Review: Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology

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In one of the most intellectually stimulating books on doctrine in a very long time, Oliver Crisp, theologian and lecturer at Regent College in Vancouver brings to bear what is truly meant by the motto ‘ever reforming.’ It is engaging, and not just with those men of the past who have continued forming the Reformed Tradition, but with the modern readerĀ  who seeks a redress of lackluster theology and poor doctrinal teachings in works such as Crisp’s. The author brings out what real analysis does to theology and helps to formulate a clear path going forward for both analytical and philosophical theology.

The book is divided into three parts, with nine chapters amongst them. In Part I, Crisp deals with Calvin and Barth’s (chapters 1 and 2, respectively) view on Creation, and with Calvin, the additional providence. This is later given attention in chapter 7 when the author examines Calvin’s view on petitioning God (via prayer.) In Part II, Crisp, in order, tackles Edwards and the Imputation of Sin, Turretin and the Necessity of the Incarnation, Campbell on Non-penal substitution, and returning to Barth, the author looks at, and in an abnormally honest way, deals with Barth and his denial of his own universalistic tendencies. Finally, in Part III, as I said before, Crisp tackles the use of prayer, especially given Calvin’s own doctrine, Nevin and that Church, and ends the work with another look at Jonathan Edwards, but this time, on the Qualifications of Communion. In grappling with these issues, it is not enough to say tha Crisp is rehashing the argument, but instead presents the argument in historical context and then rips through it to bring it in to today’s context and needed thought (although, admittedly, his strength is with Edwards and his his weaknesses reside with Barth).

Crisp is a theologian found squarely in the Reformed Tradition, and truth be told, makes the Tradition appealing to some outside the field. While this book is solidly Reformed, it must be read by the non-Reformed. Although they may detest the Tradition presented herein, readers of various theological stripes will find find great value, and if nothing else, in seeing how theology is formed. Reading such a book as this, especially as one who is not Reformed, I expected more of polemical undertones, but Crisp is able to maintain a certain evenness throughout the book. Further, his subjects are those usually found in the Reformed Tradition such as providence, prayer, the Incarnation, and penal substitution. Missing is a warm and fuzzy feel good message and in its place is a hard look at questions never settled, and now reexamined. In this reexamination, we find that the author brings about a new way of examining past arguments. For example, the Barthian trend towards universalism. He is able to bring clarity to the position using the previously noted analytical theology. Or, in Calvin’s use of Christology in exploring the Creation which is examined through the lens of Barth. While Crisp is dialoging with the subjects, he has the subjects – centuries apart – dialoging with one another which creates for a exciting riding through Reformed theological history. Throughout each, his arguments are presented with the same methodological approach which is easily enough followed to the very end.

In the end, this book is a much needed voice in examining doctrine in a (post)modern world in which all too often, we are find ourselves willing to throughout the past when examining the present. Crisp shows that solid theological methods, with an attention to detail, is still of value today when examining pressing theological concerns and when trying to navigate a way through modern ideas.

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