Being a Theologian For and From Jesus Rather than For Men: Getting Past Historical Reconstruction and Getting To Genuinely Constructively Christian Theologizing

In an attempt, once again, to highlight my approach to theology and constructive ressourcement (theology of retrieval, so called), let me share something I wrote in our Introduction to our most recent Evangelical Calvinism book: Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion. Myk Habets and I cowrote the introduction to our most recent book; the following is my contribution to that chapter (it is actually an adaptation and refinement of a blog post that I wrote originally for my blog here). I wanted to reiterate this because I think there is some confusion about the
theological task sometimes, by some folks. I think some folks confuse the constructive theological task with historiography and reconstruction of the ideational past in the realm of ecclesial ideas and development; there is a difference. While I think it is very important to report as accurately as we can when we are involved in the reconstruction and culling of various personages’ theological offerings, what shouldn’t be forgotten is that in large part theology is really a material endeavor (rather than a mostly formal process). In other words, the ultimate goal, even when referring to the past, is to magnify Jesus with all the possible ideational resources available to the Christian theologian. The measure of sound theology is not whether or not we always accurately portray this theologian or that (while this is still important), but how we plumb what these Christian brothers and sisters have offered by way of categorical/thematic development when it comes to continuing to provide a creative and imaginative grammar for Christians to continue to know God in growing and fresh ways. This is the basic premise of what I wrote in our Introduction:

Beyond the more popular YRR Movement that Owen helpfully details there are also academics within the classically Reformed, and/or the Post-Reformation Reformed orthodox tradition, like Richard Muller, who believe that Evangelical Calvinism is not critically attuned to the actual history of the Reformers; particularly that of John Calvin. Muller believes that any attempt to offer an alternative voice to the multi-valent reality of the Reformed faith, that is, by critiquing Post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy and Federal Calvinism, assumes the form of an argument that in the literature has been labelled “Calvin against the Calvinists.” Essentially this is the idea that Calvin’s own theological emphases were discordant from what later developed into Post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy and/or what we often refer to as classical Calvinism. Muller is right that some over-zealous thinkers in the past have reconstructed history in such a way that Calvin appears to be severely out of step with the “predestinarian” Calvinism that developed later. However, that notwithstanding, we maintain that it is still possible to critique the theological conclusions produced by the classical Calvinists, even sounding like, and agreeing with, some of the critiques of the so called “Calvin against the Calvinists” thinkers, and yet not be guilty by association with that particular argument.

A persistent and central claim of Muller’s is that critics of classical Calvinism, the editors of this work included, continue to misunderstand and misconstrue the definition of, and relation of scholasticism to Reformed dogmatics. Muller writes:

The point is simple enough—indeed, it ought to have been self evident and in need of no comment had it not been for the major confusion caused by older definitions of Protestant scholasticism, definitions that still remain in vogue in particular among the proponents of the “Calvin against the Calivinists” methodology. Several recent works, including one embodying this defective methodology, have further confused the point by misrepresenting the distinction, as if it were a denial that method has any effect on content. It therefore bears further attention here, particularly in view of the confusion of scholasticism with predestinarianism and determinism and of scholasticism with Aristotelianism, so evident in the “Calvin against the Calvinists” literature.

As a preliminary issue, it needs to emphasized that the definitions of scholasticism as primarily a matter of method, specifically, of academic method, rather than a reference to content and particular conclusions whether philosophical or theological—very much like the definitions of humanism as a matter of method, specifically, of philological method, rather than a reference to content and particularly conclusions—were not definitions devised by a revisionist scholarship for the sake of refuting the “Calvin against the Calvinists” understanding of Protestant scholasticism. Rather, they are definitions held in common by several generations of medieval and Renaissance historians, definitions well in place prior to the dogmatic recasting of the notion of scholasticism by the “Calvin against the Calvinists” school of thought, definitions characteristically ignored by that school in its presentations of the thought of Calvin and later Reformed theologians. In other words, identification of scholasticism as primarily referencing method places the reappraisal of Protestant scholasticism and orthodoxy firmly in an established trajectory of intellectual history, while the content-laden definitions of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” school have been formulated in a historical vacuum filled with the doctrinal agendas of contemporary theologians. This problem is particularly evident in the more recent versions of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” claim, inasmuch as they cite the revisionist literature on the issue of Protestant scholasticism rather selectively and fail to engage the significant body of scholarship on the issue of nature scholasticism [sic], indeed, of the nature of humanism as well, as has been consistently referenced as an element in the formulation of a revised perspective on early modern Protestant thought, and in addition, fail to engage the sources that have been analyzed in the process of reappraising the scholasticism of early modern Protestantism.

In brief, the “Calvin against the Calvinists” definition assumed that the intrusion of scholasticism into Protestant theology brought with it forms of “deductive racionation . . . invariably based upon Aristotelian philosophic commitment” and implying “a pronounced interest in metaphysical matters, in abstract speculative thought, particularly with reference to the doctrine of God,” with the “distinctive Protestant position” being “made to rest on a speculative formulation of the will of God. . . .”

As Evangelical Calvinists we do not disagree with Muller, insofar as he accurately appraises the so called “Calvin against the Calvinists” argument, but Muller’s critique begs a question: what in fact is scholasticism? Even though some of the Calvin against the Calvinists thinkers may have been too strident in their construction of some of the history, that does not also mean that their material theological critiques are totally awry simply because some of their more formal methodological parameters may have been out of calibration. Even so, what if we take Muller’s view of scholasticism to heart—and for the most part, as Evangelical Calvinists, we do—what if being “scholastic” in form ends up agreeing with many of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” theological critiques, while at the same time agreeing with Muller that some of the formal historical reconstruction of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” was aloof? We believe that Evangelical Calvinism has found the center-ground by affirming the need for sober appropriation of what it means to be scholastic in mode, but as a result we end up disagreeing with Muller and others in regard to what kind of theological conclusions are produced when following through with a truly scholastic project and mode. But again, what are the actual entailments of scholasticism?

In Scholasticism Reformed: Essays in Honor of Willem J. van Asselt, Martijn Bac and Theo Pleizier offer a chapter entitled “Teaching Reformed Scholasticism in the Contemporary Classroom.” Bac and Pleizer outline how scholasticism should be taught today in theological classrooms and they develop how scholastics of the past retrieved authoritative voices for their own material and theological purposes. More than simply reconstructing the history of ideas and theological development, proper scholastic method was concerned to engage the concepts of prior voices from the tradition by appropriating themes and motifs that fit broader theological concerns, and all in order 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. What Bac and Pleizer highlight is that the scholastic mode of retrieval is very much like Evangelical Calvinism’s method; which ironically runs counter to the typical critique of Evangelical Calvinism as illustrated by Muller. Here is what Bac and Pleizer write in regard to the scholastic method, and what was called “reverential exposition”:

Reformed 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.

We find it ironic that people like Muller and others would critique Evangelical Calvinism for imbibing the “spirit” of even the Post-Reformation Reformed orthodox faith (methodologically) more than their apparent heirs (Muller and others). If there are themes and motifs present in Calvin (such as his doctrine of unio Christi) then such themes and doctrines can legitimately be appropriated, critiqued, and developed from within a Reformed trajectory.

A final example of how Bac and Pleizier develop the idea of reverent exposition will suffice.

Therefore, 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.

Scholastic methodology was not about repristinating and absolutizing a period as the norming norm, but 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 book, The Theology of the Reformed Confessions,11 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, we suggest that Evangelical Calvinism is actually imbibing the spirit of the Reformed faith. Our mode is to primarily engage the past constructively with the goal of engaging the truth which transcends, but does not elide, the historical situadedness of particular people; but at the same time doing so in a way that seeks 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 presume that being historians (which has its rightful place) is what this is all about. Instead it is about resourcing the past to magnify Jesus in Christianly dogmatic robust ways which we believe the mood of Evangelical Calvinism offers by elevating theological themes, from history, that do just that.[1]

This is my way. There seems to be, in contrast, among those in the resourcing of the past movement, a myopic focus on reconstructing the history as if that in and of itself is sufficient towards presenting the 21st century church with a lively theology for its present needs as the church. There seems to be a slavish commitment to arguing about what this theologian or that theologian believed or said, but never taking the next step of appropriating said theologians’ themes for the purposes of advancing material theological knowledge about who God is, and what he is about as the Christian God for the Christian. In other words, it seems to me that what counts for many of these “theologians,” these days, is reconstructing theological periods as ends in themselves; and then pretending like this is sufficiently theological theology for the church. No. All that that represents is academic egg-headedness that really isn’t theology being done for the church, and is not an enhancing project whatsoever; it remains a strictly intramural practice among an elite crew of theological minds that for all intents and purposes can remain church-people-independent. This is not what “scholastic” theology was all about in the past, as my writing should make clear. A component, and even basic function of the doing of Christian Dogmatic (for the church) theology is always moving into the “so what” area; and the ‘so what’, for the Christian, always begins and ends with Jesus Christ and his magnification, both in the heavenlies and in the church and world at large.

Evangelical Calvinists are more scholastic than the scholastics. But that too could become a distraction. Who is more “scholastic” is also an egg-headed debate, what is more important is that we get on with the project of engaging dialogically and contructively with the past with the goal of edifying the church, and advancing knowledge of God by drawing off all that he has deposited in the millennia of church ideas for the growth of his covenant people in his covenanted humanity in Jesus Christ.

[1] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Introduction: On Dogmatics and Devotion in the Christian Life,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017), 5-10.