Review: Institutes of Elenctic Theology by Francis Turretin

Tue, 04/03/2007 - 02:53 -- admin


Institutes of Elenctic Theology by Francis Turretin

review by Tony Reinke (4/9/07)


We've all seen the creative Apple computer marketing campaign comprised of dialogue between an overweight, nerdy man (representing a Windows-based PC) on the left and a hip, casual man (representing an Apple computer) on the right. A popular Internet video recently caught my attention by copying the Apple commercial format to make a supposed distinction between a "Christian" and a "Christ-follower."

Apparently, Christians who carry bibles and read serious Christian books (like ethics and theology) are the anti-cool, being categorized on the level of superficial bumper stickers, passing fads and childish behavior. By contrast, the culturally relevant "Christ-follower" is defined merely pragmatically. This contemporary separation of Christianity between 'what I believe' vs. 'what I do' continues to unnecessarily knock the Christian life out of balance for many.

This video will not shock those who keep track of church culture. In his 1993 book, No Place for Truth, David Wells lamented the demise of theology in the contemporary evangelical church: "Being practical now substitutes for being theological" (p. 112). Other authors have more recently warned that the church culture appears to continue towards the popular psychological/therapeutic and postmodern/consumer models in public preaching. This trend is pushing theology out of the pulpit and into the periphery of church life (commonly limited to suggested reading lists and private study). In light of this trend, it's worth asking one important question posed by this video: Is the study of theology merely intellectual, speculative, theoretical, and out of touch with the real world?

I believe the answer to this question not only highlights the general importance of theology but specifically highlights the importance of Francis Turretin's Institutes of Elenctic Theology.

Nature of theology

Turretin (1623-1687) was the son of a theologian and rose to prominence as a theologian himself in Geneva. He faced issues similar to those in our day; but instead of the therapeutic/consumer models, Turretin faced the Socinian/Remonstrants. The Remonstrants were Arminian and defined salvation essentially as the free choice of men. The Socinians were rationally driven and believed in a unitarian 'gospel' that taught general obedience as a means of becoming right with God. Both groups undervalued the importance of doctrine.

According to Turretin, both groups had one singular purpose, "to take away the necessity of the knowledge of the doctrines of the Trinity, incarnation, etc. and thus more easily pave the way to a common religion (i.e., to atheism) by which all promiscuously may be saved" (1:20-21). In other words, the goal in downplaying the importance of theology in the 17th century was, like in our century, driven pragmatically.


Turretin was concerned about the relation between the theoretical ("to look at") and application ("to do") in theology. In light of this pragmatism, we return to an ancient question: Is the study of theology theoretical or practical? Turretin answers, "We consider theology to be neither simply theoretical [to see] nor simply practical [to do], but partly theoretical, partly practical, as that which at the same time connects the theory of the true with the practice of the good. Yet it is more practical than theoretical" (1:21). Theology is the joint that connects what is true and what is practiced.

In theology the theoretical and the practical are inseparable. So Turretin simply called the study of theology "theoretico-practical."

Turretin more clearly defines and distinguishes between the theoretical and practical. "A theoretical system is that which is occupied in contemplation alone and has no other object than knowledge. A practical system is that which does not consist in the knowledge of a thing alone, but in its very nature and by itself goes forth into practice and has operation for its object" (1:21). Theology is then theoretical (sometimes terminating in a vision of the divine mysteries) but also (and most commonly) practical in nature.

So the answer to the Socinians and Remonstrants fleshed out in the following arguments:

1. Theology is a science. Science, to Turretin, did not terminate in theoretical speculations and data gathering but rather in the study of an object and ordering of conclusions. Take medicine, for example. The end goal of medical research is not to gain a compendium of all diseases and conditions, but to cure these diseases and conditions. Just because theology, like medicine, is partially theoretical, does not mean it is un-practical (1:21). Quite the opposite.

2. The theoretical is essential for worship. "There is no mystery proposed to our contemplation as an object of faith which does not excite us to the worship of God or which is not prerequisite for its proper performance" (1:21). God uses the deep well of theology about Himself (revealed in His Word) to incite worship. Thus, the theoretical aspects of theology are immediately applicable in worship. Theology "excites" worship and forms the very "prerequisite" to worshipping God.

3. The intellect and the will are connected. "The form embraces the essence of true religion, and demands the knowledge and worship of God which are connected together inseparably (just as the sun, light and heat can never be separated from each other). So neither can that knowledge of God be true unless attended by practice (Jn. 13:17; 1 Jn. 2:5). Nor can that practice be right and saving which is not directed by knowledge (Jn. 17:3)" (1:22). Turretin also references John 13:17 in this section to show the blessedness of the man who knows and then obeys. The knowledge is a prerequisite to the doing. The theoretical and practical are as interconnected as the sun, its light and heat. Later, "For there is none so theoretical and removed from practice that it does not incite to the love and worship of God. Nor is any theory saving which does not lead to practice (Jn. 13:17; 1 Cor. 13:2; Tit. 1:1; 1 Jn. 2:3, 4; Tit. 2:12)" (1:23).

4. Theology and the "vision of God." Turretin writes: "When eternal life is said to consist in the knowledge of God (Jn. 17:3) and happiness in his vision, this indeed shows that theology is also speculative, as having many theoretical objects. But we cannot from this infer that it is merely speculative because this knowledge itself is not only theoretical, but practical (1 Jn. 2:5). Vision denotes not only knowledge, but also enjoyment (according to Scriptural usage)" (1:22). And later, "The theology of the saints in heaven cannot be termed merely theoretical because their happiness embraces not only an apprehension of the highest good by vision (which is the intellect), but also an enjoyment of it by love (which is an act of the will)" (1:23). Seeing and savoring God eternally proves the marriage of the theoretical and the practical.

Turretin's understanding of theology is nicely summarized by Richard Muller:

"The Socinian and Remonstrant perspective removes from religion all fundamental articles -- including the Trinity and the incarnation -- and, Turretin concludes, ultimately issues in atheism. Whereas the Socinians and Remonstrants would certainly deny that their views led to atheism, they clearly did hope to deny fundamental or necessary articles any role in the determination of normative Christianity. The antidote to such reductionism was, for Turretin, maintenance of the balance between the theoretical and the practical dimensions of theology ... A purely theoretical discipline is devoted solely to contemplation and has no other goal than cognition; a purely practical discipline is devoted solely to action and has no other goal than the direction of operation (operatio) or of praxis. It is clear that neither definition applies perfectly to theology: theology contains both dogmata seu decreta fidei and praecepta Christianarum virtutum -- both the required doctrines of faith and the rules of Christian virtue" (PRRD, 1:351-352).

Turretin was not arguing that the Socinians and the Remonstrants were acting out of pure ignorance. Rather, Turretin argued that because they downplayed speculative theology (Trinity, incarnation) to get to the really applicable teachings of theology, they quickly ran past the full vision of God in His glory and majesty. By restoring theory and application in theology, Turretin builds a vision of theology that is contrary to the "what I believe" vs. "what I do" camps in the contemporary church landscape. The "speculative" and the "practical" are fused together by theology.

Or as Turretin might say: "Is theology theoretical and practical. We affirm, contrary to YouTube."


These arguments originate from Turretin's Institutio Theologiae Elencticae or more recently known under the English name, Institutes of the Elenctic Theology (see especially 1:20-23). The English translation of the work was commissioned by Charles Hodge and completed by George Musgrave Giger for Princeton Seminary where it was used for many years. This P&R edition was extensively edited by James T. Dennison, Jr. and published by P&R between 1992 and 1997, now totaling 2,300 pages bound in three cloth volumes.

The Institutes are not technically a systematic theology, although they are commonly categorized and useful as such. As an elenctic work it is polemical in nature, written to expose errors. Its format excels in asking questions, opening Scripture and providing rebuttals (example: "Is the righteousness and obedience of Christ imputed to us the meritorious cause and foundation of our justification with God? We affirm against the Romanists and Socinians"). Turretin's goal is not only to open debates and establish the biblical truth but also to trace opposing thoughts back to their origins.

A breakdown of the content shows Turretin's emphasis:

1. Theology (1:1-54)
2. The Holy Scriptures (1:55-168)
3. The One and Triune God (1:169-310)
4. The Decrees of God in General and Predestination in Particular (1:311-430)
5. Creation (1:431-488)
6. The Actual Providence of God (1:489-538)
7. Angels (1:539-568)
8. The State of Man Before the Fall and the Covenant of Nature (1:569-590)
9. Sin in General and in Particular (1:591-658)
10. The Free Will of Man in a State of Sin (1:659-685)
11. The Law of God (2:1-168)
12. The Covenant of Grace and Its Twofold Economy in the Old and New Testaments (2:169-270)
13. The Person and State of Christ (2:271-374)
14. The Mediatorial Office of Christ (2:375-500)
15. Calling and Faith (2:501-632)
16. Justification (2:633-688)
17. Sanctification and Good Works (2:689-724)
18. The Church (3:1-336)
19. The Sacraments (3:337-560)
20. The Last Things (3:561-638)
Biographical information (3:639-702)
Topical and Scriptural indexes (3:703-783)

Personal usefulness

I use Turretin frequently. In my own library, I classify this work as a systematic theology. Dennison has crafted 80 pages of topical and Scriptural indexes, making the search for details in this work very easy. In the past I've used the Institutes for systematic theology research and currently use the work for exegetical sermon preparation. When in need of a precise explanation of a theological category I turn here first (it's because of this precision that he is commonly referred to as the finest scholastic Calvinist). Finally, I use the Institutes to understand the historical development of theology. "Turretin's knowledge of the Christian tradition is encyclopedic," editor James Dennison writes. "In the course of editing Giger's translation, I have extracted more than 3,200 quotations from classic, patristic, medieval, Jewish, Socinian, Lutheran, Arminian, Anabaptist and Reformed authors" (3:647).


Turretin's Institutes come very highly recommended. It served for many years in the theological training of Princeton Seminary graduates under Charles Hodge. Turretin was a favorite of Jonathan Edwards, especially on points of Calvinism and polemical theology. Paul Ramsay argues that Edwards was "demonstrably dependent upon the writings of ... Turretin" (Works of Jonathan Edwards, Yale 8:742). Contemporary theologian Robert Duncan Culver considers Turretin the "prince of scholastic Calvinism." Wayne Grudem very simply considers the Institutes a "great theology text." James Mongomery Boice wrote, "If ever a great theological work has been unjustly neglected, it has been Francis Turretin's masterful volumes on the whole of Christian doctrine." John Frame writes, "I am impressed anew with the true greatness of [Turretin's] achievement ... One can find a very deep pastoral and devotional strain in Turretin ... wonderfully edifying teaching." Paul Feinberg writes, "One never errs in reading the giants. Francis Turretin is a giant." Recently Carl Trueman, professor of historical theology at Westminster Seminary, placed Turretin on a short list of favorite systematic works.

Turretin's Institutes of Elenctic Theology are rightfully considered a Reformed masterpiece. Turretin is relevant, helpful, and will provide years of fruitfulness in a personal library. Dr. C. Matthew McMahon has written a fitting conclusion:

"Among Reformed Theologians of the world, both present and past, Francis Turretin's Insitutio fares among the greatest Protestant theological work ever written ... We may compare Turretin's work against Luther's voluminous productions, Calvin's writings, and others. Yet, I believe Turretin's theological compilation and sheer depth outweighs them all. Some may disagree knowing Calvin and Luther, and others, where the foundations on which Turretin's biblical theology emerged, and this may be true, yet, his logic, order, and keen insight into the Scriptures shines brighter among the scholastics than any I know."

[Note: The Monergism website provides an extensive archive of articles related to Francis Turretin and a short but excellent biographical sketch of Turretin can be found here].

Title: Institutes of Elenctic Theology
Author: Francis Turretin
Translator: George Musgrave Giger
Editor: James T. Dennison, Jr.
Reading level: 4.0/5.0 > advanced
Boards: hardcover
Pages: 2,300
Volumes: 3
Dust jackets: no
Binding: Smyth sewn
Paper: normal
Topical index: yes (extensive)
Scriptural index: yes (extensive)
Biography: yes (3:639-702)
Text: perfect type
Publisher: P&R
Years: 1992-1997
Price USD: $125.00 / $89.99 from Monergism Books
ISBNs: set, 9780875524566; vol.1, 9780875524511; vol. 2, 9780875524528; vol. 3, 9780875524535.

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All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright (c) 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

All content including reviews and photographs Copyright (c) 2007 Tony Reinke

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