The Naked Gospel: Primitivism, Protestant Orthodox Theology, and Solo Scriptura

I am often critical of what I have called solo scriptura or what has been called more formally, nuda scriptura. This is a sort of sola scriptura run amuck—some would say taken to its logical conclusion—an approach that believes all tradition making is wrong-headed (except of course for its tradition in regard to Scripture’s ability to speak independent of other interpretive traditions), and thus appeal to Scripture all by itself should be the mode of the theologian’s method. Indeed, there is a fine line between historic sola scriptura and nuda scriptura; in principle we might see them as univocal, but in function the former leaves place for the tradition of the church whereas the latter wants to negate that through “critical” or “deconfessionalized” means that are not reliant upon the church’s doctors or its reception of the tradition itself. This sort of naturalizing of the text of Scripture, and its meaning, started becoming prominent in Protestant theology late in the 17th century; it’s a mode that continues into the present in a blossomed form (maybe even gone-to-seed form) as we continue to see as the dominant form that funds what is currently called biblical studies. Richard Muller, once again, helps to identify how this unfolded in the 17th century in a writing called The Naked Gospel. He writes:

Theological debate was intensified early in 1690 by the anonymous publication of The Naked Gospel by Arthur Bury. The work was not, strictly speaking, either Socinian or directly supportive of the Socinian doctrinal program, but it offered such a blistering attack on the Christian tradition, whether of the later fathers or of the orthodoxy of the late seventeenth century, that it was easily associated with some of the arguments of the Socinians. Specifically, Bury argued that “scholastic” thinking, particularly the use of logic and metaphysics, had created a grand and confusing edifice of “new doctrines” not found in the gospel. It was the task of his book to criticize the rational or “natural” religion of the church in his time and propose a return to the original, simple, “naked” gospel of Christ and the apostles. Bury attacks the ecumenical councils, particularly Nicaea, blaming them for creating a false and highly rationalized christology instead of more simply and directly the high “dignity” and “divinity” of Christ’s person and his divine sonship in the office of mediator. As for the doctrine of the Trinity, Bury indicates that it is ultimately confusing, inasmuch as the identification of three divine “persons” in no way indicates three Gods and the language of the traditional doctrine, therefore, has not good analogy to typical usage. Bury was suspended from the university.[1]

In some ways Bury’s approach might sound what I have been proposing here at The Evangelical Calvinist over the years. There might seem to be a radical biblicism funding the Evangelical Calvinist mood such that people of more trad or conservative sensibilities become concerned or immediately critical.

What we have had described for us by Muller, in regard to The Naked Gospel, might make certain readers think of the 19th century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher’s approach to doing theology. Schleiermacher, ironically, was someone who actually started to reign in much of radical biblicism that we see inchoately in someone like Bury, and which had gone to seed by time Schleiermacher. Nevertheless, as E.J. Hutchinson notes with reference to Schleiermacher’s mode, there is a perception that Schleiermacher was still operating in a way that sought to undercut what had developed previously in the traditionary models of theological doctrinism. That Schleiermacher wanted to reformulate all Christian Dogma under the pressures provided for by a clean (Enlightened) reading of Holy Writ. Hutchinson writes:

Aside from the fact that this view is paradoxical—if “fresh treatment” is adesideratum as such, how can anything ever be “finally settled”?—there is a more basic point that should be highlighted with respect to the idea of “reformation.” On Schleiermacher’s reading, “reformation” entails that all dogmatic loci be revised and overhauled from their very foundations. According to the gloss of a recent commentator, Schleiermacher believed that the Protestants of the sixteenth century “too uncritically took over earlier views without testing them against the Protestant spirit.” Schleiermacher is explicit in the work’s final section that his placement of the doctrine of the Trinity is due to just such a desire for total overhaul. The assumption lurking behind this viewpoint—and it is an assumption—is that there was a unifying drive broader than and undergirding particular theological revisions, that it ought to be generalizable to all doctrinal topics, and that if it has not been so generalized, it is due to a lapse on the part of the Reformers in carrying their Grundsatz all the way through. Thus Schüssler Fiorenza can gloss Schleiermacher’s stance as follows: “The traditional doctrinal formulations [about the Trinity] fail to express [the] reformation impulse.”[2]

Bury and Schleiermacher, while separated by passage of time, might be convergent in ethos and outlook in regard to sensibility and a desire to present a Naked Gospel.

Evangelical Calvinists, following after Barth et al., I believe, are seen as compatriots of the Bury/Schleiermacher feeling. There is a fear that we have imbibed the wrong spirit because we have seemingly chained ourselves to an anti-orthodoxing move that began in the very presence and development of 16th and 17th century Protestant orthodox theology. If this is the perception of Evangelical Calvinism, particularly of those entrenched in classical Calvinism or Reformed theology, then Evangelical Calvinism will always be understood, at least in those quarters, as a marginal or fringe movement that need not be engaged with, or instead, if engaged with, segregated into the mood of Bury et al. and as something that needs to be repented of. But Evangelical Calvinism is more polymorphous than that; we are, for the most part, very traditional and conservative (way more than Bury or Schleiermacher).

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Four. The Triunity of God(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 123.

[2] E.J. Hutchinson, “Melanchthon’s Unintended Reformation? The Case of the Missing Doctrine of God,” in Bradford LittleJohn ed., God of our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Institute, 2018), Loc 571, 581, 593, 603 kindle version.

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