Turretin’s Treasure

Though Turretin's name is well-known in Reformed theology, his Institutes of Elenctic Theology is not well-read today.

As the title indicates, Turretin’s Institutes is an exercise in “elenctics.” As such, it engages some of the principal heads of controversy that lie between Reformed theology and its rivals (both ancient and modern) in order to refute error and bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. The design of the Institutes explains the polemical edge that characterizes its (quite thorough) treatment of various disputed questions in theology. For all its polemical intent, Turretin’s work is nevertheless an example of Reformed theology at its finest: rooted in sound exegesis, a model of conceptual clarity, and rich in pastoral wisdom.

 

Many years ago, at one of the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society, Allan Fisher gave me (a poor doctoral student at the time) one of the best gifts that an aspiring student of theology could ever receive: a copy of Francis Turretin’s three-volumeInstitutes of Elenctic Theology. Though Turretin’s name is well-known in Reformed theology, Turretin having earned a reputation for his many years of faithful service as professor of theology at the Academy of Geneva, his Institutes of Elenctic Theology is not well-read today. This is partly due to the fact that, upon its publication, Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology replaced Turretin’s Institutes as the theological textbook of choice at Princeton Seminary, thus narrowing Turretin’s history of reception in North America. Perhaps more significantly, lack of readerly attention to Turretin’s Institutes is also due to the fact that this massive work represents a theological genre and sensibility (i.e., Reformed  “scholasticism”) that has become increasingly foreign to us over the past century or so. This neglect of Turretin’s Institutes is, in my judgment, to our theological impoverishment.

Turretin’s Institutes is an interesting work. By Turretin’s own admission, it does not intend to offer “a full and accurate system of theology.” As the title indicates, the Institutes is an exercise in “elenctics.” As such, it engages some of the principal heads of controversy that lie between Reformed theology and its rivals (both ancient and modern) in order to refute error and bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. The design of the Institutes explains the polemical edge that characterizes its (quite thorough) treatment of various disputed questions in theology. For all its polemical intent, Turretin’s work is nevertheless an example of Reformed theology at its finest: rooted in sound exegesis, a model of conceptual clarity, and rich in pastoral wisdom. For those willing to familiarize themselves with the canons and genres of scholastic debate, and willing to spend some time learning the history of theology that Turretin often presupposes, the Institutes of Elenctic Theology repays careful study.

Turretin’s discussion of the covenant of grace, a topic which he expounds over the course of twelve questions (roughly twelve chapters), provides a particularly good example of what readers may expect to find in his Institutes. Therein, the professor of Geneva discusses the various biblical terms for covenant, both Hebrew and Greek, along with their Latin equivalents.  He also addresses knotty issues such as whether or not the covenant of grace is a “conditional” covenant (and, by the way, his treatment of this issue is much more sophisticated than many contemporary discussions), whether and how the old and new covenants differ, the difference between “accepting” and “keeping” the covenant, and how Christ mediated grace to the patriarchs under the Old Testament.

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