Review: Francis Turretin (1623–87) and the Reformed Tradition by Nicholas A. Cumming (Brill, 2021)

Nicholas A. Cumming is the Assistant Professor of Humanities at Pepperdine University. Francis Turretin (1623–87) and the Reformed Tradition is an adaptation of his doctoral dissertation at King’s College London. Published in the St. Andrews Studies in Reformation History Series, the book touches on the life, theology, and reception of Turretin by the Reformed tradition. The first three chapters focus on the life of Turretin, including his education and time in Geneva. In chapters four and five, Cumming addresses the theology of Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, sermons, disputations, and the Helvetic Consensus Formula (which he helped author). Chapter six provides a publication history of the works of Turretin. In chapters seven and eight, Cumming looks at the reception of Turretin’s theology in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.

One of the difficulties in assessing this book is its lack of a clear thesis. Cumming declares that the book is a biography of Turretin, asserting, “Turretin is a prime candidate for an updated and thoroughly sourced biography, a goal that this work seeks to accomplish” (2). Only a few pages later, however, Cumming states that the book focuses on the reception of Turretin: “Indeed, this is the question of this book: what was the impact of Francis Turretin on the Reformed tradition” (6). Instead, the book should have set forth one thesis broad enough to encompass both Turretin’s life and theological influence. Fortunately, this book is summarized with more precision:

Turretin’s life highlights each topic this introduction has covered: Francis Turretin was a Reformed theologian, working in the era of High Orthodoxy, utilizing the scholastic method. In response to inner turmoil and outside pressure, Turretin published his massive Institutes of Elenctic Theology, which was printed and disseminated throughout the early modern Reformed world. Finally, Turretin was a lifelong pastor and professor; he desired for the Reformed tradition to remain ‘pure’ of any of the falsehoods impacting other evangelical churches. After his death, Turretin’s works migrated to the ‘New World,’ influencing a new generation of Reformed leaders. To chronicle Turretin’s life, then, is to chronicle the Reformed tradition itself (21).

Cumming addresses the scholarship of the Reformed scholastic movement to which Turretin belonged. Much to his credit, he heavily engages both the old and new scholarship on Protestant and Reformed scholasticism, citing scholars like Basil Hall, R. T. Kendall, and Brian Armstrong, as well as Paul Helm, Carl Trueman, R. S. Clark, and Richard Muller. The former portrayed the move from Reformation to post-Reformation scholasticism as one of desecration, which pitted Calvin against the Calvinists. Whereas the latter, “continued to stress discontinuity in method, at least in terms of Calvin and his successors, while maintaining a continuity of theology. . . . By recognizing and characterizing the different eras of Reformed orthodoxy Muller goes beyond the binary understanding of the Reformers versus the Reformed, or the humanists versus the scholastics” (19).

As for his early life and education, Francis Turretin was born on October 17, 1623, in Geneva, into a Reformed family. His father was a professor at the Genevan Academy and a minister in the Reformed church, so Turretin underwent a rigorous education. He started at the small school of Geneva and continued his studies at the Academy in Geneva (1637–1644), as well as several universities in Europe including Leiden, Utrecht, Paris, Saumur, Montauban, and Nimes. The French schools he attended were inundated with hypothetical universalism, as particularly espoused by Moses Amyraut (1596–1664) of Saumur. Regarding Turretin’s early life and education, Cumming concludes, “Turretin passed through a considerable portion of Protestant France and the Netherlands absorbing a substantial range of theological, philosophical, and scientific learning,” and “clearly did not shy away from heterodoxy, as he would have seen it; instead, he immersed himself in all that seventeenth Protestantism had to offer and emerged in Geneva fully convinced of orthodoxy” (46).

In 1647, Turretin was approved for pastoral ministry by Geneva’s Venerable Company of Pastors, being sound in doctrine and demonstrating “great knowledge” (47). The next year the Italian congregation of Geneva called him to be their pastor. In addition to his duties to the Italian congregation, Turretin was appointed to the Consistory, the Venerable Company of Pastors, and he preached to the French congregation occasionally. On December 17, 1652, the Venerable Company of Pastors appointed him as professor of theology at the Academy. Turretin died on September 28, 1687, shortly after completing his Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Cumming summarizes this period of Turretin’s life saying,

Turretin dedicated his life, in many ways, to attempting to unify divisions fomenting within the tradition. However, due to the complex and interwoven nature of governance of Geneva, his desire to unify often resulted in further conflict. . . . Turretin’s context within the situation of early modern Geneva placed him in the midst of continuing disputes. It is in this tumultuous period that the Institutes of Elenctic Theology were written (68-69).

Turretin’s magnum opus, the Institutes of Elenctic Theology, was published in three volumes in the years 1679, 1682, and 1685. He defined elenctic as “theology which refutes dubious interpretations through the use of logic” (67). According to Cumming, “Turretin’s Institutes were meant, primarily to be persuasive, convincing the people of Geneva and the wider Reformed tradition that his version of orthodoxy stood in line with orthodox Christianity from the apostles to the present day” (70). Cumming sets the Institutes in their historical context by going back to late medieval theology and moving through the Reformers, especially Melanchthon and Calvin. He writes, “Far from Calvin being the font of all theology, he is often the source of confusion and debate and Turretin, in order to meet the primary falsehoods of his day, must defend Calvin’s orthodoxy” (87). When Cumming gets to the method section he provides a prolonged yet nuanced analysis of scholasticism. He agrees with most of the conclusions of van Asselt and Muller, especially on the point that the term refers to “school practice” (93). Finally, he analyzes Turretin’s articulation of the doctrine of predestination in the Institutes, which is essentially in line with Calvin’s, concluding, “Turretin was one amongst the Reformed and he believed that his theology, and in this instance the doctrine of predestination, stood in unity with those orthodox, catholic theologians who came before” (111).

The Institutes were not Turretin’s sole literary output. He also published sermons, disputations, and the Helvetic Consensus Formula. Cumming summarizes,

Turretin’s sermons were, indeed, thematic in nature, homing in on a particular verse (or verses) in the Bible and expanding on it. . . Underlying Turretin’s argument, though, is a strong Christocentrism; a belief that the entirety of the Old and New Testaments witness to God’s work through Jesus Christ. . . his sermons are primarily pragmatic in nature” (115–117).

Turretin’s chief two disputations were On the Satisfaction of Christ and On our necessary Secession from the Roman Church (122). The disputations were largely polemics against the Roman church. The Helvetic Consensus Formula (1675) was written by Turretin, J. H. Heidegger of Zurich (1633–1698), and Lucas Gernler of Basel (d. 1675). Cumming summarizes, “What Heidegger, Turretin, and Gernler were attempting to do, therefore, was combat the Catholic, and now Amyrauldian, idea that predestination is an unfair and unjust system” (132). Cumming concludes the following about Turretin’s opera, “We see that Turretin believed he stood in clear continuity with the late-medieval period and the Reformation. In contrast, the universalists, Arminians, and Papists had erred, in Turretin’s view by introducing innovative doctrine unknown to the universal Church” (132).

Cumming next examines Turretin’s influence in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries in Geneva, Scotland, the United States, the Netherlands, and German-speaking lands. He writes, “The death of Turretin in 1687 brought about the death of Reformed orthodoxy in Geneva, but Turretin’s legacy lived on” (148).  In early eighteenth-century Geneva, Francis Turretin’s son Jean-Alphonse (1671–1737) sought to overthrow orthodoxy in favor of ecumenism (153), while his nephew, Benedict Pictet (1655–1724), sought to preserve orthodoxy along with Thomas Boston (1676-1732) of Scotland (154). Cumming finally looks at Turretin’s influence on Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) and Karl Barth (1886–1968), as well as Princeton theologians Archibald Alexander (1772–1851) and Charles Hodge (1797–1878). Since he spends the most time analyzing Turretin’s influence on Hodge, I will conclude with Cumming’s quotation that “Though Turretin’s theology, according to Hodge, is only correct in light of Scripture’s clarity, Turretin still represents the clearest extrabiblical theology of the Reformers. Building on Calvin, Dort, and Owen, Turretin is presented as the theologian of theologians in Hodge’s system” (182).

Cumming’s book is beneficial for three sets of readers. First, for those looking to understand more about the life of Turretin, Cumming’s early biographical chapters are the best English resource on Turretin’s life. Second, for the busy reader who wants a summary of Turretin’s theological views, the middle chapters provide a great overview of Turretin’s literary output, albeit limited to works translated into English. Third, for those wishing to understand further how Turretin fits into the larger Reformed tradition, the final chapters are filled with inspiration for further reading. They show how Turretin was a bridge between the Reformers and the modern day. Overall, Cumming’s book, though not without flaws, fills an important gap in the study of the Reformed tradition.

©Casey Carmichael. All Rights Reserved.


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  • Casey Carmichael
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    Casey Carmichael holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Geneva. He is the author of A Continental View: Johannes Cocceius’s Federal Theology of the Sabbath (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2019). He is also the coeditor of the Classic Reformed Theology series, published by Reformation Heritage Books. He has translated various works from the Reformed tradition, including J. H. Heidegger’s Concise Marrow of Christian Theology and John Calvin’s Necessity of Reforming the Church.

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