The Central Dogma: Order and Principles for Reformed Catholicity

Michael Allen
John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

Reformed catholicity can easily appear aesthetic, regarding one’s preference for the antique or the exotic. Perhaps a bit more substantively, reformed catholicity can be identified as a methodological or formal program, a modus operandi for doing theology today. I want to explore its material grounds, however, by reflecting on how Reformed theology relates to the catholic faith. An orienting question might be: What is most distinctive about Reformed theology? The most formatively unique facet of Reformed theology is its doctrine of God, and yet the Reformed doctrine of God must be defined as a non-innovative catholic doctrine of God. How can both statements be true? To crack this nut, I will explore the idea of central dogmas and their recent demise as well as analyze a path toward making sense of the root of Reformed theology in its deeper catholic commitment. The Reformed tradition has taken a catholic doctrine of God and reformed Christian doctrine by applying it more synthetically, that is, more broadly and consistently. By analyzing the center of Reformed theology in the doctrine of God, the principled roots of reformed catholic theological practice can be better appreciated.

The Demise of the Central Dogma

First, we ought to acknowledge the oddity of a Reformed theologian commending the notion of a central dogma today. It was not always an odd claim. Historians of doctrine long spoke of the significance of central dogmas from the nineteenth to the mid twentieth centuries. Sometimes Lutheranism was identified as a theological movement rooted in the principle of justification by faith alone, and even today analyses of Lutheranism that follow the early twentieth century Luther renaissance or the more recent Radical Lutheran tilt will regularly describe justification by faith alone as a discrimen for all theology or of the law-gospel distinction as an epistemic rule for all theologizing.[1] By contrast, modern historians have suggested different central dogmas at the heart of the Reformed tradition. Many in the nineteenth century identified predestination/election as the heart of the Reformed system. Alexander Schweizer was pivotal in this trend, arguing that predestination was a speculative element of the doctrine of God from which the Reformed speculatively deduced other doctrinal claims.[2] Weber followed suit, and later interpreters in the mid-twentieth century would pair these earlier historiographic approaches with a propensity to identify central dogmas by means of literary placement (e.g. judging the movement of predestination from book 1 to book 3 of Calvin’s Institutes to have architectonic significance).[3] In the twentieth century, others turned to union with Christ as a purported central dogma at least of Calvin’s theology, if not of later declensions.[4]

In recent years Richard Muller has challenged this methodology. He has challenged the historiographic claims about early Reformed theological systems and later Reformed Orthodox dogmatics more broadly. He differentiates between deductive derivation of doctrines from some central dogma and causal connections of various topics to God.

“Whereas many of the theologies of the seventeenth century follow an a priori or “synthetic” model of exposition, this pattern of discourse does not represent a series of logical deductions of doctrinal topics or arguments one from the other: neither predestination nor any other doctrine serves as a central pivot of system or overarching motif controlling other doctrines. Both in the descriptions of method found in the Reformed orthodox prolegomena and in the subsequent presentation of the topics of theology, what is evident is not a model of deduction from controlling principles but a model in which the topics traditionally elicited in the course of exegesis are lined out in a suitable order or teaching and the doctrine developed by means of the application of a large-scale hermeneutic involving, for the most part the collation and comparison of biblical texts in the light of theological concerns and the use of ancillary tools, including logic and philosophy.”[5]

Muller does not herein rebut all such language about centrality or prioritization, but he pushes back strongly upon the notion of a synthetic system which has been deduced from an epistemic principle. He regularly references the existence of a material principle, but he points to the exegetical art as leading where logical deduction might otherwise be purported to play a generative role. His study of the formation of Calvin’s Institutes and its order of teaching (ordo docendi) is no small part of his revision to scholarship in as much as he shows the way in which Romans helped provide a common places (loci communes) guide to the major topics of theology (a lesson learned from his friend Melanchthon).[6] Far more might be said regarding the details here, but suffice it to say that those engaging early and high Reformed scholastic theology do so with our antennae up regarding the dangers of speculative central dogmas.

Herman Bavinck on the Root of Calvinism

Amidst the decades of scholars searching for the center, in Paul and the canon and, yes, also in Reformed dogmatics, we find the theological witness of Herman Bavinck. In 1894 Bavinck contributed an essay entitled “The Future of Calvinism” to the Presbyterian & Reformed Review. To address what future might await this tradition, he was impelled to define and to root that tradition in something deeper than religious ephemera and more substantive than even its most superstar luminaries. So he said this:

“The root principle of this Calvinism is the confession of God’s absolute sovereignty.  Not one special attribute of God, for instance His love or justice, His holiness or equity, but God Himself as such in the unity of all His attributes and perfection of His entire Being is the point of departure for the thinking and acting of the Calvinist.  From this root principle everything that is specifically Reformed may be derived and explained. It was this that led to the sharp distinction between what is God’s and creature’s, to belief in the sole authority of the Holy Scriptures, in the all-sufficiency of Christ and His word, in the omnipotence of the work of grace. Hence also the sharp distinction between the divine and human in the Person and the two natures of Christ, between the external internal call, between the sign and the matter signified in the sacrament. From this source likewise sprang the doctrine of the absolute dependence of the creature, as it is expressed in the Calvinistic confessions in regard to providence, foreordination, election, the inability of man.  By this principle also the Calvinist was led to the use of that through-going consistent theological method, which distinguishes him from Romanist and other Protestant theologians.”

Bavinck speaks here of “God Himself as such” as a “point of departure for the thinking and acting of the Calvinist.” He speaks “not [of] one special attribute of God, for instance His love or justice, His holiness or equity, but [of] God Himself as such in the unity of all His attributes and perfection of His entire Being [a]s the point of departure for the thinking and acting of the Calvinist.” The simple fullness of the triune God is the root of Calvinist or Reformed faith and practice. He terms this a “point of departure” and says also that “from this root principle everything that is specifically Reformed may be derived and explained.” God as such is the ontological principle of all Reformed faith & practice.

Lest we think it wrong-footed enough to search for a center to one’s theology, we may be alarmed to hear Bavinck pressing still farther. He relates this “root principles” to more than merely a doctrinal system:

“Not only in the whole range of his theology, but also outside of this, in every sphere of life and science, his effort aims at the recognition and maintenance of God as God over against all creatures. In the work of creation and regeneration, in sin and grace, in Adam and Christ, in the Church and the sacraments, it is in each case God who reveals and upholds His sovereignty and leads it to triumph notwithstanding all disregard and resistance. There is something heroic and grand and imposing in this Calvinistic conception. Viewed in its light the whole course of history becomes a gigantic contest, in which God carries through His sovereignty, and makes it, like a mountain stream, overcome all resistance in the end, bringing the creature to a willing or unwillling, but in either case unqualified, recognition of His divine glory. From all things are, and accordingly they all return to Him. He is God and remains God now and forever; Jehovah, the Being, the one that was and is and that is to come.”

Observe that “every sphere” functions as space and time for recognizing and maintaining “God as God over against all creatures.” The fullness of the Creator-creature distinction echoes into each sphere.

A skeptic might understandably ask if this kind of God-centered focus does not fall short of giving a vibrant account of humanity and creation more broadly in its integrity, much less as bearing dignity and agential responsibility. Bavinck imagines such an objection and seeks to cut it off at its knees.

“For this reason the Calvinist in all things recurs upon God, and does not rest satisfied before he has traced back everything to the sovereign good-pleasure of God as its ultimate and deepest cause.  He never loses himself in the appearance of things, but penetrates to their realities.  Behind the phenomena he searches for the noumena, the things that are not seen, from which the things visible have been born.  He does not take his stand in the midst of history, but out of time ascends into the heights of eternity.  History is naught but the gradual unfolding of what to God is an eternal present.  For his heart, his thinking, his life, the Calvinist cannot find rest in these terrestrial things, the sphere of what is becoming, changing, forever passing by. From the process of salvation he therefore recurs upon the decree of salvation, from history to the idea. He does not remain in the outer court of the temple, but seeks to enter into the innermost sanctuary.”[7]

The crucial sentence notes that “He never loses himself in the appearance of things, but penetrates to their realities.” By “recurring upon God” in all things, he grants them dignity and integrity rather than relativizing them into irrelevance.[8] And what image will encapsulate this approach to thinking all things in light of God? Bavinck turns to the temple, telling us that the Calvinist “does not remain in the outer court … but seeks to enter into the innermost sanctuary.” The holy of holies is no less earthy, though it is all the more so for its heavenly significance. Here the image of the temple courts does highlight creaturely integrity: just as the Old Testament recounts the nature of the stores which will be put toward this cultic construction (1 Kgs. 5-6 and 7:13-51), so this metaphor points us toward attending not merely to the glory of God present here but also the human frame within which that glory finds its abode. Bavinck’s suggestion seeks to honor the courts and furnishings of the temple apparatus in its variety and range – noting that there are a number of distinctives to Reformed faith and practice, confession and piety, mission and vocation – while also noting that it is the glory of God that alone makes it the “Most Holy Place.”

Theological Order: Analyzing and Exegeting the Catholic Root and the Reformed Fruit

What more can be said regarding Bavinck’s proposal? I want to consider it analytically and exegetically and then to ask what explanatory power it may have in keeping us alert to the formative significance of not simply catholic theology, but of a distinctively Reformed mode of practicing catholic theology. In the time that remains then, I will analyze his terms, locate them exegetically, and consider the implications his sketch has for construing the posture of reformed catholicity.[9]

First, the terms of his construction merit analysis. Bavinck’s sketch begins with what he calls a “root principle” of Calvinism. I prefer generally to use the term “Reformed” rather than Calvinism, Calvinist, or Calvinian, but we can leave that terminological point to the side for the sake of argument.[10] His language of root is the key facet here. He seems to suggest that “God Himself as such in the unity of all His attributes and perfection of His entire Being is the point of departure for the thinking and acting of the Calvinist.”

While this may well be the root of uniquely Reformed claims, this doctrinal prism is generically catholic. The Reformed have no unique purchase on “the sharp distinction between what is God’s and creature’s.” Calvin did not invent “belief in the sole authority of the Holy Scriptures.” Zwingli was not the sole witness to “the all-sufficiency of Christ and His word.” Dordt was not the lone prophetic cry regarding “the omnipotence of the work of grace.” These claims were prizes of the catholic past, admittedly refracted and developed further in the context of sixteenth and seventeenth century debates but catholic affirmations nonetheless.

What more can be said about this root, that is, about “God Himself as such”? Bavinck turns to the term “Sovereignty” here to develop it, and that trades on the creedal language of God as “Almighty” (as in “I believe in God the Father Almighty”). Others have used different categories to attest this singularity. Thomas Aquinas would distinguish between uncreated and created being and, thus, between the Creator and all such creatures. He would also employ the language of the term aseity to mark out God alone as the one who possesses “life in himself” or, as other biblical and classical texts put it, divine fullness, self-sufficiency, or (especially in a modern register) independence. August Lecerfe calls “the doctrine of the infinity of God the foundation of Calvinism.”[11] In recent years, the philosopher Robert Sokolowski sums up such affirmations with his language of “the Christian distinction.”[12] Bavinck will take up the jargon of independence as a more modern rendition of aseity or self-sufficiency in his Reformed Dogmatics. There he acknowledges, first, that “[i]n this regard the Reformation introduced no change,” but also that “[a]mong the Reformed this perfection of God comes more emphatically to the fore.” And why a preference for independence over aseity? “While aseity only expresses God’s self-sufficiency in his existence, independence has a broader sense and implies that God is independent in everything: in his existence, in his perfections, in his decrees, and in his works.”[13]

Whatever the conceptual register, the Reformed root regards God’s categorical singularity.

“I am the first and the last; besides me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let him proclaim it…
Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any (Isa. 44:6-8).

The prophet’s attestation recalls Israel to revelation given earlier in the mysterious naming of the burning bush episode: “I am who I am” (Exod. 3:14). This tetragrammaton depicts first and last, beginning and end (cf. Rev. 22:13) and the one “who is and who was and who is to come” (cf. Rev. 1:8). Bounding the sets of creaturely experience, of our experience of time and all its meaning, the Lord is denoted as surpassing them and of not being bound by them just as much as we learn elsewhere that this one alone is not bound by space (see 1 Kgs. 8:27). While the tense of the tetragrammaton remains ambiguous – whether past (“I have been whom I have been”), present (“I am who I am”), or future (“I will be who I will be”) – the self-referential character of this name impels the judgment that this God of our fathers cannot be likened to or compared with any other, brokers no competitors or peers, and ultimately exists and lives in a class of his own.[14]

So God is “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords” in such a way that he stands alone. “I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (Isa. 42:8). Relatedly, his singularity is bound up with his self-sufficiency, whether as revealed in Jesus’s words (“as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself,” Jn. 5:26) or in Paul’s sermonic affirmation (“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything,” Acts 17:24-25). We may and should confess divine aseity or self-sufficiency or self-existence or, yes, also divine independence. Perhaps a related term of greater biblical import would be to speak herein of divine “fullness,” drawing on the ways in which Ephesians takes up the language of the pleroma in its commendation of God’s own life which will be shared with his redeemed in Christ (Eph. 1:23; 3:19). In summing up the root of Reformed theology, I want to briefly describe the value of speaking first of divine fullness relative to related terms such as independence, self-existence or self-sufficiency, and especially aseity.[15]

Aseity gestures toward fullness, though it does not comprehend the doctrine. Aseity specifically signals the fullness or self-sufficiency of God’s existence.[16] Fullness moves beyond that claim to make a still further one. God has “life in himself” (Jn. 5:26), but he is also blessed “from everlasting unto everlasting” (Neh. 9:5). God not only possesses mercy but is “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4) and has “riches of his glory” (Rom. 9:24). Whereas aseity is necessary to fullness, touting the self-possession of God’s existence, aseity is not itself sufficient to signal the overflow that is the divine fullness. God is not only without beginning or end as a se, that is, the “first and the last,” but also the “living one” who is replete and filled to overflowing with vitality (Rev. 1:17-18). Indeed, he is not only “Alpha and Omega,” but also the one “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8; see also Rev. 4:8).[17] This fullness marks God out to be the one known by the high priest as “the Blessed One” (Mk. 14:61),[18] the “blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:11), and “God, the blessed and only ruler, the king of kings and lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15). When we attest the blessedness and richness of God in and of himself, we indicate his reality as the one who possesses all fullness and whose own character is rich. He not only has what he has by himself – rather than from another – but he has it excessively.

If this is my slight tweaking of Bavinck’s Reformed root – namely, the way in which God is uniquely or singularly perfect not only in existence but in action, and not only in action but in excess – then we can look backward historically and observe that this is not remotely unique to the Reformed but sits snugly alongside catholic affirmations of aseity and fullness, and we are now in a position to glance forward and analyze how the Reformed might distinctively apply or extend this tenet across the range of theological topics.[19] Bavinck here depicts other ideas flowing from this catholic root. I think it accurate to use the language of Reformed fruit here to express the organic growth from the catholic root.

Because the claim is that these other doctrines relate to divine sovereignty or fullness as fruit to a root, then we can and should ask: how does this proposal sit alongside the historiographic criticism of central dogmas? And here a distinction has already been made between what Richard Muller himself calls “causal and logical necessity.” The historian puts it just so: “[A]n early modern Reformed theologian could, in other words, argue on biblical grounds the causal interconnection of such doctrinal topics as predestination, calling, faith, union with Christ, justification, sanctification, and glorification, and at the same time recognize that no one of these topics could be deduced logically from another.”[20] Various works of God manifest the imprint of God’s own character in all its sovereignty, self-sufficiency, and fullness. God being this way means that God will act so as to accord with this way. And yet the order of being and causality need not line up exactly with the order of knowing. Our access to these other topics occurs not by way of logical necessity, that is, by deductive reasoning but by exegetical tracing of divine instruction to its intellectual and spiritual ends. Indeed, this exegetically, non-poietic character of the Christian intellect itself derives causally from our relation to a perfect God who shares his intellectual riches – what Ephesians will call wisdom (1:17-18; 3:18-19) – with his people in Christ’s power. Precisely because of his rich beneficence and directly owing to our intellectual dependency, we exist always in a posture of receivership and exegesis marks the intellectual practice fitting to the covenantal-metaphysical entailments of this gracious economy.

John Webster has helpfully related the ontological and the epistemological principles of theology by building on the claims of Bavinck in speaking of not only an ontological principle but also its concomitant cognitive principles: “The Holy Trinity is the ontological principle (principium essendi) of Christian theology; its external cognitive principle (principium cognoscendi externum) is the Word of God presented through the embassy of the prophets and apostles; its internal or subjective cognitive principle (principium cognoscendi internum) is the redeemed intelligence of the saints.”[21] Webster distinguishes the ontological and cognitive principles, such that God’s metaphysical causality of all theological reflection cannot be converted into direct deduction or immediate revelation of all theological truths. Rather, God’s causal action works through the external signs of Scripture and the internal illumination of redeemed reason. While God provides the metaphysical basis of all other truths and realities, that claim is not the same as saying that their reality might be deduced from knowledge of God. No, exegetical induction functions as the cognitive principle under pneumatological illumination. In Webster’s language, God may be the ontological warrant, but there is still need for the “embassy of the prophets and apostles” in announcing that ontological link.

Far from a tracing out of the catholic root toward varied Reformed fruits leading to a deductive analysis of epistemic central dogmas, then, Bavinck’s sketch should be received as an exegetical prompt to alert us to the deep metaphysical logic of Scripture itself. Analytically, then, we ought to acknowledge that theology does have what might be called an ontological principle or central object, the triune God in all his fullness, and that other topics relate as objects for theological examination only in as much as they participate in that divine fullness whether in nature, grace, or glory. That said, affirmation of the Trinity as an ontological principle or central dogma does not thereby fall foul of Muller’s historiographic concerns about central dogma theory unless its ontological centrality funds a deductive rather than exegetical process of theological argument.[22] Might we even say, further, that the centrality of God and of his fullness points us or gestures unto the radically inductive character of theological construction as based on the thoroughly non-poietic character of Christian doctrine? Because God is God and we are not, we receive and hear rather than construct and deduce the lineaments of faith and practice.[23] Schweizer and others who take a preponderant fixation on God’s sovereignty or his fullness to serve as a deductive prompt for Reformed theology fail therein to appreciate the creaturely posture of living as creatures of the eternally full and fully generous God of the illumining gospel.

Second, we might ask whether the Scriptures themselves point or gesture toward such a center. Different pathways might show such a central hub of wisdom’s revelation. Holy Scripture does not itemize a thematic hub but that does not mean that the shape of scripture is bereft of any guidance regarding priorities or principles of integration. Texts such as 1 Corinthians do remind us that there are degrees of significance when we consider Christian doctrine. Whereas Paul would address matters regarding knowledge, parties and schisms, sexual morality, financial generosity, liturgical practice, and spiritual gifts, he nonetheless identifies certain evangelical convictions as being matters of “first importance” (ἐν πρώτοις) in 1 Cor. 15:3. We see that just as Paul does not shirk from commending the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:28), so he also prompts us to begin the work of theological triage by identifying matters of primary, secondary, and tertiary significance.

We might observe a parallel in a cognate discipline, whether it be Pauline studies or biblical theology more broadly. What is the center of Paul’s theology or of the Bible as a whole? Does Paul focus on justification or participation or apocalyptic? Does the Bible fix upon kingdom or covenant or temple? We look to Pauline studies and see massive debates regarding the center of Paul’s thought, whether of the mystical sort (Schweitzer), the existential sort (Bultmann), the apocalyptic form (Käsemann), the participationist union (Sanders, now Campbell and Gorman), or otherwise. But what is a center in such discussions? Rarely is an effort made at defining the term. Daniel Brendsel has considered potential objections to this quest for a center and has sought to provide a plausible pathway forward.[24] Priorities are not necessarily central, however, in as much as centrality not only speaks of emphasis but also of integration. A high priority may not necessarily play a formative, integrated role in matters of secondary significance. Debates about Pauline of biblical centers too rarely get at metaphysical or ordered webs of interactivity and stay at the surface level of superficial literary construction (which is not uninteresting, but is simply more a matter of what Bavinck would call the “outer courts”).[25]

Perhaps what may be glazed over as pedestrian biblical literary features might prompt us to a better exegetical alertness. We can observe that Paul not infrequently yokes together divine works that might seem rather distant. “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:5-6). Paul herein commends his proclamation of the Lordship of Christ and of our posture as his subjects or servants, and he grounds that apostolic kerygma in three realities: (1) God’s creative act of summoning light out of darkness, (2) God’s illumination of the knowledge of God, and (3) the glory of God present in the face of Jesus Christ. Creation – illumination – incarnation; most analyses of doctrine would locate these at rather disjunctive or at least distant plots on the thematic map of the Christian faith. But each is tethered together in that they attest the divinely powerful and altogether interruptive action that brings life, blessing, and divine glory where none could rightly be expected. The darkness promised no burgeoning sublime. The Corinthians opacity gave no reason for expecting wisdom. And the generational advance of Jesus’s forebears did not mark the upward march of human progress such that we would expect the next one, this Jesus, surely to be “full of grace and truth.” Yet God acted in each instance decisively and graciously with power out of his fullness to bring grace and truth.

Or consider Romans 4 where Paul will say: “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope” (Rom. 4:16-18). Explaining Father Abraham takes Paul to resurrection and to creation itself. In creation, God “calls into existence the things that do not exist.” In resurrection, “the God in whom he believed gives life to the dead.” And so Paul is not surprised that God’s justification of Father Abraham “depends on faith.”

Such doctrinal integralism is not uniquely Pauline, as some feature of an overly cranial mind, nor is it even specifically apostolic, as a product of the New Testament era. We see such connections repeatedly in the Old Testament witness, wherein the redemption of Israel is yoked again and again to God’s creative agency and lordship. Gerhard von Rad wrote “The Theological Problem of the Old Testament Doctrine of Creation” in 1936 to address the way in which the Hebrew Scriptures connect teaching on God’s creative act with Israel’s experience of redemption.[26] Many texts relate the two themes: Psalm 104 acclaims the one who “stretches out the heavens like a tent” (104:4) and declares “May the Lord rejoice in his works” (104:31), alluding to his work of creative power. Psalm 105 begins with a call for his people to “tell of all his wondrous works” and to “remember the wondrous works that he has done” (105:2, 5), though it specifies his works as “his miracles, and the judgments he uttered” (105:5) and goes on to recount patriarchal and Israelite covenant history. Both Psalms attest his “glory” (104:31; 105:3), though they locate that glory in different engagements or missions of God’s action which cannot be praised apart from each other.

Von Rad claimed that creation was always mentioned after the fact as a later and subordinate concern meant to shore up Israelite confidence in covenant redemption. While such may read the yoked attestations of creation and redemption in an unhelpful manner historically and theologically, it would be equally problematic to miss the tethered nature of the truths altogether. Creation and redemption do attest God’s glory together; the Psalms and other portions of the OT witness to this connection. Indeed, Walter Moberly has shown that the Book of Genesis serves as “the old testament of the Old Testament” in illumining that creational and then electing backdrop to the account of Israel’s redemption from Egypt and subsequent life with God.[27] Surely Genesis 1-11 serve as a creational context and theological prompt for the calling of Abram and its unfolding implications in Genesis 12-50. The universal and particular are connected ultimately because one and the same God – a God whose fullness is such that he fills all in all without thereby ceasing to be full – creates and redeems. The Gospel according to John patterns after this kind of scriptural rhythm in that it attest the Word as life-giver in creation (Jn. 1:1-4) before attending to his redemptive beneficence (1:5-18).

These integralist webs do not function deductively, but they time and again point to the divine character behind the divine works and further yoke those works together by means of their common expression of that divine fullness. They are not epistemological derivations of divine action but inductive meditations upon how the gospel of the full God wholly manifests God’s own being. In so doing we have prophetic and apostolic prompts for thinking not merely the canonical range of Christian doctrine but also the theological center of that confession. We have no gesture toward a deductive central dogma, but we do have the firstfruits of a metaphysical and covenantal scope and sequence that is not satisfied with the “outer courts” but regularly recurs to the “Most Holy Place.”

The Practice of Reformed Catholicity: Synthetic, Not Deductive Connections

Hopefully my analysis and exegetical sketch of Bavinck’s account leaves you thinking it meaningful and also scripturally impelled. We ought not only ask: where does it come from, but also ask what does it imply, and how might it be teased out? Time will not allow exploring particular instances, but we do well to remember that Bavinck offered quite the extensive list of Reformed fruit which blossom forth from the catholic root. He itemizes as follows:

Divine initiative
Unconditional predestination
Creation from nothing (ex nihilo)
Unilateral institution of the covenant
Election of Israel
Virgin Birth
Resurrection from the dead
Effectual Calling and Regeneration
Justification of the ungodly
Sacramental institution
Scriptural authority – sole final authority
Ecclesiastical polity: Jesus as Lord of the church

From his list of many such topics, we could turn to various particulars to see that Reformed distinctives do not arise by way of random judgments but instead flow forth from a central commitment to triune fullness, aseity, and lordship, that is, to what Bavinck called God’s sovereignty which is him in all his glorious attributes. If he is right, Reformed distinctives do not draw us away from the catholic faith but closer and further into that catholic center. To pursue the posture of reformed catholicity then downplays neither the specific and definitive markers of Reformed theology (relative to other catholic theologies) nor its ontological roots in the doctrine of the triune God as attested in the catholic creeds and the witness of the doctors of the church.

We do well to discuss and to celebrate the varied fruit, not only doctrinally but across Reformed practice as well. I will conclude, however, by simply summing up that these are not random or disparate topics even if they are discrete loci that appear in varied places across the biblical canon and the scope and sequence of Christian divinity. Each of them manifests the fullness of the triune God in some distinct manner, and the scriptures regularly yoke or integrally link them by means of their common display of God’s sovereign and beneficent fullness in all and over and through all things. As Antonius Thysius stated in the sixth disputation of the Synopsis Purioris Theologiae at Leiden: “God is treated not only as the principle upon which it is constructed and the source of our knowledge of it but also as the subject and the foremost primary locus of theology from which all others flow forth, by which they are held together, and to which they should be directed.”[28] This doctrine has synthetic, system-wide implications which are ontological but are not deductively epistemological in form. But this doctrine does advance the glory of Reformed theology and draw us from the outer courts into the Most Holy Place, for the most distinctive thing about Reformed theology is how its thoroughly catholic doctrine of God is applied consistently to the other topics of theology, just as the kingdoms of our thought become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ.

  1. Mark Mattes, The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 177-190.
  2. Alexander Schweizer, Centraldogma, volume one, 40; on “deductive” language, see esp. Schweizer, Glaubenslehre, volume one, 96-101.
  3. Hans Emil Weber, Reformation, Orthodoxie, and Rationalismus, volume two, 63-73, 98-128.
  4. See, e.g., Charles Partee, “Calvin’s Central Dogma Again,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 18, no. 2 (Summer 1987), 191-200.
  5. Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, volume one: Prolegomena to Theology (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 125.
  6. Richard A. Muller, “Ordo docendi: Melanchthon and the Organization of Calvin’s Institutes, 1536-1543,” in Melanchthon in Europe: His Work and Influence beyond Wittenberg (ed. Karin Maag; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1999), 123-40; repr. in The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (Oxford Studies in Historical Theology; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 118-139.
  7. Herman Bavinck, “The Future of Calvinism” (published 1894 in The Presbyterian & Reformed Review): (accessed February 26, 2018).
  8. Yet Bavinck need not go the route of, for instance, Jacques Marie Pohier, who suggests that Thomas Aquinas’s account of charity (ST 2a2ae.25-26) tilts toward the claim that “God does not want to be everything” or to be that for the sake of which we love everything (God—In Fragments [trans. John Bowden; New York: Crossroad, 1986], 266-278). Pohier reads Thomas against Augustine here and suggests that this Thomistic reading of charity better fits with Gen. 2:18ff. (a text which deems life lived alongside only God as being “alone”). Yet his exegesis of Gen. 2 need not segregate communion across sexual, creaturely lines, and his account of Thomas on charity fails to attend to ways in which he also not merely prioritizes but also integrally yokes love for God and love for others (see ST 2a2ae.27.5, reply on loving God “wholly” [totaliter] in light of Deut. 6:4-5). Pohier wrongly severs the two facets of Jesus’s claim about the great commandment (Mt. 22:36-40; Mk. 12:28-33; see also Lk. 10:25-28), failing to propose a way of loving the neighbor that in so doing does not fail to love God with one’s all.
  9. For further description, see Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015); and Michael Allen, “Reformed Retrieval,” in Theologies of Retrieval: An Exploration and Appraisal (ed. Darren Sarisky; London: T & T Clark, 2017), 67-80.
  10. Michael Allen, Reformed Theology (London: T & T Clark, 2010), 3-4.
  11. Auguste Lecerfe, An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics (London: Lutterworth, 1949), 379.
  12. Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 23.
  13. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, volume two: God and Creation (ed. John Bolt; trans. John Vriend; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 152.
  14. On the significance of Exodus 3 in catholic and Reformed theology, see Michael Allen, “Exodus 3 after the Hellenization Thesis,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 3, no. 2 (2009), 179-196; “Exodus 3,” in Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives (ed. Michael Allen; London: T & T Clark, 2011), 25-40; “Divine Attributes,” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic (ed. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 68-77. See also now the analysis of Andrea Saner, “Too Much to Grasp”: Exodus 3:13-15 and the Reality of God (Journal of Theological Interpretation Supplements; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2015).
  15. See broader analysis in Michael Allen, “Divine Fullness: A Dogmatic Sketch,” Reformed Faith & Practice 1, no. 1 (2015):
  16. On a positive account of aseity, see John Webster, “Life In and Of Himself,” in God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, volume one: God and the Works of God (London: T & T Clark, 2015), 13-28; and especially Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 11-27 (Fathers of the Church 79; Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988), tract. 22.
  17. Rev. 1:17 and 4:8 surely seek to render an amplification of Exod. 3:14, expanding on that text’s temporal under-determination and amplifying it in all three tenses.
  18. Some translations (e.g. ESV) simply render “the Blessed” here.
  19. For help in this regard, see especially the working papers in John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, volume one: God and the Works of God (London: T & T Clark, 2015).
  20. Richard Muller, “From Reformation to Orthodoxy: The Reformed Tradition in the Early Modern Era,” in Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 30.
  21. John Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 11, no. 1 (2009), 58; repr. in Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T & T Clark, 2012), 135. See also Franciscus Junius, A Treatise on True Theology (trans. David Noe; Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2014), 196-203; Johannes Polyander, “Disputation 1: Concerning the Most Sacred Theology,” in Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, volume one: Disputations 1-23 (ed. Dolf te Velde; trans. Riemer A. Faber; Leiden: Brill, 2015), 39-41; and Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, volume one: Prolegomena (ed. John Bolt; trans. John Vriend; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 213-214. Analysis of Junius, Polyander, and other post-Reformation Reformed theologians on the causes of theology may be found in Richard A. Muller, PRRD, 1:238-245.
  22. See especially the subtle claims made contrary to central dogma proposals which fund an epistemological rather than metaphysical account in Muller, PRRD, 1:125-132. “Since, moreover, the actual topics of theological system are understood as arising from revelation and not from reason, the synthetic arrangement of those topics does not and cannot indicate their logical deduction from a single central doctrine. The contrary opinion, that dependence indicates both determinism and the deductive character of theological system, is the fundamental error in Schweizer’s conception of Reformed theology” (131).
  23. See especially John Webster, “The Holiness of Theology,” in Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 16-17. Webster pushes against poiesis rather than speculation (as occurs in the tradition following Vos: Murray, Gaffin, and the like) given that speculation can be positively prompted or poietically deduced, which are two notably different postures of contemplation.
  24. Daniel J. Brendsel, “Plots, Themes, and Responsibilities: The Search for a Center of Biblical Theology Reexamined,” Themelios 35, no. 3 (2010), 400–12.
  25. Such contemporary debates would be helpfully pressed ahead by engaging with earlier Protestant discussions of “fundamental articles” as, e.g., in Herman Witsius, “Dissertation II: Fundamental Articles,” in Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1993), 16-33.
  26. Gerhard von Rad, “The Theological Problem of the Old Testament Doctrine of Creation,” in The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays (London: SCM, 1984), 131-42. More recent extensions and corrections can be found in Christopher R. Seitz, “The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness,” in Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 3-12; idem, “Our Help Is in the Name of the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and Earth,” in Figured Out: Typology and Providence in Christian Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 180-183; and Neil MacDonald, Metaphysics and the God of Israel: Systematic Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), viii-xi.
  27. R. W. L. Moberly, The Old Testament of the Old Testament: Patriarchal Narratives and Mosaic Yahwism (Overtures to Biblical Theology; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).
  28. “Disputation 6: About the Nature of God and his Divine Attributes,” in Synopsis purioris theologiae, 1:151.