Looking Past the Theologians to God’s Theologian for the World

As is well established by now, I have struggled with reading Karl Barth because of his unrepentant lifestyle. But the reality, which is also well noted by many, is many of our most cherished Protestant and otherwise theologians from the past were also sinners; even to the point of dying in unrepentance. For me what’s really at issue is mining the past, from wherever it comes, insofar that that past can help illuminate, imaginate, and faithfully bear witness to King Jesus and the triune God. The scholastics Reformed had a way of doing what they called ‘reverential exposition.’ They would read the theological authorities of their day, and seek Christ in their respective writings. They weren’t so focused on who or where it came from, more than they were concerned with communicating the truth of the Gospel for their own students and parishioners. Here is a brief section from my contribution to the introduction Myk Habets and I wrote for our second volume book: Evangelical Calvinism: Dogmatics&Devotion: Vol. 2):

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 ahistorical 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.

I think this approach can bear much fruit. We aren’t looking at the theologian, per se, but the One the theologian is attempting to bear witness to. The reality of the Gospel reverses the crooked words, and even hearts, from whence theological discourse flows; it makes our ‘crooked words straight’ as they come before the Lord. I think ‘reverential exposition,’ as I am receiving and applying it, in principle, is a helpful way forward when dealing with the sins of our respective teachers. ‘Seek Christ first, and His righteousness, and all these other things will be added unto you.’

4 thoughts on “Looking Past the Theologians to God’s Theologian for the World

  1. Yes… for such “reverential exposition” is simply stating the fact that God’s self- revelation—put forth in the context of a fallen race and creation effectively “set upon” through sin—is now necessarily proclaimed by the very instruments whose present share is affected by by sin, yet have been freed in the liberty of Christ’s own resurrection life from the principle or law of bondage to sin. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

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  2. Well put, Bobby… and according to the truth revealed through the One who is the expression of God’s own “theological” mind (ὁ λόγος). I am only reasonably trained in scholastic theology, whereas my ‘actual’ theological training has come through knowing Him, “the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.” I am thankful for those, like you, whose work and study has helped me to gain perspective on those many “scholastic’ resources by whom that true theological hermeneutic has also been experienced in truth, and explicated for the benefit of those who, in truth, seek that One who is the way, and the truth, and the life. Moreover, qualification and validation of my pursuit (often broken and interrupted) of any scholastic theological credential (recognized among the academic community) is being held in reserve until I hear those words, “Well done, good and faithful slave (δουλος). Enter into the joy of your master!”

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