The Evangelical Turn to Post-Reformation Theology as a Counter to Progressive Christianity

You will have to forgive me, I am kind of slow. I have only just begun to realize (even though I am 41 and have been studying theology and its history formally now for 17 years) why it is that so many of my North American evangelical contemporaries have been driven back, once and again, to the theology of the Protestant Reformation. Most of my friends, from our non-denominational progressivesoupBible College and Seminary, have gone to the theology being endorsed by The Gospel Coalition, John MacArthur, Westminster Theological Seminary theology (either/or Philly style or Escondido), John Piper, Charles Spurgeon, etc. etc. In other words, given the vacuum created by the turn to the subject in Modern evangelicalism, many of friends (who are pastors etc.) have seen nowhere to turn but to the heritage that stands behind Protestant evangelicalism; i.e. Post-Reformation orthodox theology and/or a softened version of that in non-Covenantal forms. Either way, there seems to be a major rush back to this era of theological development, for those of us evangelicals who would identify as conservative thinkers. In some ways good can come from this, but in other ways not so much (as my blog attests to over and over again).

Richard Muller reinforces what I have just communicated by what he wrote:

The theology of Protestant orthodoxy, developed in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a final, dogmatic codification of the Reformation, occupies a position of considerable significance in the history of Protestant thought. Not only is this scholastic or orthodox theology the historical link that binds us to the Reformation, it is also the form of theological system in and through which modern Protestantism has received most of its doctrinal principles and definitions. Without detracting at all from the achievement of the great Reformers and the earliest codifiers of the doctrines of the Reformation—writers like Melanchthon, Calvin, and Bullinger—we need to recognize that not they, but rather, subsequent generations of “orthodox” or “scholastic” Protestants are responsible for the final form of such doctrinal issues as the definition of theology and the enunciation of its fundamental principles, the fully developed Protestant forms of the doctrine of the Trinity, the crucial christological concept of the two states of Christ, penal substitutionary atonement, and the theme of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.[1]

I would submit that we are seeing the ‘final form of such doctrinal issues’ being finished off, as it were, by this new resurgence of young evangelical pastors and budding theologians as they return to the seedbed of their perceived theological foundations. And I am not simply referring to hard-core Reformed/Covenantal types, I am referring to those types, but to more, not less; I am referring to classically oriented Free church evangelicals who have also desired depth in their thought and pulpit ministry and theologizing, to the point that they are digging into what they believe serves, again, as the seedbed for their own theological identity and place in the world.

With the rise (and this has faded, or has become something else) of Emergent church, and now Progressive Christianity (within evangelicalism, think of someone like Rachel Held Evans and her followers among other leaders in this style of thinking), young (and even old) evangelical and Reformed pastors are seeing a need not only for personal depth for themselves but for an educated and critical response to the questions  that Progressives and others are throwing at the conservative evangelical perspective. And so again, I see things like this (the vacuum created) as contributing factors that are driving conservative evangelical types back to “orthodox” and “scholastic” modes of Protestant theology.

While I can see some good things coming from this, I also see not so good things. At a material level, I am not a fan of the Christian Aristotelian conception of God that evangelicals are being introduced to when they go back to Post-Reformation theology. I am not a fan of the conception of grace or the framework of classical Covenant they are being baptized into. And I am not a fan of logico-deterministic mood of thought they are being introduced to since this not only has impact upon their spirituality, but upon those they are ministering to as pastors in the pulpit and theologians behind the lectern.

Some of you are probably thinking right now that you know what my antidote to all of this is: i.e. Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance. Yes, I find them compelling. But honestly I don’t see them as the necessary antidote for all. In fact my hope is that as young and old evangelicals press back into the ‘old paths’ that they will dig critically and realize that the faith of the ‘Intellectual Fathers’ (i.e. Post-Reformation orthodoxy as understood today) is not the only trajectory available. There was in fact a whole other stream available, and ‘Affective’ stream of theology provided for by Bonaventura, St. Bernard, Jean Gerson, Martin Luther,  John Calvin (who had hints of it all over in his theology, Richard Sibbes, et al). In a later post at some point I will introduce you to this thread of Reformed theological development; it is a development I was trained and mentored in during seminary by  my former prof and mentor who is an expert in this field of Affective Theology. Richard Muller himself, no less, identifies this distinction for us as well, which I will appeal to in a future post as I engage with this stream a little more fully then.

Anyway, I hope that guys and gals out there can engage with the past, when they go there, more critically than it seems many are today. Instead of swallowing certain things wholesale, and just because it is what is dominant today, I would call my brothers and sisters to be more sober and critical when they are ‘Listening to the Past’ and to seek the better way.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 37.

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8 comments

  1. Bobby,

    I think this issue has a lot to do with the article you wrote a few months back about the “Assurance of Faith” within mainstream Christianity. I think people are wanting to be more christ centered and “God focused” by turning to post reformation theology, but there are in my opinion huge consequences that come from this. If people turn from works based christianity to a Christianity that supposes a “God behind the back of Jesus”, then there is not much of a difference when it comes to assurance about who God is,(If your doctrine of God is wrong, everything is wrong!). It is crucial to keep the Person and Work of Jesus Christ as well as the trinity at the center of ALL theological thought (This is what distinguishes Christianity from every other “religion” in the world, yet many tend to forget!).

    Without God’s self revelation of his triune being displayed in Christ, we have no idea what kind of God is in control (A scary thought indeed). Thanks for doing your part in helping re-focus theology back on Jesus and the trinity. Keep making these posts, because many Christians (such as me) are encouraged and strengthened when we cling to Christ!

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  2. Bobby– (1) David Swanger is right; (2) For a smart Orthodox blogger who respects Protestants, try Fr Aidan Kimel’s Eclectic Orthodoxy; (3) I look forward to your post on the ‘spiritual brethren’; (4) In all greediness, a series of posts on the line from Bonaventure through Sibbes would be a lot of fun to read.

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  3. @Joshua,

    Yeah, hopefully I’ll be able to write more on that later until then there’s this post: https://growrag.wordpress.com/2010/02/02/introduction-to-affective-theology/

    @David,

    Actually I would argue that the “assurance of faith” psychology/theology comes from the categories provided for by classical Federal/Covenantal theology (think of someone like William Perkins, William Ames, and Puritan theology in general). So they aren’t really looking anywhere different, maybe just with more depth. The important thing is to keep the person and work of Jesus together and not separate them. This places the focus on a properly nuanced union with Christ theology wherein participation is emphasized within the salvific understanding.

    And thank you for the encouraging words!

    @Bowman,

    I like Aiden too! Known him from many years through blogging! I hope to post more on Affective theology and the spiritual brethren soon!

    My next post, which I’m working on right now is to continue my comparison of Zahnd’s understanding of atonement with Schleiermacher.

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  4. Bobby,

    Though distinct, I’ve intermittently have considered “affective” as a category for thinking through ethics. I was really intrigued by a lecture given by Ashley Null on Thomas Cranmer and his theology of allurement. But this pushes past ethics into even thoughts of predestination, and Cranmer’s irresistable grace located in beauty and the stirring of the soul.

    Affective theology has great potential. Keep working this project!! 🙂

    sdg,
    cal

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  5. You can read my mentor Ron Frost, who has been working on this project for around 30 years. He has his dissertation which has been published and a blog as well. And yes Affecive Theology is littered throughout church history starting with Augustine.

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