R.C. Sproul and Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology

On this episode of Open Book, Stephen Nichols and R.C. Sproul discuss Princeton’s theology textbook, “elenctic” theology, and the precise logic of the scholastics.


STEPHEN NICHOLS: We’re in Dr. Sproul’s library again, and this time we’ve pulled Francis Turretin’s three-volume Institutes of Elenctic Theology. You were pretty busy underlining in this book, especially where we get to Turretin’s doctrine of God. It’s always the doctrine of God with you, right?

R.C. SPROUL: Yeah, it is, right? It really is.

NICHOLS: We’ll get to that in a moment. For now, why Turretin?

SPROUL: When you think back through the history of theology, you think of the great titans of the faith: Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards. These are the really great ones. Each one of them has his own particular emphasis and style. Luther, for example, wasn’t a systematician. He didn’t organize theology in these different or systemic ways, but he had these brilliant, individual vignettes of insight by which the world was changed. Augustine had such a deep, philosophical background and understanding of things. Then Aquinas marks the high scholasticism of the Middle Ages. I don’t know if these men had a peer while they were alive. In fact, if you would ask me who I think were the three most brilliant theologians in all of history, I would say Edwards, Aquinas, and Francis Turretin.


SPROUL: I mean, Calvin was the real deal in the sixteenth century; his brilliance, his knowledge, his ability to have a systemic, coherent understanding of the things of God was just marvelous. People are often critical of what happened in the seventeenth century. In the sixteenth century, in the first generation of the Reformation, there’s—

NICHOLS: A liveliness.

SPROUL: Yes, there was a spontaneity, a sense of spiritual awakening. Then in the seventeenth century, which was called the Age of Reason, marked by its philosophy of rationalism. There was a look back to the high period of scholasticism, and a reification of Reformed orthodoxy occurred, and some people sneer at that and look down their noses at it. They all see Turretin as just being dry. Just purely logical. See, this is the thing that I love the most about Turretin. He does the close work, the really difficult stuff that requires the deepest kind of sharp analysis in theology. I don’t think there’s anybody better than Turretin. When we think about Turretin’s influence through the years, we think about the acme of American academic theology at Old Princeton and about the titans such as Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield. Both Hodge and Warfield were deeply dependent on Turretin. Of course, then, his Institutes wasn’t available in English.

NICHOLS: It was in Latin.

SPROUL: But they read Latin. In fact, you read Hodge, half of his books are in Latin. The truth is that they were so dependent on Turretin, and that’s because Turretin was so precise.

NICHOLS: He was the standard.

SPROUL: He was the standard.

NICHOLS: I think your word there is the right word. There’s a precision. There’s a careful precision. When we’re talking about these doctrines, when we’re talking about the doctrine of God, we have to have precision in what is truth.

SPROUL: Also, there were disputes that arose in the seventeenth century. They were a little different from the disputes of the sixteenth century. The sixteenth-century dispute was primarily with Rome. In the seventeenth, we had to deal with Remonstrance in Holland and with Socinianism, which anticipated nineteenth-century liberalism. We have Turretin’s polemic response to these movements, and he was outstanding in responding to them. Several years ago, the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company published a monograph, one little book, by Turretin on justification, and they did it at my urging and request.

NICHOLS: That’s great.

SPROUL: So, the price I had to pay for that was to write the introduction to Turretin and his statements on justification. I was thinking today, “I don’t remember what I even wrote in all of that,” because most of what I knew about the life of Turretin, I have forgotten, even though I wrote that particular piece. I just thought that his article on justification was so clear, so vital, that I wanted to see it appear as a separate work.

NICHOLS: So that actually, I think, whets the appetite. Because then, after that volume on justification came out, Turretin was still largely inaccessible. He was in Latin, as you said. In fact, I think the story has it that Turretin’s work served as the textbook at Princeton, and Hodge finally relented in writing his own systematic theology, because students didn’t know Latin. But as you said, I think, Hodge would always put the punchline, as it were, by bringing in Turretin to give the answer on a given topic. He’d quote him in Latin, so his students had to learn Turretin after all.

SPROUL: Right.

NICHOLS: After the publication of the volume on justification, P&R released Turretin’s three-volume Institutes of Elenctic Theology. It’s translated in English and currently available. I’m looking at your copy, and it’s fairly unlined.

SPROUL: Yes, it is. I’ve read that. I’ve read through that on more than one occasion,

NICHOLS: I can tell. Turretin, because of the way he writes, it’s easy to go back and find the information that you need.


NICHOLS: So, if you just want go back into a particular issue—

SPROUL: If you have one particular question on one particular point, boom, you can open it right up and find it.

NICHOLS: I found one of these volumes on your desk, which makes me think you have been using it recently.

SPROUL: That’s exactly why you found it on my desk, because I was reading it and using it.

NICHOLS: Maybe people don’t know much about Turretin. He was at Geneva, right? He was at Calvin’s Academy.

SPROUL: Calvin, of course, started it, and Theodore Beza was the main professor there at the Academy. One of Beza’s successors at the Geneva Academy was Turretin.

NICHOLS: So, he carried on this work?

SPROUL: Yes, he did.

NICHOLS: It was while he was at the Geneva Academy that he brought it to be. Now we have it, and we have it in English. Maybe we should define elenctic before we go. That’s probably a new word for people.

SPROUL: It really doesn’t mean anything all that sophisticated. It’s just a way of talking about teaching. Back in the sixteenth century, as I mentioned, there was a controversy between the followers of Calvin and the followers of Luther over the issue of the place of the law in the Christian life. Calvin, of course, developed his threefold use of the law and, most importantly, the so-called tertius use. It’s the third use of the law that is valuable for the Christian to know what is pleasing to God. Luther didn’t like that, and he emphasized what he called the usus elenchticus, which was the teaching function of the law. He believed that the whole point of the law is to drive people to Christ, to be the schoolmaster, to teach. He believed that once that law taught us our need for Christ, then its purpose had been fulfilled. That’s why Luther has often been called an antinomian, because he was a little bit light on the way in which the law works in the life of the Christian.

NICHOLS: Calvin might have had the better of the argument there.

SPROUL: I think he did, without question.

NICHOLS: But that’s where this word elenctic comes from?

SPROUL: Yes, yes.

NICHOLS: Turretin is a teacher, and he gives us this wonderful teaching in this three-volume theology. Thank you for letting us know about them. I’ll go ahead and return them to you, so you can keep working through them.

SPROUL: Thank you. These should be in every Christian’s library, as difficult as they may be to read. It’s heavy stuff. It really is heavy stuff, but it is sound. If you want to find sound theology, here it is.

NICHOLS: There you go. Well, that’s the final word then, Dr. Sproul.