A Boring Post: Are Evangelical Calvinists more ‘Scholastic’ than the Scholastics of Today?

This post will probably be a little boring for most; but hey, I’m boring (I guess you’ll have to read it to find out).

Jon Hoglund (a PhD student at Wheaton College) recently wrote a review of Richard Muller’s newly released book Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (which now I must read). westminsterassemblyIf you have read me for more than a few years, you will quickly recognize Muller’s name; I have engaged with  him quite frequently in the past—here is the Muller category (from my blog) to prove it, and this post (Let Historians be Historians, & Theologians be Theologians) in particular anticipates the gist of this current post (which illustrates that I have been thinking about this error of Muller and others for awhile). Also in line with all of this; I used to engage with R. Scott Clark (a faculty member at Westminster Theological Seminary california), when he had his blog (before the elders of his church apparently made him take it down—at least that’s what I heard happen). I used to challenge Clark on the grounds that I will be speaking of in this current post; that is, that simply reconstructing the history of the Reformed period (i.e. doing genetic and genealogical work in the area of history of ideas and Reformed theology in particular) does not materially undercut contemporary theologies of retrieval that seek to constructively appropriate various themes, motifs, and foci presented by said period of theological development. 

Getting back to Hoglund’s review of Muller’s book; what really makes it interesting, is that he actually references me and Myk and our book (and the ‘mood’ that Myk and I, and the authors who make up our edited work are advocating for), and Evangelical Calvinism (in a somewhat derisive way (I say this because as you will read there seems to be a negative underlying presupposition behind Hoglund’s rhetoric implying that we haven’t actually engaged Calvin or the Reformed tradition on its own material and even formal grounds), relative, again, to this notion that because Muller has written a work of history that anyone who appeals to Calvin must only appeal to Calvin’s theology through Muller’s authoritative reconstruction of him … i.e. story over, Hoglund and others think). Here is what Hoglund wrote:

The great contribution of this book [Muller’s] is to refocus study of Reformed orthodoxy on the exegesis from which dogmatic formulations sprung. Muller’s use of example expostions [sic] of biblical texts presents a fruitful approach to understanding these early modern theologians. Muller’s reading of the early Reformed presents a direct challenge to contemporary movements like Evangelical Calvinism that appeal to a particular narrative of Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy in order to explain their own position. Anyone who makes claim to the 16th century Reformed traditon [sic] for a doctrine of salvation needs to be familiar with this book.

Myk registered a great comment in response to Hoglund’s review, and critique of us (and also in defense, somewhat, of both Charles Partee and Julie Canlis, who Muller apparently goes after as Calvin scholars who don’t really “get” Calvin [not like Muller & co. do]—both Partee and Canlis are contributors to our book!); and then I followed suit. Myk threw it down in his comment (which was very nice to see!), and challenged Muller & co. the way Muller and family ought to be challenged; that is, if you want actually challenge Evangelical Calvinism, and people who Myk and I would associate with that; then you are going to have to do more than historical work. You see, Myk and I are more concerned with CONSTRUCTIVELY retrieving and engaging with the Reformed voices of the past (inclusive of Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and many others), THEOLOGICALLY. As I noted above, it won’t do to simply do historical work (like Muller, Clark, et al), and then believe that you have undercut or engaged with the material proposals we are putting forward, working from within the Reformed mood as we are.

Ironically, I have just picked up a book I have engaged previously; it is entitled Scholasticism Reformed: Essays in Honor of Willem J. van Asselt (of which Muller and Carl Trueman are contributors—of course!). I was just reading the first chapter this morning written by Martijn Bac and Theo Pleizier, entitled Teaching Reformed Scholasticism In The Contemporary Classroom (exciting stuff, eh). I say ironically, because as they outline how scholasticism should be taught today in theological classrooms, they develop how scholastics of the past retrieved authoritative voices for their own material and theological purposes. They highlight, interestingly, that the scholastic mode of retrieval is very much so like ours (as far as methodology, not conceptually, ultimately) (and not like Mullers, Trueman’s, Clark’s et al). That the concern, more than simply reconstructing the history of ideas and theological development; was to engage the concepts of said voices by appropriating themes and motifs that fit their broader concerns to forward the cause of theological truth. In other words, the greater concern was to organically move within the trajectory and mood set out by the past in order to constructively engage the present and future by developing the ideas of these past voices by placing them within the burgeoning and developing movement of Reformed theology (hey, that’s what we are about “Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church” semper reformanda). Here is what they wrote in regard to the scholastic method, and what was called ‘reverential exposition’:

[R]eformed theologians did not read their sources of Scripture and tradition in a historical sense, i.e., as part of an ongoing tradition, but rather as ‘authorities’ of truth. Until the breakdown of scholasticism and the historical revolution, sources were not quoted in a historical way, be they the Bible, Aristotle, Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas. A quotation did not indicate a correct historical understanding of what its original author had meant, but was read systematically as bearer of truth. From this it follows that contradictions among authorities were solved logically rather than hermeneutically. (p. 39)

I find it highly ironic that people like Muller (Hoglund), and others, would critique Myk, myself, and Evangelical Calvinism (and others who could be so associated) for imbibing the ‘spirit’ of even the post-Reformed orthodox faith (methodologically) more than their apparent heirs (Muller & co.). Although, I would not go as far as to say that we are not sensitive to the importance of getting history right; but we are even more concerned with the ‘truth’ and ideas that were presented by various voices of the past (esp. Calvin’s). If there are themes and motifs present in Calvin (like his union with Christ theology) that are open for further development; then what is wrong with seeking to develop that motif in a way that situates it within a continuing development of this theme from within a Reformed trajectory?

Here is one more example of how these authors, Bac and Pleizier, develop this idea of reverent exposition:

[T]herefore, these texts had to be explained with reverence (exponere reverenter), that is, not in historical conformity with a tradition or with the author’s expressed intention but in conformity with truth, i.e., reverently denoted in correspondence with established theological and philosophical truth. This method of reverent exposition involved a hermeneutical procedure that went back to the patristic period. To be sure, there was room for some exegesis but, as de Rijk has noted, the scholastics used the hermeneutical norm of objective truth (of the debated subjects: veritas rerum) in addition to a kind of philological exegesis employing semantic criteria for interpretation. This resulted in an incorporation of the authoritative text into one’s own conceptual framework. [Scholasticism Reformed, p. 40]

So the scholastic methodology was not about repristinating and absolutizing a period as the norming norm, but it felt the freedom to fluidly engage with the past in a way that had relevance for the present; and in a way that organically built from the trajectory provided for in the past. Or, as Barth would argue (in  his ‘The Theology of the Reformed Confessions’) to operate within the ‘spirit’ of the Reformed faith (subordinate to Scripture and thus always reforming), and not the ‘letter’, which is to appeal to a sort of repristinated procrustean bed of perceived static truth that can simply be inherited but not developed in any kind of new or meaningful way.

In summary, I would simply want to suggest that Evangelical Calvinism is actually imbibing the spirit of the Reformed faith even more so than those who are most visibly associated with the Reformed faith today (Muller & co., and others). And our mode is to primarily engage the past (Calvin and the crew) constructively with the goal of engaging the truth which transcends (but does not elide) the historical situadedness of particular people, simpliciter); but at the same time, doing so in a way that is seeking dialogical engagement with the past in order to provoke the present with themes that most magnify the name of Jesus. If Muller and company want to critique Evangelical Calvinism (and those of like mind), then they will need to be truly scholastic in form, and not just historians.

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10 comments

  1. Nail on the head, Bobby.

    I, too, have engaged Clark on his Heidelblog (excellent name, btw) about the use of the term “Reformed” and it seems that he always and invariably returns to a historical argument to define those who are “Reformed” and to draw a tight boundary around that term.

    His book Recovering the Reformed Confessions uses this same line of reasoning only he draws the net tighter (e.g., you’re not reformed if you use instruments in worship or sing hymns instead of psalms and Scripture songs).

    It always seemed to me to commit a form of the root fallacy: In the 16th century “Reformed” meant thus-and-so, therefore it can only mean that today.

    While I agree that merely confessing the Five Points may not be enough to make someone “Reformed” (except in soteriology), the circle is most certainly wider than the Clarks, Hortons, and Mullers of this world affirm.

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  2. Bobby,
    It is an honor to be the indirect subject of your blog, even a “boring post.” But, wow, I apparently implied a lot in the sentence that mentioned EC!
    I’m sorry to hear about the rough history between you, Prof. Habets, and Prof. Muller. I mentioned EC at the end of the review because Muller offered material arguments for understanding the Reformed orthodox that, if developed, would challenge EC constructive proposals.
    I agree with you that I would prefer to see constructive argument from Muller, but in this book he insists that such is not his intent. Like Prof. Habets mentioned, Michael Horton offers a better example of constructive Reformed theology.
    I have my own material disagreements with EC, but I applaud that you and the other contributors offered a constructive proposal in your book. As one hoping to do more than historical work, I have an interest in keeping space for constructive theology.

    Blessings,

    Jon

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  3. @Michael,

    Thank you! Yeah, there is definitely some sort of root or genetic fallacy going on. There is also no unbiased interpretation of the history. So Muller and others read through a particular set of Reformed lenses, as we all do.

    @Peter,

    Thank you; I just checked it out!

    @Jon,

    I would be curious to know what those material arguments of Muller’s are. I wonder if they are any different than ones that he has made in the rest of his writings? If not, then I wouldn’t consider those material arguments ones that engage EC and our own proposals; given the space between Muller’s methodology and our’s.

    What are your material disagreements with EC? This is not surprising, many do have disagreements with us (and Barth and Torrance and Calvin etc.). But I am curious what your disagreements are.

    I am glad you like to keep space for constructive theology. What is your dissertation topic?

    Well, since you basically (suggestively) place Muller against us, and do so in a way that suggests that EC is relativized (and/or marginalized) by Muller’s work; then yes, there is a lot implied in what you write. And so I felt it warranted a post response here at the blog.

    @Kevin,

    Thank you; that is encouraging to hear from you!

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  4. @Scott,

    Okay, thank you for the clarification. I had heard a rumor then, that was just a rumor in fact. Welcome back to the ‘sphere’.

    @Steve,

    Yes, you must have missed Scott Clark’s comment above ;-).

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