I thought I would pause for a moment and attempt to articulate where I am at in my theological development as a Christian (and by the way I realize nobody cares that much, but this is a good exercise for me). At the point of my graduation from seminary in 2003 I was probably as classically oriented as anyone in the evangelical and Reformed worlds. My most formative influence came from my historical theology professor, Ron Frost. He, by way of PhD is a Puritan expert, and did his work on English Puritanism with focused reference on Richard Sibbes. Frost offered a reading of Sibbes that placed him in the Augustinian stream of what he called (calls) Affective Theology. This theology, according to Ron, focuses heavily upon the affections, within a tripartite faculty psychology (e.g. affections, intellect, will), and all the images that that conjures up in regard to the composition of what it means to be human vis-à-vis God. In Frost’s reading Sibbes is part of a movement of ‘Calvinists’ or Reformed theologians who offered an alternative account to what Janice Knight identifies as the The Intellectual Fathers movement (e.g. Westminster Assembly); according to Knight, and then Frost following, Sibbes was part of the English Reformed development known as The Spiritual Brethren. They focused, as Frost identifies in the theology of Sibbes, on the affections, the heart as determinative of what it means to be human coram Deo; as such the emphasis in this theology is on God’s Triune love reaching out to a maiden-to-be with his winsomeness and beauty transforming the heart of stone with his soft heart of tender flesh. The focus on this approach is to reframe the covenantal relationship between God and humans from the Covenant of Works and the Mosaic Law code, and instead to see the marriage imagery as the framework through which we understand God’s relationship with the elect. Frost picks this up not just from Sibbes’ appeal to marriage mysticism, but going back to Luther et al., and the biblical text itself (i.e. starting in Genesis, working through the OT, e.g. Hosea, through the Apostle Paul in Eph 5 and eventuating in Revelation and the marriage supper feast of the Lamb). Frost believes that this motif is the better way, both historically, and biblically to understand God’s way of relating to his people. The focus is not on performance, as we might find in Federal theology, but on a life of loving caress and relationship between the Bridegroom and his Bride. So this was the thinking I left seminary with, and much of that focus has not left me.
So I left seminary with an Augustinian classical focus, albeit an alternative account and challenge to what counts as orthodox Reformed theology today (i.e. Westminster). Part of Frost’s critique followed Luther’s critique of scholastic theology, and Thomas Aquinas’s theology very closely. As such I was predisposed to this critique, so when I came across Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth and saw that they also followed this critique, by and large, I began consuming their writings. As I did, and then blogged about it, it put me into contact with folks I wouldn’t have had contact with otherwise (given my very classical and Augustinian chops); folks from Princeton Theological Seminary, mainliners, and a host of folks on the fringes and also antagonistic to the type of classical theology that Thomism and the Post Reformed orthodox represent. Beyond this, my reading of TF Torrance and Barth also put me into contact with Torrance scholars (most notably, Myk Habets), and Barth scholars who were more traditional and conservative still in orientation; and in their appropriation and reading of Barth. Through blogging, primarily, I developed electronic relationships with some of the more progressive among those I just mentioned, and had some sort of proclivity towards their own insights and development. But for me, my impulse always remained traditional and classical; relatively speaking of course. I couldn’t follow the path that my more mainline counterparts were taking; neither theologically, politically, or socially. They saw that in me, and began to ridicule that in me on their social media outlets; eventually most of them cut me off. I suppose they were just as taken in by me, at first blush, as I was by them, simply because we had a shared interest in the theology of Karl Barth. The final blow to any connections I had with that world happened a few months ago when I openly struggled through the realization that Barth lived in an adulterous relationship his whole married life (well most of that life). What that whole open struggle did was finally demonstrate to me how far away I indeed am from the progressive side of all things theological, political, and social. Not only did I receive more vitriol from these former counterparts of mine, but any lingering connections I had with them was virtually gone; and if they didn’t make that move, then I did (on social media).
So now as I look at the two most prominent connections I had at Princeton Theological Seminary, and see where they have arrived, it causes me some real grief. They both reject the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and at least one of them rejects the reality of a conscious afterlife (post-mortem). They both came to these conclusions, they both developed into ‘existentialist-theologians’ as a result of their engagement with Karl Barth; and then that engagement took them further into other theologians. But what this has been making me realize is that Barth, for all the awesome Christocentrism that he offers, also opens the door to a theological world that is heavily Platonic, Kantian, Hegelian, and potentially destructive; destructive in the sense that he has the potential to serve as a gateway theologian to other theologians in the modern period who can lead young thinkers into waters that take such thinkers away from the historic orthodox teaching of the church, and into an abyss of their own existential imagining. All of this is illustrative for me.
And so here I am currently. I have all of the background I have been noting, and even more that I haven’t noted (i.e. where I was at theologically prior to seminary — very Fundamentalist, Dispensationalist, and into Free Grace theology of the Zane Hodges type). I don’t really fit in anywhere, ecclesially; at least not in the evangelical world I inhabit. We have tried to attend a PCUSA church (a conservative evangelical one; yes they still exist), but I’m just not Presbyterian. We are now back at a Conservative Baptist church (which is how I grew up as the son of a Conservative Baptist pastor), but of the sort that is steeped in Federal theology (which is unique for a CBA church); pastored by a guy who was on staff with Mark Dever (ironically another Sibbes scholar whom my mentor challenged in the development of his thesis and reading of Sibbes). My friends, in real life are all conservative, Reformed, evangelical types; my church orbit is dead center in this theological frame; and the theology I have been cultivating in my own life is at direct logger-heads with my real life associations—which doesn’t make for much good fellowship (except I have one friend who is an exception).
So I have straddled various theological strata, and I’ve seen where the more progressive Barthian side leads; and I can’t go there. I have always been a traditional, classical type of guy; but the way I resource and approach that is at odds with what counts for that in our 21st century conservative, evangelical Reformed context. I have decided that the voices I am going to allow to have the greatest say in my life going forward are: Thomas Torrance, the theological impulses I’ve gleaned from Frost’s influence, Athanasius, Augustine, Patristic theologians in general, Thomas Aquinas (insofar as critically engaging with the tradition he represents), Luther, Calvin, a variety of Post Reformed orthodox theologians (critically received), and then a host of contemporary theologians (e.g. John Webster, Katherine Sonderegger, Cornelius van der Kooi, et al.). I am sure I have left off certain other people who I will allow to influence me theologically, but I am hoping to signal the direction I am coming from. I have become leery of Barth, not because I don’t like his theological emphases, but because I still struggle with his infidelity in marriage; and beyond that, when it does come to his theology, I can see how his understanding of history can open the doors to a purely existentialist theological program. I am sure I will continue to engage with Barth’s theology, and I cannot do without his reformulation of election; but for the most part I can get the best of Barth’s emphases modulated through Torrance’s theology. If I were to reduce my influences to various periods of the church it might look like this: 1) Modern period: Thomas Torrance; 2) Pre-Modern period: John Calvin, Martin Luther; 3) Mediaeval period: Bernard of Clairvaux, Jean Gerson; 4) Patristic period: Irenaeus, Athanasius and augustine.
I guess at the end of the day this makes me an Evangelical Calvinist.