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Stefan Lindholm, Jerome Zanchi (1516-90) and the Analysis of Reformed Scholastic Christology (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016)

Stefan Lindholm, Jerome Zanchi (1516-90) and the Analysis of Reformed Scholastic Christology (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016). ISBN: 978-3-525-55104-2, 200 pp., €75.00.

Reviewed by Harrison Perkins

[1] Stefan Lindholm’s impressive work on the Christology of Jerome Zanchi is half history and half philosophy, and forces readers to think through the intricacies of early-modern and contemporary philosophical theology. This book is certainly insightful and Lindholm delved deeply into both disciplines of history and philosophy. Readers should know, however, that that volume certainly tilts more heavily towards doing constructive philosophical theology than it does towards doing analytical historiography. The book falls into three parts. Part one explains the nature of the work and its arguments, and situates it within the literature on early-modern religion as well as analytical philosophy. Part two addresses issues that rise from Zanchi’s discussion of the person of Jesus Christ. Namely, the first chapter in this part deals with philosophical issues associated with conception in connection to the virgin birth. The second chapter in this part discusses complexities involved in traditional notions of Jesus Christ having a divine and human nature that are united in one person. This chapter handles differences between the way Reformed and Lutheran theologians explained this union of two natures. Part three deals with the “implications of the incarnation,” specifically, polemical controversies between Reformed and Lutheran thinkers about the consequences of the hypostatic union. This primarily relates to the issue of ubiquity of Christ’s human nature after it is united to the ubiquitous divine nature.

[2] The major strength of this book is its deep understanding of multiple philosophical contexts. Lindholm does seem to have mastered both the philosophical assumptions of early-modern Aristotelianism and contemporary analytical philosophy. This work does provide fascinating glimpses into the way early-modern thinkers were engaged with a very broad spectrum of ideas. Specifically, the chapter about underlying assumptions involved in the virgin birth of Christ should be interested in scholars of the northern Renaissance. Although the idea of the virgin birth itself may be of mixed relevance to cultural historians, it should certainly be of interest that early-modern theologians were dealing with a wide range of medical theories as they constructed their theology. Zanchi apparently made significant use of Galen’s medical theories about the formation of a human zygote. Galen was a physician from ancient Greece, and that fact that Reformed theologians were appropriating his work to develop their doctrines in the sixteenth century shows the breadth and depth of the recovery and renewed use of sources after the Renaissance period. The issues Lindholm raised in this book should encourage historical scholars to pursue a greater understanding of the ideas that came to renewed interest in the Renaissance and Reformation period. Most studies have highlighted the intersection of medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, and post-Reformation theology and philosophy, properly speaking. Lindholm’s volume indicates there is a need to explore how even medical theories, or other hard sciences for that matter, were adopted in the formulation of philosophical and theological systems. The recovery of ideas that occurred in the northern Renaissance era has many facets that have yet to be explored.

[3] The major weakness of this volume is that, although it is marketed as a volume in historical theology, there is very little of interest to most historians, be they social or intellectual historians. Lindholm does very little to discuss Zanchi’s ideas in their historical, political, or social contexts. This work is far more concerned to see if there are contemporary ways to explain these debates based on revamped philosophical assumptions. There is a growing scholarly endeavor in theological research to reach better understanding of historical theology and adopt it in constructive ways for contemporary theology, and this book fits within this burgeoning discipline of theological retrieval. That, of course, is not a weakness per se, since the work makes clear that it aims to do just that and make grounds in combining analytical theology with traditional categories of Christology. The association it tries to make, however, with the historical discipline appears to be somewhat of a red herring. This, I think, relates more to the publisher who branded it as historical theology than to shortcomings in Lindholm’s work itself, but it is certainly still an issue to note. Lindholm used Zanchi and the other theologians he discussed more as foils in philosophical discussion than as subjects of historical inquiry, which is simply something of which readers should be aware so they know what to expect from this work in terms of proportions of historical and philosophical work. That limitation, however, is relative to the interest of scholars than to the ability Lindholm demonstrated in the pages of this volume. He has a clear mastery of the categories he assessed and is superb at shifting between concepts that were refined in the early-modern period and ways that they can be recalibrated within a contemporary intellectual framework. This work, in its ideas and jargon, will challenge readers to press on to new levels of understanding of ideas that may have been long forgotten by some.

 Queen’s University Belfast, September 2018

Stephen J. Casselli, Divine Rule Maintained: Anthony Burgess, Covenant Theology, and the Place of the Law in Reformed Scholasticism (Reformation Heritage Books, 2016)

Stephen J. Casselli, Divine Rule Maintained: Anthony Burgess, Covenant Theology, and the Place of the Law in Reformed Scholasticism (Reformation Heritage Books, 2016). ISBN: 9781601783509, 188 pp.+xiv, $40.00.

Reviewed by Harrison Perkins

[1] The Studies on the Westminster Assembly series, edited by Chad van Dixhoorn and John R. Bower, endeavors to fill 783509the hole in our knowledge of figures, documents, and events connected to the development of British Reformation thought and the intersection between religion and politics in England, Ireland, and Scotland. Stephen Casselli’s book contributes to that project by exploring one of the major works by a prominent figure of the Westminster Assembly, Anthony Burgess’ Vindiciae Legis. The thrust of his book is to examine how Burgess explains the relationship of biblical law to its various applications in history.

[2] The first highlight of the book is Casselli’s treatment of Burgess’ life, and especially his education. He gives a very informative biographical summary of Burgess’ early life and training and his various pastoral callings, including his time at the Westminster Assembly. Most helpful is his description of the education administered at Cambridge during the seventeenth century. He makes clear the rigorous training they received in logic, languages, philosophy, debate and classic literature. It is clear that this type of education supports Casselli’s broader argument that Reformed thinkers of the period did not implement scholastic methods as a rationalistic system of metaphysics, but that making scholastic distinctions and definitions for the sake of debate was simply bred into them in all of their schooling. His summary here is helpful for any scholar looking for an accessible summary of educational methods and an entryway into further sources through the footnotes.

[3] The bulk of the book is devoted to exploring how Burgess treats the law of God in various periods of history. He explains Burgess’ view that the “natural law” was given to Adam. This law is essentially the same as what the Reformed theological tradition calls the “moral law,” which is summarized by the Ten Commandments. This law was given to Adam and, as a covenant wholly dependent upon obedience, which Adam violated, explains humanity’s fall from a paradisaical state into sin. This Burgess takes to be part of an intellectual shift in the early modern period away from realist notions of how sin was transmitted from Adam to humanity to more representative notions, associated with covenant theology.

[4] This same law was also given to Moses, but was not given to him as a covenant wholly dependent upon obedience, but as part of God’s plan of salvation that Reformed thought poses as substantially unified throughout history. The use of the law in this covenant of grace is not to set humanity’s probation, but to guide the lives of God’s chosen people, Israel. Burgess argues that use of the law to guide people’s lives in godliness is not abrogated by the coming of Christ, but people still owe obedience to God from gratitude for salvation.

[5] Casselli does well to direct our attention to scholastic methods implemented at various places throughout Burgess’ Vindiciae Legis. He also helpfully navigates us through some of the historical debates that were likely shaping the polemical edges of Burgess’ explanations. Overall, there is great strength in his presentation that helps us better understand a significant feature of seventeenth-century theology, i.e. the role of God’s law.

[6] Yet, there are a few weaknesses to this study that readers should note. Casselli seems over-eager to use his historical findings to address modern day debates in the Reformed tradition. This is clear in his introduction and also throughout the work, as many footnotes direct us to theological works pertaining to current dispute rather than Burgess’ historical context. The conclusion gives some prescriptive judgment of which positions from his historical study are theologically correct.

[7] Although Casselli states that there is no way to prove that Burgess’ views are those primarily adopted into the Westminster Confession of Faith’s chapter on the law, he leaves us with the implication that they are. The import of this is that if the Confession’s view is Burgess’ view, that limits the scope of acceptable doctrine in the seventeenth-century church (and for those who still hold this confession). This, however, does not seem to take account of the consensual nature of confessional documents. Although they were drafted by particular people, their scope was not limited  only to the views  of those who drafted them. Additionally, it is not helpful to imply that Burgess stands behind the doctrine of the confessional document if no suggestions can be made as to how his view came to be contained there.

[8] Lastly, in a work focused largely upon one historical work, many questions are left unanswered. Casselli does provide a helpful summary of the contents of Burgess’ book, and a guide to the debates that likely stood behind his arguments. On the other hand, he does little to show the actual reception of the book, beyond showing that it was originally written as lectures and published at the encouragement of other theologians. More significantly, Casselli does not address literary historical matters such as what significance this book actually played within the life and career of Burgess and does little to explore its relation to his other works.

[9] Despite these criticisms, Casselli’s book is well worth reading. It provides a helpful framework for understanding the historical context and debates surrounding the Vindiciae Legis, and gives many good insights into how the Reformed tradition relates to scholastic methodology.

Queen’s University Belfast, October 2016

Jane Dawson, John Knox (Yale University Press, 2015)

Jane Dawson, John Knox (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015). ISBN: 978-0300114737, 384 pp., £25.00.

Reviewed by Harrison Perkins


[1] John Knox was the leading Scottish Reformer of the sixteenth century. Although he spent most of his life in and out of exile, he had a tremendous zeal to see the Protestant Reformation take hold in his native Scotland and perceived himself to be the prophetic preacher to call the nation to join with God in a covenant. In most presentations of him, Knox is presented as the quintessential dour Scotsman. He is usually pictured as the tyrannical Reformer, bent on having his way, full of hard-nosed judgment for those who may disagree with him. Perhaps most of all, he is remembered for his opposition to female regency and he is often painted as the model of misogyny. Jane Dawson, however, has written a terrific new biography that makes a point to turn over each stereotype of the Scottish Reformer and examine them afresh. She predominantly lets him speak for himself, showing model historiography in returning again and again to primary sources. Recently discovered documents shed new light on aspects of Knox that were previously obscure and offer new dimensions to her portrait of him.

[2] Dawson presents a careful and detailed narrative of Knox’s life. At each turn, the reader is given a little more of the puzzle that shows how over-played the stereotypes have been. We find good detail of his conversion from notary for the Roman Catholic Church to full-blooded Protestant. He was a man who spent his much of his life in exile. He was captured and served as a slave on a French galley, forbidden to re-enter Scotland and spent many years in England. He suffered persecution under Mary Tudor and fled to Geneva to learn from John Calvin. He spent time stuck in Dieppe, apart from his family, waiting for political circumstances to allow for his return to Scotland. He even went into self-imposed exile, giving up the pastoral call of his dreams in Edinburgh to seek solitude in St. Andrews to deal with his depression.

[3] Events which occurred in Geneva reveal interesting aspects of Knox’s character. He is often known as the over-assertive Protestant Reformer but we also get to see a side of him where he doubts himself. When presented with various calls, particularly a pastoral call to Frankfurt, Knox becomes heavily dependent on the advice of others and seems hesitant. Although this does not completely strip away the harder aspects of his personality, it does add a layer of complication for those who would reduce him to a one-dimensional figure.

[4] Dawson presents Knox as having a very experiential theology. Many of his views were forged or refined in light of the events happening in his life. His ecclesiology was one which viewed the church as the people of God who were destined to be the small and remnant flock. This is not shocking coming from someone as Protestant as Knox who lived during the Marian persecution and it makes even more sense for someone who continually moved in and out of exile, even if it was self-imposed. He saw himself as a preacher and prophet. He never really counted himself as a theologian aimed at presenting refined theology disconnected from the situational demands of preaching, and more specifically of reforming.

[5] One striking point is how Knox continually managed to make enemies. It appears that he was hardly ever without a major foil. He managed not only to alienate other major ecclesiastical figures, but even found himself particularly despised by Queen Elizabeth I. His battles with women in power may be one of his most enduring legacies. Although it is true that Knox had very stated objections to female regency, Dawson again undoes the stereotype of a purely chauvinistic Knox by exploring his deep dependence upon circles of female friends in spiritual, emotional, and material support.

[6] There are a few criticisms. The importance of the regulative principle of worship, the doctrine of predestination, and the doctrine of justification by faith frequently come up in the biography. These are largely left undefined, which is problematic, given how important they were to Knox. It would have been very helpful to have a summary of how Knox expressed these teachings. Although the majority of the narrative is precise and clear, there are also a few spots where it could be easy to get lost in the stream of events and where and when they are taking place – although some of this has to do with how Knox returned to the same places several times. A discussion on Knox’s legacy in Scotland would also have been useful.

[7] Dawson’s book is certainly an important work. For those interested in Knox for his own sake, this is an indispensable resource. It is also valuable to those who desire to see how politics are handled in the religious landscape of the sixteenth century. Most of all, it is useful as a model of historiography, showing us the importance of returning to primary sources, and how this often overturns long-standing assumptions.

Queen’s University Belfast, November 2015