"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Reformed Catholicism: Getting started

[I'm in the UK from July 24 until Aug 4, so I thought I would leave this long post I've been working on a while as my last post for a couple of weeks.]


From my Catholicism series, one may be able to tell I am partial towards the concept of a Reformation or Reformed Catholicism. There once was a site named "ReformedCatholicism.com" and one of the best features of the site was a post on “10 steps to becoming a Reformed Catholic” with some recommended reading. I was not fully on board with everything they wrote, and since the website seems to be in a permanent state of re-direction, I thought I might offer some perspective on my own preference for the concept and perspective of Reformed Catholicism, with some recommended reading.

How to read the History of Theology Christianly, Reformed and catholic:

Scripture always takes precidence in authority over those interpreting it. Reading History is reading Scripture with others that have gone before you. No one should believe something merely because Chysostom, or Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin believed it. One should read the arguments and conclusions of these men on Scripture to evaluate their thought process, compare it with Scripture and other great thinkers and then humbly determine who makes the best case from all of Scripture (of which you should first be familiar with) and allow a writer to teach you the Scriptures at their feet. And yes, the appropriate posture for learning from teachers is in submission, at their feet. Not that everything you hear is accepted as Scripture is, but that one thinks their thoughts after them and holds them in high regard, rather than merely holding their thought up to the measure of your own or to merely confirm your own prejudged opinions. One must be in a position where one is willing to have one's mind changed in interaction with those who are probably wiser, more learned and more pious than oneself.

So read other great Christian writers throughout history. Not just Reformation history, or Puritan History or the history of your local church or Billy Graham, but of the rich 2000-year history of the church. Personally, I’d recommend immersing yourself in each era for a good deal of time to get a handle on it. Read multiple books from that era, don’t read a Reformation era book, then an early church book, but read 4 or 5 books from the Early church, then read 4 or 5 books from the Reformation. If you read a survey, don’t just read a one volume history of the church, but instead, follow something like this guide below with both surveys and primary source works:

The Early Church

Read a comprehensive history of a period like: Jaroslav Pelikan’s volume 1 of the Christian Tradition then skim Schaff’s volume 1 & 2 of Church History. Then, buy Schaff’s 38 volume ante- and post-Nicene fathers, Immerse yourself in the first 600 years of Christianity by reading:

1) the Apostolic Fathers, (Michael Holmes is a better translation than the Ante-Nicene Father’s translation)

2) Then some pre-Nicene fathers, like Irenaeus (Against Heresies, The Apostolic Preaching), Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Typho, others), Clement of Alexandria, and Cyprian. Familarize yourself with the heretics too, whether slight (Tertullian and Origen) or great (like Marcion, the Ebionites, Arius, Apollonarious, and the Montanists). Be able to hear “Marcion” and know what he taught and why it was wrong.

3) Then read the great Post-Nicene Fathers (Christology of the Later Fathers is a good start), especially the Greeks: Athanasius-On the Incarnation, The Cappadocians (Basil - On the Holy Spirit, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Nazanerius) Be able to read the Nicene Creed and see how one cannot be Arian and confess it.

4) Then read some of the Latins: Augustine (Confessions, Christian Doctrine, the Anti-Pelagian Writings), Ambrose (Sermons), maybe some Jerome

5) Optional, if you want to see the transition of early to medieval Christianity, read some selections of later early church figures such as the Latins: Gregory the Great, Leo the Great and the Greek: John of Damascus (On the Divine images).

Middle Ages

Then get into the Middle Ages. Read Pelikan’s Volume 2 on Eastern theology and 3 on medieval theology. (peruse volume 4 on Medieval Christianity by Schaff) First look to the East since Western Scholasticism was an attempt to catch up with the fact that Eastern Theology was more advanced and loyal to the Scriptures than the West. Look into selections of Maximus the Confessor and Cyril.

Then read Anselm’s “Why God Became Man.” One might also read selections of Thomas Aquinas (I recommend Nature and Grace for theology, the Penguin Selections for philosophical issues). Bernard of Clairvaux and Bonaventure would help. The work of Thomas a Kempis would help you get an idea of the best of devotional works, but when you get past 1300 AD, most theology in the West is in decline (by decline, I mean concerned with adiophra, fighting with kings, developing doctrines of merit and downright heresy rather than Christology, Theology Proper, etc).

Reformation of Church and Doctrine

Reformation: Read Diamond McCullough’s wonderful “The Reformation.” Pelikan’s volume 4, and the final 2 volumes of Schaff. Read Pelikan’s Obedient Rebels. Begin to recoil when people attack Luther’s lingering catholicism, rather, see it as a good thing. By now, you should have learned to love the 1500 years before Luther, and especially their love of Christology and composition of theology in relation to Christology. Luther's theology only makes sense in that context, not as a “new Christianity.”

Look for good biographies of the Reformers: Bainton’s “Here I Stand” on Luther, McGrath’s “Life of Calvin,” McCullough’s bio on Cramner, and Reformers in the Wings for lesser known Reformers.


The Confessions of the Reformation: Augsburg, Belgic, Hiedelberg Catechism, Westminster, Book of Concord, Canons of Dordt, The 39 Articles of the Church of England.

Luther’s Babylonian Captivity, Christian Liberty, Bondage of the Will

Calvin’s Institutes, (pay attention to how much Calvin interacts with the past and past fathers), Bondage and Liberation of the Will

Martin Bucer, Melancthon’s Loci, Bullinger, Cranmer’s prayers, English Reformers.


Make a visit to the Puritans. Read Ryken's book: "Worldy Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were." It is a country with many great resources, especially in personal devotion. Remember, Puritans might be Anglican, Presbyterian, Independent or Baptist. They might have a little too much separationism in them (proto-fundamentalism), but many of them have a wonderful piety and great writings. I am attempting to read deeper here, but make sure you don’t leave without taking with you:

John Owen (Communion with the Triune God, Death of Death)
Jonathan Edwards (Religious Affections, Freedom of the Will)

Modern Times

Finally, read about modern church history in Pelikan’s volume 5. Mourn a little, read Noll’s America’s God. Cry a little. Read, Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism. Dispair.

Read Schaff’s the Principle of Protestantism. Read Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, Warfield, Nevin (The Mystical Presence, Reformed and Catholic), maybe even Hodge. Light a candle of hope for American Reformed theology. Read Barth’s Outline of the Dogmatics. Light a smaller candle of hope for European theology. Read Torrence’s Incarnation. Rejoice. Read Robert Raymond’s A New Theology of the Christian Faith. Rejoice. Read “Drinking with Calvin and Luther” Laugh a little.

Now, buy Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck’s 4 volume Reformed Dogmatics and begin reading them, appreciating that theology stands on the back of faithful believers who were probably more pious and intelligent than you and whom you must consider and read before dismissing in a flame of presentist elitism that thinks that since you live now, the present and yourself are the measures of correctness and relevance. Indeed, past writers are likely more relevent to our age than most of our living writers...


Aaron said...

Oh man I wish I could read all of this list. I will try to before I die.

M. Jay Bennett said...

Good stuff Jared! Although, as a Westminsterian, I would advise against the candles. :-)