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Doctrine on full display

Francis Turretin turns 400

Portrait of Francis Turretin Wikimedia Commons

Doctrine on full display
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On this day in 1623, theologian Francis Turretin was born in Geneva, Switzerland. He would grow to become one of the most important theologians of the Reformed-Calvinist tradition, carrying a dynastic torch for Protestantism that was first lit by his grandfather, Francesco Turrettini. The senior Turretin had come into contact with Protestant doctrine in Lucca, Italy, in what is now an oft-forgotten chapter of Italian church history.

In that Tuscan city labored a cadre of noteworthy reformers, including the great Peter Martyr Vermigli, Immanuel Tremellius, and Girolamo Zanchi. They were eventually driven out by Roman Catholic authorities, but their influence touched many Italians who also fled northward for their lives and livelihoods. One of those refugees was Francesco Turretini, who finally ended up in Geneva in 1592. Italy’s loss was Protestant Christendom’s gain.

Francesco’s son (Benedict) and grandson (Francois or Francis) both served as pastors in Geneva. Francis enjoyed an international education in theology. He studied in Geneva, Leiden, Utrecht, Paris, Saumur, Montauban, and Nimes. Ultimately, Francis ended up teaching theology at the University of Geneva.

His was a day of religious turmoil. Not only were various Protestants, Catholics, and Anabaptists at odds with each other, but all those broad groups had controversies within their own ranks that had to be sorted out in writing, argumentation, preaching, political maneuvering, various ecclesiastical gatherings, and authoritative documents. Unsurprisingly, this was the golden age of what is called Protestant scholasticism, where claims and objections were addressed with rigorous logic and biblical interpretation. Doctrinal quandaries and practical developments demanded some kind of consistency, comprehensiveness, and order. And this despite religious wars and vehement controversies often made public via the printing press.

A first edition of Turretin's Institutes of Elenctic Theology

A first edition of Turretin's Institutes of Elenctic Theology

Into this arena strode Francis Turretin. His most famous work was the Institutes of Elenctic Theology. It was “elenctic” because Turretin sought to refute various errors through rigorous argumentation. It’s not always lively reading for the layman, but it is clear, rational, and polemical. And it became a cornerstone text in Reformed orthodoxy.

Throughout his life, Turretin addressed hot-button issues within the Reformed world having to do with the atonement, election, and federal theology. He also played a role in the important Helvetic Consensus, which held sway for a while in Switzerland. Ironically, his son Jean-Alphonse was instrumental in abolishing the requirement that ministers subscribe to the Consensus and, in time, renounced it himself. The world was changing. Not only did many leaders desire closer cooperation and union amongst Protestants across Europe, but the Age of Enlightenment—with its prototypical skepticism toward biblical revelation and impatience with theological doctrine—was mounting a push against orthodoxy and demanded rational answers. But, despite the twists and turns of history, Francis Turretin’s legacy lives on. Scholars, pastors, and theologically curious laymen still read him to this day.

It goes without saying that our world is different than it was in Turretin’s day, and not always in a good way. While we are grateful to enjoy the many comforts of the present, there is a concern that real theologians of a high caliber—like what we saw in the likes of Turretin—are hard to find, particularly in Protestant circles. The past century or so has not been kind to the study of divinity.

The past century or so has not been kind to the study of divinity.

But, just like the printing press was a wide-ranging media revolution five centuries ago, the internet is also a media revolution that we still haven’t come to terms with as of yet. And with such media revolutions come changes—big changes. Scholars of theology do not get to sit out from their vocations during times of confusion and uproar. They often have to enter the fray, with all of its messy political, cultural, and intellectual nuances. Nevertheless, the need from the theologian isn’t bombastic socio-political commentary that mimics the nightly news, but rather … theology itself, the divine wisdom that only comes from the sustained, pious study of God. And that means we need folks who have acquired the vast panoply of disciplines necessary to produce an expertise in divinity. Classical liberal arts schools, are you listening? And you who dismiss such institutions, are you?

Despite the desperate need before us, Francis Turretin’s theological contributions still inform the church today. And, as the history of his family illustrates, the notable population shifts we witness today reveal not only peril but also promise. Where is the next Francis Turretin, and how can we encourage him?

Barton J. Gingerich

The Rev. Barton J. Gingerich is the rector of St. Jude’s Anglican Church (REC) in Richmond, Va. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in history from Patrick Henry College and a Master of Divinity with a concentration in historical theology from Reformed Episcopal Seminary.

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