Why Evangelicals, the Classically Reformed, and the Post-Reformed orthodox Are Suspicious of After Barth Thinkers

If you don’t find yourself in agreement with mainstream evangelical reformed theology you might find yourself placed into a role that plays like the antitriniarian biblicists of 17th and 18th century Western Europeans. In other words, and this helps explain a lot for me personally, any reluctance to be a flaming post reformed orthodox thinker finding your theological marching orders from 16th and 17th century developments ostensibly places you into a mold that, at best, is on the fringes of Protestant orthodoxy, and at worst makes you a far-gone heretic (such as the antitrinitarians just noted). Richard Muller explains the matrix:

Not to be underestimated here is the impact of patristic scholarship in the seventeenth century. If the Reformation altered the balance of Scripture and tradition by declaring that, although tradition stood as a subordinate norm identifying probabilities, it still could err (as demonstrated by the experience of the later Middle Ages), the antitrinitarian debate of the late seventeenth century altered the balance once more. The antitrinitarians claimed a biblical foundation that was radically antitraditionary—to the point that writers like Nye and Smalbroke argued the biblical rectitude of views expressed by early heretics like the Ebionites and Nazarenes.

The last decades of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century saw such a vast alteration of the exegetical and philosophical framework of explanation that the attempts at trinitarian discussion of a whole generation of writers failed to produce a statement of doctrine that was at the same time philosophically contemporary and theologically orthodox. In addition, these English Socinians claimed to be truly Protestant and fundamentally biblicistic, true heirs of the Reformation—noting that the Reformation proclaimed the correct biblical standard but did not go far enough in rooting out the problematic elements of the tradition (among which the doctrine of the Trinity held a place of prominence).[1]

Muller, and many following him, believes that the 18th century is the period where Reformed orthodoxy took a turn for the worse and began a turn to heterodoxy. His development above helps us to see the premises that funded this deleterious turn, in Muller’s eyes. It is a radical-biblicism uncoupled from any norms found in the ecumenical church councils (particularly Nicaea-Constantinople and Chalcedon) that Muller sees as the culprit. We have these contours already present, as Muller notes, in the late 17th century which we see climaxing in the English Enlightenment and the rationalism produced therein (Muller sees Christian Wolff as a key player in this polluting time).

What does this mean for Modern theology vis-à-vis Protestant orthodox theology in the period prior? By and large it means anyone thinking from the former period needs to be approached with some serious suspicion; that such thinkers might well be closer to the antitrinitarians than they are the orthodox. This is why anyone associated with Karl Barth, not just incidentally, but in more overt terms, is typically written off as a “Barthian.” Such people are immediately, by the purported “orthodox” folks (the folks involved in the project of repristinating [oh, constructively of course] the 16th and 17th century orthodox developments), placed into the antitriniarian if not full-fledged Socinian type-set.

Sure, there are multitudinous examples of modern theologians, theological biblicists, who indeed fit Muller’s description of antitraditionary to the core. But it is, for one thing, a sweeping generalization to place people into that same location merely because they happen to believe that particular modern theologians (such as Barth and T Torrance) have some very valuable things to say; often in critique of many of the 16th and 17th century moves. This is unfortunate, to say the least.

I think there is a slippery-slope fear that many of these “conservatives” have. And to be frank, yes, I can think of examples of people I know who went whole-hog into modern theology and indeed fit into this sort of ‘biblicist’ mode; who have bit-the-bullet so hard that they are now denying basic and traditional Christian teaching around the bodily resurrection of Christ, or belief in an “after-life.” But this is  not the necessary conclusion that comes by finding value in modern theologies. I affirm all of the trad teachings of historic Christianity, and yet think very closely alongside of folks like Barth et al.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Four. The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 121.

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