Crossing the Elenctic

WEDNESDAYFor quite some time now I have desired to read my way through two multi-volume Reformed systematic theologies: The Institutes of Elenctic Theology, by Francis Turretin (James T. Dennison, Jr., editor, George Musgrave Giger, translator, 3 volumes, [Phillipsburg, NJ, USA: P&R Publishing, 1992-1997]), and Reformed Dogmatics, by Herman Bavinck (John Bolt, editor, John Vriend, translator, [Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Academic, 2003-2008]). Both are widely-acknowledged theological masterpieces.

Turretin (1623-1687) was a 17th century Swiss-Italian (although it makes more sense to me to call him Italian-Swiss) who served as both as a pastor and as a professor of theology at Geneva. The advantage of beginning with him is that his work takes us back to where Reformed theology was about two generations after John Calvin (1509-1564).

Herman Bavinck

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). From The Bavinck Institute web site.

Bavinck (1854-1921) was a late-19th/early-20th century Dutchman who also had careers as both a pastor (at Franeker) and as a professor of theology (at Kampen and then Amsterdam). The advantage of beginning with him is that his work is close enough to our time that it has had a direct influence on those who shaped current confessionally-based Reformed thought (e.g., Cornelius Van Til).

Both men’s theologies are like oceans into which I’ve dipped my toes many times over the past few years with great profit. In my experience, Turretin has an uncanny knack for anticipating just about every issue that continues to nip at the heels of Reformed Christianity at the dawn of the 21st century. Bavinck, on the other hand, helpfully weaves a good deal of historical theology into his presentation. But which ocean should I cross first?

It was a difficult decision, but in the end I decided to begin with Turretin. His Institutio Theologiae Elencticae was required reading (in Latin, of course) at Princeton Theological Seminary in the 19th century until it was replaced by the Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprinted 1982) of Princeton theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878). As for Turretin’s chosen title:

Like his great Geneva predecessor, John Calvin, Turretin entitled his work an Institutio. This word suggests foundational or basic instruction. Hence the Institutio theologiae is a basic instruction in theology. However, the term electicae or elenctic is not familiar to us. What did Turretin mean by dubbing his volume “Basic Instruction in Elenctic Theology”? Elenctics is derived from the Greek word for that which exposes error. Elenctic theology is thus polemic theology, since it is devoted to refutation of errors. But it should be noted that Turretin is not content only with refutation of error. He is positively concerned with the statement of truth as well.

[James T. Dennison, Jr., “The Life and Career of Francis Turretin,” in Dennison, ed., Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3:647.]

Turretin would have suffered from no shortage of errors to refute in his lifetime. More than a century after the Reformation, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) unsheathed his formidable pen in the service of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation. In the wake of the original Arminian controversy (1610-1618), Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and Simon Episcopius (1583-1643) made a general nuisance of themselves. And then there were always the followers of Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) to deal with, along with the occasional hostile Lutheran. All of these opponents figure prominently the proper name index of this edition.

Turretin’s life also took him through the birth of the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason (c. 1650).  René Descartes (1596-1650), Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), John Locke (1632-1704), and Isaac Newton (1643-1727) were among his contemporaries. While names such as these are conspicuously absent, Turretin does address the topic of reason, its relation to faith, and its inherent limitations at various points.

While I’m usually of the type that prefers to skip over prefaces and introductions, after glancing at “Turretin’s Preface to the Reader” (xxxix-xlii) it appears that it would be helpful use it as the point at which I raise my anchor to cross Turretin’s Elenctic ocean. That’s where I expect to be at this time next week.


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