Not All Modern Theology Fits the Socinian Mode Contra Post Reformed orthodox Impulses

In some ways I think the following represents the battle that Protestant orthodox, so called, see themselves in. There isn’t a one-for-one correspondence, per se, between the combatants, but I think the corollary, by way of ethos, is present enough in order for the historical battle between the Socinians and the orthodox to provide the sort of role-playing that I think many orthodox see themselves in as they battle modern theology (developments occurring primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries and how those have been taken up by the mainliners et al following) currently. You might wonder what I am referring to. Let me quote something from Richard Muller and then follow with some concluding thoughts.

The problem of antitrinitarian exegesis was, certainly, the most overtly intense of the issues faced by the Reformers and their successors, given the Protestant emphasis on the priority of the biblical norm. For the various antitrinitarians consistently rejected tradition in the name of their own exegesis of Scripture. In addition, in the seventeenth century, there was a partial coincidence, given the textual problems of such texts as 1 John 5:7 and 1 Timothy 3:16, between the Socinian position and the views of various text-critical scholars. The orthodox found themselves in the very difficult position of arguing a traditional view of the Trinity against an antitrinitarian exegesis that appeared, in a few instances, to represent the results of text criticism and, in a few other instances, to represent a literal exegesis of text over against an older allegorism or typological reading — at the same time that, in many of its readings, it appeared to be a contorted and rationalizing attempt to undermine not only the traditional but also the basic literal sense of the text. This latter characteristic of Socinian exegesis cut in two directions: on the one hand, it could be presented, as was typical of the Socinian argumentation, as on a par with the text-critical results used in the Socinian reading of other passages, giving warrant to the antitrinitarian reading at least by association; on the other hand, it could be seen as an excessive result of the newer hermeneutical approaches, creating and otherwise unwarranted suspicion of certain kinds of textual criticism on the part of the orthodox. In either case, the orthodox task of building the primary justification of the doctrine of the Trinity on exegesis was made more difficult.

There were, therefore, three basic issues to follow in the discussion of the trinitarian thought of the Reformers and the Reformed orthodox — namely, the careful use of a well-defined patristic vocabulary, increasingly tuned to the particular needs and issues of Reformed thought, the intense battle over the exegetical ground of the doctrine in both testaments in view of the biblicistic assault on the doctrine from the Socinians and other antitrinitarians, and the struggle to find a suitable set of philosophical categories for the understanding and explanation of the doctrinal result, given the alteration or at least the fluidity of the conception of substance. At the heart of these lay the exegetical issue, given the Reformation emphasis on the priority of Scripture over all other norms of doctrine and alteration of patterns of interpretation away from the patristic and medieval patterns that had initially yielded the doctrine of the Trinity and given it a vocabulary consistent with traditional philosophical usage.[1]

Unfortunately for those in the current iteration of Post Reformed orthodoxy (and its softer evangelical corollaries) they often flatten modern theology out to the point that it ALL ends up falling prey to playing the Socinian and other antitrinitarian role. Much of what is called ‘theology of retrieval’, done by Post Reformed orthodox practitioners is an attempt to correct and even rebuke the purported ills brought upon the evangelical churches by the advent and development of modern theological categories. Note John Webster on theologies of retrieval (who I respect, but take some issue with in regard to the sort of negative hue he gives modern theology [which he knows very well given his many years with Barth and Jüngel]):

For such theologies, immersion in the texts and habits of thought of earlier (especially pre-modern) theology opens up a wide view of the object of Christian theological reflection, setting before its contemporary practitioners descriptions of the faith unharnessed by current anxieties, and enabling a certain liberty in relation to the present. With this in mind, we begin by considering the study of history as a diagnostic to identify what are taken to be misdirections in modern theology, and then the deployment of history as a resource to overcome them.[2]

Are there certain theologians in the modern period that might fit the Socinian mode? Yes! But not all and this is the rub. Obviously, for me, Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance represent modern theologians who not only critically and constructively engaged with the deep past, but they also were beneficiaries of some of the important movements of thought we find developed in the modern period as well. In short: not all modern theology can be or should be relegated to the Socinian mode of the Post Reformed orthodox period; but this seems to be a general characteristic in regard to the way many ensconced in this camp approach those of us who recognize that modern theology is not in fact only something that needs to be ‘overcome.’

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Four: The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 62.

[2] John Webster, “Theologies of Retrieval,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (Oxford/NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 585.

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