As the fourth installment in P&R Publishing’s Blessings of the Faith series, Jonathan Master’s Reformed Theology presents “a fairly mainstream, middle-of-the road definition” of the Reformed theological tradition (p. 95). Master writes with verve and clarity, and his phrasing is memorable at more than a few points. This book is an excellent go-to handout book for Reformed church visitors, those who are new to (or considering) Reformed theology, or as a base text for a new members class in a Reformed church.
In the Introduction, Master lays out the two big claims of the book: theology matters and Reformed theology in particular is a blessing. What follows are four brief chapters treating the substance of Reformed theology and the blessings of Reformed theology. Matching the other three volumes in this series, this book includes two appendices with questions and answers and recommended further reading.
So, what is Reformed theology? Master writes in the Introduction, “Reformed theology, centered on Jesus Christ and rooted in the Scriptures, seeks to explain the whole Bible by showing God’s work of salvation from beginning to end. It gives an honest assessment of humanity and good news about the nature of salvation. More than that, it shows how the Bible instructs us personally, teaching us how we should worship God and serve him in our everyday lives at home, at work, and in the church” (p. 15).
In unpacking that statement in the first chapter (What Is Reformed Theology?), Master briefly touches on the historical and popular definitions of Reformed theology before presenting “better ways to define the term” (p. 20). Whereas the historical definition has limited usefulness for understanding Reformed theology as-such and the popular definition is woefully truncated in what it covers, the “better” definition is fuller in scope and comprehension, including the theology of the Reformation’s Five Solas, the biblical framework of covenant theology, and the biblically motivated impulse to creedal and confessional statements. It is these major themes that Master develops in the first three chapters.
In presenting the Five Solas of the Reformation (Sola Scriptural, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria), Master rightly addresses the Reformers’ historical concern with authority (Scripture over clerics). As he does so, he deftly shows the relevance this concern has for worship and for modern life. Today’s Reformed churches champion the authority of Scripture over not only the pope and his magisterium, but also over cultural elites and private feelings. Master writes, “Whatever the competing authority – the pope, the cultural elite, or a private feeling – the Reformed doctrine of sola Scriptura asserts that the Bible alone must have the final word” (p. 23). Furthermore, he presents sola Fide as doctrinal material “out of which the Reformation was made” (p. 25), and he champions the centrality of grace, Christ, and God in Reformed theology.
The doctrinal distinctives of covenant theology figure heavily in this book, and appropriately so. As Master writes, “covenants provide the biblical framework by which we understand God’s work in Christ and his dealings with his people throughout history” (p. 29). Because Reformed theology is concerned with being biblical, and the Bible is structured around successive covenants between God and man, covenant theology is part of the warp and woof of Reformed theology. The importance of creeds and confessions for Reformed theology is likewise highlighted, both in the body of the book (pp. 30, 77-82) and in the Question and Answers in the back of the book (p. 98). It is a strong but true claim that Master makes, “to be Reformed is to be confessional; to be part of a Reformed church is to be in a place in which one of these historic confessions is professed, taught, and followed” (p. 30). Not only is the confessional characteristic of the Reformed tradition a trait, but it is an asset in that the Reformed confessions “offer transparency to those within the church and to those outside it” (p. 78). In our age of subjectivism, relativism, and confusion, such transparency and stability is indeed a great blessing.
In emphasizing the authority of Scripture in the second chapter, Master shares a foundational concern of the Reformers and their theological successors. He grounds the authority of Scripture in its self-attesting character, and especially in the record of Christ’s earthly ministry and teaching. He writes, “to be Christian – to truly trust in Jesus Christ and to follow him – we must hold to the traditional Christian teaching about the Bible. Scripture must be our final authority – our final court of appeal – precisely because we serve Christ” (p. 36). Interestingly, Master does not mention the importance of the inner testimony of the Spirit to the authority and veracity of Scripture, either at this point or in the Question and Answer regarding the Reformed emphasis on the ministry of the Holy Spirit (pp. 89-90). This is the only weakness I noted in the book, and it is a rather minor one at that. Perhaps my noting it reveals my Reformed ‘prickliness’ (pp. 90-91).
One of the special strengths of this little treatment of Reformed theology is Master’s emphasis on evangelism and missions as a distinctive interest of Reformed churches. By his presentation, Master makes it clear that we cannot rightly understand the doctrine of God’s electing grace without recognizing the important implications this doctrine has for motivating the church’s evangelistic and missionary enterprises (pp. 46-47, 93-95).
In chapter four, Master gives five broad categories for understanding the blessings of Reformed theology. The first blessing is the security of Scripture, which involves doctrinal clarity, authoritative teaching, and the maintenance of proper doctrinal balance (or appropriate emphasis on various doctrines). The second blessing is the comfort of God’s sovereignty in man’s salvation, in all aspects of our personal life, and in all the world’s affairs. Master devotes more space to his discussion of this blessing than any other, and he gives special attention to the place of suffering and God’s sovereignty in the Christian life. Master’s careful development of this blessing demonstrates his pastoral concern for readers as he rightly handles the truths of Reformed theology for the good of God’s people. Thirdly, he highlights the wonder of God’s electing grace which inspires rejoicing praise and assures us of a secure promise of ultimate glorification. The fourth blessing is the clarity of the covenant which shows us Christian salvation’s unique benefits in Christ as well as the continuity of the covenant community (from the past, into the future, and with both home and church). The fifth blessing was mentioned above as the transparency in (and of) our confession (and Confessions) of faith. Master points out that one great strength of the Reformed Confessions is how they uphold the authority of Scripture for the faith and practice of both Christians and the church.
In presenting Reformed theology as a blessing to Bible-believing, Christ-loving, Evangelical Christians, Jonathan Master turns the tables on all-too-common tropes about the alleged weaknesses of the Reformed tradition. He effectively shows in this little book that “any areas that at first glance may appear to be liabilities are actually assets” (p. 81). Indeed, readers will come away from this book with a new or renewed appreciation for the history and theological emphases of Reformed theology. This volume is a fine addition to what is shaping up to be a great series of pointed introductions to the basics – and blessings – of the Christian Faith as understood and proclaimed by Reformed and Presbyterian Churches around the world.