Reformed understanding of the cessationist position as that of the Bible. The authors affirm general (modern day) providence over creation, but deny that God’s providence or our personal experience equate to new, authoritative “words” from him (454). Scripture is sufficient. Regardless of one’s position on this issue, it would be a mistake to ignore the reasoning and biblical arguments provided by the authors.
Part 2: Theology Proper: The Doctrine of God
The second half of this work moves into the doctrine of God, known by theologians as “Theology Proper.” Unsurprisingly, the authors hold to the doctrines of divine simplicity (624-637), impassibility (832-844), and eternal decree (957-978). They offer some interaction with the Molinist idea of “middle knowledge”, ultimately finding it to be unbiblical (750-753). They also reject the idea that God has “emotions” due to the historical baggage and confusion that comes with the term, preferring instead to speak of the “affections” of God (829-851). God’s affections are tied to his moral excellence, such that he is affectionate but without passions (830).
There is so much to appreciate about this book but here are some highlights. First, the authors clearly intended this to be a work of devotion and praise to God. They urge readers to pray for God’s guidance as they use this book (17). At the same time this is a serious academic work that is appropriate as an academic resource. Each chapter ends with questions for discussion and reflection, as well as recommended hymns which relate to the chapter’s themes.
Beeke’s mental image of concentric circles of theology was particularly helpful for me. At the center is dogma and moving out from there are doctrine, theology, and religion or “life and faith” (42). There is a real danger of these terms being misunderstood or misapplied and thankfully the authors carefully define them.
For many of us, our introduction to “Reformed Theology” or “The Doctrines of Grace” began with the acronym TULIP. The authors include material on TULIP in this book but point out that there is more to Reformed Theology than the so called “Five Points.” They offer some helpful background on TULIP, ultimately preferring the terms Eternal Election, Definite Redemption, Total Depravity, Effectual Calling, and Perseverance of the Saints (115-124). Admittedly, the slightly reordered and reworded “EDTEP” is not as memorable as TULIP, but the authors are careful to explain their reasoning.
Apart from a brief discussion of subordination and hierarchy within the Trinity (904) and critiques of Bruner’s conception of the Son’s subordination (925), I could not find much in this volume which addressed the recent controversies over eternal functional subordination (EFS) of the Son. This is more of an observation than a critique, since the focus on this first volume is Revelation and Theology Proper. I hope to see the issue of EFS addressed in the volumes still to come.
Reformed Systematic Theology Vol. 1 is a great feast for students of God. The authors have succeeded at their goal of serving the head, heart, and hands of Christ’s followers. This volume is rigorous and clear but still warm and charitable when engaging different views. If nothing else, this is a truly God-Centered book. The authors give priority to God’s glory, stating “God’s jealousy is the fervent energy of his holiness.”, and “God does what he does for the sake of his name.” (832). I eagerly look forward to diving into the other planned volumes in this series which will dive into the doctrines of Man (anthropology) and Christ (Christology) in Vol 2, the Holy Spirit (pneumatology) and Salvation (soteriology) in Vol 3, and the Church (ecclesiology) and Last Things (eschatology) in Vol 4. Highly recommended.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.